Women and the future of work: A window of opportunity in Western Europe?

| Report

Western Europe has made progress towards gender equality over the past two decades, but significant gaps persist in workforce participation, leadership positions and pay. Major disruptions in the labor market have begun that could have profound implications for gender equality through 2030. Automation and artificial intelligence, for example, will displace many workers while, simultaneously, increasing investments, rising incomes or ageing population trends will create new jobs that require skills in short supply.

Depending on how it unfolds, the “future of work” could drive gender equality—or hinder it. Our new research shows that many dynamics could favor women, and that many challenges can and should be turned into opportunities. Focusing on France and Germany, the Western European countries with the two largest workforces, we found that the overall shifts could favor women in France by contributing to a slight improvement in female workforce participation. In Germany, we expect the overall effects to be at least neutral for women.

More important is that these shifts will present major new opportunities for women in some sectors that are likely to grow. For example, women in both countries are well-positioned in the growing health care and social assistance sector and will benefit from dominant positions in some of the sector’s occupations that will grow fastest, including health aides, therapists and physicians.

Women’s prospects are not as bright in some other sectors and occupations. In the professional, scientific and technical sectors, for example, women hold more than their current share in the overall workforce in occupations that we believe will shrink, such as clerical and office support, and are underrepresented in occupations likely to grow, such as computer engineering. They are also underrepresented in the manufacturing sector in Germany, especially in engineering occupations. To capture the growth opportunities in those sectors, they will need to master specific new skills and reorient their careers. Linear career paths may become a relic of the 20th century.

Our research suggests that demand for three skill categories—technological, social and emotional and higher cognitive skills—should grow the most over the next decade. While women overall have great strengths in these categories, they lag men in others, such as advanced technological skills and haven’t yet captured their fair share of leadership positions.

Helping women gain the most valuable new skills—“right-skilling”—and ensuring that they are fairly represented in those efforts will require concerted actions by governments, educational institutions, companies and other public and private institutions. Leaders across these organizations will need to help their stakeholders understand the importance of right-skilling for both women and men and create transparency about major shifts in demand for labor.

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