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As the future of work looms, Canada stands at a crossroads. Automation and technological advances will transform Canada’s economy – and its work force. For women, who already face inequalities in the workplace, these changes will be pivotal.

The latest research from McKinsey & Co. – and its survey of more than 100 Canadian organizations across industries that employ more than 500,000 people – finds that although the commitment to gender equality is stronger than ever, with four in five companies considering gender diversity a priority, progress is slow.

Still, the rapidly changing future of work presents an opportunity to turn commitment into action and narrow the gender gap. If women were able to transition to occupations in higher-demand parts of the economy, they could maintain or even modestly increase their share of employment by 2030.

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But if structural barriers prevent them from making these transitions, they could fall further behind.

It is difficult to overstate the scale of transformation that will affect Canada’s labour force. Our research suggests that, as current jobs are automated and new jobs are created, between 8 per cent and 30 per cent of women and 9 per cent to 36 per cent of men will need to transition to new types of work and acquire new skills and knowledge. These transitions could fundamentally reshape the country’s economy and its social fabric.

In some ways, women are already well positioned to benefit from these changes. Twenty-four per cent of women are at risk of being displaced by automation, compared with 28 per cent of men. Women are slightly better positioned to capture new job opportunities – 24 per cent compared with 23 per cent for men.

Also, their strong representation in sectors poised for growth could also be an advantage. Nowhere is this more evident than in health-care, where women account for 81 per cent of the work force.

Additionally, workers of the future will likely need advanced skills and education. Here, too, women are relatively well positioned – 35 per cent of Canadian women have higher education, versus 29 per cent of men.

On the surface, these numbers paint a positive picture for women. But women face a distinct disadvantage in technological skills; people with those skills are likely to benefit the most over the coming decades.

For women, the gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills begins early and increases as they enter the work force.

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Research suggests that pervasive gender biases, stereotypes and a deficit of role models continue to narrow the technology talent pipeline for women. This can produce staggering disparities – a joint study by the World Economic Forum and LinkedIn shows that fewer than 25 per cent of Canada’s artificial-intelligence professionals are women.

Even in the sectors where women predominate, such as health-care, the top earning occupations continue to be dominated by men.

What’s more, the structural and social inequalities faced by women can make transition into more in-demand careers more difficult. Women shoulder the heaviest burden of unpaid domestic work, nearly three hours more than men every day. In an economic downturn, the gender imbalance may skew further.

So, how can Canada ensure that the future of work is one where women can participate equally? We propose that public and private organizations join forces on three priorities:

  • Providing transparency about future employment opportunities.
  • Increasing the inclusivity of reskilling initiatives and recruitment practices.
  • Levelling the playing field for women in technology.

This will require companies, governments and other industry stakeholders to identify and promote labour-market information, highlighting industries that deserve attention and outlining pathways to get there.

Reskilling programs may require flexible training schedules and subsidies. With recruitment, different kinds of educational accomplishments could be considered, as could providing on-the-job competency assessments.

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Increasing women’s participation and visibility in technology is crucial, as is providing capital support to women entrepreneurs. Not only would this help them be technology creators, it would also serve to make technologies more inclusive – as algorithmic approaches proliferate, research has indicated that they can encode the same cultural and gender biases manifested in society.

The labour landscape could hold great potential for women. But progress is hardly an inevitability. Achieving gender equality will require organizations and society alike to dedicate resources and energy to ensuring that the changes to Canada’s work force are as inclusive as they are important.

Sandrine Devillard is a senior partner of McKinsey & Co. Canada and a co-author of the just published report, The present and future of women at work in Canada.

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