Bringing Women into Focus: Applying a gender lens to the future of work

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Jun 20, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on the New Societal Contract and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

The future of work debate has been very disappointing in its failure to analyse gender difference or to understand the hopes and fears of women workers for their own future of work. Where robots take centre stage, women are at best bit parts in the narrative about the development of occupations, professions and industries. 

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Including women’s voices is vital for many reasons, but here are just three. First, women make up 40% of the global labour force while governments and business constantly call for increased levels of participation. They are literally the future workforce and it is critical that we understand their needs. Second, the current experience for women, in their “present of work” if you like, is marked by gaps and traps in access to good jobs, pay outcomes and on many other indicators when compared to men. We can’t assume that these disadvantages will melt away in the future. Third, the research evidence, including that from our Australian Women’s Working Futures (AWWF) Project at the University of Sydney, suggests that the differences between men and women’s expectations of their future of work are stark.


In our AWWF nationally representative survey of young Australian women and men (16-40-year-olds), we asked a range of questions about participants’ current working lives and what they foresaw in their own future of work. Because of our previous research, we were unsurprised when key gender differences emerged. One of our key findings was also a core theme at OECD Forum 2019: access to training and development opportunities.

When we asked our survey respondents what the critical enablers were for a successful future of work, “having the rights skills and training” was nominated by the overwhelming majority as being the most important factor, with even more women than men putting this view forward (92%, 88%). Yet, when we asked them whether they felt could access affordable training in their current role, a disappointingly small number agreed: just 40% of women and 50% of men said that this was true of their current experience at work. 

Photo by Ali Morshedlou on Unsplash

Key groups of female employees reported that they experienced even greater gaps between their aspiration for educational development and their ability to access training. Low-paid women were much less likely than high-income earning women to have access to the training they needed (38%, 47%); women who were employed on insecure contracts reported much lower access to affordable training than those employed in permanent jobs (35%, 44%); and women who worked part-time hours said they had less access to affordable training than full-time employees (37%, 46%).

The gap between workers’ understanding that they must train and retrain to survive and thrive in their future of work, and their ability to put this into practice, should be a worry for us all. Our findings sadly suggest that vulnerability and inequality in jobs right now may be being imprinted and even compounded as jobs develop and the labour market changes in the future. 


It is clear from our report outcomes that there is more work to do – even in countries like Australia with high levels of educational attainment – to prepare for an equitable future of work. We need a clear focus from government, business and educational systems in order to provide affordable and accessible training for the lowest paid in our labour force who face the greatest gaps to access to training – and we need to apply a gender lens to thinking about who these workers are. Otherwise the most vulnerable workers, women in low-paid and insecure work, will be most likely left behind by the key disruptive changes of the future of work. 

Read the first Australian Women’s Working Futures Project report, undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team of social scientists at the University of Sydney, as well as new reports and articles as they are published

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Related Topics

Gender EqualityFuture of Education & SkillsNew Jobs & Occupations OECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

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Rae Cooper

Professor of Gender, Work and Employment Relations , The University of Sydney Business School

I research across all areas of women’s careers and working lives and am especially interested in the future of work, women’s choices in careers and the decisions that government and organisations can make to build equality at work. I am Associate Dean at the University of Sydney Business School and Co-Director of the Women, Work and Leadership Research Group

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