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29 August 2019
Making the Fourth Industrial Revolution Work for Women

(Published - 29 August 2019)

The world is entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution - a technological revolution that is reshaping and transforming industries, communities and societies...and that will change the way we live, work and relate to each other.

So to understand this Revolution, and what it means for women in particular, we need to reflect on the changes that brought us where we are today.

The First Industrial Revolution (1IR) in the 18th and 19th century marked the era of using different energy sources such as water and steam power for mechanisation. From the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the Second Industrial Revolution (2IR) witnessed the expansion of electricity, petroleum and steel, and the application of science into mass production and manufacturing. And the Third Industrial Revolution (3IR), commencing around 1980, used information and communications technology (ICT) to automate production, moving away from analogue devices to digital technology.

Each of these revolutions built on the previous one - and each one had a major impact on the lives of women.

Prior to industrialisation, women were traditionally occupied with jobs such as child care, making and repairing clothing, and even managing agriculture. But as rural agrarian societies transitioned into machine-driven urban societies in the 1IR, women were replaced with men skilled in the operation of the new heavy machinery, and traditional handicrafts were replaced with factory production. Many women entered the workforce to support their families, but faced discrimination and poor treatment.

The 2IR brought an expansion in the variety of jobs available to women: office clerks, telephone operators, factory jobs and administrative positions. This transition from rural to urban life empowered women with better livelihoods, along with a sense of independence and pride in being able to provide for themselves.

And although the digital tools and methodologies of the 3IR have the ability to challenge and end the inequalities and injustices that shape poverty, women’s participation in the ICT sector is lower than men. The gender gap in ICT negatively influences women’s power to contribute, create and control content - and thus it is important to consider the political, social and economic systems within which these technologies abide.

So What About The Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The 4IR empowers people and involves technological development that fuses the physical, digital, and biological domains, integrating technologies, such as artificial intelligence, genome editing, augmented reality, robotics, and 3-D printing. New technologies and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter share data in an interactive manner, allowing us to empower ourselves with knowledge.

This is rapidly transforming institutions, industries, and the choices individuals make to interact, invest and deploy these new technologies.

It provides an opportunity to unite global communities while also building sustainable economies, and through adaptation and modernisation, reduce material and social inequalities, thereby committing to values-based leadership of emerging technologies.

But unlike the 1IR, 2IR and 3IR, 4IR is predicted to destroy more jobs than it will create, with women expected to be disproportionately affected.

It is estimated by the year 2020, more than 7.1 million jobs will be displaced.

Some of the largest job losses will affect female employees in office and administrative roles, while the highest employment growth is expected in areas such as architecture and engineering, computer and mathematics all of which currently have low female participation rates due to difficulties in recruitment of women.

Where Are The Women?

Women remain underrepresented in key growth areas such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), accounting for only 23% of core STEM occupations in 2017, despite women successfully moving into previously male-dominated areas such as life sciences and medicine.

The persistent gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will undermine women’s professional presence over the next 15 years, with many underskilled women leaving within the first few years of entering the industry, outnumbering those who are being recruited. This raises a valid concern in that the lack of female scientists and true intersectional thinking behind the creation of algorithms increases the risk of artificial intelligence becoming the ultimate expression of masculinity.

Barriers identified for women’s participation in the ICT sector include limited access to education and training (particularly for rural women), limited institutional support for women working in the formal sector and limited awareness of the benefits of ICT.

Studies show that if girls are educated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at a younger age, and if women are adequately prepared to enter the workforce, the potential for overall economic growth and development will be increased.

As a society we are obligated to offer education and opportunity to young girls (including access to those in rural areas) as well as correct how our culture identifies the professional roles of women.

It is the responsibility of the entire community to update the cultural norms and provide proper role models to ensure we don’t unnecessarily lose female talent.

Why The Revolution Needs To Recognise Women

Reports show that nations have become wealthier, and technologies have helped pull entire societies out of poverty - but the inability to fairly distribute the resulting benefits or anticipate externalities has resulted in global challenges.

Empowering women and girls with ICT skills will greatly improve employment opportunities for women in the IT sector, creating an increased ability to avoid gender bias by having a gender neutral medium.

An increased ability for women to telecommute will also result in the transformation of traditional gender roles by allowing them to work from home, thereby enabling them to balance office work and care - the latter of which is still mainly performed by women.

It will also contribute to improved global market access for craftswomen in rural areas through e-commerce and other social media platforms, while simultaneously granting rural women access to distance learning and distance work programmes.

And all of this will result in a Revolution that is balanced, diverse and fair - and that draws on all of humanity’s talent and skills to address the challenges of a changing world.

Women have earned their place as role models, mentors and innovators in science. By recognising this, we can take the necessary steps to align common human values with our technological progress - and ensure that the 4IR is both inclusive and human-centered, benefitting all of humanity.

This article is adapted from Prof CWJ Africa’s speech as delivered at the South African Women in Science Awards Gala Dinner on 15 August 2019, Boardwalk, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape.


Professor Charlene Africa is former Deputy Dean: Gender & Equality in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Prof Africa holds a PhD (Medicine) from the University of London, as well as an MSc in Dentistry and BSc Honours in Oral Biology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has worked in industry, private pathology as well as academic research institutes in Cape Town, Durban, London and Kansas City. Her lecturing experience covers 3rd, 4th and 5th year dental students, 1st and 2nd year oral hygienists, 3rd year and Honours Medical Biosciences students and the Masters programme of Women and Gender Studies in UWC’s Arts Faculty.