Why the robots might be coming for the men - not the women

Sep 15, 2021

In his new book “Exponential” Azeem Azhar tells a story about a bear.

Two friends (Fred and Indrek) are hiking in the mountains, they need a rest and stop to take off their shoes. SUDDENLY a hungry bear appears. Fred slowly starts to put on his shoes.

Indrek doesn’t understand.

-       What’s the point? The bear will outrun both of us…

-       Well, whispers Fred. I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you!

Azeem Azhar tells the story to illustrate a point about automation.

You have probably all read the headlines of the last couple of ears about the ROBOTS COMING TO REPLACE US ALL.

We have been told that we are in a “second machine age”.

That soon there’s hardly anything that humans can’t do that AI can’t do better.

That there will be MASS UNEMPLOYMENT.

That computers will outsmart us all and we might just give up.

Azhar’s argument is that it’s not that simple. The story of the bear is there to illustrate one of his main points: that workers will not so much have to compete with new technology (the hungry bear!) but with each other (“I only need to outrun you!”)

Fred doesn’t need to show that he’s better than the latest AI to get a job, he only needs to show that he’s better than other human workers.

Then poor Indrek get’s eaten.

Azhar writes:

“The future of work seems less defined by the absence of work and more by a growing chasm between increasingly high-quality work for some, and increasingly low-quality insecure work for others.”

BASICALLY: There will still be jobs for humans.

It’s just that some of them will be SHITTY JOBS!

 (Unless we do something about it).


Azhar doesn’t discuss this but there are several studies pointing to it. What it has to do with is that women tend to be in professions and have skills that many experts believe will be harder to automate. In short, machines are more likely to come for the bankers and the truck drivers than the nurses and the elementary school teachers.

A robot is for example very unlikely to be able to replicate the kind of emotional complexity that make care workers good at their jobs. On top of this the environment where care work takes place changes a lot which means workers need to constantly adapt. Humans are good at this, but machines struggle.

So what if jobs keep disappearing in traditionally male sectors of the economy and governments find themselves needing to retrain THOUSANDS of unemployed truck drivers as carers because this is where the continued demand for human workers is?

It won’t be “Let’s teach girls’s to code”….

It will be “Let’s teach boys to care”!

Yes, I KNOW… This is an exaggerated scenario…. But it’s not much more exaggerated than many other of the-robots-are-coming-stories…

My main point is simply that labour markets are INCREDIBLY gendered things. Men work in certain professions and women in others. We might not want it to be like this but that’s the fact of it. So when something BIG happens to the labor market like ROBOTS, AI and HUGE industrial revolutions, it’s likely to have gendered effects too.

And we should talk more about it.

Happy Thursday!


Ps. And read Exponential. The whole book is really interesting and deals with a lot more than labour markets.

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