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Girl bosses and skills to beat job-killing robots

5 June 2019
Girl boss

GirlBoss NZ urges us to take a strong gender perspective in our inquiry. Founder and CEO Alexia Hilbertidou’s submission was the first on our technological change and the future of work issues paper. She says we need to give special attention to the opportunities and challenges women face in the fourth industrial revolution.

I agree with Alexia – to shape public policy for the future of work we need to carefully consider gender, ethnicity and other dimensions of human diversity.

GirlBoss NZ is working with schools and communities around the country to put gender on the agenda of New Zealand’s future of work conversation and, in particular, Māori and Pasifika women. They support young women to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), entrepreneurship and leadership. Women are under-represented in many STEM fields, where Alexia sees future work and leadership opportunities growing.

Employers, educators and community organisations all need to contribute if more women and more people from other under-represented groups are to build careers and become leaders in technology-driven fields and enterprises. They will need opportunities, information, inspiring role models, skills and knowledge in order to succeed.

Technological change offers new opportunities for people with advanced technical and cognitive skills. But the best prospects for impact and personal success are for people who combine all that with advanced social and emotional skills (also called “soft” or “non-cognitive” skills).

Social and emotional skills include inter-personal skills (like communication, cross-cultural understanding, empathy, etc) and more individualistic competencies like persistence and resilience (grit), self-control and appetite to learn.

GirlBoss NZ understands these skills are critical in the leadership roles they are helping young women to reach for. Their ChangeMakeHer programme promotes STEM in the context of interpersonal skills and community action.

Social and emotional skill differences explain much of the variation in employment outcomes between people with similar qualifications and cognitive skills. They regularly top the lists of what employers want most and find hardest to recruit for. They’re essential in nearly every corner of the modern economy, be it customer service, teamwork, or developing new markets. And beyond their value in the labour market, these skills help people to be confident, creative, culturally enriched good citizens.

Social and emotional skills aren’t fixed or innate. They can be learned: at home, in education, and at work. The greatest pay-offs usually come from early investment, in quality early childhood education and schooling that connects with parents and whanau. I may talk more about this in a later post.

Adults’ social and emotional skills can atrophy with lack of use, especially during sustained unemployment, and these skills are generally harder for older people to (re-)learn. So the labour markets and welfare policies we need are those that match people well to new roles while avoiding or minimising periods of unemployment.

If automation does lead to a ‘hollowing out’ of middle-skilled jobs, the people most affected will likely be in specialist jobs involving complex technical routines. These people may have had less need or opportunity to develop and use their socio-emotional skills in the past than they will in their next job. How can employers create work environments that help people to retain, develop and apply their socio-emotional skills so that they’re match-fit for future changes in their work?

Some studies identify certain female-dominated occupations such as clerical and retail as amongst the most at-risk of disruption from automation. Yet other female-dominated occupations are considered amongst the ‘safest’. These include healthcare, education and personal care services where interpersonal skills are critical. In these occupations, new technologies may be more likely to complement rather than displace human input, while an ageing population will drive demand.

However, this greater job security may come at a price, as many of these roles pay less than other jobs that require the same level of education. Market-based factors that lead to low wages and wage growth include a lack of scarcity and low productivity growth. Technologically-driven standardisation of work processes may also limit opportunities for pay rises and increased autonomy even for workers with more skill and experience. And behind all that, there’s social norms about how our society values women and ‘women’s work’.

Send us a submission!

Thanks to GirlBoss NZ, and others who’ve already sent in submissions on our issues paper.

We’re keen for more, so help us shape and focus this inquiry over the next 6 months by sending in a submission. 

Submissions don’t have to be long and detailed. We welcome comments on one or two issues important to you. You can make a submission here, or email us at

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Photo: J. MacCormick

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