The Fourth Industrial Revolution is, ostensibly, upon us. The term was coined in 2016 by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Form.

Broadly, it refers back to the collapsing of boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres. More specifically, it’s in regards to the digitalisation of every kind of systems and processes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the forefront of this reality. This involves systems that, because the European Commission puts it, “display intelligent behaviour by analysing their environment and taking actions … to realize specific goals”.

AI is used today in all the pieces from face and speech recognition technologies to image evaluation software. It’s also a cornerstone of self-driving cars and advanced robotics.

Part of this “revolution’s” promise is that AI and similar technologies will probably be used to drive economic growth, development and positive societal change. But critical inquiry is urgently needed to gauge what effects the fourth industrial revolution is having and could have on vulnerable, marginalised populations.

In South Africa, there was some discussion across the elitist discourse wherein conversations in regards to the fourth industrial revolution are happening. Some have identified the necessity to make sure that policy linked to those changes address all stakeholders’ needs. Others have explored its potential effects on inequality within the country’s job market. But there was little discussion around how women specifically could also be affected.

This is a worrying oversight. The world of the fourth industrial revolution looks set to be one dominated by forms of data and industries – like science and technology – which have long been dominated by men.

In addition, lots of the opportunities the fourth industrial revolution is assumed to supply are web based. Yet, as a recent study has shown, women are inclined to have less access to web based technologies than men do in Africa. This implies that the impact on women’s lives and work opportunities becomes a critical concern.

The future of girls’s work

The way forward for work has been certainly one of the important thing discussion points within the context of latest technologies and the fourth industrial revolution.

With the rise in automaton, those working in “routine intensive occupations” – reminiscent of secretarial or call centre work – are considered more likely to get replaced within the workplace by computers, that are regarded as more efficient and more cost effective. Robots are being prepped to switch care-worker jobs. These forms of professions, together with others which might be particularly vulnerable to being replaced by robotics or computers, are generally occupied by women.

In South Africa, where the labour market is already more favourable to men than women, this presents a serious concern.

There are other reasons to fret. The gender digital gap in South Africa, and on the African continent more broadly, is barely widening, with women having lower digital literacy, less access to web based technologies, and fewer relevant online content to men. This suggests that girls could also be ignored of increasingly digital work opportunities too.

In addition, as a consequence of the burden of care and domestic duties women are inclined to carry on top of paid work, women have significantly less time than men to undertake further education and training. That means they won’t easily give you the chance to spice up their digital skills.

These realities reveal a few of the gaps in South Africa’s existing policy objectives across the fourth industrial revolution. For instance, the country’s White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation is to offer information and communications technology training in any respect levels. But given the issues I’ve outlined, women are less likely than men to learn from this.

So what can the country do in another way?

Lessons and research

For starters, it could learn from other countries. In Ghana, an initiative called STEMbees not only promotes science, technology, engineering and maths training for girls and girls; it also addresses social issues reminiscent of digital safety. There could possibly be lessons here for South Africa.

The country must also consider how technology could be used to empower and help women reasonably than shutting them out. There are many examples of this globally.

Along with this learning, South Africa must thoroughly research and understand the consequences of the fourth industrial revolution on women and the barriers – whether educational, social or technological – to accessing and utilising web based resources.

Policy responses to promoting women in STEM must holistically address each the shortage of girls in STEM fields in addition to the structural aspects which have led to this example.

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