Will the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ be gender-blind?

More women in engineering and computing will help focus technological progress on societal needs

© istockphoto.com/zoranm

The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is a vision of a future promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in which cyber-physical systems technologies control and transform how people interact with information and the physical world around them.

The WEF vision promises large-scale socioeconomic benefits — in healthcare, manufacturing, energy, transport — achieved by creating new markets and new business models and values from advances in manufacturing and digital technologies. Automation and artificial intelligence are expected to take center stage. However, WEF admits this will create new socioeconomic inequalities as many lower-level skill jobs will be lost, affecting both women and men and resulting in a growing sense of individual disempowerment and insecurity.

The future envisaged by WEF contrasts sharply with the OECD vision of inclusive innovation proposed in 2013 in response to the fact that the poorest and the most vulnerable groups in society have not benefited from the economic progress made possible by technology. Many people around the world today have yet to experience the major technological advancement of the Second Industrial Revolution, namely access to electric power.

Women form the biggest group among the World’s poor. In the words of Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, speaking at the Gender Summit Europe in November:

Gender inequality and unfair discrimination have had devastating global consequences: more women die in wars than men; more women live in poverty than men; more women are unemployed than men; more women have been denied an education than men …

How can we make sure progress includes women?

The concern is that, like its predecessors, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be “gender-blind” and “poor-blind.” The warning signs are already here: in 2015, WEF asked 800 technology executives and experts from the information and communications technology sectors to identify the technology tipping points expected to occur by 2025. Their list, in order of likelihood:

  • People wearing clothes connected to the Internet
  • Robotic pharmacists in the US
  • The first 3D-printed car
  • Consumer products printed in 3D
  • 90 percent of the population with regular access to the Internet
  • Driverless cars
  • First transplant of a 3D-printed liver

What all these choices share is that the quality of their performance will be influenced by sex-gender differences – at the biochemical, physiological and behavioral levels. The available scientific evidence to show when, why and how is extensive and recommends that such differences should be taken into consideration when research results are used to drive innovation and product development.

For example, the algorithms used to control the robotic pharmacist should recognize that current models of drug toxicity tend to assume male to be the norm, that women and men metabolize drugs differently, and that 8 out of the 10 prescription drugs withdrawn from the market in the US between 1997 and 2000 were more dangerous to women than to men.

The design of the 3D-printed car should recognize that the available protocols and regulations for testing car safety rely on the use of a male crash test dummy, focus on injury patterns in men; and that women have a 47 percent higher risk of injury in a car crash, and experience different patterns of injury than men do.

Similarly, the computing and communication elements of the sensors integrated into the clothes people will wear, and connect them to the Internet, should recognize that male and female physiology is different in many respects, and this will influence accuracy of these devices to identify and interpret signals representing a person’s physical, cognitive or emotional states.

To achieve the anticipated socioeconomic benefits of cyber physical systems technologies, we need to be guided by Einstein’s advice: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. New thinking is needed, and it is important that scientists, engineers, gender scholars and policy makers engage in a dialogue about who will benefit and who will lose out in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Starting a conversation in Korea and Japan

Dr. Heisook Lee is a senior researcher at GISTeR, Gendered Innovations in Science and Technology Research, and former director of WISET. Here, she is speaking at the Gender Summit Europe at the European Parliament in Brussels. In May, she will speak at the Gender Summit Asia-Pacific in Tokyo. (Photo by Alison Bert)

This dialogue has already started in South Korea with a symposium on March 10 at the National Assembly in Seoul. The event was organized at the initiative of Assembly member Dr. Mi-Ock Mun, who understands the importance of connecting gender and science. In her previous role, she was general manager at the Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WiSET), which was the lead partner of the Gender Summit Asia Pacific in 2015.

At the forthcoming Gender Summit Asia-Pacific in Tokyo May 25-26, discussions will include societal relevance of research and innovation and how science can contribute to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Many of the politicians, scientists and journalists who participated in the symposium at the National Assembly in Seoul concluded that the vision of the Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to focus on human context, and that applying a gender perspective will help develop cyber-physical systems for societal challenges, such as feeding the global population, responding to natural disasters, creating efficient megacities, and preventing transport-related injuries and deaths.

Taking this standpoint when discussing the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will help attract more women to engineering and computing fields, where persistently they have been in a minority. This is an opportunity for the technology sectors involved in developing cyber-physical systems to attract more talent and improve capacity and quality of innovation. The new report from Elsevier, Gender in the Global Research Landscape, shows that the number of patents listing women as an author is significantly higher than the number of women inventors across several key geographies. In Japan, for example, only 8 percent of inventors are women, yet the proportion of patents listing women among their inventors is twice as high.

Empowering Unlimited KnowledgeWomen bring new perspectives to science – as researchers and as subjects of research. That’s why we support gender equity at Elsevier: global initiatives like the Gender Summits; career grants and awards for female researchers; and diversity and inclusion in our own workplace. By promoting gender parity, we can empower science and people to go beyond the expected, opening unlimited opportunities for research and the world. For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.



Written by

Elizabeth Pollitzer, PhD

Written by

Elizabeth Pollitzer, PhD

Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer is co-founder and Director of Portia Ltd., a London-based nonprofit organization focused on improving gender equality in science and inclusion of gender dimension in research and innovation content. She has served as "architect" of the Gender Summit since its inception in 2011, guiding its focus on gender issues in research and innovation and helping to bring together the scientists, policy makers, gender scholars and others groups in the science system.


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