The UN Rapporteur Fighting For Working Women In The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The UN Rapporteur Fighting For Working Women In The Fourth Industrial Revolution

This article is part of a series, called Portraiture, in which we interview some of the incredible minds within the inkl community. The goal of this series is to enable a better understanding of current affairs and trends that affect us all. In this first piece we profile United Nations rapporteur, CEO, lawyer and activist Elizabeth Broderick.

As an Independent Expert in the United Nation’s Working Group on Discrimination Against Women, Elizabeth consults globally on how changing technologies impact women in the workforce.

Previously, as a lawyer in the 1990s, she set up her company’s first flexible working arrangement – long before such arrangements were commonplace. A decade later, as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, she reviewed the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force. And through her consulting agency she has tackled gender discrimination in organisations ranging from the Australian Federal Police to James Cook University. 

We spoke with Elizabeth about the unique challenges women face at work, recruiting men in the fight for gender equality, and how technology is being used to empower working women.


Steam power. Mass-production. Computerisation. Three industrial revolutions – three epochal ruptures in work, technology and labour. And now, we are tumbling into the fourth revolution, with artificial intelligence, genome editing, augmented reality, robotics and the gig economy rewriting the future of work. Sadly, every revolution has casualties. Through her work with the United Nations, Elizabeth Broderick is investigating the female casualties of the next revolution.

“We are seeing that the changing workplace will have a greater impact on women because they are more vulnerable at work. They are more likely to be paid less, promoted less, and sexually harassed at work,” Elizabeth says.

“There has never been an industrial revolution that has been gender neutral, and that remains true for the fourth. If we don’t look at the transition through a gendered lens, we risk not only replicating today’s gender inequality, but amplifying it in the future.”

In June 2019 Elizabeth ran a consultation with Non-Governmental Organisations in New York. “Some of the NGOs were positive about the emerging gig economy, because it brings the ability to work anywhere at any time. Others see the failings of it: there is less ability to collectively organise, the labour market is fragmenting, technology is replacing jobs and there’s little upskilling.”

Elizabeth is hearing from women on the frontline of the fourth industrial revolution – women whose jobs are rapidly changing, or disappearing altogether. One group she met, Bangladeshi rag pickers, said that their jobs are being displaced by incineration technology. “There are no plans to lift their skills. Where is their place in the new waste management disposal system?” she asks.

Further upstream, Bangladeshi garment workers also face being replaced by sewing robots – which can now manipulate pliable fabrics, stitch pockets, and attach belt loops. These ‘sewbots’ present a unique challenge for the women who make up 80% of the global garment industry.

A 2018 International Monetary Fund report found that women, on average, perform more routine tasks than men across all occupations. This work is characterised by lack of flexibility, little learning on the job, and repetitiveness – making it more prone to automation.

Technology is leaving women behind, from the factories of Dhaka to the tech campuses of San Francisco. While women are abundant in task work, they are underrepresented in the upper echelons of the tech world. A New York University study revealed that just 15% of AI researchers at Facebook, and 10% of AI researchers at Google are women. Further, Elizabeth points out that 91% of artificial intelligence coders are male, which can also perpetuate bias in AI algorithms. “We have noticed that algorithms reinforce the gender pay gap, because they target job ads for higher-paying roles towards men,” she says.

The opportunity to collectively organise against inequality – a phenomenon which has catalysed each wave of feminism – is also becoming increasingly difficult, due to a fragmented workforce. “With the emergence of the gig economy, we are increasingly seeing the inability of women to collectively organise. Female gig-workers are more likely to work from home than in an informal workplace,” she says.

“Gender equality is not just a women’s issue; it’s an economic and social issue. If we want economically viable nations and workplaces, gender equality needs to come first,” Elizabeth explains.

A self-proclaimed “late-onset feminist”, Elizabeth’s views on gender equality in the workplace were shaped by her early career.

As a child, she was sheltered from the realities of sexism. “I went to an all girls’ school, lived in a feminised household, and my father did the same amount of housework as my mother. Growing up, we never believed that women couldn’t do anything that men could do.” 

It wasn’t until Elizabeth entered the workforce as a lawyer in the mid-1990s that she saw the toll of gender inequality, and felt the itch to fight it. “I noticed that female lawyers’ career paths changed when they became parents, much more than their male partners’” she says. At one point Elizabeth was managing eight lawyers at Ashurst Australia. In the space of two days, three of them told her that they were pregnant. She set up their maternity leave, before revealing that she too was expecting. With half of the team on maternity leave, she knew they had to pioneer a new way of working. “We introduced flexible working arrangements, and we brought on a new secretary. Well, she had been a secretary for one week and a nanny for six years. So we needed her on the team,” she says.

Elizabeth then went on to become Australia’s longest-serving Sex Discrimination Commissioner, serving from 2007-2015. During her tenure she established Male Champions for Change (MCC), a not-for-profit which works with over 200 male leaders to enforce gender equality in their organisations. These ‘Male Champions’ lead universities, sporting clubs, consulting firms and defence forces. And together they have committed to closing the gender pay gap, granting more work flexibility, and stamping out everyday sexism. 

At a 2016 MCC conference, domestic violence survivors Rosie Batty and Kristy McKellar shared with the ‘Male Champions’ what it was like to work full-time while trying to escape domestic violence. “Having income is critical to being able to leave a violent relationship,” Elizabeth says. “Yet violence is a reason that many women leave or can’t be at work. So it affects employees and employers. '' That conversation alone culminated in 75% of MCC organisations providing paid domestic violence leave, and helping their staff create safety plans.

We are far from the finish line of gender equality in Australian workplaces. A recent report revealed that Australia’s national gender pay gap is 14%, with men each week taking home on average $241.50 more than women. Despite this, Elizabeth’s approach is a reminder that top-down movements are just as crucial as grassroot ones, and that men – particularly those holding the levers of power – are key in the journey towards equality.

One of the more surprising things about Elizabeth is her relentless optimism in the face of the deep-rooted, intractable and structural challenges she has set out to overcome.  It is easy to focus on pay gaps and disproportionate rates of sexual and physical violence against women in the global workforce. But Elizabeth also encounters many positive stories through her work with the UN. One of them is that of Sehat Kahani, a Pakistani telemedicine provider that connects underemployed female doctors with female patients living in rural areas through video link. “It uses technology within the cultural norms of the nation, while unleashing a trove of talent that women have to benefit other women, the nation and the world,” Elizabeth says.

And it is a prime example of how technology could be used to empower working women in the future. Despite a backdrop of gender inequality, new technologies offer an unprecedented chance to unlock the full capacity of working women. A McKinsey report found that if women can transition with automation, they could be on the path to more productive and better paid work.

“There will be a host of job roles created in the future. So far those jobs are not necessarily going to women,” Elizabeth says. “But we have an opportunity to work out where the gaps are, what the needs of women are and take us to where we need to be in the future.”

Image: Helen Melville

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