CARACAS — Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other disruptive technologies of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution will be shaping labor markets very soon. This is an enormous challenge for people who must display hitherto unsuspected cognitive abilities in the face of systematic competition from machine intelligence.

The World Economic Forum estimates that five to seven million jobs will disappear in developed countries by 2020, to be replaced by robots and AI. The work market will require people to have, in addition to advanced technological skills, other "softer" abilities that complement the machine's efficiency — like complex problem-solving skills, critical thought, creative capacities, people skills, working in teams, flexibility, resilience in taking decisions and a general inclination toward service.

The good news is that these flexible skills required in the labor market of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are readily found in women, who specifically display traits like emotional intelligence, creativity, or ability to express themselves. Yet, even as technologies disrupt an established labor market weighted in favor of male participation, we have some way to go before women are efficiently incorporated in these markets.

The great contribution of the Internet and social networking to closing the gender gap in work markets is that women have been making massive use of information technology (IT), which means one can easily believe today that men and women have very similar intellectual abilities. And yet in Latin America, indices of gender inequality at work persist in spite of an immediate need to reduce them to meet the challenges of the coming labor market.

Student building a robot — Photo: Mao Siqian/Xinhua/ZUMA

The UN's Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) has found several discriminatory indices relating to women and work in our region: They suffer a higher unemployment rate (8.6%) than men (6.6%), their participation rate in the work market is 52.6% (so, almost half of all women have no formal work), 78% of working women are employed in less productive tasks (meaning lower wages and precarious access to social security), and women earn on average 84% of the salary paid to men for the same work.

The figures are not evenly distributed. Peru has the highest female employment rates, according to CEPAL, closely followed by Bolivia. Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay are above the regional average, while Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela have female employment rates of under 50%.

Now is a good time for women to enter en masse.

If these disparate indices were maintained or became more pronounced in the context of the overhaul of employment by the disruptive technologies cited, then female employment rates could deteriorate even further. We may need policies to prevent that ahead of time.

Only education focused on technological innovation can adapt women to the demands of the future work market. If the world of work will be emphasizing hard sciences like engineering or mathematics, then now is a good time for women to enter en masse into these areas, displaying in equal measure their intellectual abilities and soft skills. An important task for Latin American universities is to forge regional environments for innovation through knowledge circuits between countries. Ideally there could be knowledge circuits focused on fomenting skills among women, in response to disruptive technologies.

Perhaps one big advantage of the 4.0 work environment is the increased free time it generates, which individuals can devote to startups or personal enterprise. If technological advances ease day-to-day tasks (at home, for example), and women have more time to think, innovate or train in using new technologies, they could become the top business leaders in many countries.

Reducing the gender gap at work in Latin America and the maximum use of women's soft skills will need the right public policies to facilitate access by women of different social strata to the various levels of education. States must act to reduce early pregnancies (through incentives to keep studying rather than procreating), and establish the unqualified homogenization of employment conditions.

Some predict that Artificial Intelligence is expected to supersede human intelligence by the year 2030. Women, who account for half of the world's growing population, must be fully incorporated by that time into the forefront of leadership to help ensure a sustainable future for all of humanity.

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