How automation and AI help level the playing field for women in manufacturing

Increasingly the world over, artificial intelligence algorithms are performing manual tasks and taking decisions for humans on shop floors based on real-time data. The trend has a throwback to predictions made by the World Economic Forum in 2018 – 75 million jobs would be dislocated with the advance of technology by 2023, while 133 million more jobs would be created for the same reason.

Coupled with automation, artificial intelligence is opening newer job opportunities and scopes in manufacturing. Reduced downtime, increased productivity and well-crafted Enterprise Resource Planning in manufacturing are auguring well for women. Most manufacturers in India are now striving to initiate gender-diversity on shop floors as ‘inclusion’ helps a manufacturing company innovate and enhance production.

That shop floors belong to males and their manual tasks is no longer the overwhelming conception inside manufacturing units. With the deployment of automation and artificial intelligence, manufacturing is offering gender-neutral jobs and scope of work. A machine that only a man was once seen fit to operate manually is suddenly out of his monopolized grasp as automation is making that machine compatible with the technological skills set of everyone. From a time when a hundred men used to operate a hundred machines, 50 women and 50 men are now each operating multiple machines, thereby increasing productivity and returns substantially. Quite naturally, automation and artificial intelligence are drawing more and more women into manufacturing units as they bring in a greater sense of inclusion. What further comes as a reassurance to women is that technology is helping in removing bias in recruitments and evaluation, and at the same time facilitating business leaders to take an educated call on promotions.

Not too long ago, companies were using traditional means and methods to employ and engage workers and in doing so, manufacturing units were becoming susceptible to ignoring talent. But with automation and artificial intelligence redefining shop-floor roles, women now stand to gain equal opportunities in a predominantly male domain. It’s more brain over brawn now as technology reshapes responsibilities. As manufacturing companies have begun to use software in production units, transfer of job knowledge has become democratic in the real sense of the term. The playing field is open for access regardless of gender. So, when women as newcomers choose manufacturing as a career option, they know they can now grow in the organization with their technology-oriented mindset.

In the Indian perspective, the narrative has encouraging elements if the role of the Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises (MSME) is brought into the writ of women’s autonomy at manufacturing units. The MSMEs are rapidly emerging as a dynamic sector of the Indian economy over the past five decades. The sector’s contribution to the Indian GDP has continued to be steady at 30 per cent plus. With over 63 million MSMEs operating across the country, the sector is not only fostering entrepreneurship but also creating employment, particularly for women. To make India’s stated drive towards inclusive industrial development, MSMEs are critical players, no matter whether they are ancillary manufacturing units or not. This is evident in the fact that from 2020 onwards, the number of MSMEs is increasing by a CAGR of approximately 19 per cent. The government of India appears to be seized of the fact that for more and more women to join manufacturing, the sector needs a push. In step with this realization, the government disbursed loans to MSMEs to the tune of Rs. 9.5 trillion (US$128.06 billion in FY21, which is a 40 per cent increase over Rs. 6.8 trillion disbursed in FY20. To equip the MSME sector with technology and create a level playing field for women, the government more than doubled its budget allocation in FY22 to Rs.15,700 crore (US$2.14 billion), compared with Rs.

Though there is reason for optimism, hurdles remain. The last gender count made for manufacturing and services units in the MSME sector found that over 110 million workers were engaged in the sector, of whom over 84 million were males and over 26 million were females. A primary reason for this gap can be attributed to a lack of STEM education for women. Across the world, the STEM system of education is being seen as the key driver to make women migrate to manufacturing from other jobs. It has been found that women emerging from the STEM fields have greater chances of being a part of manufacturing than their ilk who seek employment options without being equipped with any technological knowledge.

With automation and artificial intelligence being introduced to shop floors in keeping with concurrent demands of manufacturing, it was initially feared that technology will cost women their jobs. To the contrary, however, women are making progress owing to a collaboration between humans and technologies, like in managing data, tech tools and AI-spurred machines. Reskilling and up-skilling of the workforce, therefore, are paramount because only then the gender gap can be reduced. We need to admit that businesses and economies have much to do in terms of narrowing the gender gap in manufacturing units. In the wake of disruption effected by Artificial Intelligence, businesses must be able to recognize workforce requirements and take a fresh look at the gender composition on shop floors.

There will be jobs that do not exist today. So, as manufacturing grows, technology will demand of everyone to be equipped with skills that are at the center of automation and artificial intelligence.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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