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How Robots Could Make the Gender Pay Gap Even Worse

Automation could disrupt 46.8% of jobs that women hold. Zoranm—Getty Images

A new report published Thursday suggests that robots could make the gender pay gap even worse, stoking existing fears and uncertainty around the concept of automation.

In a paper titled “Managing automation Employment, inequality and ethics in the digital age,” the Institute for Public Policy Research argued that a greater share of jobs that women hold—46.8% versus 40.9% for men—have the technical potential to be automated since female workers are more likely to hold low-skill “automatable” occupations. Paired with women’s underrepresentation in high-skill occupations that may be complemented by technology, that means that automation could exacerbate gender inequality.

“Automation,” IPPR says, “is more likely to accelerate inequalities of wealth and income than create a future of mass joblessness.”

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Initially, IPPR says, automation could narrow the gender pay gap since it would displace women from jobs that tend to earn below-average pay. (According to the latest OECD data, the gender wage gap in the U.K. is 17.1%; in the U.S., it’s 18.9%.) But that progress would remain only if displaced women re-entered the labor market at around the new average salary for their gender. That’s unlikely, IPPR says. Some industries dominated by women (such as retail or child and elderly care) are seeing less investment in productivity-raising technology, perhaps because the current human labor is so cheap.

That means those sectors may not be disrupted, leaving existing female workers in the low-paying positions and potentially absorbing female workers from other automating industries. On top of that, technology that complements human work is likely to raise wages of some of the highest earners—who are more likely to be men—”leading to greater wage disparity,” according to IPPR.

The report, which examined the U.K. labor market, serves as a sort of counterpoint to a study published earlier this year by PricewaterhouseCoopers. In its analysis, PwC argued the opposite: that men, rather than women, would bear the brunt of automation.

“On average, we find that men and, in particular, those with lower levels of education…are at greater risk of job automation,” PwC said in its report titled, “Will robots steal our jobs? The potential impact of automation on the U.K. and other major economies.” In drawing its conclusion, PwC cited men’s concentration in transportation and storage and manufacturing jobs that are ripe for technological disruption. All told, PwC found that 35% of men’s jobs had a high risk of automation compared to 26% of women’s.

The IPPR, for its part, called for policy intervention to address the looming crisis it has identified. Without it, “the productivity dividends of automation could create a ‘paradox of plenty,’ in which we produce more, yet it is less equally share.”

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