Our economy is transforming at an unprecedented rate.

We’re living through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by technology, embodied in automation and digitalisation, this revolution is fundamentally changing our lives, including how we work.

We also face the climate emergency, which poses significant risk to future generations, we are still dealing with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we are in the midst of one of the worst cost of living crises for decades.

This context provides unique challenges but also opportunities to re-shape the Welsh economy.   

Because we must re-shape it. Persistent and structural inequalities in the world we live mean that some groups of people (mostly low-income groups with protected characteristics) are more vulnerable to radical transformations in the economy than others.

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Wales is not immune to this. If these existing inequalities are not considered carefully as we prepare for the future, and if they are not tackled, we will reinforce and recreate the disadvantage many already face. 

In the face of digitalisation and the climate crisis women face a double blow. Women are at risk of job losses and job changes as more of our lives and jobs are automated, bias is being recreated in AI, and there is the risk of being excluded through digital poverty, or the lack of digital skills.  

Globally, women are more likely to die in a climate disaster, be displaced by climate change or die from pollution.

In Wales and the UK, women more commonly bear the responsibility for care and unpaid labour, and perhaps unsurprisingly they are taking on the costs of the ecological crisis as well as measures to redress it.

By trying to find and use eco-friendly products, women shoulder the burden of responsibility for necessary changes in day-to-day life to tackle the climate disaster, leaving women in even greater time poverty and impacting their mental wellbeing as they shoulder even more of the mental load of managing a household.  

At the same time as bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of these trends, women are also at risk of missing out on new opportunities for training, education and employment, as new technologies are invested in, and new occupations and growth sectors emerge. This is largely due to the segregation that has long been a feature of our labour market, with women under-represented in the science and technology sector and missing from the pipeline into these industries.

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Our failure to address systemic inequality in too many workplaces risks perpetuating these ‘norms’ in new growth sectors.  

Without action, we risk women being left behind as our economy transforms. It’s therefore essential that equality is mainstreamed into how we respond to both of these major economic issues.

However, while Wales has world-leading policies and commitments for achieving a just and fair Wales, which allow us to adopt alternative approaches outside of conventional economic thinking, and to put the wellbeing of people and the planet at the heart of policy making, we are yet to see this translate into real action, or change.  

Too many of the key strategies and action plans that shape our response to both digitalisation and our transition to a green economy are effectively gender-blind and fall short in acknowledging existing inequalities, let alone taking action to address it. Consequently, there are missed opportunities to tackle the root causes of inequality.  

Recommendations Chwarae Teg has set out previously in our Manifesto for a Gender Equal Wales and in the Gender Equality Review remain critically important to ensure that the root causes of gender inequality are addressed. In addition, we need to see action taken by government and employers to ensure a just transition to a green economy, while also responding to the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation.

Unfortunately as we guarded against in the Gender Equality Review meaningful change is often stifled by initiative fatigue as we lurch from one priority to another. But real change is possible, it requires strong leadership and consistency of commitment so we can address common causes of failure and ensure progress against what is often Wales’ powerful progressive rhetoric.

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To ensure that digitalisation delivers fair outcomes, Welsh Government should invest in programmes for career switchers moving into digital that focus on supporting under-represented groups and create clear and engaging apprenticeship pathways into the digital sector, accompanied with targeted action to engage women.

Local Government should provide access to digital equipment in community settings and invest in schemes that recycle and repurpose unwanted equipment for those on low incomes.

And employers must manage the transition to digital by carrying out proper impact assessments on automation, taking action to mitigate negative impacts and investing in building digital skills.  

To ensure a just transition to a green economy, similar action is needed from Welsh Government to ensure there are clear pathways into green STEM jobs that are inclusive and accessible for women and include improved careers advice and guidance, recognised qualification pathways, training and a clear apprenticeship framework.

The National Wales: Cerys Furlong from Chwarae TegCerys Furlong from Chwarae Teg

We also need a broader definition of the ‘green economy’ that looks beyond just green tech and decarbonisation and considers how the foundational economy, including the care sector, will be contribute to a net zero Wales.  

There is also scope to unlock the potential of retrofitting homes to deliver social justice by prioritising homes in the most disadvantaged communities to address issues of fuel poverty and setting a target for a proportion of the jobs and training opportunities created through this work to be filled by women- as a minimum intervention.  

In the face of these seismic changes to our economy, it’s only right that we ask ourselves what kind of economy we want in the future.

At Chwarae Teg we’re clear that this economy should be a fair, green, caring and equitable economy so we can safeguard the future of the planet, ensure decent, fair work for all and create the condition for people to live safe, fulfilling and happy lives.  

We won’t achieve this future without concerted action to tackle inequality. Without intervention, these trends that are re-shaping our economy will do so in a way that recreates and prolongs much of the inequality and disadvantage we see now.

The past few years and successive crises we’ve faced have demonstrated the cost of this inequality, to individuals, our economy and our society.

So, let’s learn the lessons we need to and make sure that the future is one that is rooted in fairness and equality.  

Cerys Furlong is the Chief Executive of the gender equality charity, Chwarae Teg.