Then again, it might just create the environment in which women are finally able to take an equal place alongside men, no matter which industry, says Gugu Mjadu, executive general manager for marketing at Business Partners Limited.
The problem with the fourth industrial revolution, says Gugu, is that it promises to be so disruptive that the outcomes are virtually unknowable. The impact of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, automation, biotechnology and the internet of things is bound to be greater and faster than any technological development that has come before.
Yet, if history is anything to go by, chances are that wielders of the new technologies will emerge dominant, and they are still overwhelmingly male. Women are underrepresented among the engineers, IT specialists, scientists and entrepreneurs who are working on the coming wave.
Recent projections by the World Economic Forum show that female employees are likely to lose more jobs through automation, disintermediation and redundancy than male employees. This is because the industries expected to be worst hit by job losses - healthcare, energy and financial services - have high concentrations of female employees, while the sectors that are likely to see the most job gains - IT and professional services - currently have higher male representation.
The same goes for types of jobs across all sectors. Administrative positions, many filled by women, are expected to be worst affected, while most new jobs are expected in areas of expertise that are still strongly dominated by men - computers, engineering and maths.
Although these projections focus on employees, it is entirely plausible that the same goes for owner-managed businesses, says Gugu. The types of businesses that stand to gain most from the fourth industrial revolution seem to be mainly those run mostly by men. At the core of the imbalance is the fact that the STEM skill sets that that will reign supreme in the coming years - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - are still mostly pursued by men, despite gains made by women in these fields in recent decades.
But Gugu believes that it is time for an urgent wake-up call for all South African business owners - male and female - to prepare for the fourth industrial revolution. A recent set of results from the Business Partners Limited’s SME Index showed that more than 80% of business owners surveyed acknowledge they will need to invest in automation or other advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) however 67% of respondents also say that the evolution of such technology has not yet contributed to the growth of their businesses.
The problem is complicated. South African labour costs are relatively cheap, which means manual production usually wins over automation when a business owner calculates whether to adopt new technology or not. At the same time, the pressure on the business’s margins slowly increases from competing products that are made cheaper overseas because of automation, or from the disappearance of entire markets because of disintermediation.
By the time local businesses acknowledge the fact that they have to adopt the new technology in order to remain competitive, they have fallen into financial trouble, which makes it very difficult to raise the finance needed to automate or to change the direction of the business.
The answer clearly lies in preparing for coming changes, which is easier said than done, says Gugu. If the outcomes of the fourth industrial revolution are difficult to predict, how can one prepare for them? Early adoption of new technology is not always the answer, because many of the new systems are technological dead-ends that don’t live up to the hype with which they emerge from Silicon Valley.
The best approach is to remain in touch as much as possible with changes in the industry, not only locally, but overseas. Fortunately the fourth industrial revolution, through the internet, has made it easier than ever to do so. Business owners should constantly explore options, reskill themselves and their workers, and hire young staff who are open to learning new ways of doing things, says Gugu.
Support and finance are available for those who look for it. It is wise to opt for investors who can add value beyond just the finance. Business Partners Limited, for example, provides interest-free technical assistance funding for client businesses, which can be used to make process improvements and technological changes within the business.
The fourth industrial revolution is set to change the world as we know it, in ways that we don’t, but at least one fact remains: there will be many business opportunities for those who take an entrepreneurial approach to the changing world, says Gugu. The key is to be ready to grab the opportunities when they come.