As we hurtle toward the 2020s, there are few greater challenges than the automation of work. Roughly half the jobs out there are being significantly disrupted by technology.

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The challenge is deepest amongst front-line employees – think of retail servers or call-centre operators – and the majority of those workers are women. According to a global survey by Ipsos, 54% of front-line employees are going to need some form of significant reskilling by 2022.

Despite the challenges, there is also an opportunity. With the right kind of training and reskilling, millions of Canadians could move to new and better jobs as machines take on more mundane and repetitive tasks.

At our most recent RBC Disruptors, we sat down with Carol Leaman, CEO of Waterloo-based Axonify, a micro-learning company on a mission to revolutionize the way companies retrain their front-line workers, to talk about how the disruption of learning can turn the age of automation into a positive force, and how women are set up to thrive in an automated future:

By Drawing on Skills They Already Possess

In conversations about the future of work, two words are heard often: perseverance and resilience. These are qualities that Leaman learned on the job as a 26-year-old accountant, working for a difficult boss, who one day looked at her and said, “We need $40 million, go find it.” She was terrified but stepped up and did it. “He taught me that you can do anything, you just need to decide that you can do anything.”

While Leaman recognizes that women tend to be in positions that are more susceptible to automation, women have these and other attributes that position them well to move into jobs that are growing in demand. RBC research found that 54% of the jobs at greatest risk of automation are held by women, but that women are better equipped with the generalist, digital and social skills that will be in high demand for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Women tend to have the foundational skills that we need to move into new jobs and new sectors. We are under greater threat, but in a better position for future mobility,” says Leaman.

Case in point, women are creating businesses at an unprecedented pace. “Women are extremely resourceful. I think as the workplace shifts, you’re going to see organizations take more action to support women in different career streams.”

By Learning New Skills – and Learning Them in New Ways

The impact of automation will be greatest among front-line workers – such as servers, retailers and customer service representatives – the majority of whom are women. To survive the displacement that will come about as automation gains a foothold in the services sector, significant reskilling will be required.

Leaman thinks micro-learning is the future of workplace reskilling. Platforms like Axonify’s offer bite-sized learning moments to individuals in those front-line jobs that enables them to learn and acquire new skills, while still performing at their jobs.

Axonify has taken that to the next level by working with a neuroscientist to develop an adaptive algorithm based on brain science. “Because of the amount of data we now collect, which is about 50 million data points a month across the globe, we can apply machine learning to that data, and extract provable correlations,” she says, such as how certain training leads to growth and revenue outcomes.

By Changing up the Look of Leadership

So how do you ensure your workforce is equipped for change? Encouraging female leadership is a good place to start. Female leaders, who are living, breathing and understanding the skills needed to succeed in the workplace of the future, are well equipped to navigate the evolution.

Yet, in new research from Plan International, only 10% of Canadian youth aged 14 to 24 picture a woman when they think of a CEO.

“I think the reason is that there are not enough successful role models, who reach the upper echelons of the corporate world, who have profile,” says Leaman.

More women in leadership roles will attract other women, acting as role models for the younger generation entering the workforce.

As a veteran leader, disruptor and innovator in the tech world, Carol Leaman gets it. Selected as one of the Best Workplaces for Women in Canada, Axonify has a strongly female leadership and women make up 45% of its employees, including product leaders, sales professionals and software developers – male-dominated cohorts in most tech firms.

“I think women are attracted to working with large numbers of other women because they see the possibilities.”

For more research on how women are ready for work in an automated future, download our report.

To learn more about the future of work, and the ways micro learning and inclusion play a role, listen to our latest podcast episode, recorded live at RBC Disruptors.


As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. Having interviewed a range of prominent world leaders and figures, including Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, and Benazir Bhutto, he possesses a deep understanding of national and international affairs. In the community, John serves as a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, C.D. ‎Howe Institute and is a member of the advisory council for both the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute and the Canadian International Council. John is the author of four books: Out of Poverty, Timbit Nation, and Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution and Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future.

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