Automation Leaves Women Garment Workers Vulnerable, A Video Game Aims to Change That

Image: Shimmy Upskill

Technology has changed how we make clothing, and as automation abilities increase, the floor of a garment factory is starting to look very different. But while automation may help to streamline the apparel industry, it comes at a cost, particularly to women.
Automation disproportionately affects women, and as automation increases, women around the world are more likely to lose their jobs.

According to the World Economic Forum, by 2026 an estimated 1.4 million jobs will have been replaced by automation, and around 57% percent of those jobs will be those of women, exacerbating an already serious gender gap in employment.

Industries like apparel, where garment workers are predominantly women, are even more sensitive to this shift. In Bangladesh, where approximately 80% of the garment workers are women, automation will mean a severe loss of opportunity and means for economic empowerment. As the supply of low-skilled, entry level jobs decreases, automation will also contribute to an uptick in slavery and trafficking. Approaching this automated, digital shift – which has already begun to take place – means not just considering what jobs will be eradicated, but training and empowering displaced workers for the new economy.
The question that presents itself is: how do you retrain workers who are the most vulnerable to automation?

Image: Shimmy Upskill

Approaching technology from a human perspective, creative technologist and CEO of Shimmy Technologies, Sarah Krasley is doing just that, harnessing technology in a way that improves apparel workflows and empowers women in the process.
“I have been increasingly concerned about automation coming into the factories,” says Krasley, who is also a former BF+DA Venture Fellow. That’s because Krasley knows how many women will be affected as more and more components of garment factories make this shift. “Automation is sprinkled all over the factory floor.”
A common entry level position for women in any garment factory is that of “helper,” making their rounds in the factory to help snip threads and assist sewing operators. Automation has meant that sewing machines are now built to be able to snip those threads without the assistance of a worker.
While that has helped to make the overall process more efficient, it also means that an entryway into the garment industry has now disappeared.

“This very assigned career path for mostly women is already broken,” says Krasley. “Once it gets into more of the sewing operations that’s really going to displace a lot of workers.”

To help empower women to keep up with an ever changing and evolving industry, this fall, Krasley’s startup Shimmy Technologies has been testing a pilot program of Shimmy Upskill, a video game built to train female garment workers in basic digital skills so that they can move into jobs that are less vulnerable to automation.
The game was developed to solve two crucial issues that impact the digital talent pipeline in the apparel industry: there are not enough people to build 3D models and there is a lack of training to help grow that sector.
Krasley and her team set out to build a training program that would not only provide the skills to be able to use 3D modeling software, but also to ensure that the training was intuitive and took into consideration the backgrounds of the most vulnerable workers.

Image: Shimmy Upskill

In a country like Bangladesh where women are often illiterate, much less have knowledge of the complex programs required for these models, there is a steep learning curve that needs to take place in order for them to be capable of filling these much needed positions.

“Most garment workers are using push button phones,” says Krasley, “if you put a computer in front of them, in many cases, they are terrified.”
For starters, the program needed to be in the workers’ native language. Harnessing the power of AI, Krasley and her team taught IBM Watson, a question-answering computer system, a Bangla vocabulary focused on apparel related terms. With that in place, the user of Shimmy Upskill can tell the computer a word for a particular garment component, and the system will translate the word into
English and be able to group it with a pattern. Not only does it allow garment workers to be able to use the program in their own language, it also doesn’t require any writing or reading skills.
Architecting the program in this way ensures that Shimmy Upskill meets the women where they are, as opposed to requiring them to come to the table already armed with a certain set of digital skills.

“It’s a great first rung of the ladder to move them into other work,” says Krasley, who points out that for these women, a program like this can be an important stepping stone.

After taking part in the pilot program, Shimmy Upskill participants, “told us unanimously that they could see themselves doing digital work,” says Krasley. “When we started this they said, ‘I just want to be a sewing machine operator.’”

The video game training has benefits for both the worker and the employer.

Image: Shimmy Upskill

“We can show an employer clearly, here are these females who have done this training, and here is how long they put together a marker, or put together a model,” says Krasley. “Beyond gender we can very clearly show a cost argument.”
Hopefully that will begin to shift the serious apparel industry gender gap.

In Krasley’s factory experience, the women are receptive because “they know that those jobs are becoming even more
and more scarce.” At the same time, the jobs at a higher level are traditionally male-dominated, so much so that even their names are gendered: Marker Man or CAD Man.

“They don’t have any role models in the factories,” says Krasley. “It’s all men… It is my personal mission to make those jobs gender neutral.”
Shimmy Upskill has been piloted in both New York and Bangladesh, and Krasley is now looking for a brand partner to go to Indonesia, translating the whole interface into Indonesian. Shimmy Technologies won the IEEE Retail Digital Transformation Challenge and are currently finalists for both the Tommy Hilfiger Social Innovation Prize and the MIT Solve competition in the Future of Work category.

“This is a really exciting future of work to carve out,” says Krasley. “This industry is so ripe for possibilities in doing it the right way.”
As Shimmy Upskill proves, the future of a sustainable fashion industry lies at this intersection of technology and humanity. “Let’s think about workers not as a commodity but as part of the value chain,” says Krasley. “If we give them a little training… we can disrupt this old broken way of making clothes.”