We need to act now if women are to benefit from new technologies
Gender has often been ignored in discussions around technology, with many experts arguing that ‘technology is neutral’ – it will do whatever it is designed to do. That might be true to an extent, but only if we look at new technologies in complete isolation. When we consider people who create it, and the system they create it in, bias is unavoidable.
More often than not, these biases mean that even when technology is supposedly designed to help women progress, more of the same unjust, unsafe, and unequal working conditions are created. We need more understanding of these inequalities and more representation to ensure that women can not only avoid being hurt by new technologies but that they can also benefit from them.
It’s a man’s world
The world we live in influences our thinking structures, beliefs and user experiences. When this world is saturated with inequalities and injustice – against women, against workers, against minorities, against the developing world, so is the technology that comes out of it. Developers are bound to, partly consciously and partly unconsciously, include their biased views in the creation process. As there are far fewer women involved in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) than men, male-dominated bias is more likely to be embedded in the technology itself. As a result, there are also fewer people thinking about the ways that technology might impact or benefit women.
Research already shows how some algorithms reflect gender biases in the results they generate. For example, an algorithm setting performance requirements in a warehouse may use data based on the work of a man in his 20s, but not apply any adjustments for a woman in her 50s. Nor would it consider what indicators might be applicable to a young mother returning to work after childbirth. In both cases, the woman would suffer from an embedded bias.
Funding is another factor that adds to the existing bias. New technology often requires much investment to it get off the ground. Most of the world’s wealth is already concentrated among a tiny percentage of the global population, and even within that group, control of wealth is heavily concentrated in the hands of the men. As a result, we see female start-ups, (which are already less common) receive 23% less funding on average.
At the same time, when real-world problems are ranked in a market economy way, it turns out that the work often carried out by women has no ‘market value’. Care for children and the elderly, for example, present little benefit to the growing economy. We see these economic priorities in the fact that there is far more research on labour-saving technology in areas where workers are relatively expensive, like ports, for example, than there is into new technology that could help reduce violence in the workplace.
Technology not working to women’s advantage
Technologies can make existing problems for women in the workplace worse. In transport, women are under-represented, and they tend to work in the lower-paid, precarious jobs such as customer service and ticketing. These are also the areas seeing high levels of job replacement through automation. The reduction of staff in stations has a further safety implication for the remaining women workers. The introduction of hand-held devices also means more supervision and result in more stress.
The loss of jobs and the worsening working conditions, resulting from the way tech is applied, have a detrimental impact on women. All too often this impact is treated as if it were a ‘natural’ phenomenon – it’s just the way it is. Here yet again technology reflects a society that treats men and women unequally.
We often hear that technology will open new areas of work to women as it will make work less physically demanding. In fact, some companies have actively promoted this as a solution for economic empowerment. However, this type of work is primarily a technologically-enabled informal sector, with little regulation, low pay, more exposure to violence, and no job security. Thus, creating more of the same unsafe, unregulated and unequal working conditions.
Complex issue requiring complex actions
Technology does not have a simple, linear impact on workers. We can’t say that it just replaces jobs. Some research shows that tech can actually increase employment if it makes the ‘product’ cheaper, or makes labour more efficient and therefore increases demand. New technology also has multiple impactions on incomes – if it de-skills a work process, then it can be used to drive wages down. However, if it requires workers with more complex skills, or if it increases demand it can drive wages up.
The problem for women is that this process appears to reinforce existing structures. In other words, women are far more likely to be in the areas that are de-skilled or replaced by new technology, and less likely to be in the bracket that sees incomes rise.
There are many policies that unions should consider fighting for to help deal with these problems, some at the workplace level, others at the level of government and regulation, including through making use of opportunities linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
First, unions must understand the unequal impact of technology on women workers. We need an education system that encourages women into high-tech areas, including through union-facilitated training and re-training for women transport workers of all ages. We need a market where regulations incentivise gendered approaches to problems. We need Collective Bargaining Agreements and compensation structures that take into account these inequalities. We need women to have a voice in the workplace, and we need to take action to tackle the informal economy, whether it is digital or not.