Re-distribution matters – Women's unpaid work and new household technologies
Unpaid care work still rests on the shoulders of women worldwide, while the achievements of digitalisation mainly benefit men. Yet household technologies could hold great potential for advancing gender equality. With the emphasis on could.
“From doing laundry to washing the dishes: unpaid work is bad for our mental health”, writes Sophie Brickman in The Guardian on September 2022. The article cites Jennifer Ervin and her research team who found that women are more exposed to mental health risks since they are the ones who do most household chores. This cannot be surprising news for most of us, especially for those who juggle between work and family, cook, clean, and care for the household, manage the family’s social relations and children’s activities and, in addition, often engage in voluntary work for their communities. Where should women who do the most of this work get some support from? Indeed, from their partners, social networks, their workplace and the government. Can digital technologies take some of this burden off women's shoulders? And can they promote a more equitable distribution of household technologies between the sexes?
Unpaid work is one of the main reasons for gender inequality
Women’s unpaid work is one of the main reasons for gender inequality in our societies. This unpaid work mainly refers to reproductive work including household work like cleaning and cooking as well as care work like childcare and caring for the sick and elderly. Oxfam’s estimations of the value of care work reveal its importance: “When valued at minimum wage this would represent a contribution to the global economy of at least $10.8 trillion a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry”. Unsurprisingly, Oxfam refers to care work as “the ‘hidden engine’ that keeps the wheels of our economies, businesses and societies turning”. Similarly, the ILO remarks based on data from 64 countries “that 16.4 billion hours per day are spent in unpaid care work – the equivalent to 2 billion people working eight hours per day with no remuneration. Were such services to be valued on the basis of an hourly minimum wage, they would amount to 9% of global GDP or US$ 11 trillion (purchasing power parity in 2011)”.
Despite their significance, reproductive work and care work do not receive the appreciation they deserve, neither in the household nor in society. The distribution of reproductive work remains highly gendered in both the Global South and Global North. Oxfam for instance finds that “Women and girls undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care work in the world and make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce”. Statistics for Italy from the European Institute for Gender Equality reveal that “women are four times more likely (81%) than men (20%) to spend at least an hour a day cooking and doing housework; more women (34%) than men (24%) have daily caregiving responsibilities of one hour or more” and among couples with children, “81% of women and 66% of men spend time on daily caregiving tasks”. The pandemic has increased the amount of unpaid work but it has also shown its significance for the world.
Robots can support the mobility as well as the autonomy of the disabled and elderly. They can increase people’s self-esteem and promote their mental health.Irem Güney-Frahm
New household technologies could help lift women’s care work burden
It may be too early to assess whether the benefits of digitalization outweigh its risks as the impact of social change depends on many factors, above all on the extent to which people can participate in and shape this change. Yet, from a gender perspective, a fairer society via digitalization is possible if at the same time a fairer distribution of reproductive work is achieved. A question that emerges is thus if and how the new household technologies impact the distribution of reproductive work between the sexes.
Robotics and the Internet of Things have already found application in elderly care during the last decades. Freelance science writer from Massachusetts Neil Savage provides an overview of how robots that are used in retirement homes and hospitals have proven themselves useful in feeding, lifting, cleaning and dressing. They can also be helpful in giving medication or reminding patients to take their medicine even though researchers emphasize that such activities must be monitored by human beings for ethical and legal reasons.
Moreover, with young children and in retirement homes robots can also engage in social interactions and entertainment activities like “calling bingo and leading a sing-along, freeing up staff to attend to residents’ individual needs”. Journalist Alex Whiting writes that “in the not-too-distant future, elderly people who live alone may be reminded to take their medicine, have books read to them, and be offered a metaphorical, shoulder to cry on – by a robot”. Moreover, robots can support the mobility as well as the autonomy of the disabled and elderly, hence they can also increase people’s self-esteem and promote their mental health.
The digital revolution must be accompanied by a cultural revolution and by changes in people’s mindsets. Women need to be relieved from the unpaid work burden.Irem Güney-Frahm
Yet, many researchers agree that social interactions with human beings cannot be substituted for by robots even if artificial intelligence can support robots to adapt to human emotions and social situations. This is also underlined by the findings of a comparative study that looked at two robots where the one that is smaller and cannot speak yet has expressive eyes and can imitate sounds for emotions could evoke cognitive processes more significantly than the one that can talk and move. In a similar vein, reporter Amelia Hill shows in The Guardian how researchers argue that “devices such as Alexa could have a long-term impact on empathy, compassion and critical thinking skills” and “hinder children’s social and cognitive development” because children need social interactions of rich vocabulary, higher quality relationships and a healthier, more emotional way of communication.
Nevertheless, given the aging population, the undervalued jobs in the care sector and the interrelated care crisis in many industrialized countries, robots can be useful in sharing the burden of paid and unpaid care work on women’s shoulders. However, there are other types of unpaid work, too. As Naveen Joshi, a former contributor to Forbes Magazine states household work is “an unavoidable yet necessary part of individuals’ personal lives. For instance, tasks such as cooking meals, managing laundry work and making timely lighting and plumbing repairs are hard to overlook, even if an important virtual business meeting is going on”. According to Joshi, the utilization of the Internet of Things for smart homes and domestic chores could support women in their professional path: Smart washing systems would enable remote laundry management that does not only include washing the clothes according to their dirtiness level and fabric, but also managing them via laundry dispenser cabinets as well as drying them. Autonomous robots can also be used to clean homes. Moreover, these devices are regarded as more environmentally friendly since they consume less energy and water.
However, such comments still imply that household work is women's work. Thus, there are critical voices as well. Above all, smart homes like any aspect related to the current era of digitalization can raise problems concerning data protection, the private sphere and surveillance and controlling mechanisms in Foucauldian terms. A team of researchers led by Jathan Sadowski, for example, writes that these technologies can be understood via the concept of “the Big Mother” who has the power to integrate people into new techniques of surveillance, new forms of automation and new markets of data.
In addition, in her study of Danish households, Kryger Aagaard from Aalborg University finds that digital housekeeping can reproduce gender inequality by reinforcing stereotypes. According to her findings, digital housekeeping seems to be a male domain. More interestingly, she underlines that the female partners are usually not accustomed to using the smart devices and may be more hesitant. Similarly, Yolande Strengers, senior researcher at RMIT University, asks who the smart home is intended for, and why it has not gained more traction. Moreover she claimes that the modern smart home is subtly aimed at creating more leisure time for men.
Re-distribution or delegation of reproductive work? It’s the mindset that matters!
What can we expect from new household technologies with respect to reproductive work? Are they intended to re-distribute the work between the sexes or are they there to lift women’s work burden and delegate the work in what is allegedly their domain to robots? It is obvious that to attain gender equality the re-distribution of this work and equal participation of men in reproductive work is necessary. However, as critical voices point out, in their current state, the re-distribution of household work seems very unlikely. One of the reasons is that too few women work in the technology sector.
However, there is more to do than encourage women to take up jobs in the technology sector. The digital revolution must be accompanied by a cultural revolution and by changes in people’s mindsets. Women need to be relieved from the unpaid work burden. This is possible if first women possess the necessary skills and can free themselves from stereotypes that associate masculinity with technology. Second, an equal male participation in the household and care work is necessary. Third, in order to challenge gender stereotypes, civil society, the private sector, and the government should work together via educational campaigns, trainings and even advertisements. Otherwise, in the digital era just like in preceding eras, the unequal division of labour in the household will continue to be one of the main obstacles to gender equality.
About the Stiftung Südtiroler Sparkasse Global Fellowship
Each year, two Stiftung Südtiroler Sparkasse Global Fellowships are awarded. The Fellows are offered the opportunity to work closely with the interdisciplinary team at the Center for Advanced Studies on topics of both global and glocal relevance, linking personal experiences and research and chosen geopolitical areas with the Center’s expertise.
The Global Fellowships are funded by the Stiftung Südtiroler Sparkasse / Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Bolzano.
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