Technological progress, for example in the form of automation and robotisation, will have a major impact on gender roles in future. Therefore, a feminist concept and approach to automation and technological development is badly needed.

The future labour market and gender

According to a study by the World Economic Forum, estimations indicate that technical advancement-induced changes could sustain gender gaps in the workforce: “[i]n absolute terms, men will face nearly 4 million job losses and 1.4 million gains, approximately one job gained for every three jobs lost, whereas women will face 3 million job losses and only 0.55 million gains, more than five jobs lost for every job gained”. If time proves these estimations right, women particularly will be hit hard by automation.

The study also highlights that new jobs are to be created in fields like IT and engineering-related occupations, where a gender gap traditionally exists. Therefore, it is recommended to increase the recruitment of women into these occupations. Among researchers in the field of feminism, drawing more women into IT is a popular notion, with one additional argument being that women should have an equal say when it comes to designing future societies.

The feminist discourse on gender and automation

From a feminist perspective, technological progress can best be labelled a double-edged sword.

Similar to mainstream discourse on automation, two extreme positions are often widely spread among feminists. From a postmodern feminists’ viewpoint, new technologies such as genetic engineering, reproductive technology, and virtual reality are blurring the borders between the notions of human/machine, man/women, and sex/gender, and therefore have great potential to pave the way for a world without gender categories. For this reason, technological advancements are highly welcomed and seen as progressive in a societal sense. Ecofeminists on the other hand, reject (similar to the approach adopted by the eighteenth-century Luddites) the abovementioned technologies since they could entail the further decoupling of humans from the ecosystems they live in.

On the one hand, technological advances could liberate women from tasks and occupations that have been assigned to them due to prevailing gender role stereotypes, e.g., office assistants. In the wake of transformation processes in labour markets, this could open up new possibilities to move up the ladder to higher managerial positions. Moreover, automating household work could relieve some women from the double burden of household work and labour market participation.

In addition, the impact of technological advancement could also disrupt traditionally gendered workplace dynamics by shifting relationships between both workers and managers, as well as men and women. This could potentially break down gendered associations ascribed to certain jobs and allow new dynamics to evolve.

On the other hand, without any consistent strategy for gender mainstreaming with regard to the increasing automation of working places and occupations, prevailing gender stereotypes and role models could persist. A case in point is that humanoid robots probably will be gendered; the disembodied personal assistant system bearing the female name Siri are one of the most prominent examples. This might reinforce existing gender roles for society as a whole and generations to come.

A very telling example of how Internet technology and Artificial Intelligence can be used to strengthen gender role stereotypes is presented in a study carried out by Carnegie Mellon University. The study reveals that 100 top employment pages operating through Google ads showed high-paying job ads 1,800 times to a male group and merely 300 times to a female group of users. The authors were unable to identify whether this practice was embedded in Google’s algorithm or intentionally chosen by the advertiser.

Another point of concern is that women are overrepresented in administration jobs that face a higher risk of being automated. Even if these occupations were to increasingly assist or complement intelligent machines, if they retain their low pay rates, the gender gap will not be closed.

Automation – the path to a gender-equal society?

All technological innovations can either become mankind’s curse or provide us with more time for leisure and other meaningful activities (or even a messy mixture of both). The most important issue is to embed technological progress in a legal and ethical framework. This framework has to be guided by questions such as the following: How do we envision future human society? How do we address the gender gap in automation? How much economic inequality are we able to tolerate? How do we ensure that gendered stereotypes are not simply continued and incorporated into new technologies?

A feminist approach

A feminist and pro-active, but at the same time cautious approach to automation is the key to influencing automation in a way that fosters gender equality.

Firstly, it is of great relevance to foster the decoupling of certain occupations from ascribed gendered stereotypes and to successfully transfer this into the next machine age through new, de-gendered occupations.

Secondly, it should be ensured that the female workforce has an equal footing and shares the new jobs that are created in computer-, technology-, and engineering-related occupations.

Thirdly, the continuation of gender stereotypes into new technologies should be avoided by mainstreaming Internet technologies to guarantee equal access and prevent gendered (and other) biases.

Fourthly, a substantial number of female employees will be automated out of work and may not be able to receive appropriate retraining. They will thus not possess the appropriate skills needed for the new labour market. As this anticipated development concerns men and other groups as well, feminists should try to work shoulder-to-shoulder with these groups to exert greater influence on politicians and other stakeholders, and to contribute to the promotion of an inclusive society.

Thorough research is needed to develop concepts that provide detailed advice on how technological progress should be framed to promote gender equality.

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Klemens Witte, Research Associate at the DOC, is specifically interested in economic questions, international relations, and policy-making. He holds a Masters in Political Science and Intercultural Communication (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg), a second Masters in Baltic Sea Studies (Södertörns University College/Stockholm), and a postgraduate LL.M. in International Economic Law (Southwest-University for Political Science and Law/Chongqing and Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg). Klemens Witte has gained international experience in universities in Kazan, Moscow, Kaliningrad, Minsk, and Beijing. He has further work experience within the fields of internationalization and education as a desk officer with Swedish government ministries and as a lecturer from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He speaks German, English, Swedish, Russian, and Chinese.