Articlepay gap - work - work life balance

Gender issues in the
digitalisation of work

Foto: Unsplash/ Sincerely Media

When the home is transformed into the workplace of the mobile professional and the self-employed creative freelancer as well as the sphere of consumption work, it becomes an arena in which physical, administrative, caring, and affective labour compete. Expecially for women

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Work that is conducted using digital and/or telecommunications technologies, or that is concerned with content production, has mushroomed across the advanced capitalist economies. And it has some distinctive features, not the least of which is the naturalisation of the labour market vulnerabilities and disadvantages normally associated with women’s work, plus other forms of gendered labour. This article considers the gender dimensions of contemporary digital work.

Insecurity has become a marked feature of most Western economies, with significant proportions of people enjoying none of the benefits of previous generations of organised labour[1].  Digital work is one of the key means by which this state of affairs has been reached. Precarious work is particularly commonplace at the margins of the labour market (women and migrant workers) and remains unprotected by regulation. Where once this precariousness was confined to a labour underclass, which was predominantly female, now it is characteristic of many more forms of work and workers. Online technologies support and facilitate its spread.

For example, digital work platforms such as Upwork or Amazon Mechanical Turk, register millions of freelancers and post hundreds of thousands of jobs every month. The crowdworkers who register with these platforms may be media-oriented digital professionals (video-makers, animators, web and mobile app builders, visual and graphic designers), writers or translators, sales and marketing specialists, admin support workers, finance and management professionals, even automotive engineers[2]. Or they may be ‘clickworkers’ – performing tiny elements of complex tasks or projects which have previously been broken down into extremely small tasks (entering data, tagging images, transcribing scanned text into digital text, checking product sentiment or people ratings). These tasks require few skills and very little time - minutes or seconds - to be completed, typically by means of simple clicks. These menial tasks have been described as the ‘dull, brainless, low-paid tasks that … keep the internet economy firing on all pistons’.[3]  Having been farmed out to separate workers, the resulting databases, digitised text, or image libraries are recomposed by the requester into a final product or project.

Crowdworkers, creative freelancers and other online casuals have no employment protection. The legal frameworks and safeguards which shield conventional employees working for physically fixed employers do not cover these digital workers, so they have no cushion against exploitation, disputes over payment, or even negative reviews which can at a stroke destroy a carefully built-up online reputation.[4]  Low pay is buttressed by the informality and lack of transparency in contract allocation. Freelance employment often veers between contract feast and contract famine, so that particularly in new media work, ‘bulimic working’ has become normalised (Gill and Pratt 2008). On top of all this, there is a pervasive individualism throughout this virtual labour market, which masks the structural inequalities that exist, and places considerable pressure on virtual workers to develop individualised coping strategies.[5]

The burden of these arrangements is disproportionately borne by women. Women are often drawn into freelancing and self-employment, for instance, as these arrangements offer apparent solutions to the conflicting demands of paid work and family caring. Thus, the majority of crowdworkers and Amazon Mechanical Turks are female.[6] In new media work, too, temporary, intermittent and precarious jobs are dominated by women, particularly young women.[7] Gender pay inequality is commonplace[8], partly because women are generally more poorly protected by unions than men, and less likely to enjoy the benefits of such collective organisation as exists in the newly emerging industries and organisational forms of the internet economy. But in the digital world, gendered labour market disadvantage has gone mainstream. 

In parallel with the growth of precarious paid work, unpaid digital consumption labour has proliferated.[9] Quantities of work have been transferred, via the self-service economy, from producers to consumers, or ‘prosumers’[10]: online banking, product research, ticketing, travel administration, and much more. The home, once the site of domestic and caring labour, has become the location of both types of work. When the home is transformed into the workplace of the mobile professional and the self-employed creative freelancer as well as the sphere of consumption work, it becomes an arena in which physical, administrative, caring, and affective labour compete[11], and the boundary between them all is harder to discern. Furthermore, the increasing encroachment of paid labour into domestic time, as well as domestic space, exposes the gender politics of time as a resource.[12] When paid labour makes incursions into domestic time, invariably under the rubric of ‘flexible working’, the time of household members becomes contested, even more than normally. Tiny fragments of time for paid labour and for private pursuits are struggled over, encapsulating and reinforcing the gender power relations of the household and the relative valuing of its members’ time. For not all time is equal and, like skill, time is differently valued depending on whose it is. In private and public transactions alike, those with most power in society are most able to manage their time and that of other people. 

Since there is an ‘always-on’ expectation of digital workers, and in digital communications overall, digital work and life is redolent with stress. Individuals must negotiate conflicting and blurring  work demands, and, as it becomes ever more complex and digitally mediated, even life maintenance activities make increasing demands on our time and energies. Family relationships and caring activities are increasingly perturbed and displaced by paid and unpaid labour which adds value to the organisations that commission it but much less to the lives of those who perform it. It is the competition between these different demands, the decisions that have to be taken in prioritising one activity over another, and the conflict for time and space that is characteristic of the usual gender dynamics of the domestic sphere, that are so reflective and extensive of gender inequality, and at the same time, so damaging to individual health and domestic relationships.


Notes

[1] Standing, G. (2011) Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

[2] Hippler, K. (2014) Online work exchanges and their workforce, paper presented to EU-COST Action IS1202 The Dynamics of Virtual Work, Bucharest, March; Silberman, S. (2016) Building Trust in Crowd Worker Forums: Worker Ownership, Governance, and Work Outcomes, paper presented to EU-COST Action IS1202 The Dynamics of Virtual Work, Vilnius, December.

[3] Jeff Howe, Mechanical Turk targets small business, August 1, 2008

[4] Eurofound (2015) New forms of employment, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union; Huws, U. (2016), Jacobin Magazine

[5] Gregg, M. (2011) Work’s Intimacy, Cambridge, Polity Press.

[6] Eurofound (2015) cited above.

[7] Gill, R. and Pratt, A. (2008) In the social factory: Immaterial labour, precariousness, and cultural work, Theory, Culture and Society, 25 (1): 1-30.

[8] Gill, R. (2002) Cool, creative and egalitarian? Exploring gender in project-based new media work in Europe, Information, Communication and Society,  5 (1): 70-89.

[9] Fuchs, C. (2010) Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet, The Information Society, 26 (3): 179-196.

[10] Tapscott, D. (1996) The Digital Economy: promise and peril in the age of networked intelligence, New York: McGraw-Hill.

[11] Gregg (2011) already cited.

[12] Adam, B. (2002) The gendered time politics of globalization: Of shadowlands and elusive justice, Feminist Review, 70 (1): 3-29; Wajcman, J. (2014) Pressed for time, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Gregg, M. (2015) Typewriter, telephone, transistor: Labor politics in three formats, paper presented to Terms of Media conference, Lüneberg, June. 

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