Why we need a ‘feminist digital economics’

31 January 2018

Collage by Flavia Fascendini

There is a prevalent discourse that technology empowers women and ‘technology triumphs over poverty’; this is reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 5.B, “Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women” (UN, 2017, 5.B). But it is as yet unclear what the balance is between our personal, sexual and economic empowerment, and our position as women embedded within networked digital economies.

When we as feminists talk about the internet and digital technologies we chew over our concerns about violence and harassment, about digital harms and we celebrate our victories in using these same technologies to organise, find solidarity and build movements. When we do talk about economics we tend to be looking at gender pay gaps in the tech industry, critiquing the endemic sexism and racism of Silicon Valley and critiquing or celebrating female tech entrepreneurs. What might be rich areas for our anger, critique, celebration and future research on digital economics and how might we bring perspectives from the global South to these conversations?

When we do talk about economics we tend to be looking at gender pay gaps in the tech industry, critiquing the endemic sexism and racism of Silicon Valley and critiquing or celebrating female tech entrepreneurs. What might be rich areas for our anger, critique, celebration and future research on digital economics and how might we bring perspectives from the global South to these conversations?

This blog draws on discussions with Jac Kee, Patricia Peña, Safia Khan, Ruth Nyambura, and Jinnie Chae at a session on the digital economy at a recent APC/IDRC workshop on Mapping the research landscape of gender and digital technology in Malaysia. We realised that we needed to build a feminist digital economics; that looks at the impact of the digital economy through a feminist lens. This includes a whole range of issues; from the infrastructure of the internet, what we’re doing online that might not think of as work, to the ecological impacts of internet use and fresh perspectives on women’s tech entrepreneurship. This short piece cannot do justice to the incredibly rich discussions and insights from this meeting, but instead aims to capture some of the themes as starting points for exploration.

Our discussions suggested two levels at which the questions of economy, labour and gender can be unpacked. Firstly, the underlying mechanisms and frameworks of the information economy and the ‘sharing economy’, and the materials and resources are being extracted for this. And secondly at the individual level of bodies: people and their agency. We want to be able to shift in between structure with bodies, the macro and the micro. As Jac said ‘You can enter at the level of bodies, the labour they engage in, the data that they generate, the context of their economy, their histories of colonialism. This would shift the question from a simplistic understanding of ICTs as empowerment.’

Thinking about what is considered ‘labour’ and work is a longstanding feminist concern; for many years feminists have been arguing that we need to place an economic value on the ‘labour’ of domestic and care work. Before we look forward, we need to look to the past, to women like Silvia Federici who did the foundational work in helping us understand how the “..immense amount of paid and unpaid domestic work done by women in the home is what keeps the world moving." (Federici 2012: 2) and to the work of feminist economists such as Ruth Pearson and Diane Elson (2015) who developed economic frameworks and policies incorporating reproductive and care work. Naomi Gerstel (2000) talks about community development responsibilities as part of the ‘third shift’ of women’s work, where women not only take on the bulk of responsibilities for care inside the home, but also outside the home. This takes the form of informal care provided to relatives and friends or more formally to neighbours and strangers in community groups.

Workshop participants spoke about the emotional, affective labour done by black women, and other women who belong to certain communities and minority groups. Writing about the ‘unwanted labour of social media’ Lisa Nakamura describes how 'Cheap female labour is the engine that powers the internet'.

In recent years these frameworks have been repurposed to describe the unpaid labour online and community moderation role we do online. Kylie Jarrett describes how women act as ‘digital housewives’; building and sustaining online relationships, producing and sharing content (Jarrett 2015). Workshop participants spoke about the emotional, affective labour done by black women, and other women who belong to certain communities and minority groups. Writing about the ‘unwanted labour of social media’ Lisa Nakamura describes how 'Cheap female labour is the engine that powers the internet' (2015). She points out how when we think about 'digital labour' we typically associate this idea with a white guy in Silicon Valley. But Moya Bailey and others have described how vital the digital labour of trans women, especially trans women of colour, legitimize and support trans identities and advocate for trans autonomy in the public eye (Jackson, Bailey and Foucault Welles 2017). If we’re not going to monetize this labour how do we at least quantify it in some way?

A feminist digital economics perspective gives us space to discuss the negative ‘externalities’ – or harmful side effects – of the Internet and the whole value chain of digital production and consumption; from mining, manufacture to use, consumption of electricity and so on. Toxic electronic waste dumped in countries in the global South such as Ghana cause serious environmental and health issues. `The feminist digital economy could be an important mode through which we can talk about these cycles in the global economy, and another way to look at the power relations embedded in technology use. These environmental concerns also link with ideas of the commons (or shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest); Silvia Federici argues for a feminist perspective on the commons, since ‘historically and in our time, women have depended more than men on access to communal resources, and have been most committed to their defense’ (Federici 2012: 143). If we see the Internet as a commons, as a global public good as enshrined in APC’s Internet Rights Charter, then we must take a feminist perspective on how we defend these spaces. This is why the Feminist principles of the internet call on us to challenge ‘the patriarchal spaces and processes that control internet governance, as well as putting more feminists and queers at the decision-making tables’.

A feminist digital economics perspective gives us space to discuss the negative ‘externalities’ – or harmful side effects – of the Internet and the whole value chain of digital production and consumption; from mining, manufacture to use, consumption of electricity and so on.

During our meeting, we shared ideas about other critical areas where feminist research is already engaging (such as in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)) but we also noted that there is an urgent need to take a critical feminist perspective on many other issues in the digital economy. For example, when we think about women and digital economics we often think about gender pay and employment gaps in the tech industry. Google's tech employees are still overwhelmingly white and male (2017 data shows that they are 80% men, 53% white). Given this, how might we ‘decolonise’ discourse of women tech entrepreneurship? Do we know whether the now widespread programmes urging girls learning to code actually have a long -term impact on women’s economic status and employability? The discourse on women working in technology sectors is often driven by corporations, which means it tends to focus on ‘fixing the numbers’. But what other drivers might there be for getting a more balanced employment picture? Do we want more women creating tech products because they might be better products or because we want more women reaping the economic benefits of a career in technology? I’ve written elsewhere on GenderIT about how women’s digital skills will be a really important issue as automation starts impacting more on women’s employment prospects. We agreed that there was great potential in taking feminist digital economics perspective on platform cooperativism to figure out what a feminist ethical on-demand, platform might look like. Is it possible to reconcile the needs of customers and service providers so women working in the gig economy are able to reap the benefits of flexible working without being exploited and losing access to basic rights?

The discourse on women working in technology sectors is often driven by corporations, which means it tends to focus on ‘fixing the numbers’. But what other drivers might there be for getting a more balanced employment picture? Do we want more women creating tech products because they might be better products or because we want more women reaping the economic benefits of a career in technology?

Our brief discussion in Malaysia revealed how much potential there is to bring a feminist lens to digital economics; from unpaid digital labour, digital skills, entrepreneurship, the platform economy to the environmental impact of technology use. This is only the start of the conversation!

Our brief discussion in Malaysia revealed how much potential there is to bring a feminist lens to digital economics; from unpaid digital labour, digital skills, entrepreneurship, the platform economy to the environmental impact of technology use. This is only the start of the conversation!

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Footnotes

Federici, S. (2012) Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, CA: PM Press

Gerstel, N. (2000) ‘The Third Shift: Gender and Care Work Outside the Home’, Qualitative Sociology 23.4: 467–483, http://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005530909739

Jackson, S.J.; Bailey, M. and Foucault Welles, B. (2017) ‘# GirlsLikeUs: Trans advocacy and community building online’, New Media & Society : 1461444817709276

Jarrett, K. (2015) Feminism, Labour and Digital Media: The Digital Housewife, New York, NY, 10001: Routledge

Nakamura, L. (2015) ‘The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call out Culture As Venture Community Management’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 86.1: 106–112

Pearson, R. and Elson, D. (2015) ‘transcending the impact of the financial crisis in the United Kingdom: towards plan F—a feminist economic strategy’, Feminist Review 109.1: 8–30, http://doi.org/10.1057/fr.2014.42

 

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