Digitalisation is definitely the new buzzword in town. Digital economy, big data, social media, the cloud, robots & automation, artificial intelligence and disruptive innovations caused by new (digital) technologies in general are just a small list of some of the things which are on everybody’s lips in today’s discussions about the future of the economy and the labour market. Of course, there are many different strands of discussion covering a diverse set of themes. Among them topics like:
- The future of the labour market: is the coming #digital economy a (net) job destroyer? Or will there be more jobs generated through new occupations we can’t yet imagine? What about the quality of these new jobs? And what about the old jobs which still remain?
- The future of different industrial sectors: what sectors will vanish altogether or at least shrink in size? What sectors will prosper? Which entire new sectors will emerge? What about manufacturing (think ‘3D printing’), and the service sector (think ‘online banking’ or ‘online shopping’)?
- The future of different segments of the labour force: how will the digital revolution impact different groups like the skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled workers? What about men (think of the traditional male ‘blue collar industrial worker’)? What about women (think of the cliché of the ‘caring women’ in the health sector for example)?
Recently, the ZSI (Centre for Social Innovation, Vienna) has been working together with L&R Social Research (Vienna) on the role of women in this emerging ‘digital age’. Our work has focused on three key areas: (i) the scientific and political discussion of ‘digitalisation’ and the role that women play therein as social group, (ii) policy measures already in place in Austria, and (iii) #gender, skills and the digital economy.
In this blog, we are focusing mostly on just the first topic. In our discourse analysis, we ask who – from a gender perspective – is part of the new digital age and who is not? We analysed literature, platforms, policy statements, research, ‘white papers’ from social partners, supplemented by a review of (mainly Austrian) newspapers and magazines. By reviewing this fast growing body of literature on the digital economy and its impacts, it became very quickly evident that gender issues are to be found only at the very periphery of this discourse. However, we identified three distinct approaches on how gender issues are typically tackled within this discourse:
- The ‘missing women’ or ‘Where are all the women?’ discourse: the major bulk of the literature ignores women and gender issues altogether in relation to digitalisation. When gender is mentioned at all, what is striking is that the main discourse is about the ‘missing women’, in other words, that women do not play a major role as active agents in the whole process of digitalisation (e.g. few women are working in STEM fields driving forward the technologies, few women are entrepreneurs founding fancy new start-ups disrupting the existing economic system etc.).
- The women who need to be ‘supported’ or ‘How to get more women into the digital age?’ discourse: this strand of discussion stresses the opportunities which are lost by ignoring almost half of the labour force. If women would be more open to digitalisation (e.g. studying STEM etc.) then everything would be fine and the economic possibilities would be even greater. Indeed, there are a couple of policy initiatives in Austria trying to ‘convince’ women to enter the ‘right’ areas (i.e. STEM). However, compared to the extensive policy measures for fostering digitalisation in general, these women-specific measures are tiny and scattered.
- The promise for the ‘woman with good qualities’ discourse: this argument hinges upon some clichéd ideas which supposedly are more common among female workers, such as being more flexible and open to participatory leadership styles, having good communication skills and being 'team-players'. Since these qualities are assessed as key qualifications in the ‘new age of agile work’ some authors envision a rising ‘sheconomy’, in which women would have a genuine advantage in the labour market. Some even argue that the fact that women have supposedly better light-fingeredness will give female workers an advantage over male workers (whose raw muscular strength were of utmost importance in the foregone industrial era, but are no longer relevant in an age of automatization).
In general, discussions about digitalisation are characterised by technological determinism. Hierarchies and power relations (who makes the decisions, who decides the directions etc.) are often totally neglected. Within this hegemonial approach, gender issues are discussed in a very traditional way as well (i.e. women always ‘exist’ in traditional roles, e.g. not as engineers, data analysts etc.) Existing gender relations are not questioned at all. The same holds true with regard to the social shaping of technologies along society’s needs. Technology is seen as an “external” force (coming to society like mana from heaven) and not as evolving endogenous within the economy and the society.
Bergmann, N., Lechner, F., Gassler, H. and Pretterhofer, N. (2017): Digitalisierung – Industrie 4.0 – Arbeit 4.0 – Gender 4.0, L&R Social Research & Centre for Social Innovation, Vienna. https://www.zsi.at/object/project/4683/attach/EB_Industrie4_0_Arbeit4_0_...