THE (FEMINIST) FUTURE OF WORK
Feminists need to start talking about the future.
by Paula Ethans
Work is changing. Drastically. Climate change, artificial intelligence, and the gig economy are transforming how we make a living.
The ‘future of work’ is a big topic amongst environmentalists, CEOs and labour activists. People are trying to predict what the formal economy will look in 10 or 20 years, and they’re planning for these anticipated scenarios. But in discussions on the future of work – be it in board rooms, town halls, or tech hubs—where are all the feminists?
For social interest groups, environmentalists have been leading these conversations, most notably in the Green New Deal (GND). They recognize that how we work inherently affects their interests and the need to transform the economy to meet their goals. Feminists must do the same. We have an obligation, but also an opportunity, to overhaul the formal economy. This is our chance to lobby for a more equitable system—we can’t miss it.
It’s time to push feminism further into future of work discussions. The GND is an established model with a lot of weight behind it, and feminists, rather than continuing along a separate path, should integrate their concerns into this discussion. The areas of concerns in the GND—automation, the gig economy, climate change—are all feminist issues, and we need feminists to address them.
What’s the big (Green New) deal?
Named after Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal legislation—lifting the US out of the Great Depression with massive public works and employment projects—the GND is a sweeping national policy to create jobs and battle climate change.
Dominique Souris, Executive Director of Youth Climate Lab, says the GND “marks our society recognizing the need to push beyond the status quo of current climate action.” As Courage Coalition notes, the transition isn’t just from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s about transitioning away from the incentives and structures that led us to this crisis so we don’t find ourselves in this situation again.
Neutral is Another Word for Normalized
Artificial intelligence (AI)—computers ‘thinking’ and making decisions, automating tasks that humans have done for centuries—allows for faster production and wider circulation, but it also presents problems.
Loss of jobs is the most widely cited concern. Experts say that soon, robots will perform procedures instead of doctors, computers will conduct legal research instead of lawyers, and self-driving cars will replace truckers. Tens of millions may be left without work if they are not protected.
The lack of neutrality in algorithms is also a central concern. Technology is created by humans, and every human has their own beliefs and biases. Consciously or otherwise, people program their opinions into algorithms. To date, we’ve had mainly white men programming our algorithms, which means their opinions, including their racism and sexism, are embedded in our computers.
Algorithms are everywhere – ranking resumes in HR departments, controlling driverless cars, and powering voice assistants like Siri – and so are their biases. As legal PhD student Suzie Dunn warns, “when discriminatory data, such as data with gender or racial bias, is fed into AI, it results in discriminatory outputs.” So it’s no surprise that University of Washington researchers have found image recognition systems containing gender biases, associating sports with men, and shopping and kitchens with women, or that Carnegie Mellon University found that Google’s recommendation algorithm was more likely to recommend “high prestige and high-paying jobs” to men.
Flexible or Exploitative?
The gig economy, made popular by platforms like Uber, has transformed employment. While it was initially sold as an escape from the 9-5 work life, it’s quickly proven to be exploitative.
Most importantly, those in the gig economy aren’t considered employees, but rather independent contractors; a distinction which has a weighty legal difference. While employers are guaranteed certain protections, independent contractors enjoy none of these rights. As a result, gig economy workers have no minimum wage and no maximum/minimum working hours. They lack healthcare coverage, parental leave, retirement benefits, workers’ compensation, sick days, pensions, and more. In less than a decade, tech companies have eroded the protections that labour activists fought for a century to secure.
Many in the “hustle and gig” endure unsettling experiences: being hit on in a stranger’s home, feeling compelled to deliver illegal substances, and injuring themselves performing manual labour. These independent contractors often must choose between turning down work they can’t afford to pass up, or risking their safety.
This doesn’t involve just a few individuals. The gig economy comprises 20-30% of the US labor force, and it will grow significantly. James Hutt, Canadian labour and climate activist, is concerned for the labour movement: “To be frank, it’s in decline. Over the past 35 years, the percentage of people in unions has dropped from 37% to about 28%.” When people don’t have unions to protect them, they must fight for themselves, and marginalized persons—those who don’t have the requisite agency—are left out to dry.
A world on fire.
Perhaps no future of work issue is more closely connected to feminism than climate change.
Women around the world—mainly women of colour—are routinely denied education, land rights, identification documents, and access to credit. As a result, women comprise 70% of the world’s poor, and are hit hardest by climate change. Women are targets of sexual and gender based violence, especially during crises, so when disasters hit or droughts linger on, women suffer more. Traditional gender roles result in women making up two-thirds of the world's poor livestock keepers, so when plants don’t grow or farmlands flood, women bear the brunt of the effects.
We need only to look to Hurricanes Katrina or Maria to see that climate change kills women. In both situations, it was mostly women—poor, with children, elderly, disabled —who died. A UN Report confirms that the poor are the least equipped to face the challenges of climate change, and women bear the harshest burden because the resulting hardships exacerbate existing gender inequalities.
We need solidarity in the struggle.
When we talk about the future of work, feminist issues can’t be an afterthought. Women, migrants, LGBTQ folx, and Indigenous peoples must all be central to the conversation. And feminists need to voice our concerns, share our solutions and integrate our struggles.
The GND is a progressive platform that could transform the way North America lives and works. The feminist movement has invaluable insights it can share with this platform. What could a feminist GND look like?
Consider #MeToo. It has been drawing the world’s attention to women’s working conditions since 2017, but thus far it has remained isolated. It works in the intersections of race and class, but it hasn’t been shaped by collaboration with other movements. Perhaps the #MeToo and Green New Deal is the perfect pairing. Let’s insert #MeToo—a movement largely focused on sexual misconduct and abuse—into a labour policy.
Larissa Donovan, from the Dandelion Initiative, points to corporate harassment policies and practices as a way to do this. “Include existing staff on the drafting and creation of policies. Insist on partnering with experts in workplace safety and sexual harassment,” Donovan suggests. “Do more than the statutory minimums to show your commitment—make organizations be proactive in safety.”
Not only is it effective to integrate feminist movements like #MeToo into the GND, but it’s also logical. Sarah Jaffe has written, that while some perpetuate the vision of white male coal miners as the labour heroes, in fact migrant women and women of colour have long been organizing. Nannies, cleaning ladies, and hotel housekeepers have been battling against corporate greed for decades. They have fought for a domestic workers’ bill of rights, combatted sexual violence, fought for Obamacare, and protested for safer working conditions.
It’s time to properly recognize the work of these women and let them lead the feminist labour reform charge within the GND.
Souris says that GND formulators “have created the conditions for this movement to be intersectional” but she worries this may not continue as the movement evolves as such a fast pace. Souris notes that the town halls she attended this spring were predominately white. In the town hall she facilitated in Ottawa, some participants voiced their concerns that the GND is “trying to fit in too much.” This is where feminists come in—where we can show those who support a green economy, that economic justice is not justice if it doesn’t include everyone.
Who gets to own the future?
The future of work is going to change, for better or for worse. CEOs, environmentalists, and labour activists have formulated the GND, trying to make it for the better. It’s time feminists joined the fight.
It’s a question of power and privilege: Whose version of progress is being heard? Whose version are we promoting?
The answer leads to another question: Who gets to own the future? Do our children, or future generations, get to own the future? Will bosses and CEOs continue to thrive as the masses suffer? Will marginalized communities get the chance to be in control of their own lives? Will they go to work safe, secure, and happy?
AI is wrought with biases—let’s promote diversity in tech. Care work has been devalued for decades—let’s change that normalization. The gig economy disproportionately harms marginalized folks—let’s reform that sector. Climate change kills women—let’s stop that phenomenon.
The future of work is indisputably a feminist issue. So feminists, let’s get to work.
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