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Emergentes | 4 April 2018
The e-commerce agenda and the gender gap
by Sofia Scasserra
Discussions on the future of work sometimes revolve around elaborate issues regarding how the world will or will not look like a few years ahead. Predictions worth of fortune tellers and futurologists are floated about how we will lose our jobs or on the influence technology will have on our lives. The fact remains that the only thing that economics can assert with certainty is, as John Keynes said, that “in the long run we will all be dead”. This is truly scientific and objective to the core. But leaving aside fatalism, let us focus on facts and arguments, not about the future but about the present of work, from the glowing feminist perspective emerging around the world.
What can women expect from the brewing changes in the labor market and generally in the economy? Do they represent a new window of opportunity, or are they rather simply more of the same business as usual? Let us address these questions one at a time, thoughtfully.
What is e-commerce and how does it shape the economy?
For those not yet acquainted with this issue, let us first say that e-commerce is much more than buying and selling internationally through the internet. The rules that are currently being negotiated at the global level in order to “regulate” (or rather deregulate) economic exchanges through the internet can be summarized in five main points:
1. No commercial presence requirements for companies operating through internet
2. No technology transfer requirements as a condition to operate
3. No obligations for companies to abide by the decisions of local courts regarding consumer rights and protections
4. No obligations to pay taxes for data transfers
5. No access to or localization requirements for data in the country where it is collected.
Capital’s future is cast on these points, and so is therefore the future of business and work, with the emergence of companies that operate through the worldwide web, in remote locations, tapping on each nation’s comparative advantages, with no accountability whatsoever –whether to consumers (given that they operate outside of the jurisdiction of consumer protection laws), workers (since these companies have no commercial presence) or the general citizenry (owing to the fact that they do not transfer technology nor pay taxes, as they are allowed to legally establish themselves in tax havens). It is worth noting that with the emergence of the ‘internet of things’, an ever-increasing number of goods are now considered ‘services’ in terms of international trade, and could hence potentially be covered by these rules. Since the inception of home appliances such as the smart fridge with wi-fi, a growing number of goods now carry internet. It is therefore easy to envision that, in the long run, if these set of rules are adopted by institutions such as the WTO, all companies will fall under the scope of these 5 rules, whether they are web portals or not.
Under these rules, a new paradigm worker is established, the ‘entrepreneur’ worker that merely uses operational platforms to secure some income for himself and his family, as an internet services portals customer, giving away for free to corporations the economy’s new Potosi gold: data.
Data. What for?
Shivers take hold of our bodies at times, when we become aware of the vast amount of things Google knows about ourselves. After having visited a store, it often happens that we get notifications on our smartphones begging us to rate our experience in the store, to post pictures and videos of the place we have visited. This is merely a very small example of the amount of private data held and managed by corporations, which they take enormous pains to withhold. The reasons for such a heated interest are three:
1. Segmented advertising
2. Algorithms economics
3. Artificial intelligence
The fact is that corporations are demanding rules at the WTO and other international agreements such as TISA that will enable transnational corporations to take ownership of that data, while countries lose jurisdiction over it without even being able to request access to it in case of need. Companies refuse to pay for the data, even though it is them using and managing it. But if data is given away for free, one could arguably say it is not a trade issue, and that a regulatory body would thus be needed, possibly within the United Nations system, to regulate transfers, storage and access to data worldwide. This is not happening, because corporations know very well that if such were the case, States would need to be involved in the regulatory process and would hence preserve their sovereignty over and access to data. Corporations are therefore bringing these issues into trade agreements instead, revealing capitalism’s mean face: the indiscriminate plunder of rough materials from the global South to the global North. Indeed, if these issues are labelled as trade issues, there will be no payment for the data we give freely away through the worldwide web.
Let us now return to the objective and start looking into the consequences that this whole process has on women.
Feminism and the future of work
When this agenda first got to be negotiated in international trade agreements, some experts were heard asserting that the e-commerce agenda would impact positively on the gender gap, and that the mere act of adopting them would benefit women worldwide. In fact, working groups on gender and electronic commerce have been established both at the World Trade Organization and UNCTAD.
A strong claim accepted by many is that women will benefit from these new forms of remote or entrepreneurial labor because they will be able to work from home without leaving household chores unattended, thus helping them articulate their professional work and maternity. It goes without saying that caring for the household should be a shared task of both mothers and fathers, and this whole idea merely entrenches further the role of women in society as has been traditionally taken for granted. Let us not fool ourselves, the truth is that the internet has indeed opened a world of opportunities for us and that remote work is today of great help to many people, not only household heads but also people with mobility problems and various health conditions. Though there is likewise no doubt that this opportunity should not be regarded as a big leap forward for the female gender, because we can then work from home, but rather as an opportunity for anyone that needs it.
It is claimed additionally that the automation of jobs will ultimately benefit women worldwide because care service jobs, where workers are predominantly women, are most difficult to replace with machines. So it should be expected that they will be the least adversely affected by the labor readjustments that 4th industrial revolution technologies demand. This claim once again reinforces the role women have been apportioned in society, giving them furthermore a false ‘sensation of happiness’ in the face of increasing labor flexibilization and the transformation of production.
To understand the impact these rules will have on the gender gap if adopted in their current format, let us first analyze the three main aforementioned areas of corporate interest in the management of data.
Advertising and information. Companies want our data to be able to send us the segmented information that we are interested about. That is sometimes useful, but intrusive at times. It is a fact that women are usually doing the households shopping, whether of clothes, food, school materials and other household goods. This reality is currently changing and more and more men are engaging with these tasks, although it is still predominantly a women-dominated market. Since women spend more time looking for online sales and shopping, it should not fall as something strange that advertisements land directly on their email boxes, their Facebook pages or their search engines, further reinforcing the idea that this is a women’s task. It will be difficult for men to engage in the new emerging household dynamics if they do not get advertisements and their new emerging role is not facilitated, nor the idea reinforced that household chores can be done by anyone regardless of gender.
Algorithms economics. Companies seek to hold data to generate algorithms. These algorithms are nothing more than equations that explain, optimize and predict human behavior, on the basis of the information stored in big data bases. Algorithms generated on the basis of big data are now replacing entire production processes. These algorithms are not prepared for social changes, since they are developed on the basis of past time information, they merely reinforce and repeat humanity’s history. Web based human resources search engines are a good example of how these algorithms can actually further expand the gender gap. Companies are already replacing their human resources departments for algorithms, specifying that they will only hire people that have been successful in their work. So the simple parameter they use to define successful is “any employee that has worked at least three years in a company and that has been promoted at least once during that time”. If the algorithm would capture the profiles of those that fulfill such conditions, those people would most likely be white men, 25-35 years old and with higher-level education. Women, people with disabilities and from ethnic and sexual minority groups would most likely fall outside of the parametric, given that they are victims of discrimination, violence and labor harassment, and under the pressure of having to take responsibility for domestic and household labors. In short, the algorithm merely replicates the history of gender violence and reproduces it. It is not capable of transcending it.
Artificial intelligence and the internet of things. An increasing number of appliances are now equipped to operate autonomously or remotely on the basis of information we give them. From the vacuum cleaner that sweeps the house by itself to a ring-bell with inbuilt camera that can be answered from the cellphone, more and more things are currently digitalized and we are moving towards an economy based on artificial intelligence that will facilitate many of our daily life routines. The question that is often raised when we see all these modern appliances is who controls them, who gives them the information that allows them to operate? If the fridge runs out of milk, who does it alert of that fact? If the household needs to be vacuum cleaned, who is programming the time at which that will be done by the machine? If bread needs to be baked for tomorrow, who prepares the bread baking machine? Obviously, this is not directly a technological concern, but it does have to do with the way products “that facilitate the housewives’ life” are advertised. If the appliance sends the information to the woman because it was programmed that way, the man will never know that there was no milk in the fridge, nor that the vacuum cleaner stopped working, or that the ring bell sounded and needs to be answered. More than a critic, this paragraph intends to caution on how we use these technologies so that they do not end up being an additional weight on women’s daily lives, having to withstand permanent interruptions in their workday from notifications that reinforce and overload them with additional household responsibilities.
As can be seen, the debate is broad and the consequences of technological changes are not easy to see or analyze; but one thing remains true: an unequal society will not solve gender problems overnight and through magical tricks only because it undergoes technological transformations. Social problems are not solved only by introducing new forms of production in society –these rather replicate the realities that are already present in the economy. Discussions on equality need to continue unabated to avoid technology performing what it has been programmed to do: reinforce inequality between men and women. A more just society is needed –let us reprogram it through consciousness raising and debate.