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Why automation is a feminist issue

ccording to a new study from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), nearly 10% of women work in jobs with a high potential for automation, compared with only 4% of men. So what, I hear you say. Substitute “robots” for “austerity”, “the demise of unionisation”, “public-sector pay freezes”, “modern life” – pick any of these and women will always come off worst. Except maybe this time the pointy heads are on to something: perhaps better understanding what the risks are will give us all some agency, and even allow us to change the future.

As Carys Roberts, the author of the IPPR report, tells me: “We don’t even talk about risks in this area, because there are so many different factors. The primary argument that we make is that this could go in different directions. Technology is not destiny.”

While women dominate retail and admin, two areas that seem the ripest for automation, “in sectors that are low paid, you typically don’t get early adoption of tech because women are cheap to employ in the first place”. That doesn’t, of course, mean that AI won’t catch up with those jobs eventually. Being too low-paid for a robot to even bother taking your job isn’t, after all, the best bargaining position to be in.

Aamazon's Alex
 Alexa has been programmed to ‘disengage’ when confronted with disrespectful remarks. Photograph: Juan Diego Oliva Plaza/Alamy

“If we keep the structure of the labour market the same, if women stay disproportionately in the low-paid sectors, we could see inequalities increasing,” Roberts notes. “But if we restructured the labour market so that it was less segregated, and at the same time improved wage floors, there’s no reason why automation can’t work for all of us.” So women need collective bargaining, but we needed that anyway.

The tech paradox used to be framed to show that people in jobs that are thought of as highly specialised or highly skilled – surgeons or lawyers, say – are, in theory, easier to replace than people with jobs that are thought of as menial but have a central human component – carers or gardeners, for example. Look more closely, though, and all these jobs have interpersonal, intimate moments, along with mundane and repetitive ones, so the smart robot would be looking to replace elements of jobs, rather than whole people.

Yet does it make any difference to gender equality if the woman is replaced by a robot who is herself female? You may scoff, but if your personal assistant bots, from the Unknown Satnav to Alexa and beyond, are all female, and people become accustomed to yelling at them, that might not be a great outcome either. In 2017, following a petition, Alexa was programmed with a “disengage” mode, so that she now responds to disrespect generally, and lewd remarks in particular, with “I’m not going to respond to that,” or “I’m not sure what outcome you expected”. This may be a useful and painless training exercise for the impolite.

Sex robots, meanwhile, are unlikely to teach anyone any manners. Arguably, though, the kind of person who would replace you with a robot is not going to be a great loss to the world of sex.

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