Automation, artificial intelligence, the gig economy, and demographic and social shifts are defining a ‘future of work’ that is already affecting workers, labor markets, and supply chains around the world. This changing nature of work has unique implications for women: disruptive technologies are affecting both the quantity and quality of women’s jobs while systemic constraints impact the ability of women to transition into new sectors. Workplaces increasingly require new skills and are calling for experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, the lack of women in STEM fields and gaps in technical skills often hold women back. Contingent and gig work also present new challenges for women due to violence and harassment, unpredictable hours, and unequal wages, and benefits.

This is further exacerbated by the rise of platform companies as the dominant force controlling marketplace and social interactions is transforming production, distribution and social reproduction. The gains made towards narrowing the gender pay gap and raising the work status for women are being reversed by automation-led job displacement in various sectors. At the same time, countries in the Global North are pushing for e-commerce during trade negotiations, arguing that it will open up opportunities for women in the developing world.

In the midst of these varying contestations, the gender divide in techno­-social capabilities and the challenges faced by women-led businesses remain largely unaddressed. The changing nature of work, however, makes it especially urgent for feminist activism to double down on demanding benefits of social protection to workers and reskilling women to meet the needs of the changing workplace, Aliya Hashmi Khan told Bot Populi in an interview.

Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

It has been widely suggested that digital technologies, artificial intelligence and automation will widen the gender pay gap and reverse the small gains made on pay and work status for women. Can you briefly explain the modalities of how this happens?

Aliya: There are some issues involved in understanding this widening of the gender pay gap and how that might be related to the unfolding automation and digital technologies. Technology adoption leads to automation, obviously, and digitalization. And it requires a transitioning across occupations in terms of the skills that are now required to work alongside or with those new technologies. And women, as you know, are clustered at the lower ends of occupations, whether it is manufacturing or services. So when these new technologies come in and women are not supported in making the transition from low-skilled work to medium or high-skilled work – which now is at a premium in the automated world of work – then the gender pay gap further widens. It was already there to begin with in terms of pre-labor market barriers like access to education and training, and then they also face labor market barriers when they enter the job market. Wage polarization is expected along with automation because there will be a gap between the wage premium that high skill is going to command in the future of work.

Does automation hit the so-called feminized jobs differently?

Aliya: Yes, it will affect feminized jobs because mostly women are in occupations that involve routine and repetitive work, which are more likely to be automated. The only sectors where women are somewhat shielded by these influences and these risks of automation are the education and the healthcare sectors. But we see that even those sectors are being made more ‘efficient’ by digital technologies. For women to keep those jobs in the healthcare and education sectors, there will be a need for upskilling and reskilling. Otherwise, women might face what is called ‘technological unemployment’ or job displacement because the demand for those jobs which women are doing at the moment, is falling drastically.

Many studies point out that platform work itself is highly segregated and flexibility tends to be restricted in female-dominated platform work (like paid care work) vs male-dominated platform work (like ride sharing or food delivery). Do you think that distinction is justified? In that sense, does the platform economy further re-entrench or exaggerate the gendered division of labor?

Aliya: The platform economy is being scrutinized for the ways in which it recasts informality. Although it has unleashed flexible work for women in which they can work from home, some feminist researchers are critiquing it as a glorified form of home-based, outsourced work which is highly insecure and unprotected. So indeed, if platform work is not coupled with some basic labor protections like fair remuneration and social protection measures which will have to be reconfigured for the platform economy and the gig economy, then it will be another manifestation of an already vast and expanding informal economy which is also highly feminized in South Asia. We have to chart strategic policy directions regarding the platform economy so that it does not reinforce or reproduce the gendered division of labor, especially because now it’s easier for women to work from home. But their home care responsibility burden does not lessen and they are also constricted in terms of their mobility by not traveling to their place of work and networking which paid employment offers them.

Does the platform economy also intensify women’s unpaid care work burden? If yes, then in what ways?

Aliya: It could intensify if the household decision-making does not support women in being a member of the labor force and having enough time to devote to their platform economy work from home without having to compromise with their home care responsibilities. Just because the woman is working from home does not mean that she can combine the additional burden of work with the already existing home care responsibilities. That is why I am emphasizing on fair wages and fair remuneration.

There is a project being implemented, including in some parts of India, which is called the Fair Work project. It is being piloted specifically to measure and set standards for decent work in the platform economy. There is definitely a realization that the platform economy by itself is not going to lend itself to decent working conditions unless there are some standards set for it. So it’s also a matter of women making decisions for themselves, which again becomes part of the whole debate. In paid employment once the woman leaves home, she has made the decision to work away from home and she will not be available for household responsibilities for that period of time. But when she is working from home, and we see this especially for women from low-income households, she is doing unpaid housework as well as paid work. So things should improve beyond that in the platform economy for women.

For women to keep their jobs in the healthcare and education sectors, there will be a need for upskilling and reskilling. Otherwise, women might face what is called ‘technological unemployment’ or job displacement because the demand for those jobs which women are doing at the moment, is falling drastically.

Given this backdrop, what would gender-aware or gender-responsive public policies that address the future of work look like, in the digital paradigm?

Aliya: There are no legal protections available for women working in the platform economy; it mirrors some of the undesirable labor market features of the informal economy. However, it holds greater promise for more productive work, higher earnings. Therefore, in order of its importance to the gross domestic product and the exports of a country, more attention should be given in having a set of working condition though laws and regulations. Obviously, it will be an incremental process because labor laws can’t be transported from the formal to the platform economy. However, some kind of labor protection measures will need to be introduced like standardized wages, standardized working conditions, contracts of work etc. which are really not available at the moment. There is a need to think through how to make work in the platform economy productive and secure. There is a lot of research that shows that labor protection measures by themselves lead to higher productivity of workers. Besides, the concept of well-being of workers is being raised because there is the realization that if we do not focus on this well-being aspect, then left to itself, things might not be very different from the informal economy as a whole.

In particular, what should a Southern framework for gender-aware labor laws focus on, in the context of the platform economy?

Aliya: One is the balance between the productive and the reproductive nature of work for women in terms of the burden of the care economy. The demands of the future of work are such that women will need time to invest in skills and lifelong learning to have greater access to financial inclusion measures. There are a lot of investments we are looking at, and investments always require time and money. The private sector as well as governments will have to pitch in to make this transition for women possible. A gender-aware future of work should be aware of the fact that business as usual for women is going to sideline them and keep them away from reaping the benefits of the digital economy, whether it is automation of the workplace or the platform economy. If women are not given the opportunity to improve themselves either because of socio-cultural norms that keep them away from investing in education or interacting with networks that would allow them access to the digital platforms – many digital platforms require micro entrepreneurship skills which do not come naturally for women who have largely been excluded from networks that make it easier. Feminist researchers are pointing to these barriers but it is more important for civil society organizations who interact with policymakers to bring up the right kind of issues to be taken up by and embedded in policies so that they do not have the weak impact on closing the gender gap as they have had in the past. So we need more dynamic and provocative policies to close these gender gaps.

Could you take us through the Fair Work project and how it aims to make substantive change?

Aliya: It is based on five principles. The first is fair pay and the second is fair conditions. There are conditions of work that are monetary and subsumed in the pay, but there are also non-monetary conditions like occupational safety, health, and social protection. The third pillar is fair contract. It is well-known that many women who are involved in the digital economy as service providers for home care services, domestic services, beautician services, and even low-level health support services, work without contracts. Even though contractual labor has become very common in manufacturing for the digital economy since it is supposed to open up many more opportunities for women, this fair contract pillar is very important.

The fourth pillar is fair management. I think this is a very important issue because at present there is no grievance redressal mechanism for workers in the platform economy. For example, if some incident happens where a worker is abused or harassed at the place of work, or even while driving a cab, there is no platform like there is for formal registered workers in the organized economy where they can go file an appeal get compensation.

Then there is the fifth and last pillar, which is representation. There should be some right to organize and have some collective voice of the workers in the platform economy. And women especially are weakly and sporadically represented in unions and there is no real concept of unions in the informal economy. The Fair Work project is being implemented in collaboration with the ILO which has come up with the centenary declaration on the future of work of which social dialogue and collective voice are important parameters. So basically, it is trying to reorganize or reorient the informality in the platform economy so that it provides avenues of decent work for engagement and participation of women and men.

Do you think that positive discrimination, that is, the concept of preferential ranking for women-led small businesses in product search results, presents a real solution?

Aliya: I think every little step counts, especially since women are involved in small to medium enterprises and the issue of scale is relevant. There is this affirmative action for algorithms or what is called the A+ alliance which is a civil society organization specifically working to cover the biases and barriers that women face on account of their weak participation and representation in the digital economy. It is interesting that when you start researching on this topic, you find a lot of initiatives in the global north which give you the feeling that it is not all that easy for the women in the global north to make these strides into the digital economy either. But obviously, even if we get to know about these interventions, we have to contextualize them in the Global South context and digital networking helps in doing that. Transferring knowledge from Global North to Global South, and then the global south getting together to make these strategies is something that is happening. And hopefully the acid test is that how these interventions will break through the corridors of power, politics and bureaucracy and policy making to make a real impact.

A gender-aware future of work should be aware of the fact that business as usual for women is going to sideline them and keep them away from reaping the benefits of the digital economy whether it is automation of the workplace or the platform economy.

When you think of the term feminist data future in the context of the future of work, and in the backdrop of a data/AI/platform-led economy, what are the one or two big ideas that you think labor laws and public policies should focus on?

Aliya: In terms of labor laws, the issue of social protection is one I would like to highlight because both India and Pakistan and other economies in the Global South are working to extend social protection benefits to workers in the informal economy. I think the life cycle approach, especially some kind of old age benefits for women in the informal economy, has been a demand of feminists for a long time. But it really has not gotten the ears of politicians or government in the way that it should. Relying on children as symbols of social protection has become very obsolete now. So, there is a recognition of and work being done on universal social protection, even if these protections are not for labor, they are easily extendable from the concept of universal social protection. Some work has also been done on a basic income guarantee but that is too futuristic for countries in South Asia at least.

So, one is social protection and the second is the issue of upskilling and reskilling. I think that since it is now confirmed that without the proper set of skills women will be disadvantaged in the future of work. So, there has to be a lot of serious thinking on how to develop mechanisms – whether formally through the education system or informally through community-based interventions with the cooperation or collaboration of the local government setup – on how to focus on imparting skills and digital inclusion to women. Also, I would say that financial inclusion is one of the facets that is very important for women in the digital economy. And some of the cash transfer programs have used financial inclusion to make the digital economy inclusive for women, but as members of the platform economy also financial inclusion should be part and parcel. I think a very clear understanding of how data should not be used for dataveillance and further exacerbate women’s vulnerability to harassment which is already high up on the agenda of feminists. Dataveillance should not become an added feature of that harassment.

What would responsible feminist activism look in this context?

It is important for feminist researchers and activists to have a clearer understanding of how the future of work is going to unfold for women in this part of the world in the Global South. Also, the whole feminist debate has to reorient itself in terms of even the linguistics of the digital economy in order for it to be impactful and meaningful for policymakers and for policymakers to not consider it as just another demand from feminists which they can safely ignore.

This article is part of our series titled Towards a Feminist Data Future.