A Feminist Social Contract for a New Digital Economic Future

The faster pace of digitalization during the pandemic has tended to increase gender injustice. Systemic analysis, respect for the rule of law and a solidarity-driven strategy are essential to create a digital future that will benefit women.

Techno-capitalism in the Pandemic and the Abyss of Gender Injustice

The pandemic’s severity, scale and impact has cemented the ways in which the interlocking trio of digital technologies, economic production, and social reproduction has reinforced precarities and vulnerabilities for the marginalised, particularly women in the Global South, in the current neoliberal developmental paradigm. When many governments announced “shelter-in-place” guidelines and national lockdowns in 2020, there were hopes initially that the ensuing pan-economic intensification of digitalization would also be socially transformative. 

On the contrary, two years later, it is evident that such accelerated digitalization has only exacerbated economic inequality by consolidating the hold of Big Tech behemoths over the essential digital and data infrastructures underpinning core economic and social sectors. Hinging on the narrative of eliminating the middleman, Big Tech’s platformization of services ranging from agriculture to food delivery is drawing informal-sector workers, many of whom are women, into underpaid piece-work arrangements in transnational digital value chains. In this new platform-based gig economy, women’s unpaid care work burdens are subsumed under the rhetoric of flexibility. Most worryingly, the failure of platform companies to provide adequate labour and social security provisions comes at a time when the welfare state is in retreat globally and the pandemic has exposed gaping holes in social security systems for women. It is now evident that over and above the erosion of decent work and job/income losses, we are in the midst of a full-blown livelihood crisis for women.

With 13 million fewer women in employment in 2021 compared to 2019, 57 per cent of the jobs likely to be displaced by digital automation by 2026 being done by women, and significant gender gaps in what are classed “skills of the future”, a business-as-usual approach cannot work. To build better as we move forward, strategies for the post-pandemic global economic order must respond to the exclusion and forced displacement of the majority of women.

A Feminist Social Contract for a New Digital Economic Future

There is a pressing need to make a clean break with the current techno-capitalist paradigm and work towards a new digital economic future that serves human rights, social justice and gender equality. This calls for framing and upholding a feminist social contract based on three levers, as outlined below.

1. Systemic overhaul to address underlying aspects of gender power

Science, technology and innovation (STI) policies are unlikely to have far-reaching impacts, unless they move beyond instrumental frames of inclusion to re-design the fundamentals of the economy towards a feminist transformation. They must:

  • enable women to move to higher value segments of the digital value chain through re-training programmes specifically targeted at women workers at risk of automation-induced displacement and provide women-led enterprises incentives for digitalization;
  • create public digital/data infrastructure for women entrepreneurs, artisans and micro-producers (high-speed connectivity, public data pools and machine-readable data sets in a wide range of sectors, public cloud infrastructure and public platform marketplaces) for decentralizing value distribution, prioritizing local economies, and putting in place institutional guarantees for women’s rights and wellbeing;
  • encourage public innovation to eliminate women’s drudgery and tax big digital players to generate fiscal resources for care infrastructure creation.

2. A techno-economic paradigm based on the rule of law

A world in which the normative frames for humanity’s technological progress are shaped by venture capitalists and corporations is completely unsustainable. As the digital paradigm intertwines with and reorders the social paradigm, feminist perspectives from the margins – on livelihoods and natural ecosystems, trade and development, reproductive and sexual health and rights, global justice and local autonomy – are vital in revamping existing institutional frameworks. Frontier technologies need to be grounded in a people-centred governance framework, scaffolded by rule-of-law provisions commensurate with the need for gender equality in a pandemic-struck world. This requires multilateral action to:

  • arrive at a binding global normative consensus on the governance of platform, data and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies grounded in an integrated and indivisible imaginary of human rights that will also guide the evolution of national regulatory standards for frontier technologies;
  • ensure mandatory compliance of global technology companies with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) in development and roll-out of new products and services.

3. Solidarity and the common good as drivers of innovation

The rules that govern digital innovation need to be based on feminist values – a commitment to address profound inequities and to affirm, acknowledge, share, and redistribute knowledge, without extraction and exploitation. This needs policy attention to:

  • regulate private capital to ensure market interests in frontier technologies do not supersede social interests;
  • invest in public-sector/community partnerships and collaborations with local women’s organizations to support contextual adoption and innovation on top of public digital and data infrastructures. Dedicated seed funding for women’s social enterprises and co-operatives to explore digital strategies and dedicated gender components in national broadband programmes would be pertinent in this regard.

This blog draws upon a forthcoming IT for Change policy paper, “Encoding Digital Technologies for a Feminist Social Contract”.

*This blog was originally published by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

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