Polina Silakova’s tenth post in our Emerging Fellows program examines the future of work through robots. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The last couple of months have been particularly loud with all things about women’s rights. From the freedom to change a T-shirt on a tennis court to gender equality at C-level roles – the world seems to be going through some sort of “Equality Checklist” in all possible aspects of life. This made me curious: if one day we achieve the sort of gender equality we are seeking, what would the world look like? How would this play out with changes in other areas of life? And why are we trying to create this future in the first place?
These days many corporate and public bodies are trying to close gender equality gaps at every level of their organisation. At the same time, trend analyses indicate that ubiquitous robotisation will replace many of skilled labour jobs and free up people for work… in the care sector. These jobs require the ability to connect emotionally, build relationships and empathise – the qualities robots don’t have. According to the International Labour Organisation, two-thirds of these jobs are occupied by women; and traditionally they haven’t been valued much. There is hope that being less replaceable by machines, this type of work will become more valued and more attractive in the future.
Indeed, one of the perverse attributes of capitalistic society is that we value and incentivise work which is directly linked to visible outcomes, such as profit, growth or innovation. It gets all the credit. While its enabler – caring work, a lot of which is unrecognised and unpaid, such as looking after kids, elderly or people with disabilities – remains in the shadow. With our habit to define each other by what we do, somehow work as a full-time mum or carer has become a negligible (not to mention unprofitable) occupation. But can we be successful in business when our family is not cared for? Or, as futurist Alvin Toffler used to ask: “How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained”?
Due to the current perception of care work as a second-rate occupation and related low pay, we already don’t have enough care workers to look after those in need. Although there is no certainty whether these jobs will be better paid for in the future, it’s quite likely that robotisation will push more people to become a part of the economy of care, even if only as a way to maintain social bonds. At the end of the day, being useful for somebody is a part of human nature; and getting paid for it is a by far better alternative to the unemployment bench. This will, in turn, lead to a more even gender distribution in this job segment, further contributing to it being valued more.
Had traditional female roles as carer received a proper role in the economy, would we see this push for gender equality in the business world? Would more people be choosing carer roles, knowing that they will receive a decent pay and recognition? Equality is not about blindly erasing differences between men and women. Nether it is only about providing equal opportunities at the top of the career ladder. What is missing is the recognition of the importance of the carer work which enables our progress as a society and re-writing economic models to make it a true part of the economy. It requires a cultural change and the revision of our values. By reshaping the future of work, robotisation is expected to be a driving force for this shift. But do we have to wait for it to start caring for carers?
© Polina Silakova 2018