Young woman looking at a digital interface at work.

Why we need to undo gender stereotypes for the future of work

6 March 2020
When Professor Judy Wajcman was visiting the U.S. in 2018 to research Silicon Valley culture, this was one of the first questions she was asked.

“I remember being told about a growing trend of double-speed watching and speed listening by men who worked in artificial intelligence,” said Professor Wajcman, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

“Time pressure is discussed as if we all have the same experience of time, as if time is an individual resource, rather than a collective accomplishment. This is why we need to examine the relationship between gender and technology.”

Gendered stereotypes will inevitably affect the kinds of technology that we choose to develop and invest in.
Professor Judy Wajcman, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Silicon Valley’s work culture

On Friday 6 March, Professor Wajcman will deliver the inaugural Jessie Street lecture at the University of Sydney, during which she will explain why the hyperproductive – and often hypermasculine – work culture of Silicon Valley needs to be challenged.

“Whether it’s seat belts that don’t protect pregnant women, voice-recognition technology that is less likely to understand women than men or smart houses that facilitate entertainment rather than housework; gendered stereotypes will inevitably affect the kinds of technology that we choose to develop and invest in,” Professor Wajcman will explain.

“My research has shown that too often, designers build technologies for people like themselves. A lack of diversity among designers or engineers will inevitably skew the kinds of technology that are developed.”

Last year Professor Wajcman was appointed as Turing Fellow and Principal Investigator on the Women in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence research project at the Alan Turing Institute in London.

Professor Marian Baird, Co-Director of the Women and Work Research Group who will host the lecture, said the University was delighted and honoured to welcome Professor Wajcman to Sydney.

“Professor Wajcman is a world-leader in the field of work and employment.”

“We are thrilled she is able to deliver the first Jessie Street lecture and highlight such an important topic that needs to brought into the spotlight.”

Our obsession with robots

Professor Wajcman will also use the lecture to explain that rather than a brand-new phenomenon, our obsession with robots could date back to ancient Greece.

We’ve been dreaming of robots, it seems as early as ancient Greece. However, the ideas behind contemporary films such as Her and Ex Machina have remained remarkably similar to popular narratives like the robot Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis,” Professor Wajcman will clarify.

While technology is framed as a solution to time crunches in Silicon Valley culture, in the aged-care sector technology can be seen as the answer to a very human problem: loneliness.

“Artificial intelligence devices are often presented as the answer to loneliness. This links to the frequent positioning of robots as not only performing instrumental activities like heavy lifting and reminding you to take medication, but also as providing social interactions or acting as a companion.

“Caring encompasses a wide range of activities and involves a complex set of emotions. While it does involve routine physical and logistical tasks, as important, if not more so, is talking, listening and emotional nurturing,” Professor Wajcman will say.

“Care workers, who are mostly women everywhere, know the reality, but are rarely consulted, let alone involved, in the design process. And they should be. Automation should not be venerated as an end in itself, nor taken as the measure of progress.”

In 2018, research from the Women and Work Group found that only 19 percent of Australian women were concerned about their jobs being threatened by automation in the workplace.

“Employers need to consider how they will adapt to the digital future while recognising the value of workers. The answer will be different for each sector but gender is a critical part of all the answers,” said Professor Baird, lead author on the research.

2019 research led by Professor Cooper also exposed the hypermasculinity of occupations across the wage and skill spectrum. Professor Cooper said the research found that such workplaces tend to exclude women and foster gender based harassment and discrimination, areas that need more attention.

About the Jessie Street lecture

Jessie Street, 1930. Credit: University of Sydney Archives

Jessie Street was a prominent Australian women’s rights advocate and social justice campaigner who was the first female delegate to the United Nations. 

She played a critical role in the birth of the United Nations in 1945 and completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1910.

Hosted by the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School, this year marks the inaugural Jessie Street lecture.

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