Amid much debate about the impact of digitalisation in a globalised world, women have been largely invisible. The EU is the global actor that could change that.
The early years of the digital revolution came with unlimited promise for women and their world of work. A radical shift seemed close at hand: web-based entrepreneurship, lifelong skilling, access to global markets, flexible working and more. The reality today, however, is a sobering scorecard for women’s economic agency and citizenship.
In hindsight, this is no big surprise. With digital technologies becoming the handmaiden of neoliberal globalisation, the economic paradigm has witnessed a rapid deepening of inequality. Between 1980 and 2016, coinciding with the transition to the digital epoch, progress on economic inequality worldwide declined: intra-country inequality increased while inter-country inequality is not falling quickly enough.
As labour’s share of national income has steadily gone down, Big Tech firms have been able to amass wealth on an unprecedented scale, leveraging their ‘intelligence advantage’. Harnessing digital intelligence for market consolidation, platforms have upended old-world economic organisation. The shift is global and ubiquitous, with data barons making inroads in all sectors—from agriculture to retail trade, transport, logistics and services—not only displacing traditional players but also decimating small economic actors.
This does not bode well for labouring women in the global south in particular. The pandemic has had disproportionate consequences for developing countries, giving rise to unsustainable debt burdens. In these countries, a large majority of women work in the informal sector, with no safety-nets. The crisis is likely to hit them hardest and—in the absence of international structural changes that are bold and far-reaching—even result in a reversal of gains.
So what have the optimism surrounding the fourth industrial revolution and its strident rhetoric on opportunities for women in the digital economy come to? Members of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Working Group on Feminist Visions of the Future of Work wrestled with that question in 2019 and 2020, well into the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.
Yet even as tech billionaires got richer during the pandemic, women’s meaningful access to digital technologies in the global south continues to be a stubborn challenge. The working group’s deliberations on the gap between the reality and the rhetoric have culminated in a Feminist Action Agenda, highly salient to a post-pandemic world order marked by the continued rise and rise of digital capitalism.
Evidence suggests that platformisation and intelligent automation in global value chains polarise labour markets. They hollow out the middle, creating a few highly-paid, advanced jobs for those with the skills to perform non-routine work—such as data science and artificial-intelligence programming—while relegating the majority of the labour force to low-paid, low-status, ‘gig work’.
For women in developing countries who are concentrated in low-end, insecure forms of work in the global economy, high-end data and AI job opportunities remain out of reach, because of gaps in education and skills and regressive gender norms. The only new options that are accessible seem to be in informal service work on gig platforms. In these platformised labour markets, historical hierarchies of race, class and gender are reproduced under the guise of ‘empowering flexi-work’, with scope for upward mobility non-existent.
Dubious at best
At the height of the pandemic, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization came out with a report on how the boost provided by the Covid-19 crisis to e-commerce in goods and services could be effectively leveraged by developing countries to promote women’s enterprise, if they could integrate their economies into global, digital value chains. Juxtaposed to the on-the-ground realities of labour markets in the global south, the recommendation seemed dubious at best and devious at worst.
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Most female-led enterprises in southern countries are small-scale businesses with low output, limited growth potential, thin margins and very little digital capacity. Negotiating the stiff commissions and one-sided terms of service of platform marketplaces controlled by Big Tech would simply be out of the question for these businesses. As trends already indicate, cross-border e-commerce often ends up corroding the local economy or subsuming small businesses within its complex logistics arrangements.
The intensification of digitalisation in agriculture and the proliferation of platform models, predicated on data-based targeting of input advisories, financial products and direct market links, pose a real threat to marginal and small farmers—mainly women—in the global south. Research byGRAIN and the ETC Group suggests a co-option of farmers by Big Agriculture and Big Tech companies into predatory and exploitative contract-farming relationships, which strip the former of their livelihood autonomy and food sovereignty.
As the Feminist Action Agenda underlines, the challenges for gender justice in a digitalising world economy are exacerbated by the lack of a global governance framework for data and AI. The advanced economies at the top of the digital economic pyramid have used this governance vacuum to their strategic advantage. Exploiting the data commons to sustain their extractivist business models and using trade secrets and intellectual-property regimes, they thrive on the private enclosure of data, monopolising the gains from unrestricted cross-border data flows.
This leaves very little room for developing countries to evolve their own data and AI strategies for economic development. Without control over their data resources, however, less powerful countries will find it next to impossible to build the AI economy that can create new work futures for their women workers. Without Big Tech regulation, and the proper governance of economic data, the digital economy will remain unfair and skewed, excluding and/or exploiting the most vulnerable.
New governance regime
The Working Group on Feminist Visions of the Future of Work recommends a challenge to the status quo to mend the structural basis of the digital economy. This includes three pegs:
A new global governance regime for data: intergovernmental consensus is crucial to define the limits of surveillance capitalism, by prohibiting data business models that violate the privacy and autonomy of individuals and communities or profiteer from the viral circulation of misogyny and misinformation. A new global-data constitutionalism is needed to create and promote an equitable, just and peaceful, digital world order based on shared principles. Global digital democracy also presupposes the jurisdictional sovereignty of nation-states to formulate appropriate national digital policies for women’s empowerment. This is vital not only to curtail data extractivism by corporations but also to ensure equitable distribution of the benefits of data-based innovations in an international development order.
A corporate governance regime for Big Tech: the international, legally-binding treaty on transnational corporations southern civil-society movements have advocated must urgently be adopted. Such a treaty must incorporate the context of digital capitalism and the need for accountability on the part of Big Tech companies, with respect to women’s human rights and the environment. Progressive digital-taxation regimes for Big Tech also need to be enacted immediately at the global level, to ensure that developing countries are able to raise revenues to provide the public services and social-protection programmes essential for women’s participation in the digital economy. In digital trade-policy agreements, the space for developing countries to regulate the market access of transnational digital corporations to, and operation on, their domestic territory needs to be protected and preserved.
Feminist digital infrastructure policies: developing countries need to adopt an ecosystem approach to digital policies. The elements include access to high-quality connectivity; programmes for digital skills, enterprise development and credit; and grants for social intermediaries supporting women workers. Public data and cloud infrastructure can give a fillip to the digitalisation of women’s businesses. A national tech-accelerator policy could, for instance, catalyse links between a female farmers’ group and a women-led tech start-up to launch a new smart-farming initiative; using public cloud intelligence services, the tech start-up could provide analytics and insights to the farmers’ group. South-south co-operation can also be beneficial in creation of digital infrastructure.
EU falling short
The European Union prides itself on being a pioneer of a rights-centred approach to the governance of the data economy. Its policies herald the need for ‘techno-sovereignty’ of governments. This progressive vision however falls short in the EU’s trade agreements and its international co-operation with developing countries. Instead, closely aligned with the United States’ laisser-faire stance towards data flows, the EU uses trade agreements to give its digital infrastructure firms unrestricted access to developing countries and rights to operate there with very limited regulation.
To build back better, the EU needs to lead the way in responsible development co-operation. Policy-makers should transcend a narrow nationalism, walking the walk to ensure an enriching digital future for all. Recognising the legitimacy of women’s aspirations in the global south and respecting the digital policy space of developing countries, the EU needs to commit to digital infrastructural financing and use its diplomacy to craft a new internationalism that lays the foundations for a feminist digital economy. To do otherwise would be to leave an abysmal status quo intact.
Anita Gurumurthy and Nandini Chami are respectively executive director and deputy director of IT for Change, an India-based non-profit working at the intersection of the digital paradigm and social justice. IT for Change is part of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung working group on Feminist Visions of the Future of Work.