In the Robotic Revolution, Gender Equality May Take a Hit
There has long been public anxiety about robots rendering certain jobs obsolete, but it turns out women might have more to worry about. A new report from Nesta, an organization based in the U.K. that studies innovation, claims that gender equality will suffer in several ways as a result of the rise of robots.
First, jobs that are predominantly held by women are more likely to be automated in the near future than sectors that are still dominated by men. Fields such as engineering and science are considered to be "safe" as a result of their required creative intelligence. In general, white-collar jobs that are characterized by higher wages and levels of education are likely to be more difficult to be performed by a machine than "pink-collar" jobs, or jobs in the service or care sectors that are mostly held by women...
"It is the low–status service facing jobs in these areas which are likely to vanish first: whilst paralegals – over 80 per cent of whom are female – are at high risk of replacement, lawyers – over 70 per cent of whom are male – are not." (The report also states that the jobs that are "resilient to computerization" are more likely to be held by white men specifically, and as a result the robotic revolution will also be detrimental to racial equality.)
Studies also show that robots may serve to reinforce stereotypical gender roles. As robots become "colleagues," and as a result become more anthropomorphized, they will also inevitably be gendered in ways that confirm already-held notions of gender. When manufacturers are creating robots for consumers, they will gender the robots based on the projected reaction of the average person. Studies show that security robots are seen as more effective when they are gendered as males, and that men are less likely to take instruction from a robot with a female voice, which indicates that female robots are seen as less authoritative. According to the report, "'Male' robots are assumed to be better at repairing technical devices whilst 'female' robots are assumed to be more suited to domestic and caring services." As a result, manufacturers will reflect these stereotypes when building robots for consumers. Roboticists are already admitting to using gender norms in order to make their robots more palatable; in 2005, Carnegie Mellon researchers built certain robots based on the notion that "women are more knowledgeable about dating forms and social practices, and they have more social skill than men do." Other 'roboticists' admitted that they would make a robot mechanic's helper appear male if it was designed for specific tasks, but as a female if it was a "general assistant" who needed to "provide more information, to explain themselves, to be redundant." In Nesta's words, "What is worrying is how these reactions are blandly, neutrally, co–opted into design processes simply as a way of inducing a certain type of user reaction. Gender norms are not challenged, but instead reproduced in the name of machine utility."
One would think that women would at least benefit from an increase in robots that can do housework and relieve professional women of some of the "second shift" duties, but no such luck. Robots are, indeed, taking on more housework duties, but history shows that this trend will counterintuitively have little to no effect on women's lives. Nesta cites the advent of the electric washer as an example; although it was expected to free a significant amount of time for women, as it sped up the process of doing laundry, expectations for women's efficiency in doing housework simply rose a proportionate amount, so women ultimately did laundry faster, but also more often. So, according to the report, women will most likely spend just as much time doing housework, and they will also need to supervise the robots: "Though robots will endeavor to clean up mess, human workers will still be required to clean up after the robots."