As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenges of simultaneously managing work, family and domestic life have – quite literally – hit home for millions of men and women across the world. The current pandemic is shaping the way we integrate digital technology into our lives, and the digital transformation is going to be even more relevant in a post-Covid-19 world.
At this point, the pandemic is still raging and disrupting the global economy, and generating unemployment. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned that nearly half of the global workforce could see their livelihoods destroyed due to the continued decline in working hours brought on by lockdowns. Lower-skilled workers are badly affected, in wealthier economies, as well as in developing ones. Crises never produce gender-neutral impacts, and COVID-19 is no exception. Women are losing their livelihoods faster because they are more exposed to hard-hit economic sectors. Moreover, women tend to work in the most affected sectors, such as healthcare services and the care economy. According to Oxfam, an “additional 47 million women worldwide are expected to fall into extreme poverty, living on less than $1.90 a day in 2021”.
While women are losing out, for the tech industry – or more specifically a small number of big tech companies which dominate the sector – the crisis is turning out to be a major opportunity for others. Tech billionaires use their gains to launch themselves on personal space rides while exploiting their workers and preventing them from unionising. With their dominant market positions and huge resources, they are well placed to profit from the crisis. The digital transformation is not just about technology but also about processes, and organisations, i.e. people who are shaping this new reality. Big tech firms control software platforms that dominate data, productivity and commerce.
A group of global feminists addressed this new reality in The Deal We Always Wanted - A Feminist Action Framework for the Digital Economy.The framework outlines ways to reimagine the digital economy and to reclaim its transformative potential at this point in time, when big tech’s hold over the world seems unshakeable. In the current context where digital, platform and data technologies have catalyzed a paradigmatic shift in the global economy, the framework highlights the need to move the dialogue beyond empowering access. Instead, the approach advocates shifting focus to use cultures instead, thereby examining how the project of feminist economics can be reclaimed in this new context. Its central elements include transformative ideas for a new multilateralism in the digital age, big tech accountability and feminist digital infrastructure policies.
Economic injustice is recognised by feminists as the other face of gender injustice, and is perpetuated in the digital economy by governance deficits and gaps in two crucial areas:
On the one hand, cross-border data flows aid the extraction of data resources from the global South by the corporations of the global North. Thus, no room is left to explore pathways to grow intelligence capacity for the flourishing of local economies and alternative social solidarity economy enterprises. On the other hand, taxation of transnational digital corporations and the reining in of their tax base erosion and profit shifting tactics need to be addressed. Tax justice has a direct connection to investing in public infrastructure that is crucial for gender justice.
The belligerent new digital world necessitates a new multilateralism in which all countries can autonomously pursue their strategies towards sustainable, equitable and gender-just development. This becomes even more important in the context of digital corporations that use artificial intelligence.
To overcome gender bias in the design of data and AI-technology, mere self-governance is not enough, and binding industrial standards are needed to hold industrial companies accountable. The tech industry must adopt technology design standards that dismantle algorithmic cultures that tend to consolidate patriarchy and sustain misogyny. As the growing imbalances and tensions of contemporary globalization play out in an increasingly financialized and digitalized world, the multilateral trading system is being stretched to its limits. And simply pledging to leave no one behind while appealing to the goodwill of corporations are, at best, hopeful pleas for a more civil world and, at worst, deliberate efforts to distract from a serious discussion of the real factors driving the growing inequality and insecurity. Here the Generation Equality Forum and its Action Coalition on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality need to take urgent action to ensure that technology and innovation projects and programmes are fully gender mainstreamed.
There is an imperative need to rethink the multilateral system, if the digital age is to deliver on its promise. A new multilateralism calls for South-South cooperation, tax justice, equitable and fair trade, universal labor guarantees and public investments in care infrastructure. It also includes a new global regime for the governance of data as an economic resource, grounded in a commitment to women’s human rights. Currently, digital trade rules are being negotiated through the plurilateral route at the WTO and through regional free trade agreements, circumventing the spirit of democratic multilateralism and taking away the policy space of developing countries to assert their 'right to regulate' their data resources and digital markets and carve out their own autonomous pathways to development in the digital age. A global governance framework for the platform economy is needed to hold Big Tech accountable. This should include an international, legally-binding treaty on transnational corporations to address corporate impunity and the assault on women’s human rights, as well as a binding treaty on transnational corporations.
In many ways, the conversation about ´The Deal We Always Wanted` harks back to the challenges that feminists have always warned about in the context of capitalist globalization and its exploitation of the spheres of both production and social reproduction. The supposedly ‘new’ configuration of the digital economy is in fact another avenue to promote the neo-liberal models of trade and economy. These models are still based on a narrow conception of economic growth and profit-maximization, sidelining human rights and people’s well-being. In addition, if the cultural norms which consider social reproduction to be a responsibility of women are maintained, domestic and care tasks will continue to be allocated to women. New forms of work in the digital economy will perpetuate traditional gender roles, and could even deepen existing gender gaps.
Finding the right narrative will be no easy task. The Feminist Action Framework points in the right direction: Putting forward a productive, cross-movement dialogue on the urgent imperative to promote and popularize feminist macroeconomic perspectives. Yet, the work on the digital economy may be seen as just a beginning. There remains a strong need to enable social movements, trade unions, activists and scholars to engage with the key ideas provided by the framework. Groups are encouraged to appropriate the approach for locally-embedded and normatively well-planned action, including policy influence, pedagogic activity, campaigning and further scholarly work.
FES and ITforChange are pushing this dialogue forward to highlight the structural transformations that digitalization and datafication has wrought on the global economy. There is an urgent imperative for social movements to respond to the ongoing Big Tech-led restructuring of all sectors of the global economy and the resultant injustices.
The framework document is available in the following languages: