COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work

By Vidisha Mishra

The COVID-19 outbreak is exacerbating existing multiple and intersecting systemic inequalities. Evidence from previous pandemics and fast-emerging trends indicate that the ongoing global pandemic is not gender blind – it risks offsetting hard-won progress in women’s and girl’s rights to endowments (health and education), economic empowerment, voice and agency (Grown and Sanchez-Paramo, 2020).

Care work, both paid and unpaid, has gendered connotations. Globally, women and girls undertake the bulk of unpaid care work. Similarly, the majority of the global paid care workforce (employed in education, health, social work and domestic work sectors) is comprised of women (ILO, 2018). In Asia, for instance, women perform 75 percent of paid and 80 percent of unpaid care work (Fiedler, 2020).

While care work as a form of social reproduction has been a central point of study by gender studies scholars, from a global policy perspective, it has remained underexplored in policy narratives, particularly those on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and it’s impact on the world of work. The pandemic has reduced the invisibilization of women’s care work, even as their vulnerability and double burden has increased – due to them being frontline responders and essential workers in the crisis in addition being further burdened by unpaid care work in the absence of additional infrastructural support.

The following article attempts to highlighting ILO’s 5R Framework for Decent Care Work[1] in the context of technological interventions and the future of care work.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a crisis that robots were built for. As the contagion continues, it will exacerbate the well-documented global care crisis where care needs exceed the supply of care services (Samman, Presler-Marshall, & Jones, 2016). The existing shortages in care workers—together with the need to minimize risk to doctors, nurses and other frontline care workers—is likely to propel the automation of roles in health care. Take robots, for example. Already, autonomous robot Violet can disinfect rooms and equipment with ultraviolet light, robot Tug can deliver supplies, and Pepper the robot comforts quarantined coronavirus patients at Tokyo hotels.

Pepper the Robot. Source: Alex Knight, via Pexels.

Of course, the advent of social robots in assistive care predates the coronavirus crisis. In 2018, it was estimated that the domestic industry for care robots in Japan would grow to 3.8 billion USD by 2035, parallel to a third of the Japanese population turning 65 and above. However, there have been a very limited number of critical examinations on the political, social, and ethical issues associated with automating care work. (Parks, 2010). For instance, it is often argued that new caregiving technologies could liberate women from the disproportionate burden of care work. However, the diffusion of timesaving domestic technologies such as the vacuum cleaner has never been linked to any significant shifts in the gendered distribution of caring responsibilities within households, with anecdotal evidence firmly pointing towards the opposite.

On the other hand, concerns have been raised about the larger implications of socially assistive robots, in particular, how will care and affect be materialized in the physicality of robots – could they intentionally or subconsciously (re)produce gender stereotypes? For instance, it is argued that anthropomorphized machines intentionally operate by simulating social norms, supposed gender differences, and other stereotypes to standardize human-robot interaction (Weber, 2005). Research also suggests that ‘male’ robots are perceived as threatening in the domestic environment (Carpenter et. al, 2009). It stands to reason then, that robots could reproduce and reinforce existing stereotypical social behavior for greater acceptability. Therefore, while the current crisis is likely to accelerate existing technological trends, the adoption of new caregiving technologies must be supplemented with nuanced considerations to avoid replicating stereotypes.

Care work is deeply political and carries gender connotations. Globally, women constitute 88 percent of personal care workers, 74 percent of cleaners and helpers, and 69 percent of health professionals. In contrast, women make up only 22 percent of AI professionals globally, compared to 78 percent of men. The chasm between those who design technologies and those who are affected by them is clear. The disconnect between the male-dominated tech sector and the “largely silent” female-dominated care sector, risks creating care technologies that don’t address the immediate needs of the care workers, and worse, leads to their further marginalization.

A common quote in robotics is that robots are best suited for jobs that are too dirty, dull, or dangerous for humans; future innovations need to acknowledge and address the humans that currently do carry out these jobs. Equally, it is important to ask tough question even during times of crisis. For instance, can social justice be encoded by design in autonomous systems? What values will be needed to be built-into robot design, development, and usage for more gender-responsive outcomes? Most importantly, what are the pathways to integrate perspectives of care workers and receivers into design practices?

COVID-19 has demonstrated how fast societies can adapt to change. In the context of AI, automation, and care work, newer interventions aimed at solving the crises of overwhelmed care ecosystems must avoid undermining the very carers they seek to help. Moving forward, the current crisis presents the opportunity to reimagine care itself—perhaps this is time the perfect time to reframe it as a collective social contract.

(This article was originally published Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Corona and Care Series on 06.05.2020 and was updated on 05.07.2020)

This article is part of the #DossierCorona thread #TransnationalFeminisms, which emerges from the online series “Transnational Feminist Dialogues in Times of Corona Crisis” organized by the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the MA Program Gender, Intersectionality and Politics at FU Berlin, Academy in Exile and Academics for Peace Germany.


 [1] Recognize, Reduce and Redistribute unpaid care work; Reward paid care work, by promoting more and decent work for care workers; and guarantee care workers’ Representation, social dialogue and collective bargaining


References

Caren Grown and Carolina Sanchez-Paramo. (2020). The coronavirus is not gender-blind, nor should we be. World Bank Blogs. Published on April 20, 2020. Available at: https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/coronavirus-not-gender-blind-nor-should-we-be

Carpenter, J., Davis, J. M., Erwin-Stewart, N., Lee, T. R., Bransford, J. D., & Vye, N. (2009). Gender Representation and Humanoid Robots Designed for Domestic Use. International Journal of Social Robotics, 1(3), 261265.

Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work / International Labour Office– Geneva: ILO, 2018.

Fiedler, A. (2020). Women and the Future of Work in Asia. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Accessed on July 5, 2020. Available at: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/singapur/16156.pdf

Parks, J. (2010). Lifting the Burden of Women’s Care Work: Should Robots Replace the “Human Touch”? Hypatia, 25(1), 100-120. Retrieved May 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40602642

Samman, E., Presler-Marshall, E., & Jones, N. (2016). “Women ́s Work, Mothers, children and the global childcare crisis,” ODI. London. Available at: http://docplayer.net/17690651-Women-s-work-women-s-work-global-childcare-crisis-global-childcare-crisis.html

Weber, J. (2005). Helpless machines and true loving care givers: A feminist critique of recent trends in human robot interaction. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 3(4), 209-218.


Vidisha Mishra works on gender and the future of work. She holds research fellowships at the Margherita von Brentano (MvBZ) Center for Gender Studies, Freie Universität Berlin and the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, Berlin, Germany. She is a member of Women20 (W20) Network of the G20 economies.


Further articles in the thread #transnationalfeminisms of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Sabina García Peter, Nina Lawrenz and Tanja Wälty, Introducing #DossierCorona #TransnationalFeminisms, 1 July 2020.

Eliska Bujokova, Rewriting Histories of Care in the Times of Corona, 9 July 2020.


Citation: Vidisha Mishra, COVID-19, Technology, and the Future of Care Work, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.07.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24545.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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