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Gendered data dilemmas and feminist design

[By Payal Arora]

From media headlines such as “Why Do Women Make Such Good Leaders During COVID-19?” to the “Rise in Domestic Violence during Lockdown,” COVID-19 has acquired a deep gendered dimension, albeit a seemingly schizophrenic one. Women particularly in low-income communities are at once framed as leaders and victims – positioned at the forefront of this COVID-19 battle while simultaneously serving as fodder for the “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence. This peripheral paradox echoes a larger conversation on the politics of categories and feminist data dilemmas as collective organizing and mobilizing go online.

It matters how women are conceptualized as a group, as a category and as a cluster in today’s algorithmic age as data collectives enable the amplifying of a narrative, an audience, and even policymaking. Neutralizing gender categories does not work as Peru and Panama governments learnt very quickly. Both governments were compelled to reverse their regulations on travel limitations by gender which instituted men and women to go out on alternate days. It turned out that this measure forced women to gather in large groups on their given days as domestic work was relegated to them. Moreover, there was backlash from LGBTQ+ activists “because transgender and non-binary people faced increased street harassment by police.”

Glorifying women hardly works either. When Barack Obama in solidarity and support for women announced how women are better leaders than men, this inadvertently tapped into the long standing burdens women have faced in being the moral guardians of society, the virtuous gender, bearing the burden of all that is best and pure of a community. When they fail, there is often severe social punishment in terms of loss of reputation, loss of status, and even loss of life to preserve the community’s honor.

Other forms of misrepresentation pervade – the masculinization of certain work sectors. A typical image of a farmer or a construction worker is usually male. The pervasive media narrative builds empathy for the male worker struggling to put food on the table for his family. The reality however is that women constitute either a dominant or at least a substantial part of these sectors across the global south. For instance, half of India’s 30 million construction workers are women. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, women hold the key to food production in most parts of the world. Women grow 70 percent of Africa’s food; they account for an estimated two-thirds of the world’s 600 million poor livestock keepers. Oftentimes, these women fall through the cracks as they engage in subsistence farming and thereby their labor is deemed invisible to the GDP. This matters in COVID-19 times as national bailouts are often tied to formalized arrangements of labor and mediated through the datafication of welfare systems.

Female farmers in Nepal (Image credit: pxfuel)

When work is feminized such as the growing attention to the ‘care economy’ where healthcare and education take precedence, we often find a de-valuation of women’s labour, reflected for instance in pay gaps between women and men and lowered status jobs. This stands as a remarkable irony as automation in the future of work already signals how such caregiving is hard to automate and will increasingly become more desirable and in demand as services for the grey economy.

The fact is that any kind of dichotomous design such as the gender divide and the digital divide is problematic as it negates the fact that being human is essentially a contradiction of roles, statuses and interests, reflecting the complexity of social life. It is simplistic to believe that access to technology, upskilling or bridging the pay gap can achieve gender equity. Gender equity is very much a “wicked problem,” where the solution of one problem,  for example increasing women’s participation in the work force can create other issues especially in patriarchal societies, such as the rise of violence against them due to spousal jealousy and other regressive gender norms. In our approach to designing feminist systems, both socio-economic and digital, we need to first de-mystify the framing of women groups/clusters and allow them the chance of being diverse and might I say, even ordinary.