Global judgements and ideas.

OHCHR Europe Regional Consultation: Women’s Human Rights in the changing world of Work. ICT & Digitalization.

I was the invited expert with knowledge about women working in STEM and ICT, to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)’s Europe Regional Consultation: Women’s Human Rights in the changing world of Work consultation, convened by the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice, on the occasion of its 25th session, Geneva, 13 June 2019 10:00am – 18:00pm. This is my talk.

How is technological change impacting on women’s experiences of work? (e.g. increasing access to ICTs, robotics, machine learning, automation)

Technological change has had significantly more deleterious effects on women than on men in the arena of work. In digitalized workplaces and information and communication technology (ICT) work, the following areas are particularly impacted and evident:

  • Job creation: New sectors, products and services will emerge due to technological developments and change
  • Job change: new types of work, new forms of jobs, new worker/machine interactions and communication
  • Job displacement: automation, where 47 % of people are currently working in job arenas that are at risk of computerisation
  • Job shift: digital platforms and crowdworking involve aggressive business models that explicitly avoid labour law, and provide new avenues for exploiting workers in countries with weak labour laws

These changes are happening now. Thus, while the ‘future of work’ has become a much-used term in various critical arenas dealing with digitalization and technological work, the following exposition questions the relevance of this term, because this ‘future’ has arrived. Several serious issues are arising for women workers in particular, who have already suffered a disadvantage in social, political and economic circumstances for generations.

Women’s challenges in the Digital Age are outlined in the European Commission’s report ‘Women in the Digital Age’ Final Report as being:

  1. Unconscious biases
  2. Tokenism
  3. Problems relating to professional and personal life
  4. Low transparency and inclusiveness in business policies

Women also face difficulties in e.g. accessing financing and further barriers such as:

  1. Lack of role models
  2. Entrenched stereotypes
  3. Weaker business networks
  4. Stronger perceived difficulties for reconciling business and personal life and
  5. Gender differences on the sector of activity

It is worth noting, however, that these days, the “world of work”, is no longer defined exclusively by a physical workplace. The new world of work also includes new technological tools, applications, devices, and software programmes which connect a variety of actors across space and time and because of this, the new world of work “blurs the lines between workplaces, ‘domestic’ work places and public spaces” (ILO 2016). Conditions whereby risks of violence and harassment are heightened, with significance for women are present in digitalized work, listed here in bold font (ILO 2016, 40):

  • working in contact with the public; 
  • working with people in distress;
  • working with objects of value;
  • working in situations that are not, or not properly, covered or protected by labour law and social protection; 
  • working in resource-constrained settings (inadequately equipped facilities or insufficient staffing can lead to long waits and frustration);
  • unsocial working hours (for instance, evening and night work); 
  • working alone or in relative isolation or in remote locations; 
  • working in intimate spaces and private homes; 
  • the power to deny services which increases the risk of violence and harassment from third parties seeking those services; and
  • working in conflict zones, especially providing public and emergency services; and high rates of unemployment.

Here, I outline some of these issues, looking at where, how and to what extent women face difficult new circumstances in the technological world of work, and then make some recommendations to tackle these issues.

-What are some of the regional differences?

There is a growing shortage of digital skills and IT experts across Europe, which are emerging due to the emergence of cloud computing, big data and collaborative networks in the economic sector and everyday life.[1]

Eurostat shows that there is no gender gap in basic ICT skills between men and women, but there remains a gap in employability for women with tertiary education in STEM subjects.

A UNESCO/ITU report shows that women are 50 % less likely to use the internet than men in Africa. In Egypt and India, 12 % of women do not use the internet because they ‘did not think it was appropriate, and more than 8 % did not access it more often because family and friends would disapprove’. Clearly, women are under different sets of pressures in different regions and countries and this will have an effect on access to work and skills development.

Women are paid less than men for equal work, which is technically not legal in the UK for example, but the gender pay gap is continuously evident and recently corporations are legally liable to publish gender pay gap data. In fact, gender gaps in employability are lower when all the fields of education are taken into.

However, the gap is greater when ICT-related fields are exclusively considered. Women are shown to undermine their skills levels and capabilities moreso than men, while men overestimate their own competences (EC).


Women currently face a higher risk of automation when compared to male workers (22 % of the female workforce, compared to 9 % of the male workforce). Women perform more routine tasks than men across all sectors and occupations. Routine tasks are at a higher risk of automation than others. Older, less educated female workers (40 and older) and low-skilled service, clerical and sales workers are exposed disproportionately to automation. 180 million female jobs are at risk of displacement globally (IMF). Automation has been common in agriculture and manufacturing, two sectors that are dominated by men, but automation is expected to spread across all sectors and most occupations including retail trade, and food and beverage services, which have been traditionally dominated by women workers.

However, jobs are also growing in health, education and social and business services, which are areas also dominated by women. Simultaneously, new jobs opportunities are emerging in STEM subjects, but women’s employability is not as enhanced from ICT education as it is for men. The IMF estimates that 26 million female jobs in 30 countries i.e. 28 OECD member countries, Cyprus and Singapore, are at a high risk of being displaced by technology. This is higher than 70 % likelihood of automation.

-How are trends in ICT sector work and digitalization impacting on women from different socio-economic groups, low paid workers versus high paid workers, across different sectors?

In Europe, 9 % of IT developers are women. 19 % of bosses in ICT and communications sectors are women, compared with 45 % in other sectors. Women represent 19% of IT entrepreneurs, compared with 54 % in other service sectors (UNI Global). Women represented 21.5 % of workers in digital jobs in 2015, but the share of men working in the sector is 313 % greater than the share of women. 313 % greater than the share of women (EC).

The ICT sector shows third highest increase in female board members, a 102 % increase since 2011, however, it’s also the sector with the highest percentage of all-male boards (17.2 %). Women working in the digital sector leave this sector more often than men. In 2015, 8.7 % left the sector to take care of children, whereas in the same year, only 1.2 % did so. The cost to the European economy of women leaving digital jobs is 16.1 billion euros. Indeed, increased women’s participation in ICT sectors would increase countries’ GDP significantly, and the European Parliament has estimated this growth to be worth 9 billion EUR (EC). Overall, the share of women working in this sector is 313 % less than the share of men, and there is a continuing trend for a decline of women in technological jobs.

-What are good practices for supporting women to benefit equally from technological advances?

Gender equality and gender empowerment should be prioritised across countries in labour, education and family policies. The following is a list of areas that can work toward this:

  1. Early investment in women in STEM, peer mentoring. Tax deductions for training for example can facilitate this.
  2. Promotions/senior level hires. Close gender gaps in lead roles through promotions, intentional shortlisting, family friendly policies, management training programmes.
  3. Digital divide. Address this through training and education.

It has become clear that data is used to obfuscate and neutralize management decision-making on the surface in digitalized, flexiblized work (Moore 2018). However, it is becoming increasingly evident that it is not only the workplace and the infrastructure that create risks, but also digitalized management methods (Moore and Joyce 2019) that are themselves creating situations where the risks for women are already high. These methods involve practices to distribute and reduce work; (re)organise and identify locations of work; recruit, appraise and fire workers; accelerate standards and targets; and monitor and track productivity. In flexibilized working conditions, workers are more vulnerable to surrounding risks and this is particularly evident for women.

Part-time work When employees are contracted to work anything less than full-time hours.
Term-time work An employee remains on a permanent contract but can take paid/unpaid leave during school holidays.
Job-sharing Where two (or occasionally more) people share the responsibility for a job between them.
Flexitime Allows employees to choose, within certain set limits, when to begin and end work.
Compressed working hours This doesn’t necessarily involve a reduction in total hours or any extension in individual choice over which hours are worked. The central feature is reallocation of work into fewer and longer blocks during the week. Examples are four-and-a-half-day weeks and nine-day fortnights.
Annual hours The total number of hours to be worked over the year is fixed but there is variation over the year in the length of the working day and week. Employees may or may not have an element of choice over working patterns.
Working from home Employees regularly spend time working from home.
Mobile working Employees work all or part of their working week at a location remote from the employer’s workplace (which may be the employee’s home).
Zero-hours contracts An individual has no guarantee of a minimum number of working hours, so they can be called upon as and when required and paid just for the hours they work.

A recent ILO inception report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work describes digital labour as “a new form of ‘invisible’ work” taking place within the gig economy, involving crowdsourcing activities (2017, 18). It is “invisible” work, the report emphasizes, because tasks obtained through websites and web applications are carried out by workers who have no dedicated location and where the employment relationship is usually not recognized. Invisible work is also notably carried out by women (Daniels 1987; Crain, Poster, Cherry 2016).

Digitalized workplaces have incorporated technology in multiple ways. This involves the use of various platforms and algorithms which determine what work is made available and where data is used by management to make decisions that appear neutral, but exacerbate already unprotected working conditions, where women are vulnerable. Digitalized workplaces additionally involve the incorporation of technologies into the infrastructures of work and the use of technologies for management decision-making, for example, online and offline gig work in public and private spheres. Performance and reputation monitoring are carried out by software embedded in computers, as well as through videos or wearable technologies in factories and offices. Furthermore, automation of tasks and even entire jobs is well underway as Industrie 4.0[3] is rolled out in factories and tasks are increasingly done electronically in office and call centre settings.

The characteristics of the informal economy and non-standard work are often seen in digitalized work, which creates significant obstacles for countries aiming to follow recommendations for formalization and to decrease the risks of violence. The ILO’s Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) notes that informal work involves “denial of rights at work, the absence of sufficient opportunities for quality employment, inadequate social protection and the absence of social dialogue”. This is due to the fact that so much digitalized work:

  • is not regulated;
  • relies on unprotected employment relationships;
  • does not guarantee minimum wage;
  • does not offer income security;
  • runs a high risk of discrimination;
  • is not supported with lifelong learning/education protections; and
  • is not scaffolded with occupational health/security standards.

Unskilled work is already largely carried out with informal classifications, and it is prevalent in informal and non-standard employment relationships. This is, in fact, the area of work at the highest risk of automation. Globally, governments are prioritizing automation which puts informal workers at great risk. The gig economy taps into a labour market with a high proportion of non-standard and informal workers who already experience “temporary employment; part-time and on-call work; temporary agency work and other multiparty employment relationships; as well as disguised employment and dependent self-employment” (ILO, 2018). Therefore, risks of violence are already high. Non-standard workers are greatly impacted by legislation against collective bargaining, freedom of association and the right to strike (De Stefano, 2016). The reduction in capacity for collective bargaining then can also lead to a rise in the likelihood that workplaces do not have safety and health committees or representatives, raising the risks of psychosocial violence and harassment for women.

Digitalized work happens in non-standard locations such as the home and includes relatively skilled work using a computer, or cleaning/care work usually performed by women. Because of this, and a lack of social protection, online gig work is at risk of violating aspects of the ILO’s Convention on Home Work, 1996 (No. 177). This Convention requires fair remuneration and social protection, which includes occupational health and safety regulations and maternity benefits, the right to organize, and freedom from discrimination. Article 1 of the Convention states:

The term ‘home work’ means work carried out by a person, to be referred to as a homeworker, (i) in his or her home or in other premises of his or her choice, other than the workplace of the employer; (ii) for remuneration; (iii) which results in a product or service as specified by the employer, irrespective of who provides the equipment, materials or other inputs used.

The risks are thus clear. There are further issues of discrimination related to women’s domestic responsibilities, such as reproductive and caring activities in a traditional context. As a method of governance, digitalizing non-standard work leads to the quantification of tasks in detail, meaning that it may be the case that only explicit contact time is paid. However, this practice may not lead to formalization of a labour market. In terms of working time, preparatory work in these areas is unpaid, and surveillance is normalized which has significant implications for social reproduction. These methods of management lead to intensified self-management and algorithmic reputation building, where customer satisfaction rankings are prioritized but can be used for such things as “deactivation” of taxi drivers, as is done by Uber, despite the paradox and fiction that algorithms are absent of “human bias” (Frey and Osborne 2013, 18).

The European Parliament (Forde et al., 2017) commissioned the study The social protection of workers in the platform economy, which explores how and where social protections are reduced in platform digitalized work. It makes policy recommendations around data provision, employment law, social security, tax and wage reform, standard setting for platforms and collective representation. The study emphasized the following protections:

•  health care

•  sickness

•  maternity

•  disability

•  old age


•  survivors’ benefit

•  employment injuries/

accidents at work and

occupational diseases

•  family


•  unemployment

•  guaranteed minimum


•  long-term care


What has not been sufficiently addressed in responses presented here is the issue of collective bargaining. With the exception of a Hilfr/3F pilot collective agreement, there have been scarce formal collective bargaining victories yet for workers, despite significant campaigning and protests, such as examples from the IWGB in the United Kingdom and FAUB in Germany. Uber has been regulated in London and Buenos Aires due to employment tribunals, but the extent to which these regulations will be carried out and affect other cities where Uber operates, is still to be seen. Automation and Industrie 4.0 practices are increasingly being implemented in factory environments across the world, but trade union responses are still at an early stage, with little trade union activity documented in the Global South.


Crain, Marion; Poster, Winifred; Cherry, Miriam (editors). 2016. Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World (University of California Press).

Daniels, Arlene Kaplan. 1987. ‘Invisible Work’, in Social Problems Vol. 34, No. 5, pp. 403-415.

De Stefano, Valerio. 2016. “The rise of the ‘just-in-time workforce’: On-demand work, crowdwork and labour protection in the gig-economy”, in Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 471–504.

Frey, Carl; Osborne, Michael A. 2013 The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? (Oxford, University of Oxford, Oxford Martin School). Available at:

Forde, Chris; Stuart, Mark; Joyce, Simon; Oliver, Liz; Valizade, Danat; Alberti, Gabriella; Hardy, Kate; Trappmann, Vera; Umney, Charles; Carson, Calum. 2017. The social protection of workers in the platform economy (Brussels, European Parliament). Available at:

ILO (International Labour Organization). 2018. Non-standard forms of employment (Geneva). Available at:–en/index.htm

—. 2017. Inception report for the Global Commission on the Future of Work (Geneva). Available at:–en/index.htm

—. 2016. Final Report: Meeting of Experts on violence against women and men in the world of work, MEVWM/2016/7 (Geneva, Conditions of Work and Equality Department). Available at:–en/index.htm

Moore, Phoebe. 2018. The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts, Advances in Sociology series (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge).

Moore, Phoebe; Joyce, Simon. 2019. ‘Black Box or Hidden Abode? The Expansion and Exposure of Platform Work Managerialism’ (Review of International Political Economy, in press).



[3] For background information on Industrie 4.0 technologies, see

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