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    Why Tech Alone Won’t Free Women From Their Chains

    Tech companies promise their devices will “free up women’s hands” and reduce the burdens of managing a household. But all they’re doing is making women’s work harder to spot.
    May 09, 2024#gender

    One evening, roughly two years ago, my husband and I laid out on the sofa together for some quality phone time at the end of a long day. To the outside observer, we probably seemed the picture of modern domestic bliss, but a glance at our screens would reveal a key difference: While my husband played online chess, I was ordering groceries and checking on the progress of our robot vacuum.

    It’s common nowadays to treat technology as a liberatory force. Within the home, the digitalization and automation of household labor through online shopping, digital childcare, online payments, and high-tech appliances have supposedly helped free women from the drudgery of chores, a narrative that is constantly reinforced in the media and by advertisers.

    But is tech really making women’s lives easier? Or is it merely rendering the work we do more invisible by confining it to our screens? To find out, I worked with one of my master’s students, Xing Yufang, to interview 13 women about their experiences and feelings regarding the household division of labor. According to our research participants, the housework women do is increasingly hidden and segregated onto devices and ignored by their families.

    Domestic work has always been invisible — not just on a physical level, but also in terms of its being overlooked and undervalued culturally and economically. The Japanese writer Satoshi Umeda used the term “unnamed household chores” to refer to those miscellaneous chores that people tend not to mention but which nevertheless must be done: clearing away leftover food scraps, replacing garbage bags, and making sure there is always enough of everything at home.

    But if traditional housework is at least tangible — people, most often women, must exert themselves to perform it — digital housework is far harder to spot. Just because women are on their phones doesn’t mean they’re not working, however. Indeed, our interviewees stressed how much time they spend using their cell phones to perform household chores, care for their families, and interact with teachers and other parents.

    Take online grocery shopping for example. It appears easy and effortless — all women have to do is tap a few buttons on their phone and the food will be delivered to their door. But in fact, ordering groceries online is hardly less taxing than going to the store: It requires planning, decision-making, communication, and constant monitoring. And unlike the weekly shopping, these tasks are fragmented, ubiquitous, and endless. As one of our interviewees put it: “It seems like buying groceries online is easier, but the process of choosing items online every day — thinking about what to buy and researching how to buy it — is really tiring.”

    Within households, digital chores seem to occupy a no-man’s land between housework and leisure. Since smartphones allow for multitasking, women often perform a variety of decentralized, invisible digital tasks at the same time. It can therefore be difficult for family members, and even those completing the chores, to distinguish between housework, social communication, and leisure time, with the result that women’s work is often misinterpreted as play, which diminishes the effort they put in and generates new family conflicts. Another of our interviewees complained that the time she spends working goes unnoticed.

    “It’s really rare for other people to notice you doing this kind of housework,” she said. “My mother-in-law thinks I’m always resting, because she sees me ‘playing’ on my phone every day and then sees all the deliveries for Double Eleven (a shopping holiday similar to Black Friday). She even has a go at me for wasting money.”

    Digital housework also includes emotional labor. Social networks have increased the number of people that women are responsible for communicating with, as well as the costs of maintaining these relationships. We found in our research that when it comes to online communication between homes and schools, mothers bear the brunt of the online emotional labor. Many mothers said they need to post holiday wishes to teachers in chat groups and reply to the messages sent by other parents — or risk leaving a bad impression on teachers or their peers.

    In addition, because online messages lack the non-verbal cues present in ordinary communication, such as movements, gestures, and facial expressions, these women must constantly second-guess themselves and their words. “When communicating with teachers on (social networking app) WeChat, I’m afraid of using the wrong words and being misunderstood,” explained one of our interviewees. “So I write my message elsewhere first and then often edit it several times before I’m happy with it.”

    In general, although digital housework reduces the time women have to spend moving around and the exhaustion that comes from running errands, this “liberated” time is immediately commandeered by a new set of tasks. Women are the go-to contacts within the family, which requires them to always be online and to deal with information constantly emerging across a variety of platforms. This makes it more likely for them to experience information fatigue, which in turn affects their analytical skills and concentration.

    Interestingly, although tech companies tend to focus on male users, many of the innovations used to reduce housework take women’s role as housekeepers as a given. For example, robot vacuums are frequently marketed as smart appliances that will “free up women’s hands.”

    Ironically, such marketing increases the mental and psychological burden on women by implying that housework could be a breeze — if only they bought the right products. Algorithms on lifestyle platforms such as Xiaohongshu target women with a kind of housework consumerism, promising them an effortlessly refined living space with the help of smart appliances. When women access and use these products, however, they can become an anchor, requiring constant management with little support from their partners.

    It’s worth noting, however, that when we asked our interviewees for their thoughts on the digitalization of housework, most had only positive things to say at first. But the more they talked, the more problems surfaced. This goes to show how difficult it is even for women themselves to detect the gender bias and hidden labor involved in digital housework. It also suggests that a more honest, holistic discussion of the cultural and institutional aspects of gender inequality is required before technology’s potential to improve women’s situation in the home can be realized.

    Translator: David Ball; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Visuals from Stockgiu/VectorStock and RUNSTUDIO/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)