Perspectives, reflections, and insights about women and digital work by women in digital work

By Bridgette Wessels

Glasgow Social and Digital Change Group – Women in Digital Work seminar

Current trends such as robotics and autonomous systems and AI deepen the pervasive and ubiquitous presence of the digital in social and work relations.  Although these changes are uneven and are developing in different ways they raise new questions about work as well as asking us to return to older questions and issues.  Gender and technology is one area in which digitalisation relates to how women work, where they work, what they do and how their work is valued.  Questions about how women experience, adapt to, have the power to shape work remain important in the negotiation of new types of work as well as some of the more established types of work. During periods of social and technological shifts, there is often a struggle between continuity and change, adaptation and resistance, hope and despair.  A roundtable event held by the Glasgow Social and Digital Change Group at the University of Glasgow on the 22nd of May 2019 sought to explore the experiences, struggles and negotiations of women currently undertaking digital work and to reflect on these to offer perspectives and insights into women in digital work.  The event was very well attended with not a spare seat in the room.

Each of the speakers offered and shared different experiences and insights.  Professor Gabriele Griffin, (Professor of Gender Research, Uppsala University) opened the roundtable by discussing her research about the experiences of women who work in Digital Humanities (DH) in higher education institutions in the Nordic countries as ‘intersectionalized workers’.  One of her overriding findings of her current research was that those working in DG were DH practitioners very often disavowed their relation to DH. To understand this disavowal, she looked at their working conditions through professional life histories and women’s relation to institutions. The women experienced the gendering of both technological work and humanities work negotiating ideological perceptions of male and female work. This is further complicated because DH has an interdisciplinary identity, which blurs established senses of male and female work in the university.  However, a key feature in shaping the disavowal is the positioning of DH in universities and here organisational and structural factors are significant. DH in the Nordic countries occurs in centres and on project- based contracts.  The centres are mainly funded by grant capture, which means that staff are employed on a project-by-project basis and often work on a number of projects for specific amounts of time to build up a full or part time posts, which results in a lack of a career path and uncertainty of employment.  To analyse the disavowal in the context of these types of working conditions, Gabriele drew on intersectionality and feminist materialism to assess how workers are constructed and construct themselves in the neoliberal university.  She expanded intersectionality beyond sex-race-class to include institutional as well as personal ontologies.  She argues that workers are structure by organizational ontologies that limit a worker’s agency. And because the workers has little control over their work and working conditions they respond to this by disavowal.  The main arguments of her talk is that there are three main aspects of intersectionalized workers, which are: ontologies of subjectivities, structural intersections, and choice constraints.

The next speaker, Rachel Hamada picked up on these three points when she spoke about her experience of being a journalist in the digital era. Rachel is co-founder and director of online investigative journalism outlet The Ferret as well as Time to Take Up Space and Women and the Journalism New Wave. She spoke about her personal work history and how she wanted to uphold the principles of good journalism and that she wanted to manage her personal and working life. To do this, she utilised some of the benefits of digital technology.  She argued that remote working, flexible hours and digital publication offer many opportunities for women to take up space in the new media world that is evolving as the traditional media industry contracts. However, she asked if there are these benefits, why are so many of these new projects still male dominated? For her, as for Gabriel, the structural challenges facing women working in the new wave of digital journalism is a key issue.  The structural challenges are firmly embedded in the traditional organisation of journalism. This is so on terms of journalism practice in that is often is conducted at times to suit men especially political reporting and in a gender division between the types of journalism about, namely that men do investigative and political journalism and women do journalism about namely family and education.  These divisions were also reinforced through HR contracts.  To address these types of difficulties, she set up the Ferret and other innovative types journalism. In doing this, her aim is to support women to be involved in the participatory journalism process – this both supports women journalism to manage their work and to do the type of journalism they want to do and to find ways that journalism can mainstream issues that matter to women instead of siloing them or ignoring them.

Our third speaker, Katherine Rogers, a research software engineer in DH brought other issues and experiences into the discussion. Katherine works at The Digital Humanities Institute, The University of Sheffield and in contrast to those working in DH in the Nordic countries, she has a full time secure post. Katherine has worked as a software engineer for 20 years, both in the commercial sector and for the past thirteen years, as a research software engineer at the University of Sheffield’s Digital Humanities Institute. Katherine spoke of her professional life history. She started by studying history and then moved from this non-technical background to pursue a career in the software industry.  She spoke about how her enjoyment of creativity and puzzle-solving attracted her to software development, which she feels overlaps with her first degree (history) as well as She pointed out that studying history taught her to pay attention to detail, to look at what was written and to carefully code and assess documented evidence. Using these skills with her education in computing (she also has a degree in computing) she worked in private commercial sector, and whilst working in this sector she became increasingly aware of the human dimension of system design. She gave an example of designing a system for hospitals and that if the human dimension is not embedded in the design, then the system would not be fit for purpose.  She found that DH offers her the opportunity to work with a humanist approach and with software design – and she says she loves her work and finds it fulfilling. Although her structural and organisational position is supportive, she does experience that some academics are unsure as to whether she has researcher or technician status, which she feels tends to result in gender imbalance with respect to technical (and specifically IT) roles.

Our final speaker, Catherine Lido as Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Glasgow spoke about a research network to support early career female academics.  She spoke about the EPSRC-funded VisNET project, which was developed to support early career female academics (postdoctoral researchers), in engineering and related tech areas.  The project sought to support women’s development of international networks and industrial tech collaborations using virtual and distance networking tools. Catherine said the focus of VisNET is: 1) To identify key barriers to international collaboration for early career female engineering academics 2) To design and demonstrate interventions and new best practices in networking and collaborations to define a new and more effective normal, in the digital age and 3) Evaluate such interventions using novel mixed-methodologies to visualise network and digital research impact growth. In sum, VisNET proposes virtual digital interventions to remodel the implicit ‘rules’ of networking and collaboration in engineering and tech-related career trajectories. The interdisciplinary academic (U. of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde) and industrial consortium we have brought together will lead the way in developing, integrating and advocating a new approach to conduct these activities largely in situ (i.e. from the researchers’ home institution), blurring the physical boundaries of conferences, research collaborations and outward dissemination.  After she outlined the details of the project, she asked the participants to draw their own respective networks to see how each person was developing varying types of networks.

The questions raised by the participants in relation to the speakers reflected many of the points made and there was a lively debate by those attending. In summary, to understand women’s work in the digital age in all its variety requires attention to the details of any work, the organisational processes and the structural elements of work – each features in the shaping of women’s digital work – and each features in the level and type of agency women have in this space.   A notable point from our speakers and from the event participants was that the women are reflective of their situation and have the energy and creativity to address many issues, however, the struggle over organisational and institutional factors are still ongoing.

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