FemLab taking shape

What a journey it has been with FemLab.Co, an IDRC funded initiative that Usha Raman and I kick started in January 2020, right before the pandemic. Our work involves the very people who have been the most affected by covid19 – marginalized and precarious women workers in the Global South struggling to make a living and now with the added burdens of health risks, domestic violence, and loss of all kinds – social, financial, and economic. It has been a challenge to say the least to capture their voices and do justice to them. Unless you have a superb and dedicated team like we have! We have been fortunate to bring together a real collective of sorts – junior and senior scholars in India, Bangladesh and the Netherlands taking the lead on examining how specific sectors like salon services, sanitation, ride-hailing, garments, artisanal, and construction have been impacted across different stakeholders and how diverse digital platforms and media technologies have been used to collectively bargain, push back and shape the future of work that is more justice-driven.

Generating impact

As I look back in the last six months, we have succeeded in doing a lot! FemLab.co members contributed to the launch of the Global Forum Colabora.Lat 2021 a collaborative governance initiative in Latin America.

It will study and make recommendations about the governance models of the public policies and social initiatives implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Colabora.Lat Implementation Council is made up of Asuntos del Sur (Argentina), National University of San Martín of Argentina, Universidad ICESI (Colombia) Faculty of Humanities of the University of Santiago de Chile, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Bolivia), Diálogos Organization of Guatemala and Nosotrx_s (Mexico). Check our team video pitch here.

In the last year, we have attracted passionate interns, and external affiliates from different fields such as Meeshu, Ola Mobility Institute, Web Foundation, Harambee Youth, Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, and many more organizations and leaders who have contributed their thoughts to our weekly blog series.

We engaged with Urban Company and their staff to gain insights into the Salon Services sector. This resulted in an article spearheaded by Sai Amulya Komarraju, research lead of the Salon Services sector. The paper ‘Agency & Servitude in Platform Labour’ has been published in a top media journal Media, Culture & Society that has been trending and has been requested by diverse organizations such as UNDP (inclusive innovation lab focus), East-West Seed company (smallholder women farmers and digital platforms focus), and several UX designers focused on the next billion market.

Another key collaborator is Rumman Chowdhury, director of the Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability (META) team at Twitter and Forbes listed Top 5 listed most influential people who are shaping AI (2021). She and I co-edited a Special Issue on ‘Cross-cultural feminist technologies’ (blog) & full essay for the Global Perspectives, UC Press .

This issue features feminist practitioners like Charlotte Webb – founder of the Feminist Internet, Design Beku – a feminist design initiative in India, Galit Ariel- AR feminist, Whose Knowledge, and other such cutting edge organizations and scholars invested in feminist approaches to digital design and deployment for social change.

Speaking across the aisle

I have been very fortunate to find a dream collaborator and co-leader in Usha Raman. She is such an incredibly nuanced thinker, kind and generous person and scholar and empathetic leader. We have both been using our platforms to promote the exciting work emerging from our team and affiliates.

She was nominated as the Vice-President of IAMCR, a preeminent worldwide professional organization in the field of media and communication research. She was instrumental in the organizing of their annual conference in July 2021 where feminism, media and labour panels were organized. She also presented at another eminent conference International Communication Association on ‘Platform work and the planetary economy: global design, local experience’. 

Likewise, I gave talks about FemLab work at the Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Symposium 2021 on the ‘Manifesto for Inclusive Digital Futures,’ and UNDP’s Istanbul Innovation Days 2021: “Development & Its Futures” where government officials and prime ministers, global activists, founders of thinktanks, and other innovation leaders came together to rethink alternative development futures.

I also presented the paper co-authored with Usha Raman ‘Fair work, feminist design and women’s labour collectives in the digital age’ at the Oxford’s Digital Pathways. This is an Oxford research initiative which aims to reach across the fields of public policy, law, economics, computer science and political science to support informed decision-making on the governance of digital technologies specifically. This paper serves as a foundational text for the FemLab project and is forthcoming in Mark Graham and Ferrari’s open access MIT Press book on Digital work in the Planetary Market.

I also gave a keynote on feminist directions for sustainable change for The Hague Humanity Hub and panel dialogue with directors at Asser Institute,  Clingendael Institute, and Leiden’s Center of Innovation.

Productivity and mental health

Clearly, our team has been deeply productive despite these challenges as reflected in the numerous talks, media articles, publications in the pipeline, and collaborations we have managed to churn out (check our FemLab site for more updates ! ). Yet, this makes me nervous as life becomes stripped of much of its complex and beautiful engagements through travel, social gatherings, and physical contacts, much needed to nurture our souls. So we divert much of our creative energies into our work, resulting perhaps in high productivity but at the cost of an impending mental health crisis. It does take its toll on our body too as I have personally experienced in the last year and a half. I am unable to stop. Unable to take time off. If I pause, I think of the family I have not seen since the start of the pandemic, the silence of empathy for international scholars like myself who are away from family and friends and often isolated, like a cog in the machine, churning out and being the stellar academic and practitioner at the cost of a personal life. There is much lip service to supporting employees but the game remains the same- a slave to global rankings and metrics, of chasing after grants, of teaching and publicizing and networking and well, the list goes on. What does give me comfort are the kind and generous people I work with in this team and those I have come across through such projects that reminds me that it still is worth it.

Webinar talk: Feminist perspective on the Future of Work

I was invited to speak at a webinar on “The digital economy in Asia: feminist perspectives” organized by the Women and future of work working group of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Asia, in cooperation with WIDE+ on 22nd April. This webinar provided an interesting and much-needed discussion on how feminism in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting the present and future of women’s work in Asian economies. The kinds of issues we discussed was about the gender digital divide and implications of platformisation and automation of value chains on women’s work and livelihoods, to reflect on future priorities for feminist action in the region. I enjoyed the back and forth discussion mediated by Farzana Nawaz, at Laudes Foundation in Bangkok, between myself, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, India, Nadine Siregard, Gojek, Indonesia and Verna Dinah Viajar, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of the Philippines Diliman studying labour issues and the future of work.

In my opening statement, I tried to steer away from the gender-divide framing, reminding the audience of the age of problematization of the divide discourse that implicates an evolutionary and deterministic direction. I also spoke about the feminist data dilemmas along the lines of misrepresentation as deliberate vs imposed obfuscation where women’s dominance in sectors such as agriculture, construction, and other such markets are masked as the popular trope of these fields being masculine circulate in the media and policy reports. This is partly due to the subsistence and collective/cooperative models of sustainability that women choose over that of market driven. In the COVID times, this makes them invisible and ineligible for bailouts, creating further inequality between the sexes. I also talk about the value of privacy versus the amplification of voice being the perennial and hard to resolve tensions that women grapple with especially in this datafication age. Overall, I advocate for shifting focus from the user to the design of socio-technical systems if we are to move forward towards a more just society.