Will Smartphones Kill Femininity?

What Women Really Think
Dec. 4 2013 11:37 AM

Will Smartphones Kill Femininity?

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Siri, honey, pour me a drink and rub my feet

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Ian Bogost’s piece in the Atlantic about hyperemployment—a tech-fueled “commitment to our usual jobs and to many other jobs as well”—has hyperemployed a lot of brain cells and Internet pixels. Over at Cyborgology, a blog from the sociology department at the University of Minnesota, philosophy professor Robin James wrote a thought-provoking response in which she examines the traditional relationship between femininity and technology, as well as how that relationship might change as our devices burrow deeper into our work and personal lives.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Let’s take her argument—a complicated, suggestive thought-maneuver—piece by piece. Piece one: We are all of us (the middle class, managerial “us”) hyperemployed. We work incessantly, thanks to technology. Maintaining our office email accounts, our online calendars, is a job in itself. Off the clock, we’re inundated in personal online business—emails from the PTA, Diapers.com orders—and lured onto sites like Facebook, which make money from the data we generate but fail to compensate us in wages. Bogost writes in the Atlantic that “pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time.” But the bottom line is that our tech-enabled extra obligations and commitments amount to second, third and fourth shifts on our existing jobs—all of them unpaid.  

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Yet—piece two—these obligations and commitments happen to be ones that women and minorities have tackled, gratis, since forever. Many involve care-giving and relationships: scheduling, greeting, reminding, checking in. As James points out, our smartphones now wake us up in the morning, instead of our moms. We set our own Google alerts, rather than relying on a call from a wife or secretary. (Or we ask Siri, the robotic female assistant. Discuss.) As shiny, trendy devices absorb some of the jobs we once delegated to lower-status humans, those jobs (still unpaid) have at least begun to shed stigma. Typing, for instance, was once depreciated as “women’s work,” but is now a given part of any office professional’s job. Neurosurgeons type. CEOs type.

So does technology relieve the burden on women to perform certain traditionally feminine tasks? Sure! If your husband scans the news on his iPad, you no longer need to collect the morning paper. If your kids have SpongeBob SquarePants for company, you are free to leave them bathed in television glare while you check Twitter/wallow in 21st-century guilt. On the other hand, assigning a task to a computer doesn’t necessarily make it go away. Wageless work may now be more evenly distributed among men and women, but someone still has to send the reminder emails and program the vacuum bot. We haven’t escaped the reality of unpaid labor; we’ve simply spread it around.

This is stepwise progress (telling that the Atlantic framed hyperemployment as a troubling encroachment on people’s lives, rather than a leveling of the playing field!) and it leads James to an even more interesting question: What effect will developing technology have on femininity itself? “Femininity—the gender ideal and norm” is inseparable from all those uncompensated hours, those invisible tasks, James writes. She continues:

Conforming to feminine ideals like cuteness, neatness, cleanliness, attention to (self)presentation, receptivity to others, and so on, trains you in the skills you need to accomplish feminized care/second+ shift work. Need to persuade people to do unpleasant things (like get out of bed)? It helps to be cute and/or nurturing! Need to create a clearly legible calendar or schedule that represents a family’s hectic and convoluted schedule? It helps to have neat handwriting, fine motor skills, and design sense (which girls of my generation definitely learned by, say, passing elaborately-decorated and folded notes between classes)!

But now that we have other technologies to help us plan, nurture, and provide care, and now that men are expected to pick up their share of such work too, what will happen to conventional womanhood? If acting sweet, compliant, and sheltering is no longer economically useful, will anyone bother?

Cliffhanger alert! James’ post ends here. But it seems to me that these traditionally feminine traits are already surviving the tech revolution. Consider the gendered ways we use our devices. Women text more than men, in a linguistic style that is more emotionally expressive, and for different reasons (such as to promote social interaction rather than convey information). IM conversations between girls feature more first person pronouns, politeness tags, and representations of laughter—and they are more grammatically correct than conversations between boys. Men and women blog about different topics. Women are more avid social media users. The list goes on. Technology hasn’t subsumed femininity—it’s allowed it to be expressed in new ways.

Also: Maybe women do unpaid emotional work not just to help their partners extract surplus value from the processes of economic production (sorry, Marxists), or because they’re tricked into it, but because they care about whether their children get up in time for school in the morning. Maybe they like cooking dinner for their families. To that point, it’s important to remember that gendered traits don’t have to correspond to biological sex, or even gender. Maybe, as technology makes such tasks more gender-neutral, men will realize that they like being “feminine” too. I’d argue that the stereotypically female orientation, which is social and emotional, is expanding, not vanishing, in the age of the smartphone. Technology may do far more to alter traditional masculinity than femininity as the stigma fades from “women’s work.”

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