Social change is often extremely slow, especially when deep seated norms are involved. Gender roles have demonstrated their staying power even in sociospheres where gender equality has long been the official mantra. Haven’t we all met the guy who speaks passionately about women’s rights all while parking the kids in front of the TV and leaving the dirty dishes in the sink? Or the “career mom” who laments (or brags) about her overwhelming domestic chores and how she does it all? It may not be so surprising after all that women, according to a recent study, probably will have to wait until 2050 before men are doing an equal share of the household chores and childcare. In other words, it will take our youngest generation and two generations more before equality between the sexes has been fully achieved. But where? The study seems to focus primarily on the US and UK and claims the upward trend in male domestic participation has leveled off in some (which?) countries.
We are at a technological cross road where most white collar work can be done anywhere anytime, which indeed undermines the power of the long standing male bastion – “the office”. But instead of merely providing women with more opportunities, time and flexibility, this technology also has the side effect of creating a virtual work place right along side the screaming baby. And just like screaming babies care little about business hours, neither does modern communication technologies that enable and demand 24/7 availably. Instead of fighting for maternity (and paternity) leaves or shorter work days, mothers tend to accept their employers’ slow intrusion into their home sphere where domestic and work related obligations become perpetual juggling acts as a result.
The scenario above is a classic example of technological progress outpacing social progress. Technological progress is exponential – at least we don’t envision any imminent plateaus in this domain– whereas social change is cyclical. New technologies can help social progress as well as regress. If we imagine gender equality and communication technologies as two large products of the information age, it is not hard to envision the latter help bringing out the former. Large household appliances provided domestic assistance for women and were perfectly timed to help along the women’s’ liberation movement. But when social change lags behind, new technology may just as well help cement old power structure instead of breaking them. So if social developments, such as the gender ratio of domestic duties, stall or even reverse, we should expect new technologies to inhibit rather than help progress for women. Technology itself is value free; it is how we choose to deploy it that makes the difference.
Image: Modified from DonkeyHoteyFlicr