Towards gender equality in digital welfare

PROJECT OVERVIEW: A two-report series investigating the gender impact of welfare digitalisation. It proposes solutions for promoting gender equality. Method: desk research combined with expert interviews and a design sprint. A 2020 collaboration with Digital Future Society think tank.

MY ROLE: Main researcher and author for report 1, contributor and adviser for report 2.

WHY IT MATTERS: The digital welfare state, characterised by Automated Decision-Making Systems (ADMS) is gaining momentum. It comes at risk of automating existing inequalities. The novelty of the report is to shed a light on the gender aspects of digital welfare, which so far gained little attention in both media and academic literature.

Download report 1: “Gender Equality in Digital Welfare”.

Download report 2: “Exploring gender-responsive designs in digital welfare”

Social protection programmes are going digital. Datafication and profiling are replacing would-be face-to-face interactions with caseworkers. Core decision-making processes, as well as their execution, are being partially or completely delegated to automated systems, producing automated decision-making systems (ADMS). This solutionist approach to technology has been flagged as extremely dangerous by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston. Indeed, the rise of what he labels as “the digital welfare state” has been accompanied by considerable budget cuts, intrusive forms of conditionality, opaque and unchallengeable decision-making processes, and the indiscriminate collection and processing of personal data. Under automated regimes, marginalised welfare claimants are subject to extra scrutiny, warned Virginia Eubanks in the book Automating Inequality.

While a growing number of researchers, NGOs, journalists and public authorities is looking at human rights in the digital welfare state, little attention has been paid to the gender inequalities it perpetuates. Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, this report aims to build a bridge between the debate about welfare and gender on one side, and the social impact of algorithms on the other. The material available about this connection is extremely scarce. But without shining a light on this blind spot, gender inequalities will never be fully understood and thus improved in this new wave of digital welfare policies and systems.

The report is a primer for policymakers seeking to exploit technology’s potential in welfare while promoting gender equality. The underlying premise is that technology is never a benign instrument. Instead, it incorporates biases and ways of functioning that, in the case of welfare, have been entrenched throughout history. The first part of the report demonstrates this by reviewing gendered disadvantages in Western society, which are reflected by welfare systems’ appraisal of women’s roles and needs. The second contextualises ADMS in the evolution and digitalisation of welfare systems, providing an overview of the main gendered challenges they present. The latter are exemplified in three case studies, which show how women are penalised in the already discriminatory roll-out of ADMS in three Western countries. The final section of this report proposes four guiding principles for developing ADMS that promote gender equality.

If accompanied by an understanding of gender inequality mechanisms in both traditional and more recent digital welfare systems, integrating ADMS in welfare can be a revolutionary process. It even has the potential to amend dated assumptions about gender roles and design a social protection system that truly empowers women and leads to a more equitable society for all.