AI Solutions For Domestic Labor May Exacerbate Inequities

Viktoria Tomova / Feb 21, 2024

Across the globe, there is a great deal of hype around artificial intelligence (AI) and the impact it can have on people’s lives, from paid work to learning to domestic labor. Policymakers are racing to enact new rules to govern the technology. The European Union finally reached a deal on comprehensive AI legislation. In October 2023, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on AI, while efforts to introduce comprehensive AI legislation in Congress are still in the early stages.

Against the backdrop of these new rules, there is an emerging public debate around the impact of AI on workers and the future of work. But what has remained hidden is the effects AI has on the realm of the home and the labor division based on gender and race. Smart home devices promoted as labor-saving have failed to recognize and account for the inherently gendered and racial division of labor in domestic work, as well as the socially embedded norms and expectations. As a result, historically marginalized groups are once again being forced into hidden, unpaid labor.

While companies and governments have hyped an increased use of AI in the home to reduce the burdens of reproductive work like caregiving and domestic work, technological innovation has instead contributed to the amplification of social inequality. Globally, unpaid domestic work is largely performed by women, even more so by women of color. Nevertheless, there is very little attention from academia or governments to the role AI will play in reducing housework like cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elderly family members.

Recently, the University of Oxford published research showing that 40% of time spent on mundane chores could be automated within 10 years. However, it is important to note that reducing the time women spend on a task does not necessarily mean more free time.

A study of the architectural design of smart homes has highlighted that the integration of new technologies into domestic spaces is reshaping the traditional concept of home. Specifically, the home is evolving beyond being solely a place for relaxation and consumption, now also serving as a primary workplace. Consequently, it becomes evident that smart home technologies not only alter but also uphold gendered divisions in household labor and recreational activities. While contemporary technological advancements facilitate women's ability to work from home while managing childcare responsibilities, they simultaneously perpetuate the entrenched societal expectation that women should conform to their gendered role expecting them to effortlessly fulfill multiple functions simultaneously.

In the 20th century, Western countries experienced a technological boom in the production of domestic appliances. Some of the life-changing innovations included the popularization of freezers, household washing machines, gas and electric stoves which arguably saved a lot of labor. Similarly, the production of clothes and food as well as healthcare moved away from the home to industry, appearing to free up more time for women.

But in fact, the result was not so simple. A historical analysis done by the scholars Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek revealed that the unpaid labor done by women in the house was not reduced. Instead, the development of new, smarter household technologies led to higher standards of cleanliness, parenting, and healthy diet, among others. In the end, the time that new domestic appliances saved for women was reinvested back into the home.

Similarly, the market is now booming with AI-powered technology promising to remove the burden of housework. For example, household robots are among the most popular types of robots on the market.

But what if, instead, smart household appliances powered by AI simply raise the standards for women, suggesting that the time saved from tasks that are being automated should be invested in spending better quality time with the family, higher support for children with their learning, and preparing sophisticated, healthy meals? All of that while being fully employed. These expectations of a good work-life balance are further amplified by social media platforms that award this social transformation. So, buying that new AI cleaning robot may not save you as much time as you think. Other things need to change first, so women can freely choose what they want to spend their time on without feeling forced to comply with gender normative standards.

The demand for support from unwaged labor in the house is obvious. But what happens to these workers when households (that can afford it) get a robot cleaner? Will an understanding take root that women will no longer have to spend time cleaning? If the past is any guide, the assumption will be that these innovations mean that women should be more empowered to enter better-paid employment, increasing their lifelong earnings and opportunity to enjoy quality family time.

But there is evidence that what may lie ahead is just more of the same. For instance, two qualitative studies carried out in Denmark in 2022 revealed that smart home technology has the potential to perpetuate gender inequality by establishing a distinction between digital and conventional household chores. These studies investigated various everyday tasks such as regulating heating, lighting, vacuuming, and managing music, concluding that smart technologies alter the significance of these tasks in terms of comfort, cleanliness, and convenience.

It is also essential to note that, as existing OECD reports point out, current AI developments are led and executed primarily by men, using data that looks towards the past. Women and other marginalized groups are not equitably represented in the AI industry, their voices are often silenced, and their concerns are rarely addressed by governments, including in AI legislation.

Research has clearly shown that the design of smart home devices has been aimed towards appealing to the ideal masculine consumer. This is evident in the fact that assistants such as Alexa and Siri are sold with a default female voice. These technologies are assigned tasks that are traditionally considered as domestic responsibilities and are typically expected to be performed by women. Furthermore, as Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy illustrate in their book, The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot, there is a problematic trend of categorizing smart home technologies as nostalgic or sometimes deriving from pornographic depictions of idealized wifely figures. The attribution of such values influences our interactions with these technologies, which in turn can mirror back in our interpersonal relationships, particularly in how we perceive and treat others, especially women and racialized people.

Research demonstrates that feminized devices designed to be friendly and helpful often endure significant abuse when their owners resort to swearing or yelling at them. Further studies by Monash University, RMIT and Intel Corporation also confirm that smart home technology associated with expressions of masculinity has been found to contribute to worsening domestic violence. Such smart home technologies can perpetuate gender stereotypes and exacerbate the harm experienced by women by strengthening the division of domestic labor along gender lines and reinforcing traditional social roles.

Given these gender and social asymmetries and disparities, how can we expect to see true tech innovation that helps us bring more equality? As a society, we should work harder to ensure that our institutions, norms and values bring us closer to a more equal and just world. We cannot afford to normalize discriminatory technology that amplifies social inequalities.

To be clear, technological innovation is important for the development of our communities, especially the use of AI to automate and reduce unwaged labor. However, we first need to address the coercively normative force of “women’s labor” and establish processes and guidelines on how to liberate labor. That starts with reconsidering how far technology can get us and admitting that AI-powered domestic appliances can never be the sole solution to the inherent social inequalities shaping our societies, which express themselves differently depending on the cultural and demographic context.

Governments, academia and industry must prioritize conversations about discrimination, bias, and fairness in the design and deployment of AI tools. These discussions cannot stay at a performative level. Instead, tech development and legislation should be done in a multidisciplinary way, ensuring that the social justice perspective is applied throughout the conceptualization, design, execution and implementation processes. This is crucial to keep in mind as Europe is discussing how to implement its landmark AI Act legislation, and as other nations consider their own legislative frameworks.

The op-ed does not represent the views of EDRi. The opinions expressed within the content are solely the author’s.


Viktoria Tomova
Viktoria Tomova is a Communications and Media Specialist at European Digital Rights & a Public Voices Fellow on Technology in the Public Interest with The OpEd Project in partnership with The MacArthur Foundation.