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Tag Archives: technology

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Media headlines of late are challenging our presumptions about what is invisible labor.

Amazon, for instance, announced the opening of a store that eliminates the frontline job of cashiers – as well as the checkout lane and all the self-checkout machines. Instead, this work will be done through the automatic scanning of consumer movements around the store and on the shelves. Live employment will be diverted to locations behind the scenes, in labors of preparing and stocking the food.

Likewise, in my home state of Missouri, a waitress at Hooters was fired for failing to do the work of looking right on the job. That labor involved wearing a wig (bought at her own expense) to cover scar on her head after returning from brain surgery, and thus upholding gendered and sexualized appearance rules at work.

Even acts of resistance on the job are telling, like when an African-American employee broke a stained-glass window in the Yale dining hall where he washed dishes. Outraged by a scene depicting slaves picking cotton, he was no longer willing to do the work of idly supporting in a discriminatory organizational environment.

Automation, aesthetic labor, and racial tasks are examples of contemporary ways that the workplace is disempowering workers and submerging the types of tasks they are expected to do. This is the starting point of a new book I co-edited with two legal scholars, Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry.

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Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) promo photo via LinkedIn

The blog This is Not a Pattern has an intriguing post entitled “Ways Men in Tech are Unintentionally Sexist.” The post draws attention to various unintended but meaningful ways that men in high technology, a notoriously male-dominated field, behave and speak in ways that normalize women’s exclusion and marginalization in this profession. This is particularly timely in the wake of Ellen Pao’s recent lawsuit for gender discrimination. The author sees several ways in which the culture of high technology subordinates women: language that perpetuates men as the default and women as outsiders; normative assumptions that tokenize women, emphasizing the (assumed or real) contrasts between them and men as the majority group; and perhaps most importantly, the tendency among workers to remain silent (and thus complicit) when sexist behaviors and gender discrimination occur.

While this article highlights important patterns that no doubt contribute to the myriad challenges women face in technology, I found this article particularly interesting because in many ways these innocuous behaviors are likely found in many male-dominated professions. Kris Paap’s ethnography of women working construction, for instance, provides extensive evidence of how men assume a gendered (male) worker in this field, and how that assumption shapes their language and interactions in ways that help maintain women’s underrepresentation in this field. Similarly, sociologists like Louise Roth and Jennifer Pierce have shown how women in finance and law, respectively, face cultural assumptions about their lack of qualifications, skill, and suitability for their professions.

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by Noelle Chesley

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Credit: LexnGer (Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0)

As technology has become an inescapable part of most workplaces, it has become ever more important to understand its impact on employees. Using data from two surveys of U.S. workers, Noelle Chesley examines the effects of both personal and job-related technology use. She finds that increased technology use, especially when it extends work into personal life, is linked with higher levels of worker distress. However, it is also associated with gains in productivity, and personal technology use at work may help employees to manage work-related stress.

 

 

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US inequality

Rising income inequality in the United States has become big news over the last few years. Sociology and left political economy have always seen inequality as a structural outcome necessarily produced by the normal operation of capitalist economies. The recent concern shown by mainstream economists and some politicians is more curious, given that – with the exception of a three-year period in the 1990s and again in the 2000s – income inequality has risen steadily from 1968 to the present.

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In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.

Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.

A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!

Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.

In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.

Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.

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The Luddite sees industrial robots everywhere and, fearing negative effects on employment, begins to rage against the machines.

Seeing the same robots, the (liberal) economist exclaims, “What marvelous labor-saving technology. This will maximize productivity, and jobs that are lost in this factory will be replaced with high-tech jobs elsewhere in the economy!”

The Marxist sighs, and responds, “Is this some sort of joke? In the US today, seventeen percent of the American workforce – 27 million individual workers – is unemployed or underemployed.”

 

I imagined this scenario as I read the most recent entry in the New York Times’ consistently excellent series on the iEconomy, which focused on a new generation of robots being deployed in manufacturing.

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