As Industrialization Devalued Male Labor, Automation will Devalue Female Labor

by W.F. Price on April 7, 2012

When we talk about how the value of a strong back is greatly diminished from days past, and female work is now as valuable if not more valuable than male on the middle to lower end of the labor market, we tend to overlook the fact that female work had already been greatly devalued in fairly recent history. For example, women used to be the only ones to deliver babies, sew and weave clothes, run household industry and make bread and ale. They also grew vegetables and gathered fruits and berries, milked cows and goats, etc. Female economic activity was probably considerably more important in the 15th century than it was in the 19th and 20th. Not only did the professionalization of medicine put a lot of midwives and herbalists out of work, but industrialization made wives’ sewing redundant, and mass production freed them from the tasks of baking and brewing, among other things.

It was industry that created the bored housewife; women had nothing important left to do, so we ended up with the Betty Friedans and Adrienne Riches of the world who could exploit the feeling of emptiness and lack of purpose that took hold of mid-20th century American women. However, now that heavy industry is stagnant and/or much more efficient, many men are left out, and the burgeoning service industry has tipped the balance toward women once again. This is why we have these triumphant “End of Men” proclamations from vicious feminists, and it’s also why women have lower unemployment than men. But because female labor has become more expensive and a larger threat to profit, companies will adjust, as always, and innovation will tip the scales again.

This is starting on the low end, with automation of light industry and food service, and it has picked up speed in only the last few years. Fast food restaurants, a major low-wage employer of women, are beginning to install robotic cashiers and have automated cooking to the point that very little labor is necessary to produce an order. Some restaurants are even eliminating wait staff in favor of robotic service, and customers don’t seem to mind. Even in my local Safeway I purchase my groceries from a robot (with a very sexy voice).

Within a decade or so, operating a fast food franchise may be more like playing a video game than managing real humans. Perhaps only two people would be necessary to run a typical McDonald’s or Taco Bell. After fast food and retail are increasingly automated, next will be office work. This has already begun with automated phone service and online ordering, but it will extend even to secretarial work. Many contemporary secretaries are no longer in-house employees, but rather “virtual assistants” who use technology to remotely handle a number of businesses at once.

More and more female jobs will come under scrutiny as employers look to replace their female workers with software and robots. In fact, I’m fairly sure that it isn’t virtual sex that will really change the balance of power between men and women, but rather virtual labor. As these systems will require technical knowledge in programming, engineering and operating machines, the labor advantage should swing back to men, who tend to be far more interested in these fields.

Although the modern world seems very advanced when looking backward, if we look forward it’s pretty obvious there’s a lot of room for development and technological progress, and given the low-tech, repetitive nature of most female jobs, they seem like prime candidates for replacement by robots. In fact, I can’t wait for the first robo-restaurant to open here in Seattle. As the standard tip has grown from 10% to 25% over the years, it will be a relief for the customer as well as the owner to eliminate human wait staff. If I want human company and contact, I’ll just bring my kids or my friends!

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