Miriam Oliver, Georgia Nelson – The women behind ChatGPT: is clickwork a step forwards or backwards for gender equality?

The success of ChatGPT has led many to herald ‘the age of AI’. But behind artificial intelligence like ChatGPT are clickworkers in the global South who are disproportionately female. Writing for the Gig Economy Project, Miriam Oliver and George Nelson examine whether clickwork is liberating women or consigning them to a life of double-exploitation in the home.

Miriam Oliver works at the GIZ Gig Economy Initiative in Berlin and Georgia Nelson at the Global Labour Institute in Manchester. The article reflects the opinions of the authors.
Picture by Frerieke

ChatGPT demonstrates the immense potential of AI to process and present information in an instantaneous and sophisticated manner. To be able to produce these results, the AI relies on annotated data which must be first sorted by human input. 

These human labourers – also known as clickworkers – operate out of sight in the global South, ‘training’ the software which most people presume to be entirely ‘artificial’ intelligence. The recent Time magazine report revealed theexploitative conditions experienced by these workers, giving visibility to an otherwise hidden workforce. 

On the other hand, the flexible, anytime, anywhere nature of clickwork makes it an attractive work option for women as it allows them to engage in work whilst fulfilling their care responsibilities. The percentage of women gig workers in this sector is proportionally quite high. For instance, in countries like India with a low female labour force participation, 18% of the workforce on Amazon Mechanical Turk are women. This opportunity has been lauded in some policy circles as a potential panacea for greater female labour force participation and equality. However, behind the promise of greater flexibility and autonomy, also stands the risk that this may restrict women to the home environment and undo decades of progress of the women’s empowerment movement. 

For 24-year-old Ambika (name changed), clickwork presents an opportunity to balance her domestic and care responsibilities at home. “When I was going out to work, my family were not happy, now they are very supportive,” she says. The online labour market presents the option for women to become independent economically. With less cultural barriers to working via an app at home, stay-at-home mothers now feature as a common worker demographic within this. Another clickworker Susan (name changed) 35, noted that she needs to look after her parents and in-laws and online work arrangements allow her to manage the house affairs whilst earning some extra money. 

Work is often seen as a source of personal and economic empowerment. It can enable women – historically relegated to the private sphere – to interact with the outside world, gain social mobility, increase their agency and decision-making power in the household, and become self-reliant.  However, the nature of clickwork means that some of these opportunities to engage in civil society disappear. The social and economic mobility which a job once provided is restricted and the class and gender-based hierarchies are reinforced, particularly in societies which restrict women’s social interaction.

Clickwork is conducted inside the home, which can limit women’s broader engagement with society and lead to personal isolation. Working alone from her computer, Selvi (name changed), 30, recognised that she had very little understanding of for whom and with whom she was actually working, which consequently affected her mental health. The isolation of workers in their homes, and the unique worker-employer relationship also hinders the ability of women to form group identities and collective organisation to claim or improve their rights at work. This can lead to them becoming a silenced and invisible workforce. 

Stacked inequalities within the clickwork economy can also exacerbate women’s unequal position. Earning a decent living is reliant on women working long hours, a difficult undertaking for women with an unequal double burden of balancing paid work alongside unpaid caring responsibilities. In fact, the promise of greater personal flexibility is “diminished due to extraneous activities that consume time and cost,” according to Sabina Dewan of the Just Jobs Network. Those extraneous activities often being the domestic and care responsibilities that are automatically assigned to women: cleaning, cooking, childcare etc. 

In fact, gendered and class-based inequalities are also reproduced in clickwork’s digital labour platforms. Despite much of clickwork taking place in the global South, the higher paying jobs are often reserved for those in the Global North with more ‘desirable’ qualifications and experiences, leaving women facing intersecting inequalities. Selvi, working on a clickwork platform noticed that when looking at her page she could see many tasks were labeled for ‘US workers only’. 

“We cannot touch these; if we try to, our work will be rejected, and our ID can be suspended,” Selvi explains. 

This discrimination can mean that a global South women’s experience of the clickwork platform is significantly worse than that of the average user. 

Limited attention is also given to the motivations of women and how they make choices about work: the unequal sexual division of labour, inadequate policies to redistribute care work and reduce the burden on women, and gendered ideas about what work is considered appropriate for women. Women’s already unequal position in the labour market – exacerbated by the employment crisis – can lead to a race to the bottom on pay and conditions. This can entrench women’s already over-represented position in the most precarious jobs.  

The way clickwork is currently organised, it reinforces a somewhat patriarchal control over women’s labour and mobility. The portrayal of digital labour platforms as a ‘flexible’ option for women with caring responsibilities has the potential to reinforce discriminatory gendered roles and women’s unequal position in society. This flexibility paradigm raises questions as to whether the much-touted flexible working conditions are truly for the benefit of women workers, or instead are simply re-producing structural norms via new mechanisms. 

Regulators face great challenges to recognise the gendered vulnerabilities of these workers and provide sufficient care infrastructure which supports the economic development of women working on these platforms. One major hurdle is simply identifying their target group. Based at their homes, clickworkers are rarely counted in national data sets, which already hinders the policy making process. The home is an under-regulated environment and as it increasingly becomes a place of work, there is a clear need to extend the scope of labour law and regulation to offer protections and rights to those workers.   

The race to develop other competitive products and AI systems has only accelerated following the success of ChatGPT. Clickwork is teetering on a precipice with online work holding significant potential to forge greater gender equality and access for women. However, policy responses and awareness both at the level of platforms and workers is required to avoid replicating discriminatory structures that mirror the offline world.

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