Careers: Interviews
Judy Wajcman, Globally Renowned Professor London School of Economics, Best-selling Author

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Judy Wajcman.

Judy WajcmanJudy Wajcman is the Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was previously Professor of Sociology in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. She has held posts in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Warwick and Zurich.

She was President of the Society for the Social Studies of Science and is a recipient of the CITASA William F. Ogburn Career Achievement Award of the American Sociological Association.

Her books include: The Politics of Working Life, TechnoFeminism, Managing Like a Man: Women and Men in Corporate Management, Feminism Confronts Technology and The Social Shaping of Technology. Her work has been translated into French, German, Greek, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. Her latest book is Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:36: Congratulations on your tremendous success. What led you to receive your Career Achievement Award from the American Sociological Association?
"....If you can think back that far when chips were new, I've been part of contributing to what's now a flourishing field in social science, looking deeply and in detail on the impact of technology on every aspect of our private lives, on work, how we communicate and how we live. The award was the recognition of that work, that accumulation of work over a long period of time...."

:02:01: What is the essence of techno-feminism?
"....When we think about technologies we often think about technologies as somehow neutral. One of the main themes generally in the field has been how much the technologies we have actually reflect society. But I think about technologies as crystallizations of society so I make the argument that if we have society that's characterized by hierarchical gender relations, race relations and various kinds of inequalities, that these will be reflected in the kinds of technologies we get. So one of the themes of my books on gender and technology is to talk about the history of the connection between masculinity and technology, that somehow even the way we think about what technology is in terms of industrial technologies and cars and machines and computers have historically been constructed as this feeling which men operate, and in a way, as spheres that are incompatible with femininity...."

:03:53: Can you talk about the tension with women and men in corporate management?
"....The tension is two-fold. It's so cliché to say it, but actually the division of labour of childcare, the notions of motherhood and fatherhood (although they've changed radically), it's still the case of ultimately somehow the responsibility of the children and guilt about parenting rest much more with women than with men. When I've done studies on men and women in corporate management what I still find is that many more men have full-time partners who look after kids and take the that the inequality and prejudice that women aren't as reliable as men in terms of work has still to do with childcare....The other thing that is worth mentioning is that even when women do perform in exactly the way that men do (whether they've got children or they haven't), there's still an element of leadership style in which being driven, being cool, available 24/7, ambitious (many of the characteristics of leadership I), are ones that women find very hard to be seen as being convincing at...."

:07:07: What about feminism confronting technology? What are your thoughts on that area?
"....That's an older book, "TechnoFeminism". It was more historical, before the current digital revolution and was more concerned with the history of engineering and what we take engineering to be....You still have this old historical divide between what is seen as proper technology (heavy machines) and what's seen as the more feminine sphere of skills...."

:09:02: Do you see this as changing as time goes on and for what reasons?
"....In the early days there was a very, very big divide. That divide has almost disappeared now. If you look at things like social media you will find that young women are actually on social media even more than men; the ownership of smartphones is equally distributed. So in terms of the consumption, use and the ownership of technologies, the gender divide has disappeared. Where it hasn't disappeared is in issues to do with the design of technologies....Those sorts of design issues, innovation streams are still heavily masculinized. I'm very concerned about that inequality and the effect it has on what sort of games or technologies get designed because I'm a strong believer in the fact that people can only design things based on their own experience, and you get technologies that reflect the designer's own values and preferences...."

:10:44: Do you see some kind of programs or solutions to rectify this in some way?
"....I think there's much more awareness in engineering schools, Silicon Valley and in corporations of the need to include more women, to have more diverse managers and engineers, because unless you have diversity in the design and innovation stage you actually miss out on lots of markets and lots of users....There is a big change and lots of discussion about these issues in a way there wasn't even ten years ago...."

:11:29: What are the factors in the social shaping of technology?
"....What I'm trying to stress is, it is true that technology is very much constrained by previous technologies and there are particular physical and material affordances that limit the sort of technologies we have, but I also think that the political, economic and social contexts have a huge role to play. It's very important to recognize that if you think about the internet and computing, you need to understand that a lot of the technologies we have were actually originally financed by huge investment in military technologies....If we spent a lot on research and development on technologies that weren't initially military might we get a different set of options, different kinds of technological imaginaries (if you like), and different kinds of technological ideas that might emerge...."

:13:24: Can you share some key takeaways from your last book, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism?
"....What I try to argue in the book is the reason we are so pressed for time is not simply to do with technologies, but because of the priorities and parameters we set ourselves, that we actually live in a culture where being busy is valued. So I think we all need to sort of deconstruct the cultural status and value that comes with busyness and not see ourselves as victims of technologies....That feeds into the second issue, which is this idea that somehow technology is the problem and the solution. That technology is the problem, its constant connectivity, endless interruptions and the solution is better and better technologies. I'm trying to say that's a too simplistic way of constructing the issue and we really need to think about what we want to get done, how we think about time, how we value what we do with time and then think about what technologies will be most appropriate to that....The third theme of the book is to say that actually speed is much more a resource of the powerful than it is of the powerless; that actually some of us are enabled to go very fast because other people are slow. If you just think about things like in airports, there are fast queues and slow queues and the more people are in the fast queues the longer people will be waiting in the slow queues and that's the same with lots of aspects of society now....So trying to articulate a dialectical relationship between speed and slowness...."

:18:43: What are your views on the rapid emergence of robots on society?
"....I think that the talk is much more extensive than the reality. I have to say going to engineering conferences is a very good antidote to this because people will tell you honestly that the notion that robots are actually going to soon have emotions and human intelligence and be able to be caring are phenomenally exaggerated....But having said that, I think we've always been fascinated by robots.....That they have an incredible attraction to us, that we are incredibly seduced by these robots, but we need to be very careful in realizing that these machines don't have feelings, they are our projections rather than a reality...."

:21:28: Are you worried about the impact of automation on labour markets and jobs and things like that?
"....I'm much more worried about it in developing countries than I am in Western countries....Most of the discussions I go to are anxieties in the West and in that context I think McKinsey and a lot of the reports that are coming out now are extra-ordinarily exaggerated, a lot of them are made by economists and consultants who don't actually study the workplace. I have spent a lifetime studying work and employment and it is very hard to automate lots of service sector jobs for example. What you see much more in a lot of workplaces is technology working with people. That the most efficient thing is technology and people working together rather than as simple substitution effect....A much better discussion would be to talk about the fact that lots of professional work does entail routine, repetitious work and that work is very easy to automate, but there are all kinds of new kinds of work that we can't even anticipate yet that gets produced when we automate some other kinds of work. We need a much more nuanced discussion that actually looks at the kinds of work there is....."

:25:27: What do you think are the consequences of the integration of AI into every aspect of our lives? What do you think the social ramifications are going to be of that?
"....I've been hearing about the internet of things for a very long time, again in some ways I think it's exaggerated. What I do worry about in terms of that is the discussion about big data and algorithms as if these things aren't themselves social. Whether it's Airbnb or the use of big data, to deciding on policing or job recruitment, there's lots of cases already where it's very clear that there's all kinds of discrimination creeping in the algorithms, that machine learning learns the prejudices that we already have....I'm very worried about the notion that somehow artificial intelligence is neutral, is a better judge than people....which is not to say that people aren't fallible, but I think it's a myth to think that machines are neutral and will make better judgements based on neutral facts and information...."

:28:44: You are in high demand as a keynote speaker. From your travels, can you share some of the top questions you have received and your responses?
"....One of the questions I'm asked is: 'Do I accept that we are in a period of inexorable technological acceleration?' And again I know I am going against the trend but I think it's worth stepping back from that too and not thinking about all technologies as the same thing. It depends on what kind of technologies we are talking about....Another thing people ask me about is whether men and women experience time exactly the same way. That's a very interesting and difficult question. What I'd say about that is that I think why we still have gendered upbringing (masculinity and femininity) is that women are still more responsible for caring (whether it’s for children or eldercare) that makes women think more about the kinds of time that's needed for caring and it seems to me that the time of caring isn't easily dealt with in terms of digital time (when you are doing caring it's slow time, not digital time, it's old fashioned time)....The third thing people ask me about is: 'How would you go about redesigning technology, making better technologies?' That's a very difficult question to answer in the abstract. I believe that if we had a more diverse set of people having input into technology, into designing technologies I can't help thinking that we'd have a bigger array of technologies and different priorities set for technologies...."

:34:49: What will be the theme of your next book?
"....Actually I've got a book coming out with a colleague of mine, Nigel Dodd, on the Sociology of Speed. What we are trying to do in that book is to talk in a more nuanced way about the different experiences of speed that different groups of people have....We need to think about time and machines in a more complex way than we have to date, and that quite a lot of things have been going on at the moment are actually causing us as consumers to spend more and more of our time negotiating with websites, negotiating with technologies. So the book is trying to think about speed and slowness together...."

:41:33: Is there any way ICT executives act on our discussion here and your ideas?
"....One thing I would like to focus on as we are talking about time is what's colloquially referred to as the 24/7 culture. I'm really struck by how there's a cultural value now to being seen as being available all the time, being available on your smartphone, being constantly connected. As if to be a senior executive is to be constantly available. I think we need executives to recognize that isn't the smart way, the efficient way to work and that there needs to be a cultural shift....People need time to refresh and rather than all of us doing meditation and all of these alternative therapies, all these things that are now talked about in terms of corporate practices...."

:44:13: What things continue to excite you?
"....I'm very excited that lots of people can engage politically in a way that they couldn't before. It's been particularly important for example for women who have been stuck at home, the mothers, to be able to get online and be part of online networks and communities. Social media has allowed for a huge blossoming of creativity. I'm very excited about the possibilities of digitalization....I'm very excited about the shift in gender relations but I think masculinity and femininity are being completely reconstructed and relationships between men and women are much more equal than they ever have been before. Those possibilities are very exciting and we are just on the cusp of what may occur...."

:46:28: What other areas particularly related to computing do you feel need to be brought into focus for discussion and policy?
"....I'm concerned about getting more women into what's called STEM subjects and I've been involved for 30 years in various projects to get women more involved in computing. I've been surprised and disappointed that the number of women in engineering and computing over literally three decades in places like America, Britain and Australia is actually worse than it was, it's not better. And I think it's not unrelated to my last point which is this 24/7 culture....We are not going to get anywhere with this issue of women in technology unless we remake our cultural stereotype of what it is to be a brilliant entrepreneur and make it one that is more compatible with living a life with a bit more relaxation with a different set of priorities...."

:52:00: You have many interests. Can you talk further about them?
"....I am interested in the debates about employment and AI and robots. I'm going to lots of conferences now on this very topic....A lot of things are going on and I just wonder why a lot of these anxieties are being focused on technological unemployment rather than these broader questions about politics, globalization, the kinds of governments we've got and how they relate to each other...."

:54:14: Now let’s go back in time. Can describe your journey from the age of 4 and major milestones and their lessons?
"....I'm a Melbourne girl, so I was very much brought up in a hedonistic sort of culture, but I think it was important to say that my parents were Eastern European Jewish refugees who arrived in Australia after the war....I remember my father's fascination with cars and industrial machines. He repaired tanks during the war for Stalin (believe it or not) in what was then the Soviet Union, and so I guess I got an interest in engineering and technology machines from a very early age....I loved the possibilities of machines and technology and speed from a very early age....I was very involved in anti-war demonstrations in Australia because Australia was involved in the Vietnam war as an ally of America. One of the things I picked up in that period was how important the links are between science and technology and the military....I then went to Britain and studied at Sussex and was very inspired by a guy named Brian Easlea who had written a book called “Fathering the Unthinkable’....So that's been part of a lifelong interest in the social responsibility of scientists and engineers...."

:01:01:52: You choose the topic area. What do you see as some of the top broader challenges facing us today and do you have any proposals of how they can be solved?
"....I'm really struck by how much discussion there is now about the number of people who are unemployed, the number of people who are underemployed who are doing part-time work, who are working on zero-hour contracts, casual employment....The real challenges are how to instantiate the kind of stable routes to a stable life that won't be the same as we had before. We're not going to have the career for life which we talked about 30 years ago and we are not anymore going to have a family based on breadwinner model where men go to work and the women stay at home so we need new models, but models that will allow people to plan some time ahead because without those plans people feel very much adrift in terms of how they project their lives, how they think about a narrative of their lives...."

:01:04:48: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, can you share some interesting stories (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing)?
"....I was terribly amused recently when I was at a conference in Washington with various CEOs of large companies and I was talking about technologies and time (or some point or another). I was at lunch and literally all these CEOs brought out smartphones and showed me their electronic diaries or calendars and were saying to me 'you really have to understand that the main problem in Silicon Valley is time and the shortage of time and we are spending a huge amount of money designing the most fantastic electronic calendars and this will be the solution to our problems'. I just had to smile and think to myself, here is a classic thinking that actually there's a technological solution to every problem. I have spent my life trying to argue is actually there isn't a technological fix or solution to every problem. The problems of time are how we organize our lives, what are our priorities are and what our relationships are and that no smartphone is going to solve that problem...."

:01:10:53: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....How would you re-envisage different kinds of scenarios for technologies?....What are the effects of robotics on employment?....Do you think technology is gendered?...."

:01:13:36: Judy with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.

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