Rosalind Gill

Geert Lovink: Rosalind Gill teaches at the London School of Economics, there she is also heading the Master Program of Gender and Media, and she wrote an influential paper called Working Practices in New Media and it is one of the few based on empirical work that looks into work and practices with a strong gender aspect. Rosalind.

Rosalind Gill: Thank you very much Geert, and thanks everyone for inviting me. I think it is really going to compliment what Michael said very well. Because what I’ve been interested in is: looking back at web design was not just the excitement about what the web could do, in terms of creativity, in terms of new technologies, in terms of new designs, but there was also such a powerful moment of the excitement about new ways of working around web design; new kinds of anti-corporate, informal, flexible, autonomous, non-hierarchical ways of working. There was a really powerful sense of utopian imagining around what kind of work would be possible. So that was the interest that I had when I started out on this research, basically to test some of those ideas. To test some of those utopian imaginings against what was actually happening and what people’s experience of working in web design actually were.

First of all I need to make the sociology plea and apologize for doing such a naff PowerPoint presentation. It is very very embarrassing to be in a room full of very creative artistic people and here I’m using the most boring off the plate template in PowerPoint, but sorry I am a sociologist. Forgive me.

Basically the research that there was around new media, at the time we did this was, there’s been quite a lot of sociological research and research by anthropologist and geographers but it seemed to focus on quite a few themes that didn’t actually have to do with the workers own experience. One of the key themes was the theme around the New Economy. A lot of the research focused on the New Economy and economic boom and bust patterns, trying to specify in what way the New Economy or the Knowledge Economy worked as a different form of economic organization.

A second theme of sociological research was around the death of distance. This was a really really powerful research theme. Basically it focused on the possibilities engendered by virtual products. The idea that workers could be based anywhere, and businesses were really interested in that because they thought that saved them loads of money in distribution costs.

The idea of the Weightless Economy, it is very interesting because the Weightless Economy is a very, in sociological terms, a very common term. But whenever I mentioned it to new media people they would think that “weightless” was spelt “wait”, “wait less”, rather than “weightless”, and they associated with that faster broadband connections and so on. But it is actually more about the weightlessness of what is produced.

The flip side of that interest in weightlessness is a current preoccupation around the return of sociality. There is a really strong interest, at the moment, in clustering, why people doing similar activities, who are involved in similar kinds of work, why they cluster together. Even though these works are by definition virtual. We could in fact be working anywhere, we can communicate by email; why is it that people doing similar types of things want to all live and work in the same parts of the city. Right now there are a huge number of research projects examining those questions.

I’m basically focusing a lot on the value of face-to-face interaction as means of sharing information, such as getting information about what jobs are available, evaluating new programs, new types of software and so on.

There is also a lot of research around new types of firms in the new media field. In particular the declining significance of the traditional firm, and this new interest in networks, where firms pull together diverse people from different fields and bring them together as project networks rather than old established units of the firm.

And finally I’d say in terms of what the dominant sociological research is looking at; there is a huge amount of research on consumption and the uses of new media products. There is a lot of work on the unequal distribution of access to these kinds of products and these kinds of skills. There is a strong focus on the digital divide, focus on things like the way the web is transforming peoples consumption, healthcare and people’s health practices, political transformation; how that is being impacted by the web.

All of this stuff I think is really interesting, really important, but what’s left out of it is; there is little focus on who the people are that work in these fields, what they are doing, what their aspirations are, how are they organizing, are they actually doing things differently, what kind of challenges do they face, all these kinds of questions.

This really echoes what Michael was saying. Into this space generated by a lack of research comes all of these really potent myths usually based on studies of just one city and it is often either London where I’m from, or New York, and dominated by quite North American assumptions. So there is the image of the Techno Bohemians from New York at the end of the late 90s, artistic, cool, alternative, kind of DIY punk sensibility, Generation X’ers with a strong anti-corporate ethic. It is really interesting when you read a lot of the writing about this that quite a lot of the popular writing about this group of workers focuses more on how many body piercings they have and how many tattoos they have and what their hairstyle is like, rather than the nature of the work, or what they are doing.

The British flip side of that is the “Independent”, that was the term coined by Charlie Leadbeter and Kate Oakley and it was a term that had been used to talk about young people who were setting up creative or cultural industries, micro businesses, in Britain in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. T hey share a lot of the values as the Techno Bohemians, they are anti-establishment, they’re highly individualistic, they value autonomy and fulfillment in their work.

According to Leadbeter and Oakley, the emergence of this group had several quite distinctive social and demographic determinants. They were the first generation who grew up with computers and consequently felt enabled by that technology. They entered the work force in the 1980s during a moment of economic recession and industrial downsizing. And also, this is quite crucial, during a moment when there was a diminishing availability of the public purse for arts subsidies. So they were kind of pushed by these social determinants towards self-employment. They generally reached adulthood or adolescence during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, and they are said to derive some of their values from this kind of political formation of Thatcherism. In a kind of contradictory way because none of them would identify themselves as Tories, they wouldn’t identify themselves as conservatives, and yet they have some of those Neo-Liberal, like Michael was saying, anti-establishment, anti-tradition, very individualistic qualities. And this again pre-disposed them to entrepreneurial self-employment.

In addition to this academic writing about the new media myth there has really been a very powerful and potent media in popular culture about the new media myth, a myth around it being exciting cutting edge work. That it involves artistic young cool people. That it is very creative and it is autonomous and that working relationships are relaxed and non-hierarchical. That there is this anti-corporate feel, and that there is this really egalitarian focus and a focus on diversity. The myth around what a new media start up firm looks like, is that it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, because everyone connects to this “post-Benetton” ideal of egalitarianism, I think you could call it. You know the Benetton adverts; it’s that kind of image. A sort of classic image of it in Britain was seen in a drama that started in late 2000 called Attachments, which was the BBC’s first attempt to do a dotcom drama. I’ll just read a bit from the press release of the drama. The BBC promised us:

“An abundance of sex, nudity and lust…” and it highlighted the following things, “lattés and trendy warehouse premises, temperamental designers, people shouting things like, ‘can’t you do a tracer route on the IP address’, web cams in the toilet, swearing abuse and practical jokes, brooding techies with body odor and investors who seemed to be friends but turn out to be enemies.”

A… just the opening two scenes kind of set the tone for the whole of this drama. The opening scene shows the coder hard at work on his HTML or his JAVA or whatever, then the camera pulls back and we see that he is actually completely naked. Then he gets up to make a call on his mobile, which obviously he has to do on a skateboard, and he skateboards across the room, naked, and calls his colleague on the phone. His colleague answers the phone midway through having sex, and there you have all of the ingredients of this show.

It was against the backdrop of these myths that we set out to do, really some basic empirical research about what it is like to actually work in new media. This research is five years old and that makes it basically half a lifetime away, in terms of the lifetime of the web and what we are addressing now. One of the things I’d really value is your feedback on how out of date this research is. How much has changed, what is different now. The situation I think is perhaps very different and it is partly a result of the Dotcom Crash. Though I think this is more of a North American story than it is a European story, especially because of the huge amounts of venture capital that were involved in the US. But it is also very different because things have just shaken down. Things have stabilized and there is much more differentiation now, say for computer game designers, which are now a separate group largely, rather than included under this heading.

There has been this stabilization and differentiation, but I am keen to explore what has changed. We have started a new study at the beginning of this week with Andy Pratts, from London and Folkes Beltan from Berlin. We are looking at six cities but don’t have any data yet, we started it two weeks ago. What I’ve done in this talk; I am talking mainly about research I did with some colleagues, but also supplementing it where I can with more up to date information from other colleagues.

These were my research partners and I just want to acknowledge them. The study was carried out with these partners and it was cross European. We focused on six different countries. We did interviews, a combination of interviews and electronic surveys. This is just a slide mentioning some of the additional research I am drawing on.

The countries in the study were Austria, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

The responses that we got from the study were very uneven. So we got a lot of responses from the people in the Netherlands and a lot of people from the UK, some from Spain, hardly any from Ireland and a few from Finland. So it is very unevenly distributed.

Our findings. Starting off with the most banal, most people were aged between 20 and 40; most of them actually were between 25 and 35. They’ve been working in new media an average of two to six years. The people that we spoke to, 112 of them, the sample we have is overwhelmingly white. I think this is an important point. I am not totally clear whether the whiteness of our respondents is at all related to the fact that this industry is very white dominated or whether there something in the way we did our research, and particularly the use of snow balling, that meant we didn’t actually get to close to the black, Asian and other people involved. I suspect that it is a very white dominated field, and I can say that looking out at this audience. But also based on the evidence of art school admissions. In the UK there is a real concern at the moment because entry to art school is so white and so middle class, and it shouldn’t be. I think there are really important issues around racialization, particularly when we look at the findings juxtaposed with the myth: the myth of racial egalitarianism.

In terms of education we found that, you guys, are probably the most highly educated workers in Europe, that 93% had a degree, half of those with a degree had a post-graduate qualification, but more than that they have also done loads of supplementary training and learning from all kinds of packages, training languages, techniques and so on.

There was a really powerful finding around how critical people were about their formal education, so although they were kind of up there with doctors and lawyers, in terms of how much formal education they’d had, they were extremely critical of that formal education. They were critical of their teachers having very low levels of IT literacy; they felt that their teachers had a very impoverished view of the potential of new technologies and applications. And that there was much too much a rigid split between art lessons on the one hand, IT lessons on the other, and no connection between them.

They were also very critical of the way that ICT was treated as kind of play, instead of real work, in schools in particular. So a bit like, “oh now kids we are going to do something really fun”. Instead of, this is just as important and serious as the rest of your work.

A lot of them having been very critical of their formal education had then learned loads of packages and applications, by themselves or in adult education settings, or media centers, or from their peers. There was an incredible amount of peer teaching and learning going on. Someone mentioned it yesterday in terms of just standing around terminals. People gathering around saying, “look at that, how did you do that? Look at the particular look and feel of that”, all of those sorts of things.

Findings in terms of the work itself, we found that the informal networks that people had were extremely important. They were a source of support, of learning, and of information about jobs. Lots of people at that time created their own jobs. And that could be something as basic as somebody going to their local independent record store and saying do you want me to design a web site for you. Lots of people created their own work, or produced CD-ROMS that they took around and showed people. They were trying to engage with people about thinking about doing different things and extending people’s vision of what was possible.

A key source of finding work was a culture that was organized around bars and cafés. The recent research pool has born that out as well. There is some research on Brighton and Hove from 2003, which is a very big new media hub in the south of England. It found that although there are loads of internet recruitment agencies and also lots of state subsidized agencies to support new media workers with bulletin boards of vacancies and jobs etc. people didn’t tend to use them. They used word of mouth and face-to-face as their source of finding work.

Importantly it was not just a source of finding work, but it was also a source of trading evaluations of who was good, who was doing crappy stuff, who was good to work with, who kept a deadline, who didn’t. All of that kind of tacit information was passed on informally in face-to-face settings around bars.

We found that people were often working on lots of different projects simultaneously. The average was around eight per year and they sometimes made distinctions between the things they had to do to pay the rent, which might be very boring and mundane things that they had to do just to pay the rent, and then their artistic or creative projects, which they saw as actually defining who they were and what they wanted to do; where they were pushing the boundaries.

Findings in terms of money: we were really shocked by this, when we found this out, bare in mind it is five years ago; very low earnings for new media work. Men were earning an average of 16,000 euros a year and women were earning an average of 10,000 euros. These low incomes meant that they had to supplement their new media work with other types of work. By far the most common other type of work they supplemented with was teaching. There is a lot of adult education teaching going on, some of them were doing part time teaching at a university, and what was very significant was, they are bit like actors in a sense. They might be waiting tables in a restaurant eleven and half months per year and get a part in a show for two weeks of the year, but they still self-defined themselves as actors. And so it was with the new media workers we spoke too. Their identity, their sense of who they were, what they were doing came from their new media work, even if that was, in terms of their financial earnings and in terms of time, much less significant. That is really important.

The attractions and frustrations, the youth dynamisms, the creativity, the fact that it was never boring, people said that a lot. It is never boring. It is always challenging you; you are always being forced to think through new things, a sense of possibilities. They also really valued working in flat organizations where there wasn’t specialized differentiation, where everybody had to do a bit of everything. That was how it was for most of the people at that time. They valued the autonomy, they valued the freedom to shape their working day. They could get up at three in the afternoon if they wanted and work then, and work through the whole night. But there was nobody saying you need to be here between these hours.

Again, the myth of new media was heavily referenced by the people we spoke too, saying it is a fun place to work and a really valuable part of it was the blurring of work and non-work, so you didn’t think, this is my work and then this is the rest of my life. There was a blurring between work and life.

Leadbeter and Oakley in their study offer a very upbeat assessment of this kind of work. It really stresses the pleasures of working in a creative micro business. But what we felt and what often gets left out of these very celebratory accounts is a sense of any of the costs, or risks, or the insecurity, or the precariousness of this kind of work. So what we tried to do is hold on to both sides, hold on to the fact that people told us about the exhilaration, the excitement, the pleasure; how good it was to be doing something you really enjoyed and was challenging, yet also hold onto some of the problematic features that there were for people working in new media.

We grouped these together under the headline, “The Individualization of Risk”. This phrase is one that comes from a German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Unlike employees in traditional organizations the majority of our respondents were freelancers and they were working in extremely competitive environments, where your portfolio of work and your last job and your reputation were fundamentals, like the phrase, “you’re only as good as your last job” was very powerful. The workers we spoke too dealt with a lot of anxieties and risks around finding work, managing their time, managing their new media work with the other stuff they had to do in order to make some money to pay the rent. Managing the gaps between contracts updating their skills in a field where innovations are just crazily fast. Staying abreast of new developments was a constant challenge. You couldn’t get sick because you might miss out on a whole new set of things.

So, for example, Susan Christopherson has done some research around the new media district in New York, and her respondents said they were basically spending 20 hours every week staying abreast of changes, training themselves in new skills, updating their skills, and looking for their next contract. 20 hours a week you know is more than half of the standard working week and that is before they’ve even done any work. You see what I mean? They haven’t even started their actual work. That’s just to keep ticking over. So a long hours culture, very demanding. There wasn’t a culture of complaining about that. People did that and understood that is part of working in this field, yet you could see that over a long period that might become unsustainable to work at that kind of pitch and once you’ve left a particular age bracket.

Turning finally to the specific issues around gender. We found that when we asked women and men about what you could call their “techno biographies”, that whole set of experiences they had with different technologies growing up, that they had totally different techno biographies. And this started either at school or before going to school. At school the women routinely reported having much less access to the PC, and that the PC’s would be dominated by groups of boys hanging around them. There was lots and lots of talk about that.

It ended up with the fact that women just got fewer of the contracts. So I said to you earlier that there was an average of eight contracts per year, eight different projects per year, when you broke that down by gender, men were doing an average of nine and women were doing and average of six. Women were doing fewer contracts. As a consequence to that they earned substantially less for their new media work. Where men were earning 16,000 euros on average, women were earning 10,000 euros. What this meant was that, de facto, women became part time in what they were doing. They got pushed into a situation where, because they were getting fewer new media contracts they were having to do more teaching, the university lecturing and so on, in order to supplement their income. And so it polarized many of them. If you looked at their career trajectories side-by-side they started to look very different and they became more different.

One of the other significant things about this was that one of the universal desires of everyone we spoke to was that they wanted to work in the cultural hub or the technology hub of a city. That was their most desirable place of working. So everybody’s aspiration was to have some sort of rented studio space in the cultural hub of the city. What happened in terms of gender was, because woman were earning less from their new media work they couldn’t justify the rent on the studio space in the way that men could. More women end up working from home. And then it became a sort of self fulfilling prophecy, that they were working from home, they weren’t in the cultural hub of the city where a lot of the men had rented studio spaces, so they weren’t in the café and the bar culture, so they didn’t have a place to bring clients to and say this is my work space. And so this whole cycle continued.

We had from women and men; we had people telling us very fun solutions, and very creative solutions, that they made for this problem. Nevertheless, it was a problem. One woman adopted a café, which she always used to bring clients to. It was like her café and that’s where they kind of reserved a table for her and she could always bring her clients and know it would be reasonably quiet.

Diane Parrins who’s done some work around Brighton, told me a very fun story about how two men, who were working out of a bedroom, how they managed that problem about talking to clients in a space that wasn’t a converted bedroom. What they would do is hire a black Mercedes in order to generate the impression that they had tons of work and tons of business. They would always get out their PDA and say, “I can’t fit you in, I just can’t fit you in at all” and then they’d say, “look the only time I can do it is midnight, is midnight by Brighton Pier going to be okay?” Apparently people would say yes and they would actually have the meeting in this hire black Mercedes.

There was another similar story, again around generating an aura of solidity and busyness and creativity around the company, was again from Brighton, which was two guys hiring a yacht just off the coast of Brighton, and then they would pay young people to wear t-shirts with the company name on it and to walk up and down the beach wearing these t-shirts, which was basically just these two guys; the company; wearing these t-shirts to generate an impression of how big and successful the company was while they had this hourly rented yacht trip out at sea.

There were incredibly creative solutions but nevertheless the serious issue is around what happened when woman got forced back into working in the home.

So far I’ve talked about some very traditional mundane, not at all surprising difference between the number of contracts that men and women got, the rates of pay they got, the access to work places they had. But in addition to those traditional markers of inequality there were a couple of things that seemed to be new, seemed to be distinctive to the new media field, one of them centered around informality. As I said before the informality in new media work is something that really attracted people to that work. But this could also pose problems for women. There were various women who reported problems in terms of working with men in male dominated teams, where there could sometimes be inappropriately sexualized interaction, sometimes bordering on harassment. More commonly there were complaints about ladish culture. This was also found by Victoria Pitts in her 2003 study, and by Diane Parrins in her study in 2004. Her respondents talked about the “bloke-ism” of working in new media.

Women also tended feel that they missed out in getting contracts because they were less likely to be involved in the drinking culture. They also felt implicitly that judgments that were passed on around who is good, who’s creative, who’s doing exciting stuff, who’s hot at the moment, those kinds of informal judgments tended to discriminate against them. Not that it was deliberate but tended to privilege men, in what one of them called the new boys network.

Another issue was flexibility, as I said, flexibility is another of those things that is seen as highly desirable. But there is a very flexible discourse of flexibility in new media. It didn’t necessarily turn out to be the kind of flexibilities that they wanted. Flexibility ended up not being determined by their own needs, it wasn’t that they were truly autonomous and able to work flexibly, but it was flexibility determined by the needs of the project. So you could be quite flexible when a deadline wasn’t due, but as soon as one was due flexibility went out of the window. In fact it turned out to be something that Andy Pratts called the bulimic career pattern. Which draws on that notion of eating disorders where you have really intense periods of binging on work where you are working all of the time and then periods where you are basically starving for work.

Another issues about women working from home, I’d like to add just one point here. Historically the home has had a very different meaning for women then its had for men and that is another reason that made it particularly difficult for women to be returned to the home. It made our female respondents feel that being in the home made them seem less serious then it did for men.

The final issue here is about children. We didn’t specifically ask about children. Very few people had children, partly because of the age range of the people. But Susan Christopherson in her study of New York found that very few of the new media workers she studied had children. And Annette Henninger and Karin Gottschall in Germany also found that women were much less likely to have children. Now you could just say, maybe new media workers don’t want to have children. But what emerged was that men could have children, so male new media workers often did have children but the female new media workers didn’t. This seems to be another hidden cost that women where facing. As a side note to that, I’ve done some work for the BBC and they’ve been working towards getting targets for the number of senior executives, executive producers, and producers and they reached those targets for women. But anecdotally what they reported now is that the new in-equality that they found is not between men and women but between men with children and women who can’t seem to have children to make it in the same positions within the BBC. I really think the issue around children and being able to have children combine that with work is an important one.

My very last point now, is around something we called the post-feminist problem. One of the issues was that there was a real reluctance amongst our sample, both male and female, to admit to the new media scene being anything other than completely egalitarianism. There was a kind of willful gender blindness and racial blindness so that people would not notice that it was completely white, and not notice patterns of male domination, and this went for age as well. There was such a dominance of individualistic and meritocratic discourses so everybody seemed very wedded to the idea that if you work hard enough you can make it. That it is up to you to be good enough so that you get the next contract. What seemed to have disappeared was any kind of language for talking about a structural inequality. There was a kind of schizophrenic quality to some of the conversations we had. Where on the one hand people would know that it wasn’t really meritocratic, it wasn’t really based on how good you were and there were all kinds of other things going on in the allocation of contracts; who do you know, who is you friend, who did you work with before, or were you in the bar on that particular night when that was being talked about. All of those things were in fact really important things, but once people talked about it they came back to this idealized notion of it being a meritocracy, and it is all on the basis of how good you are.

To conclude I think there are a lot of issues in terms of new media workers lives, but particularly I focused on the differences between the kinds of career biographies that women and men were able to have, and I think there is quite a long way to go before we can say in anyway we are living up to the core creative, egalitarian image. Thanks