Last week, as I read through a scholarly article about social science-based energy research, I was surprised to see “Gender and Identity” in the list of promising though underdeveloped research areas. I shouldn’t have been surprised. While under-appreciated, gender interacts with energy in many important ways. Women throughout the world spend hours collecting fuel before using it for cooking and other chores. Energy also shapes our practices, cultures, and communities. For example, the article notes how communal cooking fires can act as havens “where women can gather to discuss their personal issues without the presence of men.” Of course Schwartz Cowan’s link between technology and gender roles (see the More Work for Mother posts) also applies to energy.
In recent years policy wonks have highlighted behavioral change as an important tool for reducing electricity loads and/or shifting them to reduce expensive “peak load” periods. They tell people to turn lights off, turn the thermostat down, and run the dishwasher at night. They champion technological “solutions” like smart meters, smart appliances, data feedback portals, and real-time price signals to support such behavioral changes. While all these things have value, such blanket solutions rarely account for how different groups use electricity.
As we saw before, women tend to be the ones at home during the day. As a result, they are more likely to be the ones shivering when the thermostat is turned down. Women also tend to be the ones performing the “housework.” Hence they will be the ones forced to hang dry the laundry or structure their cleaning schedules around energy prices. Policies and technical solutions that fail to account for such dynamics promise to (unintentionally) pile more burdens onto women. For an interesting scholarly article on this see here.
The moral of the story? Gender has important implications for energy policy and technology usage generally. We should be doing more to understand this dynamic!
Unfortunately I also saw the Microsoft ads targeting women this week. Did they take a nuanced look at gender differences in technology usage? Only if you think wedding planning, Pinterest, and harried mom’s are nuanced. Similar campaigns by other companies have highlighted shopping, scrapbooking, and diets. There is much work to be done . . .