Work isn't working

Families and firms are at war. It will only be won when parents - fathers as well as mothers - can c

The Sex War is over. Girls outperform boys at school and are streaming through higher edu cation. Young women are now taking home the same size wage packets as young men. But the celebrations have to wait. A new, tougher battle has to be fought. It is not a duel between men and women, but between families and firms. This family war will be won only when parents - fathers as well as mothers - can care for their children without dumbing down their careers.

Women now compete with men on a virtually equal footing in both business and politics - but only until the precise moment they become mothers. It is not a question of old-fashioned notions about their capabilities. "Women don't lose out because of outdated views about them as women," says Mary Gregory, an economics lecturer at Oxford University and expert on gender and work. "They lose out because they make different choices about work when they have children." It is not possession of a womb that now holds women back, but its use.

This is fertile political ground, and the Conservatives are beginning to move on to it. David Cameron has proposed that maternity leave should be made transferable, allowing mums and dads to tag-team the childcare, or even take time off together. It is a modest proposal, not least because fathers will only be paid £112 a week (the current statutory maternity pay rate). Labour's John Hutton retorted that few families would be able to afford to make use of such a right. This is true: but why deny those people the possibility?

It is lack of choice that is now the issue. Legislation aimed at tackling direct discrimination, most importantly the Equal Pay Act, has helped to bring about a sea change in employer attitudes and pay scales. Barbara Castle, author and advocate of the Equal Pay Act, must sit beside Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan in the Labour pantheon. The latest research from the TUC shows that the gap between the full-time earnings of men and women in their twenties is only 3 per cent. Even this small gap is explained entirely by the very large salaries of a handful of men at the top of the income distribution, which pull up the male average, and the unwillingness of women to pitch for more money. As Gregory suggests, "Women don't ask."

But the good news comes to an end at 30, the age at which the typical married woman has her first child. Children strike women's careers like a meteorite, while glancing almost imperceptibly off fathers' working lives. The pay gap for thirtysomethings is 11 per cent; women in their forties earn 23 per cent less. The picture gets even worse when part-timers are brought into the picture. Female part-timers in their thirties and forties earn only two-thirds as much an hour as male full-timers of the same age. It is motherhood, rather than misogyny, that explains the pay gap. As Gillian Paull from the Institute for Fiscal Studies writes in the latest issue of the Economic Journal: "The 'family gap' in employment and wages - that is, the differences in work behaviour between women without children and mothers - may be more important than the gender gap alone." Meanwhile, men's working hours go up slightly when they become fathers: and dads do better in terms of wages than childless men.

Direct discrimination is no longer the prin cipal enemy. Three structural problems explain the pay gap. First, women and men work in different occupations, with women clustered in less well-paid sectors such as teaching, retail and health care. This occupational segregation has hardly diminished over the past few decades. Second, the significant increase in general wage inequality has had the unfortunate side effect of making the gap between men and women bigger. Third, the penalty paid by women for working part-time after having children has become much more severe, as a high proportion slide down the occupational ladder in what the erstwhile Equal Opportunities Commission termed a "hidden brain drain".

Campaigners for gender equality hope that the Single Equality Act, scheduled for inclusion in this year's Queen's Speech, will force companies to conduct equal-pay audits. It is in fact a forlorn hope, but they should not be too disappointed. As Barbara Petrongolo, a labour specialist at the LSE, says: "Equal treatment policies like equality audits will not have much bite. The problem is not that employers are paying women less for doing the same jobs as men - it is that women are doing different jobs after having children."

Occupational downgrading

A slew of recent studies has dissected the complex data on motherhood and part-time employment. The conclusions highlight the real problems facing British families, and the failure of the labour market to deliver real choice. Most mothers work part-time for some years in order to balance raising their children with staying in the labour market: only a third of mothers with pre-school-age children are in full-time work. A substantial minority - around a quarter - of these end up in a lower-status job: managers become clerical workers. Some professions, such as nursing and teaching, offer most women the chance to go part-time without loss of status or hourly pay. And those women who stay with their current employer are less likely to suffer "occupational downgrading". As Gregory and her co-author Sara Connolly lament: "This loss of career status with part-time work is a stark failure among otherwise encouraging trends for women's advancement."

It is important to be clear what the problem is. Is it bad news that women want to spend time with their children? Surely not, given the evidence for the importance of parental engagement in the early years of a child's life. Are these women "forced" into part-time work, and now just grinning and bearing it? No - the overwhelming majority say they positively chose part-time work, and their job satisfaction is higher than that of mothers working full-time. Most men and women, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, think that a conventional division of labour is the right one, with mothers taking on the bulk of responsibility for childcare.

We may wish to change these attitudes, but equally we must respect them. The TUC, for example, struggles to take women's choices at face value, declaring: "Women take on a disproportionate share of caring responsibilities due to unequal pay and limited opportunities within the workplace." This presupposes a level of responsiveness to economic incentives that would make Milton Friedman proud. Like it or not, women are doing most of the caring because they see it as part of their role in life. Groundbreaking work by the American economists Rachel Kranton and George Akerlof suggests that being a mother is part of women's identity, and that this explains their otherwise irrational labour-market decisions.

Perhaps the problem is an economic one - the loss of productivity as a result of the underuse of women's skills? This is the argument adopted by many who are urging more government action, but it is a fragile one. The latest TUC report, Closing the Gender Pay Gap, estimates that £11bn a year is being lost. The Women and Work Commission puts the figure at between £15bn and £23bn. A strange, unholy alliance has in fact developed between old-fashioned feminists, who insist women ought to work full-time to gain economic parity with men, and Treasury economists, who worry about the apparently "irrational" squandering of "human capital" by educated women. The principal difference between these allies is that the feminists want to spend billions of pounds of public money on childcare to allow more women to work full-time - the "Swedish option", at which the mandarins generally baulk.

There are, however, grave dangers in relying on economic arguments. For a start, such estimates are notoriously difficult to generate and are open to subjective manipulation (another recent study even found that £5bn is lost each year as a result of bosses' failure to say "thank you" to their staff, which suggests there are easier ways to boost productivity). And even if there really is an economic cost, there may well be a counterbalancing social gain in better-quality family life and happier children.

"Cost" of legislation

Overall, welfare might be greater even if our GDP - the size of which is a source of constant anxiety to male politicians - is somewhat smaller. Employers and their representative bodies are also just as adept at producing studies showing the apparent "cost" of any legislation to help working families - whether it is to introduce a minimum wage, equal pay, better maternity leave or better rights for temporary staff. Equality then becomes a battle of numbers, each side wielding its own semi-fictional cost-benefit analysis. Once we start putting a price tag on equality, we have lost sight of its value.

The problem is not a dent in economic output. The problem is not that mothers reject a life as what the sociologist Heather Hopfl has called that of a "quasi-man". The problem is lack of choice, for women and men alike. Millions of women do not have the option of reducing their hours as well as maintaining their status. And very few men have the option of sharing the childcare responsibilities with their partner. Liberal societies should aim to offer individuals the maximum range of options from which to construct their version of a good life.

"The heart of the choice issue is limited opportunities for women to work part-time in high-quality jobs," says Petrongolo. Gregory agrees: "The crunch question is this - can part-time women continue at the same level?" The one area of dissatisfaction expressed by women working part-time is with their wages. That is not surprising.

Employers are reluctant to retain or hire senior part-timers. While 60 per cent of employers say they would allow a woman returning from maternity leave to switch to part-time status, of these only two-thirds would allow her to remain at the same level of seniority. So, less than half would permit a reduction in hours without loss of status. This may not just be the result of Jurassic attitudes, as Gregory admits: "We can't assume that employers are simply stupid." Assuming it costs as much to hire and train part-timers as full-timers, they will offer a lower return on investment. There may also be co-ordination costs, especially associated with part-time or job-sharing managers. But it is hard to know the true height of these barriers.

Since 2003, employees have had a "right to request" flexible working while firms have had a corresponding duty to take such requests seriously. Some one-off surveys suggest that since the law came into force, one in seven women have made a request, and that most have been accepted. But the Labour Force Survey - the main data source on workplace trends - shows no increase in levels of part-time work over the same period. This puzzles economists. The most likely explanation is that a similar number of requests was being made and granted even before the legislation, and that the law has made little difference. It also looks as if women are asking for part-time work in the sectors where they are most likely to be granted, such as nursing, rather than in the senior and professional jobs where the real problem lies.

Part-timer fathers

It is clear that British families do not want to outsource the raising of their children to others, and prefer to combine paid work and care. At the moment, this means mums, but in the future it could mean dads, too. The model we should be emulating is Holland, where workers have the right to convert a full-time job to a part-time one unless the employer can produce convincing evidence for damage to the firm. "We need to shift the burden of proof from the employee to the employer," insists Gregory. We need to go Dutch, and remove the words "to request" from the right to request flexible working.

It is possible that without the risk of occupational downsliding, more men may also choose to work part-time; but it is also necessary to give men the same freedom as women to take time off for childcare as women. Cameron's idea of transferability is a step in the right direction: it is high time the government stopped deciding for us which parent should raise our children.

Markets are usually good at offering choice, but at present the labour market is failing the family. Companies are not generally acting on the basis of a rigorous business case against senior part-timers. They are exhibiting what psychologists call "path dependency": doing what they do because that's what they've always done. A decisive legislative strike on the Dutch model could jolt them on to a fairer path. Rather than aiming at creating economy-friendly families, it is time to shape a family-friendly economy.

This is the kind of package Labour MPs used to advocate. Indeed, the Commission on Social Justice - under the influence of its deputy chair Patricia Hewitt - proposed just such a move back in 1994. But, in a battle between families and firms, Labour now leans towards the latter. Gordon Brown loves to praise "hard-working families". What families need now is for him to work harder for them.

Working parenthood: by numbers

1/3 of mothers, and one-fifth of fathers, use some form of flexible working pattern

£7,000 average cost of taking a full 12 months off work after the birth of a child

83% proportion of women who want to return to work after having children

1 in 3 proportion of female corporate managers who lose status after having children

94% of all new fathers take some time off after the birth to care for their children

90% of mothers take at least six months' leave

39 number of weeks women are entitled to statutory maternity pay at 90% or less of weekly earnings

2 number of weeks men are entitled to paternity leave (pay negotiable)

Research: Simon Rudd

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

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As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.