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Smart homes promise to end the ‘wife drought’, but where do women fit in?

Demand for smart home products has fallen short of expectations, so exactly who are the intended buyers? Alexander Kirch from www.shutterstock.com

Smart homes promise to end the ‘wife drought’, but where do women fit in?

“Imagine, if you would, coming home from a long day’s work,” invites a typical smart home article. “You open the door, and the lights immediately turn on a shade past dim – just the way you like it.” Such tantalising offers are characteristic of an industry that has often struggled to keep pace with its anticipated reality.

This raises the questions: who is the smart home intended for, and why has it not gained more traction? Our analysis of the 21st-century smart home reveals one possible explanation: the smart home is primarily envisioned by and for men.

Domestic activity: exit stage left

Domestic activity or traditional “women’s work” (cooking, cleaning, washing up, or doing the laundry) is strikingly absent from the smart home. Our analysis of smart home articles (print and online) published since 2000 found just a handful contained any sign of domestic labour.

Where household chores are discussed, smart home technologies promise to make them simpler and more efficient. Typical examples include fridges that text you a shopping list and washing machines that send you a message when the cycle is done. But the “work” that sits behind these smart applications – going to the shops and doing the laundry – is rarely mentioned.

This 1953 Woman’s Day advertisement promoted the spinner washer’s benefits to women, as was typical of the times. flickr/Classic Film, CC BY-NC

Instead, the smart fridge is marketed (presumably) to men, who can ask their fridge to inform them how many cold beers are available.

These features distinguish the 21st-century smart home from its predecessors. The “industrial home” (think vacuum cleaners and irons) and the “electric home” (think refrigeration, cooking, lighting) were marketed as ways to free up women’s time. In contrast, the modern smart home is subtly aimed at producing more leisure time for men.

A dutiful new wife: enter stage right

The 21st-century smart home offers a way to solve Annabel Crabb’s “wife drought”. Rather than asking men to step up in the home – or take a step back from their careers – household and parenting work can be assigned to smart technologies. Siri, Lili, Ivee or a “Rosie the maid”-type robot offer men (and women) a nostalgic opportunity to purchase a 1950s-style wife.

The late-‘90s Disney Channel movie Smart House beautifully enacts this vision. Single dad Nick and his two children are in need of a mother and wife. The gendered PAT smart home system steps in to help.

This vision is re-enacted in some 21st-century smart home articles:

You like to talk; you want a home that will listen to – and obey – you. Ever wish you could stumble through the front door after a long day and say, “Turn on the TV and start dinner!” Unless you have a particularly servile spouse, that tactic is unlikely to get you anything but silence - or nasty glares. The [insert smart home system here] can bring you closer to that vision. (PC Computer, 2000)

Another more recent article discusses how the smart home can make dad’s life easier:

So when dad arrives home, smart-home technology will turn on his favourite music play list, boil the kettle, dim the lights to his preferred level, turn the television on and switch to the news.

While there is an element of tongue in cheek here, the implication is clear. The smart home can end the wife drought.

Where are the women?

Many smart home products, like this Goji smart lock, are promoted to men. flickr/Maurizio Pesce, CC BY

There are moves to make smart homes more appealing to women and to lose the industry’s “boys’ toys” stigma. Many women are now buying – and using – smart home technologies. More women are working in and writing about the industry, even though men wrote the majority of articles we analysed.

The problem is sometimes cited as a lack of women in the industry, with the solution presented as enrolling more women in tech-related disciplines and professions. However, this runs the risk of perpetuating the same vision.

Another alternative is for the smart home industry to prioritise expertise about everyday life. This means valuing women’s (and men’s) skills in housework as a design resource. The fields of society and culture – which have high female participation rates – are concerned with understanding the messy, improvisational and adaptive ways in which people live. These disciplines can provide (and are already providing) a reality check for the smart home.

It is also important to call out the gender dynamics at play here and acknowledge that they are not a fait accompli. Let’s be clear. It has never been (and is unlikely to ever be) possible for technologies to replace wives or parents. Nor is it necessarily desirable.

Past research shows that parents and partners give and receive pleasure and meaning by doing domestic and caring work. Technologies can value and support these roles, rather than erase or replace them.

This is exactly what other sociological research is finding. Technologies such as smart phones, tablets and laptops are supporting a quiet revolution of “technology dads” who are challenging traditional gender roles in the home by engaging in flexible child care and work arrangements.

There may indeed be benefits for both sexes from successfully assigning some domestic tasks to smart technology. However, the smart home sector can only benefit from a deeper appreciation of the complexity of household roles and work, leading to a more inclusive vision of everyday life.


A presentation on this topic was given to The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Conference in Cairns this week, co-authored with Larissa Nicholls.