From the post-war welfare state that inherently assumed married women would be supported by their husbands, to the 21st-century introduction of Universal Credit which financially disincentivises some women in cohabiting relations from working: the welfare benefits system in the UK has historically favoured individuals who conform to gender stereotypes.
At the same time, the welfare benefits system also uses more and more surveillance of claimants to determine who is ‘deserving’ of support, using increasingly sophisticated data analysis tools to impose conditions on welfare claimants and punish those who do not comply.
Laura Carter, PhD candidate in the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre, published a new article in Internet Policy Review, which argues that both stereotyping and surveillance reinforce structures of categorisation – in which individuals are treated according to group membership (whether or not it is accurate) and control, through normalising some behaviours while punishing others.
The article argues that the combination of gender stereotyping and surveillance in the UK welfare state risks creating a vicious cycle, in which the categorisation and control dimensions of both stereotyping and surveillance reinforce each other.
This increases the likelihood of the system coercing welfare claimants—by definition, people living on low incomes—into certain ‘accepted’ behaviours, and discriminating against those who do not conform.
The increased conditionality of welfare benefits has already caused demonstrative harm to those who cannot or struggle to access Universal Credit. The article further argues that the coercive, surveillant nature of the welfare state risks cementing hierarchies of power that continue to stereotype and discriminate against low-income people.
This is the case particularly for low-income women who are expected to balance the demands of their disproportionate unpaid caring responsibilities as well as increasing requirements for job search activities.
Carter’s article applies a human rights analysis—including recognition of the harms of gender stereotyping, as recognised by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) —to this system of coercion and conditionality, in order to make visible analysis the specifically gendered nature of the harm caused by surveillance and conditionality to welfare benefits claimants.
Applying analysis of gender stereotyping can further identify—and combat—harms that are inherent in the current structure of the welfare benefits system in the UK, with the aim of ensuring that benefits are accessible for all who need them.
Article full citation: Carter, L. (2021). Prescripted living: gender stereotypes and data-based surveillance in the UK welfare state. Internet Policy Review, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.14763/2021.4.1593