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close this bookWomen Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)
close this folder2. Information technology and working women's demands
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe changing requirements in skills
View the documentMismatch between demand and supply of cognitive skills: Implications for women
View the documentComputer technology and the small scale sector
View the documentWomen in new-tech service industries
View the documentChanging location of work and the new international division of labour
View the documentHealth hazards of new technology
View the documentAt the margin of new technology: Groups and countries
View the documentTranscending the politics of gender
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

(introductory text...)

Swasti Mitter

It is not obvious whether women should make demands different from those of men of technologies, old or new. The caring and childbearing role that women play assigns them a special function in most societies. The juggling act that the majority of working women perform, in balancing home and a job, gives rise to a set of priorities that are generally quite distinct from those of working men. Yet, even these almost essential or universal experiences of women do not give an unquestionable legitimacy to claims for woman-specific orientations of technological change. As our identities get constantly defined and redefined in terms of ethnicity, religion and class. gender does not always seem the primary basis for forming alliances. There are understandable misgivings, even among some concerned philosophers, about an emphasis on gender, as it distracts attention from other elements that determine vulnerability in the world of paid work. Rajni Kothari of India is not atypical in his belief that:

it is not just a question of women. It is a much larger issue of a new technological basis of economic and cultural exploitation which is urging for a new spirit of democratic resistance against what is undoubtedly a considerably changed (transnationalized, corporate, computerized, militarized and televised) model of capitalist growth and integration.

(Kothari, 1989: p. xii)

Only a broad-based alliance is seen to have the potential of distributing the benefits of technology to the unprivileged of all kinds, men as well as women.

An attempt to evaluate the effects of new technologies on women's employment needs some justification against the background of such current thoughts. This is especially important at a time when the commonality in women's needs and experiences is being questioned by the women of the developing world. The women's movement, which includes organized working women, is now being celebrated in the non-European world in terms of the heritages of the countries concerned. Fatima Mernissi, a leading feminist author of Africa and a Professor at the Technical University of Agdal Rabat, Morocco, for example, puts forward a case for such a culturally-rooted basis for action:

We Muslim women can walk into the modem world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country stems from no imported values, but it is a part of a Muslim Tradition . . . its prophet spoke of matters dangerous to the establishment: of human dignity and equal rights.

(Mernissi, 1991: pp. viii and ix)

The 'universal' needs of women are also being questioned in the developed world. This questioning is part of the current debate around the legitimacy of a 'modernity' that projects science and technology as rational and value-free, transcending the perspective and experiences of a group or of an individual.1 The disadvantaged groups view this concept of a universal method of scientific enquiry with understandable suspicion. To start with, some of the metaphors and assumptions used in the description of scientific methods have hardly been value-neutral. Feminist historians, for example, have evoked the language used by Sir Francis Bacon (15611626), and other fathers of science, to stress the misogynist context of the epistemology of science. The severe testing of hypotheses through controlled manipulation of nature, and the necessity of such manipulations, if experiments were to be repeated, were formulated by them in sexist metaphors of rape and torture (Anderson, 1960: p. 25). In the post-Enlightenment period of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, biomedical science deployed similar symbolisms whereby nature was viewed as a woman to be unveiled, unclothed and penetrated by masculine science (Jordonova, l980: p. 45).

The objectivity of scientific knowledge has also been questioned on the ground that the method of knowledge is not invariant, but is shaped by its social context. The recognition of diversity in the method of knowing - for example by women, or by the third world or by working class people became known as 'standpoint epistemology' (Harding, 1991: p. 119). The concept subsequently merged with the language of post-modernism, that either celebrated or denounced the end of all 'grand narratives' (Jameson, 1991: pp. ix-xxii), including that of universal canons of rational science. It became increasingly acceptable to argue that the scientists revise the criteria of rationality as they move along and enter new domains of research (Feyerabend, 1978: p. 10).

For disadvantaged groups, including women, the stress on social specificity has been particularly refreshing in the context of technology, a branch of applied science. A focus on social and cultural factors has been useful in revealing the marginal role that women have been assigned, for example, in the history of technology and science. The formulation and implementation of technologies, in the public domain, have always affected relationships of economic power. The technological innovations become commercially successful if and when the creator of the innovation could make use of political, economic and legal networks.2 Thus the dominant group in a society determines the shape and direction of a society's techno-economic order - and the image of an inventor has almost always been male.

Lack of access to relevant networks in the public domain explains the historical marginalization of women's contribution to technological innovations. It is not that women did not advance the technological frontiers, but their role was obliterated from mainstream documentation. It is a worthwhile task to reclaim their contributions, but it is equally important to highlight the factors that led to their oblivion.

The uneven distribution of economic power explains the differing control over technologies by diverse social groups. Distributive justice, thus, becomes the key issue in a programme for the democratization of technology's beneficial productive power. The question of distributive justice is particularly relevant in our 'postmodernist' decade, when it has become acceptable to recognize heterogeneity in the needs and aspirations of different groups in a population. Respect for diversity is empty unless the disadvantaged groups have access to political and economic networks. In the absence of such access, a celebration of plurality may simply give the dominant groups an excuse for non-action.

If not placed in the context of the question of distribution, the search for a culture-specific technology can be alarmingly anti-progressive, as is often the case with the eco-feminists of India, Germany and elsewhere. The destruction and depletion of the environment and of community life, which western-style development had caused in many parts of the world, has been a reason for despondency among concerned scholars. Vandana Shiva, for example, in Staying Alive, passionately calls for the rejection of a technology that supports and is supported by the socio-political-economic system of western capital patriarchy, which dominates and exploits nature, women and the poor (Shiva, 1989: p. 25; Shiva and Mies, 1993). In contrast, she argues, women of the third world have the holistic and ecological knowledge of what the foundation and protection of life is all about:

They retain the ability to see nature's life as a precondition for human survival and the integrity of interconnectedness in nature as a precondition for life . . . ecology and feminism [thus] can combine in the recovery of the feminine principle and through this recovery, can transform maldevelopment.

(Shiva, 1989: pp. 48 49)

The feminine principle, I fear, is an extremely vague concept. Also, the eco-feminists do not tell us how women of the third world can have the power to shift the pattern of development in the absence of increased economic power. A return to a mythical tradition and indigenous technology is not necessarily liberating; the majority of women will be reluctant to give up opportunities of work that advanced technologies bring them in modern urban sectors. It is the economic empowerment through paid work that allows women, and other disadvantaged groups, to voice their aspirations, priorities and demands.

It is crucial that the appropriateness of new technologies should be assessed in the cultural, political and economic context of a community or of a nation. But it becomes alarming when the quest for such cultural specificity urges us to go back to an unchanging tradition, complete with its indigenous technology and social norms. Recent work by two American scholars is an example of such a seductive but disturbing persuasion. Frédérique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin, in Dominating Knowledge, put forward a case for techne, a mode of knowing in the nonwestern world that combines the use of 'one's hands, eyes and heart as well as one's head' (Marglin and Marglin, 1990: p. 234). In sharp contrast to the western reductionist and cerebral mode of enquiry - defined as epistémé the secrets of can be learned only in a network of relationship: 'the parent-child, master-apprentice, guru-shisha [relationships] are intensely personal' (ibid.: p. 235).

I have two objections to arguments of this kind. To start with, the Marglins ignore the significant role that the concept of 'tacit knowledge' plays in the current design and implementation of computer-integrated manufacturing systems. A second and more serious objection is that this approach condones, if not justifies, a social order that has been highly oppressive to groups that are disadvantaged and marginal:

tradition of course grants the Brahman superiority over other castes and grants their knowledge superiority over the techne of other castes . . . but just as each caste is accorded its distinct and necessary role in a well-ordered cosmos, so must the techne of each caste be recognized as distinct and necessary.

(ibid.: p. 276)

The Marglins, in their celebration of diversity, urge us to accept, unquestioningly, the cultural norms and beliefs that support techne.

It may be readily agreed that the sacrifice of a young woman on an altar in a traditional society is barbaric . . . but such practices must be understood in context, as a part of a cultural whole . . . female circumcision should not be a pretext for labelling African culture as backward, or suttee a pretext for proclaiming the inferiority of traditional Hindu culture.

(ibid.: p. 12)

A search for contextuality and an abandonment of absolute values soon leads to the absence of all moral imperatives.3