|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)|
|2. Information technology and working women's demands|
Women's employment position alters with the increased inputs of information-intensive work even in traditional manufacturing. In the clothing industry, for example, computer-aided designing and cutting methods give rise to labour processes that are akin to those in the services sector (Cockburn 1985: chapter 2; Rosen, 1992). The use of information-intensive methods of production demands computer-literacy and some knowledge of programming. Access to relevant training in a given type of employment, in this situation, gives women and men skills that are transferable between industries and sectors.
In the developed world, it is the services sector, particularly office work, that has been the focus of debates and enquiries around the impact of new technology on women's work. In the seventies, the feminist discussions were influenced by what is known as the 'labour process perspective' or the 'deskilling' debate, as formulated initially by Harry Braverman (1974). Labour process analysis characterizes the office as a white-collar mirror of an assembly line, with office work fragmented into many sub-tasks, each performed by a specialized worker, who loses both contact with the total product and variety in the tasks performed.
The 'proletarization' of white-collar workers, however, has not followed the predicted, uniform pattern. In some cases, the new technology has deskilled workers or automated certain functions of female workers. In other areas, it has upgraded the labour, by integrating fragmented production processes and by demanding complex skills from workers. The effects of new technologies, in other words, created a polarization in the workforce in terms of quality of work. One study, by Juliet Webster ( 1989), of office workers in Britain highlights the way computer technology contributes to polarization by accentuating inequalities in a given occupation. As she showed, the rationalization and fragmentation of clerical work had long predated the advent of computer technology; its introduction only reinforced a tendency for typists to perform repetitive, standardized tasks. At the same time, word processors reduced the burden of routine work for secretaries, enabling them to continue to do a variety of relatively responsible tasks. Thus the introduction of word processors exacerbated preexisting divisions between two groups of women office workers, enhancing the position of some secretaries but not that of typists.
In the service industries, the use of computers has been generally women-friendly. The QWERTY-keyboard13 of the computers allows women to use the typist's skills in many jobs in the services sector. In the banking, insurance, and telecommunications industries, the rate of entry of women has been impressive in both the rich and poorer parts of the world. Despite the current quantitative gains, however, women's career progression in these new fields has been less spectacular: their presence in managerial and technical posts has been minimal (Tremblay, 1991: p. 140).14
Women's numerical predominance is visible also in the Information Technology (IT) industry. In the major European telecommunications companies, delivering either equipment or services, there has been a growth in the demand for employees with computer literacy and knowledge of software. Women have gained a fair share of the new employment, but are characteristically congregated at the level of the lower cadres, in assembly-line data-entry or low-level office work (see Figure 2.2). In the next phase of automation, these feminized, repetitive, new-tech jobs ate the ones that are likely to disappear (Mister et al., 1993, p. 22). The picture in the poorer parts of the world is the same.
In certain occupations, such as in software, companies are keen to recruit highly-trained women at managerial level. In spite of the demand, women are less visible in these jobs, as they find it difficult to combine the challenges of a demanding career with domestic peace and social norms. The experiences of high-powered women in new-tech jobs ate similar all over the world. One of the ax-directors of F-International, UK, recounts:
As I became successful, my husband felt depressed. I don't blame him, he wanted a wife and not a director of a company to live with. At the end, I had to make a choice, between my marriage and my career. I opted for my career. I think I made the right choice - but it was lonely and painful to have to make the choice.15
Source: Mitter, et al. ( 1993)
Similarly, in Nigeria, as Bimbo Soriyan and Bisi Aina explain,
it is believed that once you are married, you must have children. A computer scientist who has no child, therefore, would either not be dedicated to the profession for fear of her husband marrying another wife or be so involved to forget the problems at home. The computer scientist who is a wife and a mother is treated better than the unmarried or those without children, but at a price. More responsibility is placed on her to fulfil the three-in-one role. Not many Nigerian women are in the middle and top management positions, because these jobs make numerous demands on women which they might not easily be able to meet. With the alarming rate of divorce in Nigeria, many women strongly desire lucrative, executive positions, like those occupied by computer scientists, with stable homes. This brings a dilemma to the average woman: should she pursue her ambition at the expense of her home or sacrifice her job for her marriage?
(Soriyan and Aina, 1991: p. 206)