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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

Changing location of work and the new international division of labour

Both class and gender structure the patterns of access to, and choice for, new-tech jobs; they also determine the emerging international division of labour around information-intensive work. The key element in this division consists of shifts in the location of work. Computer technology facilitates the fragmentation of information-intensive work as effectively as it does manufacturing work. Certain parts of such work can be transferred to people and regions where wages are lower. In the developed part of the world, the changing location of information-intensive work is discussed mostly in the context of 'electronic cottages' and telework. The combination of computer and telecommunication technology makes it technically possible for large numbers of workers, whose jobs involve information processing, to work at terminals from home. A vision of an 'electronic cottage' features in all scenarios of the future of work in such societies. Although the number of people involved in telework is still small, its potential is quite large for professionals as well as data-entry and clerical employees (Huws, 1991; 1993). From research canted out in industrialized countries, one can identify the important differences that are already emerging between professional and clerical teleworkers. While men predominate among managerial staff, computer programmers and systems analysts, women are the majority among clerical workers (Wajcman and Probert, 1988).

A very large proportion of women teleworkers are married women with young children; this form of work is especially attractive to them because of their household responsibilities and the lack of adequate childcare. Judy Wajcman's observations in Australia in this field are similar to those by Ursula Huws in Britain. Electronic homework, for women, is an extension of traditional homework with all its disadvantages. Like traditional homeworkers, electronic homeworkers are typically paid at piece rates and earn substantially less than comparably skilled employees working in offices.

They are not entitled to benefits such as sickness pay and have no security of employment. The experience of male computer and software professionals is quite different. Male professionals work from home rather than at home, and earn far more that way, by lowering the overhead costs of running a business from an office. As Judy Wajcman concludes from her experience in Australia, Europe and America:

It is only for male professionals who possess skills which are in short supply that new technology homework presents an unambiguous attractive choice. Overall . . . computer-based homework appears to reinforce sexual division in relation to paid work and unpaid domestic work, as well as to the technical division of labour.

(Wajcman and Probert, 1988: p. 42)

Software production itself, however, is not a homogeneous process and can be broken down into various stages, from the first specification of requirements and prototyping through the design and encoding stages to testing and maintenance (Brady, 1989). The earlier stages require higher levels of skill and experience, whereas coding and testing are less skill-intensive. Given the sexual division of labour at home, it is understandable why women, either as teleworkers or as office employees, predominate in the stages that involve fewer challenges and risks.

The possibility of fragmenting the production process allows the global companies to relocate coding and testing jobs to low wage countries (Mister et al., 1992). Alternatively, the companies recruit programmers from such countries on a 'contract' basis to work on site. Married women, with young families, find it difficult if not impossible to undertake such contract work. Social norms in non-European countries also stand in the way of unmarried young women working abroad.

Exports of programmes and of programmers have become a major source of earning for a number of developing countries. India, for example, has experienced spectacular success. In the 1980s the annual average rate of growth in the programming area was 35 per cent, but between 1991 and 1992 Indian software exports rose by 67 per cent to US$ 144 million. Export earnings are likely to reach US$350 million by 1995. This is a major development for the country, because software is steadily replacing traditional agriculture and manufacturing exports in importance. One of the keys to India's success lies in the low cost of its computer programmers. It costs 40 to 50 per cent less to develop a programme in India than in the US. A substantial proportion of the contracts that India receives, however, are not for the offshore development of programmes; American and other companies often prefer to have programmes developed on-site, near the hardware. The result has been a steady export of software programmers, working on a contract basis in OECD countries.

The software field offers new employment opportunities for women with adequate training. India's example may not be too atypical for women of other developing countries. There is a general consensus that women stand a better chance of receiving a position of seniority in this area than in other fields of science and technology. Yet women constitute less than 10 per cent of the employees in this field and rarely hold management posts (Mister et al., 1992: pp. 23-24). The factors inhibiting women's career progression arise mainly from

· lack of international mobility on account of family commitments;

· regulations against night work which prevent companies from hiring women for contracts that need round-the-clock work;

· clients' reluctance to use women consultants, especially in the Middle East.

In addition, the training courses are expensive: families are often reluctant to spend too much money on a daughter's education, as she is primarily groomed to get married and have a family.

Women who enter software programming generally come from a relatively privileged background. The choice of education and career is by definition more limited for poorer women. Their integration in the international division of information-intensive labour has taken a different route. Ruth Pearson's recent work, and some of my own, has focused on the transfer of low-skill data-entry jobs to 'digiports' or 'teleports' in the Caribbean, where women type into computers for long hours at low pay, with insecure employment contracts. In many ways the data-entry work in teleports mirrors clerical telework in developed countries (Mister et al., 1992: p. 46). Offshore data-entry typically consists of high-volume activities such as airline ticketing, data processing, company data storage, credit card transactions and company databases.

Given the current developments in office automation, such as voice recognition, offshore office services are likely to be a short-term phenomenon. Just as the development of advanced automation systems has reduced the need for offshore assembly work, the next phase of technology may bring this new avenue of employment for women in the developing world to an end. Computer literacy learnt on the job, on the other hand, could be a stepping-stone towards alternative employment, so long as women are given chances to demand adequate and appropriate training.