|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 pages)|
|1. Beyond the politics of difference|
It is not only the application of IT that gives rise to new challenges and opportunities, it is also the production of the core of IT - software programming - that shows novel, and often contradictory, potential. In processing and retrieving information, one needs to get involved in a wide range of activities: from the inputting of primary data (data entry work) to conceptualizing and modelling the software that instructs the processing. This operational side of information technology is often described as 'disembodied' technology, in order to distinguish it from that of machines or 'hardware'.
In her essay in this anthology, Fatima Gaio explores the potential of women's success in the field of software, which is free of a historic gendered division of labour. Using published statistics as well as material from her structured interviews, she highlights women's entry and career progression in the information processing sector of Brazil. The sector encompasses a vast range of activities, from simple data processing to complex tasks related to software. In Brazil, women account for nearly half of the information processing employees, but, significantly, the largest number are found near the base of the employment pyramid. While the majority of the data entry and data processing workers are women, women lag behind men in software development work. Nonetheless, as her figures show, women in this sector have fared far better than in the traditional professional jobs, such as engineering. Women of the third world, in the right circumstances, as she asserts, could look forward in the future to an equitable distribution of jobs in this area. But women's gains are not cost-free. Women who survive in these highly paid jobs, as one of her interviewees remarked, become somewhat 'phallic', 'they compete aggressively like men'.
Fatima Gaio's work challenges the traditional labour process theory as well as some socialist feminist's evaluation of technology, in the context of software development work. The labour process theory, she argues, gives too much attention to the 'hard' side of technical knowledge, which is amenable to deskilling through Taylorism and automation. The approach fails to note the growing importance of the 'soft' side of technical knowledge, such as communication and user-producer interaction, which enables women to achieve economic advancement and greater social power. The declining importance of mainframe computers, she argues, gives a reason also for revising a certain strand of the radical feminist vision of technology, that thinks primarily in terms of 'hard' machines, embodying male dominance and power (Cockburn, 1985). Gaio ends on an optimistic note:
[Men tend] to be clustered closer to the machinery, where technical expertise associated with mainframes has been assigned a high social prestige. Small processor platforms . . . and activities involving close interaction with users, seem to offer more conducive environments for women. Since the epoch of the powerful centralized mainframes is passing . . . women may well become core agents in the technical and social changes necessary for the further diffusion of information technologies.
Ruth Pearson's paper is less optimistic about the prospects that the disembodied technology presents to women. She is particularly concerned about the working conditions - such as the contractual terms, wages, training, health and safety - of new technology white-collar workers. Data-entry workers are the most vulnerable. This is especially so when women are employed as offshore data processing workers by European or American multinationals. Admittedly such jobs give a measure of economic power and autonomy to women of the third world; but Pearson declines to share the current view, either of the radical economists or of the World Bank, that these jobs create a cost-free, 'win-win' situation.
Her paper particularly draws attention to emerging issues, such as the health hazards which these 'clean' technologies bring to women. Her paper records the difficulties that women and men have faced and are still facing, even in rich countries, in establishing the reality of computer-related diseases, such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), as genuine industrial hazards. Such an injury has few external symptoms, and the attitude, in the medical as well as the official world, is 'if we cannot find it in the body, it must be in the mind'.
The paper stresses the need for an international exchange of experience in organizing around some of the new issues, in order to ensure that women's employment benefits from new technologies are not outweighed by the associated health and environmental costs. The idea is not that all risk-bearing employment for women should be prohibited, but that the health and safety issues should not be totally subordinated to wider concerns of economic growth, employment creation and foreign exchange generation.