|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)|
|3. Feminist approaches to technology|
It is not only how women do science which matters but what science does to women; not simply women's lack of power to shape technologies but also the effect of existing technologies upon women's lives. Though there is a growing literature on both production and consumption, our focus here is on production. Feminism has had an impact on several relevant disciplines, bringing scholars to ask questions which had been generally ignored. Industrial sociologists, development economists and labour historians have all contributed; engendering their accounts of the effect of technology.
The initial consensus was one of general gloom. Many socialist feminists were influenced by Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital ( 1974) which argued that technology tended to intensify the labour process and deskill workers. Feminists writing on the organization of production observed women's lack of power to determine how technology was designed and applied. In development literature too, Ester Boserup's influential Women's Role in Economic Development (1970), was to be the basis for a socialist feminist literature demonstrating how technology and capitalist industrialization was displacing women from production.6
Pessimism has also marked the work of feminists who have prioritized gender as the crucial determinant of the context in which technologies were imposed. For example, Rosemary Pringle in Secretaries Talk (1989) said that new technology enhanced men's power, 'If men are represented as the masters of technology, women are its servants. Technology does not empower them but reinforces their powerlessness and dependence on men'.7
There have been, however, some dissenting voices. In Labour Pains, for example, Pat Armstrong modified the prevailing pessimistic attitude towards new technology with the view that while it did imply increased productivity and control over workers, it also presented new possibilities for women workers (Armstrong, 1984: p. 139).
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, absolute positions, whether optimistic or pessimistic, about the impact of the development process upon women's employment patterns came to be questioned (Acevedo, 1992: pp. 223-225). With this came an awareness that 'a new theoretical perspective on the relationship between women and technology' (Bhaskar, 1987: p. 14) was needed. This does not mean an unquestioning acceptance of the extreme anti-modernist critique of science and technology. For as B.N. Bhaskar observes, 'the Achilles heel of this perspective is in translating its ideas into concrete reality' (ibid.). On the other hand it does not return us to viewing technology as a neutral force completely apart from culture. A valuable starting point is the growth of concrete studies of technology and gender in recent feminist historiography, particularly in the United States.
Contemporary debates have generated historical enquiry into the actual consequences of the impact of technology. These question the original hypothesis of a uniform debasement of labour and skill. Feminist work has revealed many examples of the introduction of technology which is accompanied by the exclusion of women from the new skills required, and the displacement of their labour and reclassification of their jobs as low-skilled. However, evidence has also been found of benefits because of a general expansion of employment. Sometimes a mixed situation of loss and benefit has occurred. For instance, the typewriter helped to establish secretarial work as a female domain, which saw a loss of status for secretaries from the 1880s. However, Carole Scrole argues that it did not instigate women's entry into offices but accelerated their numerical domination (Scrole, 1987: p.96). Frieda S. Rozen (1987) describes how the increasing size of airplanes contributed to the organization of women flight attendants in the period 1974 to 1978.
Moreover, recent historical work is demonstrating that women are not all affected by technology in the same way. Mary H. Blewett (1988), for example found that in the New England shoe industry, mechanics tried to train women homeworkers to use the new sewing machines introduced to factories in the middle of the century, but the women resisted the transition from hand to machine work. Interestingly, it was not until sewing machines were made for home use and a new generation of young women were familiar with them that women began displacing men in factories as sewing machine operators.
Not only differences between generations but ethnic, racial and class segregation are being shown to have interacted with gender to produce hierarchies among women. Gender cannot be regarded as a distinct unchanging category. Examining the American printing industry's response to technology between 1850 and 1930, Ava Baron has argued that 'we need to scrutinize how class and gender are constructed simultaneously' (Baron, 1987: p. 62). Gender itself is shaped by circumstances of class, race, and ethnicity. She also cautions against an undifferentiated concept of 'patriarchy' as an unchanging structure.
The view that men shape work to protect their gender interests assumes that gender is monolithic, rather than multidimensional and internally inconsistent. It also assumes that men are omnipotent, that they know what their gender interests are and have power to construct the world the way they want. Feminist research needs both to question male power rather than assume its existence, and to examine what its limitations are.
This recent historical examination of gender and technology has been mainly concerned with the first world, not the third. However, there has been a growing awareness of the need to extend the boundaries of women's labour history through exploring the social histories of work and community in the third world. A picture is beginning to emerge of a gendered class experience in, for example, Japan, India and China from the late nineteenth century (see, for example, Hershatter, 1986; Kumar, 1993). The specific structures of the family, the dynamics of class struggle and ideas in the workplace or in communities, as well as state policies have all affected the impact of technology upon third world women. For example, in Japan women's work in the coal mines was affected by recession after World War I, when more women became redundant than men. Protective legislation introduced after World War I left women working above ground. However, in 1939 these labour laws were set aside because of the intense demand for labour and women again worked underground. The prohibition of women's work in the mines was restored in 1947 but they continued to sift the coal until mechanization of this process in the 1960s. In this example the interplay of political, economic and cultural factors can be seen technology has an effect but within a specific social context (Mathias, 1993: pp. 101-105; Saso, 1990: pp. 25-26). An exclusive focus on gender and technology could run the risk of artificially abstracting the impact of technology from the wider circumstances of work and life and ignore how state policy affects women's position, so this more comprehensive approach is particularly valuable.
Theorists of industrial relations and welfare
Technology is developed and applied within wider social relationships, which involve assumptions about how people should live and work. Women have certainly had much less influence upon shaping their social contexts and intellectual frameworks than men. However, even here they have not been entirely absent. For instance, several notable figures are to be found developing the theory and practice of modern technological environments.
Lillian Gilbreth was a theorist of industrial engineering in the 1920s. She analysed the effect of Taylor's standardizing of managerial practices in the United States, including improved lighting, reduced pollution, rest intervals and breaks, incentives for workers, greater control by workers over their own speed and tasks. She studied the chairs and positions in which women worked in order to prevent fatigue and backache. Rationalization of production was extended into housework by several women impressed by Taylorism, an approach which profoundly influenced the construction of the welfare state (Trescott, 1983: pp. 29-32). One advocate of efficient house management was the American Christine Frederick who promoted Taylorism. Along with Emmy Wolder in the early 1920s she pioneered works canteens which were adopted by supporters in Europe concerned about welfare (Tanner, 1992: pp. 67-70).8
These liberal proponents of the rationalization of production and reproduction were concerned to increase productivity. The maximization of profit which benefitted employers was assumed to accord with workers' interests. It was seen as the means of promoting industrial harmony. Women workers were likely to be less enthusiastic about the reason for the Tayloristic time and motion studies. However, by formalizing and reforming the organization and conditions of work they inadvertently provided possibilities for struggles for workers' control which would not have existed under completely informal and sweated working arrangements. Consequently it could be argued that instrumental reason in its Tayloristic form was not simply a coercive ploy to extract labour from workers. The regulation of wages, despite gender inequalities, marked a certain advance over the personal whim and sexual power of a coercive foreman or employer, which could decide pay in a small clothing shop for instance.
It would be a mistake to assume that all women theorists, simply because of their gender, have thought in the same way or that they have concurred over what kind of organization of production best serves workers' interests. Helen Marot, for example, opposed the reshaping of American industry in the early twentieth century, through wage incentives and rationalization. She accused the methodology of scientific management of plucking out some of [the worker's] faculties and discarding the rest of the man as valueless (Polanski, 1987: p. 253). Marot believed instead in 'the creative impulse . . . a strong emotional impulse, a real intellectual interest in the adventure of productive enterprise'. Unlike Gilbreth's emphasis on instinct, in which human beings were passive, she presents human character as dynamic and self-motivating. Against competition she argued for a cooperative emphasis upon giving.
Helen Marot also developed a vision of a transformed educative workplace in which technical skills were balanced with the humanities and social sciences. For example, in running a toyshop, students would deal not only with the technical problems or work, keeping financial accounts and estimating costs, maintaining the workplace and health of the workforce, but also study economics, aesthetics, literature and history. These were to be integrated into the industrial process, transforming the mechanical and the human. This approach to industrial education was to be important in influencing the work of Lewis Mumford later. Helen Marot refused to accept a technological cancellation of human beings by reducing them to passive objects, not because of her gender but because of her political and intellectual stance. She had spotted at a very early stage the fatal weakness of Taylorism - its inability to enhance human creativity (ibid.: pp. 254, 250).
Helen Marot's approach has obvious relevance for modern attempts to question authoritarian modes of management. The prevailing orthodoxies of management theory themselves have recently changed gear to emphasize participation as a means of incorporating workers' knowledge. An unintended consequence of this apparent appropriation of the ideas of their opponents could be the possibility of a renewed critique of the meaning of work, not only by theorists of industrial relations but by workers themselves (Binns, 1991: p. 54). It is within this potential for democratizing work and social existence that alternative feminist approaches to technology might lose an abstract and purely utopian quality and become an element in shaping a new reality.