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close this bookWomen Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)
close this folder1. Beyond the politics of difference
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentWho are the women of the third world?
View the documentAccounting for women's position in information technology
View the documentIT and the world of work: Manufacturing and services sectors
View the documentDisembodied technology: Software and data entry work
View the documentPostmodernism: A shift from collective to individual
View the documentEcofeminism and the politics of identity in the developing world
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences

IT and the world of work: Manufacturing and services sectors

The employment implications of IT assume a special importance in the context of an uneven distribution of economic and political power. In the past, women's limited access to paid employment and corporate networks has led to a bias in the adoption of technology and to a differential impact on women and men.

It is important at this point to explore why the subject of women and IT has received so little attention in recent research and literature. The reason can hardly be the lack of relevance of computers to women of the developing world. In urban areas of the majority of countries, the use of computers is no longer a novel phenomenon, even among less privileged women of poorer nations.

The case study of TAMWA (Tanzania Women's Association), as documented by Fatma Alloo in this anthology, demonstrates how IT could enhance the power of journalists and media people to disseminate news and views for educating and for mobilizing a wide range of non-elite women. The effective use of desktop publishing and printing work augments TAMWA's income generating activities. TAMWA does not have to be at the cutting edge of technology. Reasonably cheap, and by western standards old, computers allow TAMWA to be effective in networking and to remain sustainable in the long run. As Fatma Alloo so passionately asserts:

The fact that we can produce so-called 'first world' quality in spite of being a so-called 'third world' group has been an empowering process. . . . [It has led to] the demystification of information technology for that class which needs it the most in order to have their voices heard.... For example, we produce brochures on the laws which affect women's lives, written in a simplified Kiswahili, with visuals and big letters for the new literates in Tanzania. Information technology can be used to destroy [Africa's] 'poor and powerless' myth, and to mobilize a community for empowerment and social change.

The current research and documentation are not extensive enough to make possible a quantitative estimate of the impact of IT on women's manufacturing employment in the developing world. The sectoral and country studies, as documented here, merely give a 'bird's-eye view' of the fundamental transformation that IT is generating in the production process of some developing countries.

Argentina and Brazil - two major Latin American countries - have been in the forefront of the adoption of new technologies in sectors such as textiles, which provided a major source of employment to women. On the basis of extensive interviews and published data, Liliana Acero constructs the way in which women are responding to a new industrial culture - where companies are automating not just to save labour costs, but also to obtain higher efficiency and flexibility in order to meet international quality standards. Her paper delineates the demands women themselves are making in relation to the formal and informal training system that companies and the state are providing for workers.

Acero highlights the complex way in which technological changes affect the quality and quantity of women's work. In some ways, she agrees with Braverman's 'degradation of work' hypothesis, which postulates that advances in technology essentially lead to deskilling and feminization of work. Yet her paper points also to a contradictory trend: the new production process increasingly demands technical and managerial expertise and polyvalent skills for core occupations. Acero's work highlights the factors, social and educational, that bar women from the opportunities to upgrade their skills, so as to have access to these core jobs. Her observations on women's status and role at work and at home stress the need to have a deeper insight into the links between private and public domains in workers' lives. New technology, in reducing the skill components of assembly-line jobs, makes these more accessible to women. Increased job opportunities, however, bring new tensions in workers' domestic lives. Acero documents the life of a typical woman textile worker in Argentina: 'My marriage started to break down when I started work.... I had more chances than he did. So things started going wrong.' The evolving situation in the household poses special challenges to women who take time off in order to organize around their workplace demands, or who take initiatives in family planning. The relative shift of power, nonetheless, as Acero shows, has contributed to some autonomy for women and extended work and training possibilities.

Pavla Jezkova's paper in this anthology complements Liliana Acero's documentation of Latin America. The adoption of computer technology in textiles, in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh, has been less extensive and more recent than in Brazil and Argentina. The displacement of women in response to new technology has thus been less marked than in Latin America. In fact, large numbers of women have entered the garments sector of the textiles industry, where the use of new technology is becoming more extensive. Export-oriented industrialization and foreign direct investment - vehicles of technology transfer - have opened up new opportunities to women. Women, however, are rarely represented in the decision-making areas and are predominant only in blue-collar jobs. In the next phase of technological change these are precisely the jobs that will be vulnerable. Jezkova, in the context of shifts in the world trading order, thus gives reasons and methods for more effective state policies in order to ensure and to improve women's position in industrial employment.

Upgrading women's skills through a continuous learning process benefits women and the countries involved. Jezkova confirms observations that I have made in my own paper, that highly-skilled women workers are a good selling point for countries to attract direct foreign investment. In an economic environment where achieving international competitiveness through foreign collaboration is considered a high priority, women's education and training for new technology production jobs assume special importance. In the training programme, as Jezkova points out, it is crucial to give women access to 'soft' and transferable business skills that allow them to cope with the dictates of the market and of technology.

The nature and direction of IT is shaped essentially by a country's geopolitical environment, which includes its alliance to specific trading blocs. But, even within a country, the impact of technology is never uniform. The response and the speed of adjustment to IT depend much on a worker's group identity and her social position.

Charlene Gannag paper in this anthology elucidates this point. Gannag analytical categories go beyond the usual Marxist feminist categories of class and of gender. She stresses instead the need to combine class, gender and ethnicity simultaneously in understanding the changing labour process in our postcolonial time. The paper elucidates the way information technology, in tandem with trading alliances and new corporate strategies, alters the job opportunities and career structure of immigrant women in a society such as Canada. The technology has not simply replaced labour, it has also led to a polarization in skills and to decentralization of work to home-based workers. Charlene Gannag observations thus call for a government policy and union strategies towards education and training programmes that are anti-racist and feminist, and that take account explicitly of the specific needs of immigrant workers.

In a discussion of identity and difference - personal or national - the access to and control of IT have a special meaning. The degrees of exclusion that arise from the information revolution sharply differentiate individuals, regions and communities. Women of the east European countries provide a striking illustration of this. With the phasing out of socialism and moves towards a market economy, the economies of these countries are going through a period of restructuring and reorientation. The inflow of foreign direct investment in this new scenario is viewed as the main vehicle of technology transfer. The state-owned manufacturing companies rationalize their politics in terms of success in wooing international investment. In the context of Slovenia, Maja Bucar elucidates the impact of such a process on the gender structure of employment.

Overall, in the transitional phase of Slovenia, the adoption of IT has been relatively small and the preparatory rationalization process has not affected women's share of employment, at least in manufacturing jobs. This could be the result of generous employment protection legislation in Slovenia, a legacy of socialism. It could also, as she reflects, be because women are more willing than men to accept lower wages and greater loss of autonomy: these are now, increasingly, features of the economic restructuring. At this historical juncture, she points out, women's organizations in Slovenia need to be in close contact with their counterparts in the non-European world in order to counteract the negative aspects of the coming technological revolution. In Slovenia there are no vigorous unions or popular movements to monitor the effects of technology on the structure and conditions of work.

In developing countries, information technology alters the pattern of production even in the non-formal sector, characterized by unregistered firms that do not disclose their production and income. The subterranean or 'do-it-yourself' economy contributes significantly to the total product in certain sectors, and it recruits women in large numbers, especially in assembly-line work. Nirmala Banerjee, in her paper, unravels a fascinating picture of this hitherto undocumented side of computer-related production. In Calcutta, a city with an exceedingly high rate of unemployment, poor infrastructure and an exorbitant state-government levy on consumer electronic goods, illicit units are enjoying a boom, producing black and white television sets or cassette players - lookalikes for famous brands for the 'dowry' of the clients' daughters. Most of the components are imported, and local women from specific communities are hired on a temporary basis, mainly to do the simple, repetitive, assembling operation. Such women come from poor families, often not even with primary education, but on the job, in a crowded space, women 'become familiar with the men's skills and feel confident they too could mend a television set or even assemble a full one'. The tacit skill potentially presents them with an opportunity for upward mobility, for setting themselves up as entrepreneurs. Yet, as the paper shows, for women, and not for men, 'it is important to have some formal qualification, which they do not possess', in order to be able to convince customers of their expertise in this area.

Banerjee's documentation of pluralism in the process of technology diffusion fits well with the postmodernist vision of everything in constant flux. Hybridity and 'in-betweenness' permeate the industrial culture of the problem-ridden city of Calcutta. Thus, in a Japanese joint venture producing micro-motors outside Calcutta, young girls, aged around 19 or 20, from conservative backgrounds, practice Japanese Ikebana (early morning physical exercise) on Bengali soil. Women find it embarrassing, and yet they are willing to undergo any discipline in order to keep a job. As Banerjee observes: 'The only thing they were worried about was the possibility of the plant closing down, and whether the skills that they had acquired would be adequate to get another job.' In the midst of such diverse modes of production of electronic goods and services, it is class bias in education and training, as Banerjee points out, that presents a real bottleneck in the expansion of production and employment. Given the institutional rigidities and the expense, it is difficult for women of modest backgrounds to have access to relevant training in electronics and software. In a city beset with unemployment and shortages of skills, to waste the opportunities for growth and employment, she asserts, would be criminal. Radical thinking about training, that takes into account the obstacles that gender and class pose to a trainee, will be essential for utilizing human potential to the full.

The importance of taking a strategic view of women's education is likewise stressed in Mayuri Odedra-Straub's paper. In Sub-Saharan Africa, computer equipment is often not used when it would be advantageous to do so, because of a lack of skilled personnel, poor buying plans and the scarcity of foreign exchange for importing expertise and the necessary software. In this situation, to train women for the IT sector jobs may alleviate some of the problems. But as Odedra-Straub points out, given the social environment and cultural norms, it is extremely difficult for most women in Africa to have access even to primary and secondary education. In her paper, she makes a case for extending general literacy and basic technical education to women before formulating computer literacy programmes. She draws attention to cultural factors that explain why even the most privileged women decide to drop out of the field in Africa, in spite of the fact that 'final year female students perform better than their male counterparts in both the computer hardware and software disciplines.' The question she poses is 'whether "women and information technology in Africa" should be a topic of discussion or not, whether we should first examine other issues concerning women in Africa, or whether Africa needs IT at all'.

The picture that emerges from the service-sector of other developing countries is less pessimistic, albeit uncertain. It neither confirms nor refutes the 'degradation of work' or 'deskilling' hypothesis. In terms of sheer numbers, as the papers by Sujata Gothoskar, and by Cecilia Ng and Carol Yong show, women have made startling gains. Between 1975 and 1988, in the financial sector of India, women's employment increased by more than 300 per cent. This continues a trend which began in the 1950s, in both public sector companies and private foreign-controlled banks.

The situation is similar in Malaysia: the case study of a major telecommunications company by Ng and Yong in this anthology indicates that women have been the major beneficiaries of new computer-related white-collar jobs. Employment opportunities grew at a rapid rate in the eighties in Malaysia, as the government pledged to use science and technology for transforming the country into a 'scientific and progressive' nation. The largest number of jobs have been created in the low-skilled areas - such as data processing, where women predominate numerically. Women's visibility is relatively less pronounced in the area of programming and systems analysis. Significantly, few women who have made it to these higher echelons belong to the indigenous Malay population. Ng and Yong urge us to shift away from an exclusive focus on gender, since that leads to a simplified analysis of the true picture:

ethnic and class differentials are as important (and sometimes more important) than gender differentials.... Feminist theories of work have to consider the complex inter-relationship of the forces contributing to segmentation in employment . . . rather than just focusing on gender per se.

Sujata Gothoskar's observations corroborate those of Cecilia Ng and Carol Yong. In the context of her own study of the banking sector in Bombay, she finds that class position bears just as much relevance as gender in determining an employee's opportunities in information processing sectors. A growing polarization by skills, gender, class and ethnicity now characterizes the structure of information processing jobs in the services sector. It is in this context that women need to formulate their demands vis-is technological changes, inside and outside the unions. As Gothoskar's paper shows, the changing forms of employment entail a reduction in the 'non-bargainable' staff - those who are not allowed or encouraged to join unions. As white-collar employees, women, even in low paid areas, find their multiple identity difficult to cope with in a challenging and often insecure employment environment:

In the union workshops and meetings, we are addressed as union members; in the management training programmes we are bank employees. But all of us are much more than that. We are employees, we are women, we are home-makers, we are thinking and feeling human beings, we are ambitious and much more.

The multi-dimensionality in the identity of a woman worker is the focal point of new organizations which are lobbying around issues such as VDU hazards, flexible contracts, intensification of workloads and discrimination in training and education. Women employees are focusing attention on newer demands. In Malaysia, as Ng and Yong narrate, the hazards of the use of VDUs, especially to women's reproductive health, have not been matters of concern for the male-oriented trade unions. In response, women's groups have taken their own initiatives to bring these issues to public attention and to make them relevant to collective bargaining.

Women's sharing of experiences has proved rewarding at the community and at the national level, but it has also extended beyond the boundaries of nation states. The examples, given by Ng and Yong, in the Malaysian context make Gothoskar's observation in India pertinent:

In the wake of liberalization and globalization and the changes in Indian banking, they want to know what is happening in the banking and finance sectors in other countries in terms of women's employment and organizing, what the experiences of women in those countries have been and what strategies they have used.