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close this bookWomen Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)
close this folder2. Information technology and working women's demands
View the document(introduction...)
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


Swasti Mitter

It is not obvious whether women should make demands different from those of men of technologies, old or new. The caring and childbearing role that women play assigns them a special function in most societies. The juggling act that the majority of working women perform, in balancing home and a job, gives rise to a set of priorities that are generally quite distinct from those of working men. Yet, even these almost essential or universal experiences of women do not give an unquestionable legitimacy to claims for woman-specific orientations of technological change. As our identities get constantly defined and redefined in terms of ethnicity, religion and class. gender does not always seem the primary basis for forming alliances. There are understandable misgivings, even among some concerned philosophers, about an emphasis on gender, as it distracts attention from other elements that determine vulnerability in the world of paid work. Rajni Kothari of India is not atypical in his belief that:

it is not just a question of women. It is a much larger issue of a new technological basis of economic and cultural exploitation which is urging for a new spirit of democratic resistance against what is undoubtedly a considerably changed (transnationalized, corporate, computerized, militarized and televised) model of capitalist growth and integration.

(Kothari, 1989: p. xii)

Only a broad-based alliance is seen to have the potential of distributing the benefits of technology to the unprivileged of all kinds, men as well as women.

An attempt to evaluate the effects of new technologies on women's employment needs some justification against the background of such current thoughts. This is especially important at a time when the commonality in women's needs and experiences is being questioned by the women of the developing world. The women's movement, which includes organized working women, is now being celebrated in the non-European world in terms of the heritages of the countries concerned. Fatima Mernissi, a leading feminist author of Africa and a Professor at the Technical University of Agdal Rabat, Morocco, for example, puts forward a case for such a culturally-rooted basis for action:

We Muslim women can walk into the modem world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country stems from no imported values, but it is a part of a Muslim Tradition . . . its prophet spoke of matters dangerous to the establishment: of human dignity and equal rights.

(Mernissi, 1991: pp. viii and ix)

The 'universal' needs of women are also being questioned in the developed world. This questioning is part of the current debate around the legitimacy of a 'modernity' that projects science and technology as rational and value-free, transcending the perspective and experiences of a group or of an individual.1 The disadvantaged groups view this concept of a universal method of scientific enquiry with understandable suspicion. To start with, some of the metaphors and assumptions used in the description of scientific methods have hardly been value-neutral. Feminist historians, for example, have evoked the language used by Sir Francis Bacon (15611626), and other fathers of science, to stress the misogynist context of the epistemology of science. The severe testing of hypotheses through controlled manipulation of nature, and the necessity of such manipulations, if experiments were to be repeated, were formulated by them in sexist metaphors of rape and torture (Anderson, 1960: p. 25). In the post-Enlightenment period of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, biomedical science deployed similar symbolisms whereby nature was viewed as a woman to be unveiled, unclothed and penetrated by masculine science (Jordonova, l980: p. 45).

The objectivity of scientific knowledge has also been questioned on the ground that the method of knowledge is not invariant, but is shaped by its social context. The recognition of diversity in the method of knowing - for example by women, or by the third world or by working class people became known as 'standpoint epistemology' (Harding, 1991: p. 119). The concept subsequently merged with the language of post-modernism, that either celebrated or denounced the end of all 'grand narratives' (Jameson, 1991: pp. ix-xxii), including that of universal canons of rational science. It became increasingly acceptable to argue that the scientists revise the criteria of rationality as they move along and enter new domains of research (Feyerabend, 1978: p. 10).

For disadvantaged groups, including women, the stress on social specificity has been particularly refreshing in the context of technology, a branch of applied science. A focus on social and cultural factors has been useful in revealing the marginal role that women have been assigned, for example, in the history of technology and science. The formulation and implementation of technologies, in the public domain, have always affected relationships of economic power. The technological innovations become commercially successful if and when the creator of the innovation could make use of political, economic and legal networks.2 Thus the dominant group in a society determines the shape and direction of a society's techno-economic order - and the image of an inventor has almost always been male.

Lack of access to relevant networks in the public domain explains the historical marginalization of women's contribution to technological innovations. It is not that women did not advance the technological frontiers, but their role was obliterated from mainstream documentation. It is a worthwhile task to reclaim their contributions, but it is equally important to highlight the factors that led to their oblivion.

The uneven distribution of economic power explains the differing control over technologies by diverse social groups. Distributive justice, thus, becomes the key issue in a programme for the democratization of technology's beneficial productive power. The question of distributive justice is particularly relevant in our 'postmodernist' decade, when it has become acceptable to recognize heterogeneity in the needs and aspirations of different groups in a population. Respect for diversity is empty unless the disadvantaged groups have access to political and economic networks. In the absence of such access, a celebration of plurality may simply give the dominant groups an excuse for non-action.

If not placed in the context of the question of distribution, the search for a culture-specific technology can be alarmingly anti-progressive, as is often the case with the eco-feminists of India, Germany and elsewhere. The destruction and depletion of the environment and of community life, which western-style development had caused in many parts of the world, has been a reason for despondency among concerned scholars. Vandana Shiva, for example, in Staying Alive, passionately calls for the rejection of a technology that supports and is supported by the socio-political-economic system of western capital patriarchy, which dominates and exploits nature, women and the poor (Shiva, 1989: p. 25; Shiva and Mies, 1993). In contrast, she argues, women of the third world have the holistic and ecological knowledge of what the foundation and protection of life is all about:

They retain the ability to see nature's life as a precondition for human survival and the integrity of interconnectedness in nature as a precondition for life . . . ecology and feminism [thus] can combine in the recovery of the feminine principle and through this recovery, can transform maldevelopment.

(Shiva, 1989: pp. 48 49)

The feminine principle, I fear, is an extremely vague concept. Also, the eco-feminists do not tell us how women of the third world can have the power to shift the pattern of development in the absence of increased economic power. A return to a mythical tradition and indigenous technology is not necessarily liberating; the majority of women will be reluctant to give up opportunities of work that advanced technologies bring them in modern urban sectors. It is the economic empowerment through paid work that allows women, and other disadvantaged groups, to voice their aspirations, priorities and demands.

It is crucial that the appropriateness of new technologies should be assessed in the cultural, political and economic context of a community or of a nation. But it becomes alarming when the quest for such cultural specificity urges us to go back to an unchanging tradition, complete with its indigenous technology and social norms. Recent work by two American scholars is an example of such a seductive but disturbing persuasion. Frrique Apffel Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin, in Dominating Knowledge, put forward a case for techne, a mode of knowing in the nonwestern world that combines the use of 'one's hands, eyes and heart as well as one's head' (Marglin and Marglin, 1990: p. 234). In sharp contrast to the western reductionist and cerebral mode of enquiry - defined as epist the secrets of can be learned only in a network of relationship: 'the parent-child, master-apprentice, guru-shisha [relationships] are intensely personal' (ibid.: p. 235).

I have two objections to arguments of this kind. To start with, the Marglins ignore the significant role that the concept of 'tacit knowledge' plays in the current design and implementation of computer-integrated manufacturing systems. A second and more serious objection is that this approach condones, if not justifies, a social order that has been highly oppressive to groups that are disadvantaged and marginal:

tradition of course grants the Brahman superiority over other castes and grants their knowledge superiority over the techne of other castes . . . but just as each caste is accorded its distinct and necessary role in a well-ordered cosmos, so must the techne of each caste be recognized as distinct and necessary.

(ibid.: p. 276)

The Marglins, in their celebration of diversity, urge us to accept, unquestioningly, the cultural norms and beliefs that support techne.

It may be readily agreed that the sacrifice of a young woman on an altar in a traditional society is barbaric . . . but such practices must be understood in context, as a part of a cultural whole . . . female circumcision should not be a pretext for labelling African culture as backward, or suttee a pretext for proclaiming the inferiority of traditional Hindu culture.

(ibid.: p. 12)

A search for contextuality and an abandonment of absolute values soon leads to the absence of all moral imperatives.3

The changing requirements in skills

Against these rather uncertain moral and economic principles of our time, it becomes important to pay attention to women's own voices if we are to ascertain their fears and aspirations with respect to information technology and patterns of industrialization.

The perspective of garment workers in Bangladesh, as documented by UBINIG4 (the Centre for Policy Research for Development Alternatives in Bangladesh), is representative of many women in the developing countries who, for the first time, found employment in the formal sector, thanks to export-oriented industrialization. In a traditional Muslim country like Bangladesh, the export-oriented garment industry was a groundbreaker in creating a new workforce of nearly 500,000 young women industrial workers. Jobs in the factories are not perfect: the pay is low, there are health hazards, and the security of employment is not great. Yet the conditions of employment are superior to alternatives that women are likely to find as domestic workers, prostitutes, or as workers in the informal sector. The introduction of digital automation and robotic technology in the western world makes the future of these jobs increasingly uncertain. Faced with such prospects, they are willing to learn any new technique and adjust to changed working conditions (UBINIG, 1991: p. 67). As one worker said, 'We will not go back to villages, we will not become dependent on others.'

Employment in the modern sector has given these women a certain amount of freedom from tradition and social oppression. As the UBINIG report so assiduously documents, women do not relish the idea of going back to villages that they left precisely in order to search for employment in the urban sector.

The impact of information technology on women's manufacturing employment in the developing world, until now, has been positive in terms of quantities of jobs. In the seventies and eighties, the improved telecommunication system and transport facilities encouraged transnational companies to relocate a considerable amount of manufacturing jobs, especially in textiles, clothing and electronics, to countries where the wages were low and where there was a plentiful supply of young women workers (Mister, 1986: chapter 2). Within a decade or so, several million women workers were employed in manufacturing for export. This new form of employment gave women of the developing world a visibility as an important industrial workforce, a visibility they did not receive while working in small-scale or home-based units, broadly and vaguely defined as the informal sector. The future of these feminized manufacturing jobs appears less certain in the coming phase of technological changes, which make wage bills less significant in the total production costs of transnational corporations. As a result of a steady decline in the price of computer-aided technologies, manufacturing companies, even in a labour surplus country, now adopt some labour-replacing manufacturing methods to achieve speed, flexibility and quality control. Among the diverse patterns and directions of manufacturing employment in different parts of the world, one can identify certain trends in the corporate sector, in that

· the cost of capital is rising;
· the input of labour is declining;
· the demand for multi-skilled operators is increasing;
· new skills required in hardware and software development are becoming important;
· expertise in material resources planning and total quality management is proving crucial;
· marketing skills are becoming significant;
· skills in the management of organizations as well as of technologies are becoming essential.

Even in the affluent parts of the world, women do not easily find access to the scarce marketing, technical and management skills that they will need in order to be equipped for jobs in the future.

The quality of women's employment has been affected by recent organizational changes, in preparation for the effective use of computer technologies. The just-in-time system (JIT) and total quality management (TQM) are examples of such emerging practices that aim to ensure continuous workflow and zero defects in a highly capital-intensive process of production. The implementation of such work practices demands managerial, technical and marketing skills among workers. It also requires training in teamwork. The skills that women traditionally learn in assemblyline jobs do not equip them for these new tasks. Yet it is not impossible, and indeed could be managerially beneficial, to train women in the tools and philosophies of JIT and TQM. In the pursuit of people-oriented total quality management, the manager of Toyota stresses:

It is only human beings that can have the ability for innovation; hence, once the number of human beings decreases, as a result of automation or computerization, the built-in self-innovation ability of the workplace declines, no matter how effectively the automation is implemented.5

In Bangladesh the women workers in textile mills express similar views: 'We possess the skills; machines cannot take away our skills. A machine can increase our skill. The management should bring these machines; then we will survive and the mill will survive' (UBINIG, 1991).

Mismatch between demand and supply of cognitive skills: Implications for women

The case for complying with such demands for upgrading women's skills arises from the projected estimates of a mismatch between demand and supply of certain types of cognitive skills in all parts of the world.

As Figure 2.1 shows, the importance of labour-intensive work is declining in the planning horizon of the industrialized world, with the introduction of computer-aided systems of production. Corporate organizations mainly need an assured supply of the requisite management and technical skills in order to meet the challenges of information-intensive methods of production. Even in the midst of world-wide recession, companies of the western world and of Japan face shortages of workers who possess such technical qualifications. Hence, those developing countries which can offer a supply of scarce skills become the favoured destinations for relocated manufacturing work from the developed part of the world.

The demographic trend in the western world accentuates this process. It indicates an impending shortage of skilled young workers in the developed world. From 1985 to 2000, the world's workforce is expected to grow by some 600 million people; 570 million of them will join the workforce in the developing world. In countries such as Pakistan and Mexico the workforce will grow at about 3 per cent a year. In contrast, growth rates in the United States, Canada and Spain will be closer to 1 per cent a year. Japan's workforce will grow by just 0.5 per cent a year and Germany's workforce will actually decline. The resultant shortages of skilled (and unskilled) workers are unlikely to be relieved by greater female participation in the developed world; this is because the developed nations have already absorbed a much higher percentage of women into the labour force than the developing world.

Figure 2.1 Expected changes in the volume and occupational structure of employment in the UK manufacturing industry

Source: Derived from figures supplied by the FAST Commission of the European Union (1984)

The ageing population of the developed world, compared with the youthful workforce of the developing nations, is likely to be less flexible and hence less amenable to the challenges of information-intensive jobs. Companies and countries in the richer parts of the world will increase their dependence on international sourcing for the requisite expertise; the trend will become more pronounced as the developing nations will produce an ever-increasing share of the world's graduates in science, mathematics and engineering. Between 1970 and 1985, the proportion of the world's college students from the United States, Canada, Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan dropped from 77 per cent to 51 per cent, and by the year 2000, students from developing nations will make up three-fifths of all students in higher education.6

For some countries and some companies, measures to attract scarce human capital have become an important strategic policy, even in the face of the political explosiveness of the immigration issue. According to experts in INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques), between now and the year 2010 it will be necessary for France to admit 100,000 immigrants per annum - perhaps through yearly quotas by profession - if it is to avoid economic 'anaemia' arising out of shortages of skilled labour.7

Alternatively, the companies of the developed world will have to relocate the information and knowledge-intensive jobs to countries where the youthful population is well-equipped to take up the challenges of the new tasks.

The extent and direction of foreign direct investment (FDI) from the developed to the developing world is already influenced by this trend. A small number of Asian countries, mostly located in East Asia, have experienced an upsurge in the inflow of foreign direct investment (Table 2.1).8 Significantly, these are the countries, such as China and the Republic of Korea, which have a relatively highly trained female workforce and possess adequate industrial infrastructures.

In the pioneer days of electronics, employers needed the nimble fingers of women workers for connecting tiny wires to a semi-conductor. The same task is now being done by a machine, with as many as ten machines under the charge of just one woman. It is not only the labour content that is decreasing; the quality of labour that is being demanded of electronic workers by the global companies is rising at the same time.9

The need for skilled workers also arises from the changing nature of marketing strategies adopted by corporate organizations. In semiconductors, for example, the global trend is away from mass-produced 'jelly-bean' chips to high-value-added, application-specific, integrated circuits (ASICs).10 The production of ASICs, unlike that of standardized semiconductors, involves a far greater input of circuit design and of software programming. The limited supply of design engineers thus poses an obstacle for moving up in the product cycle.

In other words, a country can entice investments from global companies by offering cheap skilled labour. It is, of course, not possible for all countries to produce these cognitive skills in the right quantities to attract adequate FDI. It is unlikely that the majority of women in any country will have access to the relevant training and education. A handful of elite women can be trained for new openings in management, technical or software programming jobs, but it will be difficult for a vast number of blue-collar workers to be trained, in a short period, in the multiple skills that computer technology and the global companies demand. For them, it will be important to explore alternative avenues of employment - perhaps in the small and medium-scale sectors.

Table 2.1 Foreign direct investment in selected South East Asian countries (US$ trillion)








ASEAN Countries









































Total ASEAN (a)








Total as percentage of global inflow into developing countries
























Sources: UNCTAD, 1992 and 1994

(a) excluding Brunei. which has small negative flows, reaching US$4 million in 1992

The general mode of training in large companies could also be incompatible with the needs of blue-collar workers. Women's ability to make use of formal training schemes depends much on their position in the society and in the family. A woman worker often has to cope with violence and abuse in the family, along with the responsibilities of childcare. These factors affect her ability to pursue education and career progression. Informal training - such as is often gained by women in the small and medium-scale sector - could be of greater relevance for blue-collar workers.

For blue-collar workers, employment prospects in the high-tech era remain uncertain. Computer-aided technology improves productivity and wages, but it also reduces the need for unskilled labour. In some situations, when the market expands continuously to absorb the surplus labour, the volume of employment of blue-collar workers widens or remains unchanged in spite of new technology. In Bangladesh, for example, a worker displaced by new technology could easily find another job with the same employer or have an option in employment with another enterprise (UNIDO, 1993). The possibilities are not always so optimistic, particularly when the technology is coupled with radical organizational innovations. The innovations demand not only less labour on the factory floor but different and complex skills to which blue-collar workers, who are women, rarely have access. In Malaysia, for instance, the introduction of the JIT system in the semi-conductor sector increased the demand for expertise in material control systems such as Materials Requirement Planning (MRP), and Materials Resource Planning (MRPII).11 The result of introducing JIT has been impressive. In one firm, the use of JIT and automation has, since 1984, halved the labour and the factory space needed and resulted in a reduction in the working week to four days (Narayan and Rajah, 1990). Most firms in Penang have reduced machine set-up time and manufacturing lead time.

The increased overall productivity, however, has meant a reduction in the share of female employment in the electronics industry of Malaysia. Whereas in the first phase of the industry up to 80 per cent of the workers were women, a 1986 survey showed that female representation had fallen to 67 per cent. Retrenchment, automation and the decentralization of work have mainly affected female assembly-line workers. When automation did create new opportunities, they were largely in the male-dominated professional, technical and maintenance categories.

The experience of the pharmaceutical and other chemical industries in India has been similar. Increased sub-contracting in the 1980s has entailed huge job losses for women assembly-line workers (Gothoskar, 1990; Gothoskar et al. 1991: pp. 100-102). Most new recruitment, in contrast, has been in the 'core', executive and managerial categories where women have negligible representation (Gothoskar et al., 1991: p. 101).

Retrenched women, and by definition older women, find it difficult to gain access either to in-service training or to academic training institutions that equip them for jobs in the formal sector. It is the small-scale satellite companies that often absorb retrenched workers in the labour-intensive assembly operations.

Computer technology and the small scale sector

Computer technology itself has been instrumental in promoting the growth of the small and medium-scale sector in both rich and poor countries (Pineda-Ofreneo, 1987). Changes in technology have broadened the possibilities of decentralization through:

· miniaturization of machines, as in printing and publishing;
· modularization of products, as in television;
· fragmentation of the production process, as in garments and pharmaceuticals.

This process of decentralization has been enhanced also by:

· government policies which encourage the small-scale sector as a cost effective way of creating employment;

· the increased role of new forms of investment (NFI) by multinationals in the shape of joint ventures with smaller firms, which are less encumbered by intellectual property rights.

The effects of decentralization have been complex, and in some ways contradictory, for women's employment. In the small-scale units, women more readily find jobs. Such units also offer the possibility of combining a job with the commitments of childcare. The conditions of work, however, are generally worse than those in the large-scale factories, where employees enjoy the protection of employment and labour legislation. There is hardly any monitoring of the health hazards in small scale enterprises, and the incidences of sexual harassment in community-based small-scale businesses are higher, in both high-tech and low-tech sectors (see e.g., Franzinetti, 1994). It is extremely difficult to organize workers of the small-scale units for collective action, within or outside trade unions (Mister, 1994).

On the positive side, the growth of the small-scale sector offers new openings for women. In all societies, it is rare to find a woman industrialist, but it is not difficult to locate a successful businesswoman. With the use of cheap computers in the designing stage, women in some countries have managed to carve out a niche in the fashion market, by offering diversity and flexibility in fashion and design. In the garment industry in Italy, for example, retailing companies rely heavily on local subcontractors for supplies of goods in small batches with high and varied design contents, to cope adequately with everchanging instant fashion (Pronta Moda). A sizeable number of these subcontractors are young women (Gaeta et al. 1992). Such possibilities are rarer for women in the poorer parts of the world, as the cost of acquiring computers and computer literacy is high. Also the world of business demands strategic skills that blue-collar and women workers find difficult and expensive to acquire (see Table 2.2). A progression from worker to entrepreneur thus depends on the availability of broad-based training in marketing, business and negotiation skills. It is also important for women to learn what to demand.

Even in terms of production skills, women workers of the small and medium-scale sector are often at a disadvantage. Even when women learn their experience and expertise are often undervalued by the customers. To set up as entrepreneur, women, more than men, need to convince customers of their skills.12

Table 2.2 Management skills in the era of new technology

Conditions of success

Strategic issues

Offer consistently low defect rates


Offer dependable delivery promises


Provide reliable/durable products


Provide high performance products


Offer fast deliveries


Customize products and services to user needs


Profit in price-competitive markets


Introduce new products quickly

Product innovation

Effective after-sales service


Offer a broad product line

Variety/Flexibility the key skills of the trade,

Women in new-tech service industries

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

Figure 2.2 Summary of the employee profiles of European telecommunications companies, by gender, 1993

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)

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.

Health hazards of new technology

Offshore data-entry work may turn out to be short-lived, but research around it has raised new awareness of health-related issues with regard to new technologies. The hazards affect women and men, but as women congregate at the low-skill end of new technology white-collar occupations, where bargaining power is less, these issues, along with wage demands, have a particular urgency for them.16 There is an acute need for exchanges of information and learning between women of developed and developing countries. The health hazards of new technology are a concern common to both blue-collar and white-collar employees.

The use of computers has also led to a steady expansion of the microelectronics manufacturing industry. The expansion has given women new employment opportunities, but it has also exposed women assembly-line workers to harmful substances and fumes. The long-term effects may not yet be known, but this could prove to have been one of the more hazardous industries of the last quarter century. While there is growing evidence that occupational hazards within the industry cause health problems, it is still very difficult for workers to prove a direct link and to gain adequate protection, treatment or compensation. Headaches, muscle strain, skin allergies and eye damage are all too common, but national governments and company managers, and frequently trade unions too, write these off as minor complaints.17

At the margin of new technology: Groups and countries

Women's experiences of the effects of new technology depend also on their position in the international economy. Decisions regarding formulation, implementation and transfer of technologies are predominantly taken by transnational companies, mostly located in the West. Access to networks of power related to global technical transformations eludes some groups and economies.

In contrast with the seventies and eighties, it has now become less common to describe the world economy in terms of a 'core' and 'periphery'. In the context of information technology, perhaps, it makes sense to revive the dichotomy, especially for understanding the specificities in the needs and demands of certain groups of women. The dichotomy is no longer spatial. There are groups, even within the western economies, who have extremely limited access to relevant political and economic networks. Migrant workers, especially from the developing world, are such an ex eluded group. With the political upheavals in Africa, eastern Europe and parts of Asia, it is difficult to estimate how many million migrant workers are looking for employment in the official and the clandestine economy of the West. It is not possible to assess the effects of new technologies on their job prospects. The impact of new technology is, however, already visible among those groups of immigrants who came to Europe and the United States in the postwar period to meet the demands of labor-intensive industries. In the fields of clothing, textiles and electronics, where migrant women workers provided the required cheap labour, labour-replacing robotic technology now makes much of their skill redundant. They demand and need access to relevant training for sustained employment.

Just as certain groups face special challenges, so do certain countries in the new economic world order. For most of the ax-communist countries of central and eastern Europe, a linkage to the international economy is a new experience. Transitional phases to a market economy have not been easy: as the countries grapple with the difficulties of operating in a new way, the 'woman' question, as well as forming assessments of new technology, receives less importance among policy-making bodies.18 Yet women in that part of the world feel a need for international networking for the exchange of information. Such an exchange is relevant for the women as well as for the region.

Whereas economic and political changes have lead to the linking of central and eastern Europe to the world economy, the debt crisis, war, and structural adjustments have resulted in uncoupling Sub-Saharan Africa from the global economy. This makes it perhaps the most problematic of all regions for realizing the potential advances that IT can offer to women workers.19

Transcending the politics of gender

There is scope for discussing the appropriateness of new technology in the context of a number of countries. Yet it seems to me that the flexibility and speed of communication which computer technology offers could become instruments of change for disadvantaged groups, even in poor countries. The facilities provided by computerized data-bases and e-mail are increasingly being used in developing countries for effective communication among grassroots women's organizations.20 Desktop publishing helps such groups to produce relevant literature and materials at a low cost and to attain professionalism.

For women and for countries, the question is not whether to accept or to reject the new technology: rather it is to demand the appropriate use of new technology for the benefit of the majority. Such a demand is linked with the challenges of distributive justice - between genders as well as among races, classes and regions.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to attain the goal if we give up the ideals of collective action in the name of relativism, contextuality or postmodernism. There is of course some truth in the claim that for the disadvantaged 'partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard' by the dominant group (Collins, 1991: p. 236). Yet, in the field of technology as in other spheres of life, there is scope for negotiation and international understanding. It will be important to transcend the politics of gender to include the dimensions of race, class and other disadvantages in discussions of the employment implications of new technologies. To be aware of other factors is not to belittle the role of gender. Women in all societies, irrespective of their race or class, have to adjust to a pattern of work that, to a greater or lesser extent, is incompatible with their needs and aspirations. The new technology itself offers some possibilities towards redressing the past gender imbalance in the quantity and quality of work; but for these possibilities to become realities certain changes will be required in the division of labour in domestic life. There too, the solution lies not in confrontation, but in achieving greater cooperation and understanding. Man's consciousness, at home and at work, has been formed by his tradition and heritage. The hope lies in freeing him from the myth of an unchanging tradition. 'The image of his woman', to quote Fatima Mernissi (1991: p. 195), 'will change, when he feels the pressing need to root his future in a liberating memory. Perhaps the women should help him to do this through daily pressure for equality' - with or without new technology.


1 For an overview of the current critique of modern science see, for instance, Harding, 1991 and Rose, 1994. For a summary of such a critique in the context of technology, see Wajcman, 1991 and Haraway, 1990. Marshall, 1994 provides a critique of postmodernism and critical theory in social sciences.

2 For example, it was a combination of technical genius and entrepreneurial ability to manipulate such networks that led to Thomas Edison's success with a viable electrical bulb (Law, 1991: p.9).

3 For a cogent criticism of Marglin's papers see Nussbaum, 1992: pp. 202-244.

4 UBINIG is a research organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which conducts research on development issues from the people's perspective.

5 Takao Nuki, 'Quality circles and just-in-time system under development of computerization' SEAKE Centre, Brighton Polytechnic, UK (mimeo), quoted in Mitter, 1992.

6 Figures compiled from relevant UN agencies in Johnston, 1991.

7 For a summary of the report see Lebaube, 1991.

8 For a detailed breakdown of FDI inflow and outflow in Asia, see Khan, 1992 and UNCTAD, 1994.

9 Financial Times, Survey of Thailand, 5 December, 1990.

10 See Hobday, 1991. In contrast to standard components, ASICs are customized or semi-customized integrated circuits which allow the user to closely specify the design of the IC. ASICs have been given various names including tailored circuits, custom chips, semicustom devices and CSICs (customer-specific integrated circuits). Since 1985, the term ASIC has been widely adopted as a generic term to describe the various segments of the custom and semicustom IC market.

11 Materials Requirement Planning (MRP) refers to a technique which takes a forecast of anticipated sales over time and produces a breakdown of the total materials requirements - raw materials, components, and sub-assemblies - for meeting those targets. From such information a series of activities - purchase orders, sub-contract orders, in-house production of components orders - can be initiated. Materials Resources Planning (MRPII) extends the concept of materials requirements planning by introducing the idea of a master production schedule which is a mixture of forecasting of sales demand and actual customer orders. From this master schedule a materials requirement plan and a capacity requirement plan are generated. MRPII differs from materials requirement planning in its strategic nature, taking into account the entire operational resource base of the company.

12 See Nirmala Bannerjee in this anthology.

13 Q-W-E-R-T-Y are the characters on the second row, left-hand side, of a conventional typewriter, and now of computers, in the English-speaking world.

14 See also the contributions from Ng and Yong, and Gothoskar, in this anthology.

15 From the discussion at the Women and Management Workshop at the IFIP Conference on Women, Work and Computerization, Helsinki, Finland, 30 June-2 July 1991.

16 See Ursula Huws (1987). The original and pirated versions of her book, the VDU Hazards Handbook. have been used extensively in Europe and in non-European countries to generate awareness of VDU-related health hazards. See also Mitter et al., (1992).

17 For documentation of women workers' struggle to increase the visibility of health issues see Women Working Worldwide (eds), 1991, pp. 60-62, pp. 105-108 and pp. 148-150.

18 This was the response from Maria Lado, who works at the Ministry of Labour, Hungary, to my letter asking her to contribute to the workshop in 1991.

19 See Odedra-Straub, in this anthology.

20 ISIS in Asia, and TAMWA in Africa, are examples.


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