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1. Beyond the politics of difference

Who are the women of the third world?
Accounting for women's position in information technology
It and the world of work: Manufacturing and services sectors
Disembodied technology: Software and data entry work
Postmodernism: A shift from collective to individual
Ecofeminism and the politics of identity in the developing world

An introduction

Swasti Mitter

It is not that there is a lack of thinking and writing about the impact of information technology on women's working lives. Indeed, there has been a plethora of literature in this field, especially since the mid-1980s. The literature, however, reflected a certain class and regional bias, as it focused mainly on office work and almost exclusively on the experiences of first world countries.' In the last decade, in my professional capacity, I have attended and contributed to a large number of workshops and seminars, in Europe and in the United States, on the subject of women and IT. In the discussion and formulation of areas of concern, I invariably felt dismayed at the lack of voice of third world women, and at the lack of an authentically international perspective. I noted a shift in the mood of academic gatherings in the 1980s - reflecting contemporary obsessions with nationhood, and with tradition and identity. In the climate of identity politics, there was, understandably, little chance for recognizing and comparing workers' experiences across cultural boundaries - in spite of the pervasiveness of the information revolution and the globalization of the market economy.

I often thought of taking up the challenge of redressing the balance, of documenting, however roughly, the changing position of women of the third world. In such a venture, I knew I could rely on the research and documentation assembled by some of my friends - friends whom I have collected, like precious pearls, in different phases of my working life. I was, of course, aware of the limitations of such an initiative and the difficulty of encapsulating, in one short-term project, the wide-ranging experiences of the whole third world. Yet I was convinced that only such a bold, and perhaps foolhardy, initiative, would lead to a more systematic and integrated investigation and analysis.

My vision became a reality in 1991, with the support and enthusiasm of two leading feminist scholars: Sheila Rowbotham and Fatima Mernissi. Well known for their work in recovering women from the oblivion of history (Rowbotham, 1992; Mernissi, 1994), it is not surprising that they encouraged my plan to document women's role in, and response to, IT in our time. It is because of their initiative that I received an opportunity to place my project, for consideration, in the research programme of the United Nations University. To my great elation, Lal Jayawardena, who was then the Director of WIDER (World Institute for Development Economics Research), liked my project proposal and passed it on to Professor Charles Cooper, who had just taken up the Directorship of INTECH (Institute for New Technologies) at Maastricht. From 1992, INTECH as an institute, and Charles Cooper as my colleague, gave me unstinting support: in commissioning the papers, in organizing the workshop, and in helping to bear the human and financial cost of editing.

The essays in this anthology, thus, are contributions towards filling a major lacuna in the literature of women's studies and of development economics. They document the impact of information technology on the working lives of women in third world countries. The writings are by thirteen committed academics, and convey more than just empirical observations. They raise questions of women's autonomy and agency and try to articulate women's needs and demands. Challenges that women face in adjusting to the demands of information technology are the focal points of the essays; yet women's responses and organizing strategies when confronted with such challenges equally permeate the arguments and analyses. They alert us to the roles that family, ideology, state policies, and trade union structures play in distributing IT-related employment between women and men.

Who are the women of the third world?

The essays focus mainly, but by no means exclusively, on the third world. Indeed, over the years, the definition of 'different' worlds itself has become somehow elusive and contentious. With the rising economic power of countries such as Japan, it becomes difficult to include all affluent countries even under the oft-used blanket category of western nations. Likewise, the entry of the east European countries into the category of developing nations poses definitional problems. Whether these countries of eastern Europe, previously described as the second world, would now like to be seen as pans of the third is far from clear. Terms such as 'economies in transition' are makeshift jargon, to designate precisely those countries which are uncertain about their status and alliances. In any case, given the hybrid nature of the cultural identity and consciousness of peoples in most societies (Bhaba, 1994), it is prudent to stay clear of an exclusive and binary categorization. The effects of postcolonial migration, and the rise of underprivileged migrant communities in the so-called 'first world', give yet another reason to remember the interconnections between different national economies and regional blocs. In this anthology, the term 'third world' refers simply, and admittedly roughly, to non-affluent communities and nations. In this extended sense it includes the ax-socialist countries of eastern Europe, as well as immigrant groups residing in technologically and economically developed nations.

The anthology does not exclude consideration of the experiences of women from richer countries on strategic grounds. The success and failure of women in having their voices heard in rich countries provide a valuable point of reference for women of the third world. Gender - or the social construction of the role of women - is only one of many factors which determine the impact of information technology on a worker's life; ethnicity, religion, age and class, in some cases, play even greater roles in defining one's position in the world of work.

By highlighting the differences in the interests and needs of different groups of women, the anthology challenges the validity of any monolithic, specifically feminine vision of technology and science. The contributions in this volume, independently of one another, affirm the view that, instead of demanding an essentialist, ahistoric, universal, woman-friendly technology, it will be more rewarding to study, in the context of the current technological revolution, the needs and experiences of groups of women in different societies. Women, even in a single society, do not form a homogeneous group. In their dual role as mothers and workers, however, the majority of women do face certain common difficulties. Women's access to and control over childcare and reproductive technology, understandably, determines their ability to share the benefits of IT. Women's entry into the world of new tech urban employment in turn augments, as the essays highlight, their social power and control over their fertility.

Accounting for women's position in information technology

It is precisely in the context of women's autonomy and choice in poorer countries and in less affluent communities that it is now pertinent to focus on the impact of information technology on employment opportunities. In doing so, it is important to bear in mind the distinctive features of the current revolution in the mode of production, which is primarily knowledge-intensive. IT comprises a set of technologies that actively process information rather than merely storing or transmitting it. Computers, the key hardware, and non-material software systems form its essential core.

The convergence of computing, telecommunication and satellite technology in recent years alters the structure of work not only in the economies that are at the centre of Research and Development in this field, but also in countries that primarily adapt and adopt these technologies for market orientation. Even in nations which are in economic terms relatively poor, IT substantially changes the traditional production process as well as the marketable goods and services produced. The demand for components of IT-related hardware - such as microchips or for information-processing activities - such as data entry or software programming - creates new areas for employment in developing countries. In addition, the telecommunication revolution, which allows companies to shift parts of their manufacturing and service production to geographically distant locations, makes it possible for low-wage countries to receive some amount of labour-intensive relocated work from the first world countries. The evolving international division of labour now encompasses a vast range: from the production of semiconductors or telecommunications equipment to service-related software programming and data entry.

In this scenario, it has not been easy to ascertain whether women, in aggregate terms, have benefited from the information revolution or lost out. In some spheres, women, especially older women, are now threatened with imminent technological redundancies, especially in manufacturing. The skills needed for traditional labour-intensive assembly-line work have given way to new requirements for polyvalent, cognitive skills. The spread of information processing work, especially in banking, finance or telecommunication, by contrast, has opened up new opportunities for women who are computer-literate and young enough to learn newer skills. In the sphere of self-employment, information technology, as the contributions in the volume show, heralds new possibilities for women and men; yet women, more than men, fail to achieve their potential because of their lack of access to business and marketing skills.

Against this background of contradictory trends, it is futile to formulate a generalized strategy for giving women access to education and training. The opportunities and barriers that women face in gaining appropriate skills depend too much on the historical specificity of the situation and on their class backgrounds for this to be possible. As it is important to have a clear vision of the commonality and differences in the interests of different groups of women, it is equally strategic to move beyond an ahistoric, and thus simplistic notion of an unchanging women's response to technology. The empirical work in the anthology, in order to avoid such an approach, is deliberately presented in a historical perspective: of women's entry into and exit from the invention, application and management of technology in different periods.

By charting the contributions of women who have been obliterated from history, Sheila Rowbotham argues in her paper that:

Rather than viewing history in terms of an undifferentiated structure of patriarchy, it is possible to see women emerging intellectually in some periods and forced into retreat in others . . . examination(s) of both the barriers which have prevented women from gaining access and the circumstances which have made it possible for women to . . . contribute to technology . . . have a significant and direct relevance to the contemporary position of women.

Indeed, it is not that women did not play any role in the development of information technology. But their contributions have been forgotten or obliterated from history because women, as a group, have remained invisible in the public domain of commercial decisions and vocational training. The marginalization of Rosalind Franklin's role in the discovery of DNA, the key concept of biotechnology, highlights the difficulty even extremely privileged women face in gaining recognition, even in recent times (Rose, 1994: 150-153). The picture that emerges out of the papers in this anthology is clear. Women's role in the formulation and construction of technology is best understood not in terms of their essential differences from men but in terms of material conditions that include them in the market and institutions, or preclude them from these. As I claim in my own paper in this anthology:

The technological innovations become commercially successful if and when the creator of the innovation could make use of political, economic and legal networks. 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.

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 Gannagé's paper in this anthology elucidates this point. Gannagé's 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 Gannagé's 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-à-vis 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.

Disembodied technology: Software and data entry work

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.

Postmodernism: A shift from collective to individual

Despite the ever-increasing relevance of IT, both to women and to their countries, there has been a conspicuous silence about it in academic literature, mainly, I suspect, on theoretical and ideological grounds. The ascendancy of postmodernism in the discourse of women's studies has led to an unease in the developed world about taking up research that seems to promote internationalism in matters of women's economic empowerment. In our current intellectual climate, women of the third world have become the subject of research in connection with the study of the 'other'; it is the 'difference' rather than the issue of economic liberation that has assumed a central position in academic analysis. Disillusionment with the legacy of the Enlightenment - modernization, modernity and promises of historical progress - has led to a serious questioning by some western academics of the claimed objectivity and rationality of western technology and science. It is not too uncommon in the west now to acknowledge that the assumed 'universal' visions of the Enlightenment - such as progress propelled by modernity and technology - merely reflected the values of interest groups in power, and did not include the voices of marginal groups such as those of non-Europeans and of women. Feminist critiques of Eurocentric 'grand narratives' of the Enlightenment - such as the promises of capitalism, liberalism or rationality - have made a potent contribution to a slow, but gradual, acceptance of plurality in the location of culture and of knowledge systems. Yet, it has not led easily to a modified position for western feminists. The universalizing feminist critique of Enlightenment value has, consciously or unconsciously, overlooked the different needs and experiences of women of non-European origins. Linda J. Nicholson, in Feminism/Postmodernism, reflects on this impasse:

feminist scholars replicated the problematic universalizing tendencies of [general] academic scholarship.... Like many other Western scholars, feminists were not used to acknowledging that the premises from which they were working possessed a specific location.

(Nicholson, 1990: p. 2)

Fear of an inevitable Eurocentric bias in their work has prompted many women academics to hold back from research that deals with the life and work of women with a different heritage.

Responses of women from the 'other' world itself have contributed further to the schism. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her book Outside in the Teaching Machine, voices the anguish and dilemma that postcolonial feminist scholars face in establishing a straightforward alliance. How, she asks:

does the postcolonial feminist (like myself) negotiate with the metropolitan feminist? I imagine a sympathy with (the Algerian writer) Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas's subject position . . . she too is revising her earlier position. As she does so she speaks of solidarity with Islamic women around the world.... And I, a non-Islamic Indian postcolonial, use her (the Algerian writer) to revise my reading of French (Western) feminism.

(Spivak 1993: p. 145)

In the developed world, postmodernism and associated cultural theories furnished reasons for not studying the changing material conditions of third world women in response, for example, to information technology and to globalization of finance and production. The trend coincided with the ascendant philosophies of the 1990s, which uphold the market mechanism, self-help and individual entrepreneurship. There is a trend now to shun collective responsibility for vulnerable or marginal groups, even within the boundaries of a nation. The end result has been, as Ursula Huws recounts in her paper:

it now seems to me that of all the changes which have taken place over the last two decades, perhaps the most important has been the erosion of any belief in the power of collective action, and the slow dawning in each of us of the depressing realization that if we don't do it for ourselves, the chances are that nobody else will do it for us.... It wasn't that [interest in] feminist publishing had declined. Far from it. There were shelves and shelves of poetry and fiction, books about sexuality, about race, about health, about housings, about violence, about psychology. It was just that the attention had shifted away from those previously central concerns of economic independence and the study of work, whether paid or unpaid. I tried looking under 'technology' and found a few collections of essays about women's relationship with technology, but these were heavily outnumbered by 'how to' books about computing. What seemed to have happened was a radical shift of emphasis from the collective to the individual.

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