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2. Information technology and working women's demands

The changing requirements in skills
Mismatch between demand and supply of cognitive skills: Implications for women
Computer technology and the small scale sector
Women in new-tech service industries
Changing location of work and the new international division of labour
Health hazards of new technology
At the margin of new technology: Groups and countries
Transcending the politics of gender

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 (1561-1626), 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. Frédérique 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 epistémé 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
Malaysia 489 423 719 1,668 2,332 3,998 4,469
Thailand 263 352 1,105 1,775 2,444 2,014 2,116
Indonesia 258 385 576 682 1,093 1,482 1,774
Philippines 127 307 936 563 530 544 228
Singapore 1,710 2,836 3,655 2,773 5,263 4,395 5,635
Total ASEAN (a) 2,847 4,303 6,991 7,461 11,662 12,433 14,222
Total as percentage of global inflow into developing countries 20.0 25.1 25.1 27.3 37.3 31.8 27.6
China 1,875 2,314 3,194 3,393 3,487 4,366 11,156
Korea 435 601 871 758 715 1,116 550

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 Quality
Offer dependable delivery promises Delivery
Provide reliable/durable products Design
Provide high performance products Design
Offer fast deliveries Delivery
Customize products and services to user needs Customization/Flexibility
Profit in price-competitive markets Price
Introduce new products quickly Product innovation
Effective after-sales service Service
Offer a broad product line Variety/Flexibility the key skills of the trade,

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