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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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