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The impact of technology

It is not only how women do science which matters but what science does to women; not simply women's lack of power to shape technologies but also the effect of existing technologies upon women's lives. Though there is a growing literature on both production and consumption, our focus here is on production. Feminism has had an impact on several relevant disciplines, bringing scholars to ask questions which had been generally ignored. Industrial sociologists, development economists and labour historians have all contributed; engendering their accounts of the effect of technology.

The initial consensus was one of general gloom. Many socialist feminists were influenced by Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital ( 1974) which argued that technology tended to intensify the labour process and deskill workers. Feminists writing on the organization of production observed women's lack of power to determine how technology was designed and applied. In development literature too, Ester Boserup's influential Women's Role in Economic Development (1970), was to be the basis for a socialist feminist literature demonstrating how technology and capitalist industrialization was displacing women from production.6

Pessimism has also marked the work of feminists who have prioritized gender as the crucial determinant of the context in which technologies were imposed. For example, Rosemary Pringle in Secretaries Talk (1989) said that new technology enhanced men's power, 'If men are represented as the masters of technology, women are its servants. Technology does not empower them but reinforces their powerlessness and dependence on men'.7

There have been, however, some dissenting voices. In Labour Pains, for example, Pat Armstrong modified the prevailing pessimistic attitude towards new technology with the view that while it did imply increased productivity and control over workers, it also presented new possibilities for women workers (Armstrong, 1984: p. 139).

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, absolute positions, whether optimistic or pessimistic, about the impact of the development process upon women's employment patterns came to be questioned (Acevedo, 1992: pp. 223-225). With this came an awareness that 'a new theoretical perspective on the relationship between women and technology' (Bhaskar, 1987: p. 14) was needed. This does not mean an unquestioning acceptance of the extreme anti-modernist critique of science and technology. For as B.N. Bhaskar observes, 'the Achilles heel of this perspective is in translating its ideas into concrete reality' (ibid.). On the other hand it does not return us to viewing technology as a neutral force completely apart from culture. A valuable starting point is the growth of concrete studies of technology and gender in recent feminist historiography, particularly in the United States.

Historical work

Contemporary debates have generated historical enquiry into the actual consequences of the impact of technology. These question the original hypothesis of a uniform debasement of labour and skill. Feminist work has revealed many examples of the introduction of technology which is accompanied by the exclusion of women from the new skills required, and the displacement of their labour and reclassification of their jobs as low-skilled. However, evidence has also been found of benefits because of a general expansion of employment. Sometimes a mixed situation of loss and benefit has occurred. For instance, the typewriter helped to establish secretarial work as a female domain, which saw a loss of status for secretaries from the 1880s. However, Carole Scrole argues that it did not instigate women's entry into offices but accelerated their numerical domination (Scrole, 1987: p.96). Frieda S. Rozen (1987) describes how the increasing size of airplanes contributed to the organization of women flight attendants in the period 1974 to 1978.

Moreover, recent historical work is demonstrating that women are not all affected by technology in the same way. Mary H. Blewett (1988), for example found that in the New England shoe industry, mechanics tried to train women homeworkers to use the new sewing machines introduced to factories in the middle of the century, but the women resisted the transition from hand to machine work. Interestingly, it was not until sewing machines were made for home use and a new generation of young women were familiar with them that women began displacing men in factories as sewing machine operators.

Not only differences between generations but ethnic, racial and class segregation are being shown to have interacted with gender to produce hierarchies among women. Gender cannot be regarded as a distinct unchanging category. Examining the American printing industry's response to technology between 1850 and 1930, Ava Baron has argued that 'we need to scrutinize how class and gender are constructed simultaneously' (Baron, 1987: p. 62). Gender itself is shaped by circumstances of class, race, and ethnicity. She also cautions against an undifferentiated concept of 'patriarchy' as an unchanging structure.

The view that men shape work to protect their gender interests assumes that gender is monolithic, rather than multidimensional and internally inconsistent. It also assumes that men are omnipotent, that they know what their gender interests are and have power to construct the world the way they want. Feminist research needs both to question male power rather than assume its existence, and to examine what its limitations are.


This recent historical examination of gender and technology has been mainly concerned with the first world, not the third. However, there has been a growing awareness of the need to extend the boundaries of women's labour history through exploring the social histories of work and community in the third world. A picture is beginning to emerge of a gendered class experience in, for example, Japan, India and China from the late nineteenth century (see, for example, Hershatter, 1986; Kumar, 1993). The specific structures of the family, the dynamics of class struggle and ideas in the workplace or in communities, as well as state policies have all affected the impact of technology upon third world women. For example, in Japan women's work in the coal mines was affected by recession after World War I, when more women became redundant than men. Protective legislation introduced after World War I left women working above ground. However, in 1939 these labour laws were set aside because of the intense demand for labour and women again worked underground. The prohibition of women's work in the mines was restored in 1947 but they continued to sift the coal until mechanization of this process in the 1960s. In this example the interplay of political, economic and cultural factors can be seen technology has an effect but within a specific social context (Mathias, 1993: pp. 101-105; Saso, 1990: pp. 25-26). An exclusive focus on gender and technology could run the risk of artificially abstracting the impact of technology from the wider circumstances of work and life and ignore how state policy affects women's position, so this more comprehensive approach is particularly valuable.

Theorists of industrial relations and welfare

Technology is developed and applied within wider social relationships, which involve assumptions about how people should live and work. Women have certainly had much less influence upon shaping their social contexts and intellectual frameworks than men. However, even here they have not been entirely absent. For instance, several notable figures are to be found developing the theory and practice of modern technological environments.

Lillian Gilbreth was a theorist of industrial engineering in the 1920s. She analysed the effect of Taylor's standardizing of managerial practices in the United States, including improved lighting, reduced pollution, rest intervals and breaks, incentives for workers, greater control by workers over their own speed and tasks. She studied the chairs and positions in which women worked in order to prevent fatigue and backache. Rationalization of production was extended into housework by several women impressed by Taylorism, an approach which profoundly influenced the construction of the welfare state (Trescott, 1983: pp. 29-32). One advocate of efficient house management was the American Christine Frederick who promoted Taylorism. Along with Emmy Wolder in the early 1920s she pioneered works canteens which were adopted by supporters in Europe concerned about welfare (Tanner, 1992: pp. 67-70).8

These liberal proponents of the rationalization of production and reproduction were concerned to increase productivity. The maximization of profit which benefitted employers was assumed to accord with workers' interests. It was seen as the means of promoting industrial harmony. Women workers were likely to be less enthusiastic about the reason for the Tayloristic time and motion studies. However, by formalizing and reforming the organization and conditions of work they inadvertently provided possibilities for struggles for workers' control which would not have existed under completely informal and sweated working arrangements. Consequently it could be argued that instrumental reason in its Tayloristic form was not simply a coercive ploy to extract labour from workers. The regulation of wages, despite gender inequalities, marked a certain advance over the personal whim and sexual power of a coercive foreman or employer, which could decide pay in a small clothing shop for instance.

It would be a mistake to assume that all women theorists, simply because of their gender, have thought in the same way or that they have concurred over what kind of organization of production best serves workers' interests. Helen Marot, for example, opposed the reshaping of American industry in the early twentieth century, through wage incentives and rationalization. She accused the methodology of scientific management of plucking out some of [the worker's] faculties and discarding the rest of the man as valueless (Polanski, 1987: p. 253). Marot believed instead in 'the creative impulse . . . a strong emotional impulse, a real intellectual interest in the adventure of productive enterprise'. Unlike Gilbreth's emphasis on instinct, in which human beings were passive, she presents human character as dynamic and self-motivating. Against competition she argued for a cooperative emphasis upon giving.

Helen Marot also developed a vision of a transformed educative workplace in which technical skills were balanced with the humanities and social sciences. For example, in running a toyshop, students would deal not only with the technical problems or work, keeping financial accounts and estimating costs, maintaining the workplace and health of the workforce, but also study economics, aesthetics, literature and history. These were to be integrated into the industrial process, transforming the mechanical and the human. This approach to industrial education was to be important in influencing the work of Lewis Mumford later. Helen Marot refused to accept a technological cancellation of human beings by reducing them to passive objects, not because of her gender but because of her political and intellectual stance. She had spotted at a very early stage the fatal weakness of Taylorism - its inability to enhance human creativity (ibid.: pp. 254, 250).

Helen Marot's approach has obvious relevance for modern attempts to question authoritarian modes of management. The prevailing orthodoxies of management theory themselves have recently changed gear to emphasize participation as a means of incorporating workers' knowledge. An unintended consequence of this apparent appropriation of the ideas of their opponents could be the possibility of a renewed critique of the meaning of work, not only by theorists of industrial relations but by workers themselves (Binns, 1991: p. 54). It is within this potential for democratizing work and social existence that alternative feminist approaches to technology might lose an abstract and purely utopian quality and become an element in shaping a new reality.


The feminist movement has presented new questions about the relationship of women to technology. These have stimulated interest in the manner in which women have been excluded by the social construction of science and technology. Historical studies of the western scientific tradition have revealed how the process of exclusion has not simply been a matter of external obstacles but has been embedded within the cultural assumptions of mainstream science. These approaches within feminist scholarship have converged with a powerful current of disillusionment, not simply with the results of technology, but with science, reason and the claim that objective assessment is possible. There have been two strands to this wholesale rejection of science: the assertion that in women's alienation an alternative can be found and the denial of the value of applying reason.

While the resulting challenge to the hidden presumptions of western science, and the recognition of its gender bias, have provided important correctives to over-estimates of the virtues of objective scientific methods and neutral technology, it has nonetheless contained snags. It denies an important aspect of women's claim to emancipation through equal access to reason. Also the absolute dismissal of science and technology fails to engage with their application; the actuality which so manifestly affects people in their daily lives. Thus neither the postmodernist nor the eco-feminist rejection of modern science have much to offer women seeking to manoeuvre within gender boundaries or attempting to shift them to establish better terms. Studies of women's complex relation with science and technology in earlier times suggest that a more nuanced approach could indicate how certain groups of women made gains or contrived to turn technology to their advantage.

Recent historical work has shown that women have not been excluded completely from science and technology. It also questions the idea that technological transformations simply happen to women, showing them instead as struggling to shape and exercise some control over these. Rather than a monolithic interpretation of gender, male/female relationships have been, to use Ava Baron's phrase, 'multi-dimensional and internally inconsistent' (Baron, 1987). The historical evidence suggests that men are not omnipotent nor indeed completely concerted in their effort to exclude women from scientific and technological knowledge. Nor have women acted from a unity of interests or aims.

The theoretical engagement of women with western science moreover has been philosophically varied, ranging from gnosticism and alchemy through to Cartesianism and Newtonian theory. It has also been affected by their social position. Aristocrats and crafts women have entered scientific worlds through differing entrances. Quite contrary philosophies and strategies have been employed. A history of gender and science which extended to include non-western traditions would make for an even more variegated picture.

Thus women have questioned the prevailing assumptions of science from very different vantage points, rather than presenting a single set of alternative values. They have not only claimed entry but sometimes critiqued and sought to reshape the ideas around science. Moreover, they can be seen not only reacting to scientific invention and the application of technology, but conceiving ways in which technology could be applied. Again, these have come from differing political and social perspectives. Values cannot be read off from gender. There has been a continuing tension between gaining a foothold in a social and cultural environment outside the mainstream and demanding access to the prevailing social organization of the scientific and technological world. It is within this contrary pull between heterodox oppositional strands in science such as alchemy, and the claim to enter the academy, that a gender lens leads to wider questions about the purposes of scientific and technological knowledge. At this point a gender lens alone becomes insufficient: other forms of social exclusions, other groups' subordinated experience, have to be considered. While the most obvious fact has been the marginalization of women, the historical entry-points through which, against the odds, women have still gained access to knowledge and invention provide pointers towards the forms of social organization which would enable women to participate in scientific and technological cultures. Examination of the wider social, material and intellectual conditions in which women have been able to overcome marginalization and the contradictory histories of the impact of technology upon them could then connect with some of the questions being raised by contemporary feminist writers about the purposes of production and the democratic uses of technology (e.g. Cockburn, 1985; Huws 1991; Biehl, 1991; Mellor, 1992). In Judy Wajcman's words: 'Feminist debates about political strategy concerning technology posit forms of action that break with conventional politics. They are about making interventions in every sphere of life' (Wajcman, 1991: p. 166). A new relationship between technology and gender cannot be devised only in the seminar, it has to be created, by users and workers internationally, from the experiences of daily life.


1 I am grateful to Ruth Pearson for the phrase 'gender lens'.

2 They were reviving an early Christian theme: 'the mind has no sex' (Schiebinger, 1992).

3 I am grateful to Roy Bhaskar for discussion which helped to clarify this point.

4 I am grateful to Navsharan G. Singh for this reference.

5 I am grateful to Tongjiang Long for this information.

6 See Acevedo, 1992. On Harry Braverman see for example Baxandall et al., 1976: p. I and Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990: pp. 88-96.

7 See also Cockburn, 1983 and 1985.

8 I am grateful to Eleni Varikas for this reference.


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