Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

15. The fading of the collective dream?

Appendix - Yorkshire and Humberside regional socialist feminist conference, 3 November, 1979, 'Women and new technology'

Reflections on twenty years' research on information technology and women's employment

Ursula Huws

When Swasti Mitter asked me to write a paper for this collection, I found it extraordinarily difficult to find a focus for it. It seemed important to find something new to say, but every approach which occurred to me seemed, somehow, to involve a repetition of things I had already said, or written elsewhere. Even when new information could be added, or new texts referred to, it was difficult to identify new concepts. In short, the whole complex and contradictory subject of the relationship between information technology and women's employment seemed to have gone stale for me. With a shock, I realized that it was nearly twenty years since I had begun grappling with these issues.

It then occurred to me that perhaps the most helpful contribution I could make to this discussion would not be to assemble, yet again, a selection of empirical evidence, nor to attempt, yet again, to develop an analytical perspective which might contribute to the construction of a conceptual framework for new research projects on technology and women's employment, nor yet to frame, yet again, a series of 'demands' to protect or further women's interests in a technological society, worthy though any of these might be. No, at the risk of seeming self-indulgent, it seemed that a more useful task might be to chart the history of the various projects in this area with which I had been associated over the years in Britain, many of which could loosely be defined as 'feminist', to see what, if anything, could be learned from these experiences.

The purpose of doing this is not simply to place things on the record, or even to settle old scores, but to try to identify the concepts which have been used to make sense of the relationship between technology, women and work, and how these have changed over the years. In some cases, this involves carrying out a sort of archaeology of the intellectual self, to unearth the theoretical assumptions which we brought, consciously or unconsciously, to our debates and research hypotheses. How typical my experience in particular or the British experience in general has been, or what can be learned from them in other contexts, is for the reader to judge.

If there is such a thing as 'feminist research' (which many, self-proclaimed feminists included, doubt) it seems likely that its essential distinguishing feature is not so much a specific methodology or methodologies as an attitude, an attitude which can best be encapsulated in the well-worn, but still potent proposition that 'the personal is political'. If western feminism has done anything, it has surely put the subjective self at the centre of the research agenda. On the one hand it has insisted that the traditional 'objects' of social research - the poor, the oppressed, women, children, the old, whoever they may be - should be listened to with respect, and granted their subjectivity, and that the researcher should validate their view of the world. On the other, it has focused attention on the subjectivity of the researcher, challenging the notion that the positivist ideal of detached objectivity is obtainable, and insisting that the gender, race and class of this person and the circumstances which have formed his or her intellectual development will colour any piece of research. In television production there is a system called 'chromakey' which is used when a foreground image (usually a person or an animal) is required to be seen against a different background. The effect is achieved by photographing the foreground image against a monochrome background (usually blue) and screening out the same colour when filming the background scene. The two images can then be superimposed on each other without any apparent colour distortion. In some ways, this system provides an appropriate metaphor for this view of research. In it, it is as though the researcher's taken-for-granted assumptions create a sort of colour screen which renders whole areas of the spectrum invisible. The audience for this research, unless they are perspicacious enough to challenge these assumptions, will be required, so to speak, to look through a similar screen and will see an appearance of completeness. In the past, of course, it has often been women who have been rendered invisible in this way.

Although they have been adopted and refined by many researchers who call themselves feminists, post-1960s feminism cannot be credited with inventing these notions. The attempt to see the world through the eyes of the people who form the subject of the research has for decades been a common feature of ethnographic research. The political project of trying to build an alternative, oppositional ideology from the experiences of oppressed peoples can be traced back to the Maoist idea of 'consciousness raising', and to Gramsci, among others. Similarly a rejection of the supposed 'objectivity' of the scientist is common to many critiques of positivism which gained currency during the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, it is probably true to say that these approaches to research have been developed and used more rigorously by feminists than by any other group over the past quarter century.

I am afraid that much of the work I have published on women and new technology over the past two decades has lacked such self-referentiality. This has been for several reasons. In the case of commissioned work, the terms of a client's brief have often dictated that the work conforms, in its methodology and presentation, with standard 'professional' research practice. In other cases, work has been produced as a critique or as counter-evidence to a dominant view published in weighty government or academic texts. Here, the need to be taken seriously has required the adoption of a similar pomposity of tone. In other cases, work has been produced as part of a collaborative project, often with a political objective, with a women's group, trade union, hazards group or campaigning organization. Here, it has been necessary to submerge the individual identity of the author in a collective 'we' personifying the members of this group, or the people the group has been set up to represent.

However valid these reasons may be, I now believe that the work was in some ways flawed by this lack of self-reference. The need to appear objective and, indeed, even the need to win an argument, can lead to oversimplification in the writing, and a suppression of some of the doubts, subtleties, contradictions and hidden connections which can emerge from a more 'subjective' account. It can also result in a tone which suggests that the author has all the answers, and discourages readers from further speculation, and from making connections with their own experiences.

In this essay, I hope to redress some of these problems. It is thus a necessary part of this project that I write in the first person, and comment on my own personal experiences and relationship to the subjects I have researched. To do so, however, entails several dangers.

The first is the age-old danger, faced by every woman since Sappho who ventures into print, of being accused of immodesty or egotism.

The second, a little more difficult to live with, is the danger of being accused of poor scholarship or authorship. I have noticed that the sentence or paragraph which gets cut from one's manuscript by professional editors is invariably the one in which one uses the word 'I'. Although it may be dead in some respectable philosophical circles, positivism appears to be alive and kicking in the offices where academic journals and books are produced. Whether self-reference is regarded as unscientific, as anecdotal or as simple showing off, I am not sure, but I suspect that most editors have a strong internal model of what a 'proper' conference paper, article or scholarly monograph should be like, and ruthlessly delete anything which does not fit it. Such processes are generally closely bound up with notions of professionalism. I can remember exercising similar forms of censorship myself when working as an editor twenty years ago.

As with editors, so with academics, even in oppositional fields like women's studies. The conventional structure of the academic text, with its grandiose opening placing the work in an overarching theoretical context, its 'objective' presentation of the evidence, its tidy conclusion, its scrupulous citations and carefully arranged bibliography, has little space for the untidy self of the author which is normally smuggled in only in the form of references to previous publications or, occasionally, when reporting on the methodology of some sorts of social research, an oblique reference to ways in which some of the personal characteristics of the author might have affected interviews with respondents who did, or did not, share these characteristics.

The third danger is by far the most serious. This is that in chronicling pieces of work or social movements with which I have been involved, I might appear to be taking full credit for them when in fact, in many cases, my role may have been relatively small. In a paper of this scope it is impossible to give full acknowledgement to all the people who have helped form these concepts, either directly or indirectly. In many cases it is no more possible to disentangle individual contributions from the collective effort than it is to identify which drops of water make up a wave. I hope that readers will understand that, in the pages which follow, when I write in the first person about any particular set of ideas I am not claiming ownership of them but am treating myself as an archaeologist treats a patch of soil, or a chemist a sample of material: as a test-bed whose component parts can be analysed and sorted, in order to identify the answers to questions like: how did those ideas get there?; when did they arrive?; where have they come from?; how have they changed? and how were they used? The answers to these, will, I hope, make it possible to address further questions: are they still relevant?; can they be adapted to new situations in other times or places? or are they as outmoded as the clothes we wore when we thought such things?

In this spirit, I should begin by describing the circumstances in which I first became involved in discussions about 'new technology' (as it was then called) and work.

I was at the time (the early 1970s) working in the publishing industry producing books and audio-visual materials for schools. The industry was a notoriously low-paid one then, with poor working conditions. When I started, in 1970, a new graduate editorial recruit was paid an annual salary of 750 and received two weeks holiday a year, at a time when the average annual salary of a male non-manual worker was 1,862. Annoyed by this apparent injustice, and finding it almost impossible to remain solvent, I had become actively involved in attempts to unionize the industry. This entailed not only coming to grips with the structures of the National Union of Journalists, which represented editorial staff, but also of a plethora of other trade unions, still largely organized on a craft basis, representing secretarial staff, designers, warehouse workers, typesetters and other specialist print workers.

Independently of this, influenced particularly by the writings of Sheila Rowbotham (1969, 1973a, b), I had begun to get involved with the emerging women's movement in Britain. Many of the radicals whom I met in the National Union of Journalists had, like myself, been students during 1968, and brought with them into their union activities a set of beliefs which were rooted in the libertarian and/or Marxist student politics of the time. When these beliefs are examined in retrospect, several themes stand out as particularly important. One was a faith in the spontaneous ability of rank-and-file workers (once the causes of their oppression had been pointed out to them) to organize themselves, frame appropriate demands, and fight for their own liberation. This was associated with a mistrust of full-time union officials or other bureaucrats who, because their interests as a class were not the same as those of workers, would, if given a chance, always negotiate a 'sell-out'. A second theme was the importance of unity between different groups of workers. The pursuit of sectional interests by any particular group was seen as diversionary and divisive. Appeals to unity were often used to deter groups of women workers from pursuing demands for 'special provisions', such as maternity rights which would, it was thought, alienate their male colleagues. The general atmosphere in which these themes were developed was one of heady political optimism and urgency. Although the expansionary economic conditions of the 1960s were already over, there was still a strong sense that things could only get better; indeed, in some circles it was defeatist even to mention the possibility that a socialist revolution might not be round the corner.

In this context, when rumours began to reach Britain of a new technology which would transform the nature of typesetters' work, the first response was to perceive it as a threat to workers' unity. Radical members of the journalists' union, together with a few colleagues from other print unions, decided that this issue could not safely be left in the hands of fulltime officials, and formed a worker-based group to research it (Barbara Gunnell, Christina Potrykus and Jenny Vaughan are three of the people whom I remember as being particularly active in the process, perhaps because they were the only women in the group; perhaps because they really did most of the work). It was argued that, if all the print unions did not stand firmly together, journalists would be able to input copy directly, thus putting the typesetters out of work. This would weaken all the other unions, journalists included, because only the typesetters, traditionally very well-paid, had the industrial muscle to bring the newspaper proprietors instantly to the negotiating table, a strength they had frequently exercised in the past by threatening or taking immediate strike action (of a type then known in the press as 'wildcat strikes') which could completely halt production of a newspaper (Journalists' Charter).

The issues, then, were redundancies and trade union unity. Indeed, it was sometimes claimed that managers' sole reason for introducing new technology was to 'smash the print unions'. One member of the union working group, Jenny Vaughan, visited the United States to find out what had happened when the technology was introduced there, and came back with information which reinforced this view. The possibility that VDU work might entail health hazards was mentioned in passing but not made much of. The fact that the skills required to operate the new technology were those of a typist - normally seen as a woman's occupation - was not the subject of comment, perhaps because journalism was at the time virtually the only occupation in Britain in which men were required to be able to type. In keeping with this analysis, the action enjoined on workers was resistance: they should boycott all new technology in the interests not only of preserving jobs but also of preserving union strength.

Although at the time I made no connection between the two discussions, while this debate was going on in the trade union, I was also reading every feminist publication I could find. Among the socialist feminists with whom I identified, two 'demands' seemed to be the most important preconditions for women's liberation: economic independence and the socialization of housework. The former led to a focus on paid work; the latter to a focus on what was unpaid. I can remember spending a lot of time puzzling over the relationship between privatized, unpaid domestic labour and the money economy, helped by a largely Marxist feminist literature (especially Gardiner, 1975).

In 1976 I got a job with a large company in the North of England, which owned a number of factories, as well as the publishing division for which I was working. It was very hierarchically organized, with sharp contrasts between the conditions of the managers, mostly male, and the clerical staff, who were almost exclusively female. Such union organization as there was dominated by men on managerial grades. Together with one of these men, who was sympathetic to feminism, I concluded that it would be necessary to hold women-only meetings if we were to find out what the real grievances of the majority of the workers were. It was here that I had my first direct encounter with the effects of new technology - in the ladies' lavatory. One day I met a young woman there, sitting, doubled-up, with her head clutched in both hands, rocking backwards and forwards in what appeared to be considerable pain. When I asked her what the matter was she said it was 'them machines' which gave her excruciating headaches. 'Them machines' turned out to be terminals connected to the company's mainframe computer, on which she was processing invoices. I decided to bring this up at the first women-only meeting we were organizing, and included a reference to it in the publicity material produced for the meeting. At the meeting it emerged that, although currently only a minority of the clerical staff - mainly invoice clerks - was working on computer terminals, the company was about to introduce some mysterious new machines called word processors into the customer services department.

From their description I recognized that these machines bore some family resemblance to the 'new technology' we had heard about in newspapers, and realized that this technology was not just likely to affect the jobs of a few hundred male print workers but of tens of thousands of female office workers. I started collecting all the information I could about these machines - attending office equipment trade fairs, reading the special supplements on microprocessor technology which were beginning to appear in the business press, and writing to the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (which produced a magazine about occupational health called the Hazards Bulletin) to see whether anything was known about the health hazards of VDUs.

This last request elicited copies of two research papers on the subject, one American and one Swedish (Ostberg, n.d; Busch, 1976). By following up all the references in each, I was able to assemble a file of information on the subject. This contained some useful, albeit fairly technical, information on eyestrain and the ergonomics of keyboard work, together with some less informative articles dismissing 'radiation scares'. To my surprise, I discovered that the possession of this file gave me the status of an 'expert' on the subject. From other discussions with people involved in producing the Hazards Bulletin, especially Charlie Clutterbuck, I gained a more general introduction to the ideas in general currency in the radical science movement at the time: that science is not neutral and that the general principle to be followed in any analysis of occupational hazards is that the design of the job, rather than the individual worker, is likely to be to blame, from which it follows that the solution to the problem is to redesign the job, rather than the worker.

In the meanwhile, I was getting involved with a group of people (academics, trade unionists and community workers) who were setting up the Leeds Trade Union and Community Resource and Information Centre (TUCRIC). Influenced by new radical movements in community development and adult education, as well as the ideas of Paolo Freire (1970), this centre was intended to provide a resource which would empower working-class people by giving them the information and resources they required to develop an alternative analysis of the forces shaping their lives and empower them to take action to change them. The themes of spontaneous rank-and-file self-organization and of unity were still strong, but here there was also an admixture (derived from the community action tradition) of a recognition that in some circumstances people might require help (from what might be called professional community workers) to do this effectively. There were, however, fierce debates as to whether the role of the professional researcher should be restricted simply to researching and serving the information needs of these groups, or whether there was also a responsibility to provide political leadership.

When we finally raised enough money to open this centre, several things happened almost simultaneously. I left my job to work full-time at the centre, the Hazards Bulletin asked me to write an article about VDU hazards, and the BBC produced a documentary about the employment effects of new technology, called Now the Chips are Down (first broadcast in 1978), which dramatically increased public awareness of information technology. In the week when the resource centre opened, we were inundated with letters and telephone calls from people who had read either the Hazards article or another article about the possible impact of new technology on office jobs in the area in our newsletter. These people were mostly office workers themselves, or trade unionists in other industries in which information technology might have an impact. They divided into two main groups: those who were already suffering from eyestrain or headaches from prolonged screen-based work, and those who were worried that their jobs might disappear as a result of the introduction of information technology.

It was clear that, if we were to be responsive to local demands for information, research on new technology would have to take a high priority. I found a 'new technology' label attached to myself, and entered the public arena of debate about information technology in several, often overlapping, forums. At the radical end of the spectrum there was the Conference of Socialist Economists (CSE) and the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science (BSSRS), both essentially groups of socialist academics. However during this period (1977-80) there were also a large number of conferences on the subject organized by government and academic bodies and by employer's groups, trade unions and professional organizations. Numerous television programmes and educational films were commissioned, and reports and popular booklets published.1 The issue was also taken up by women's groups for the first time.

On the academic left, Harry Braverman was a dominant influence. His Labour and Monopoly Capital (1974) had launched a whole generation of labour process analysts, virtually all of whom (quite against the spirit in which Braverman had written his book) appeared to concentrate their attention almost exclusively on car production workers. Into the discussions on technology, which had previously focused on job loss and unity, was introduced a new subject, that of skill. It was generally assumed that the Fordist tendency of capital to introduce ever simpler industrial processes in order to deskill workers was an absolute one. New technology was simply an instrument of deskilling, so far as this school of thought was concerned. Jane Barker and Hazel Downing (1980) showed that it was possible to adapt Braverman's model so that it could be applied to the introduction of new technology into typing and secretarial work. The ideas that the concept of skill might be a problematic one when applied to women, or that there might be situations when the introduction of a new process involving more difficult skills might be in an employer's interest, were not receiving attention. When I wrote a paper which attempted to analyse the changing skill content of domestic labour using Braverman's notion of deskilling, it received a very hostile reception from the men in the CSE Microelectronics Working Group.2 As far as they were concerned, the automation of household tasks was unproblematically a 'good thing' and did not require any further analysis. Because it was occurring in the 'sphere of consumption' rather than that of production, it had no relevance whatsoever to their discussions.

There were also attempts to integrate an analysis of the effects of technological change into economic theory, both orthodox and Marxist. Kondratiev's idea of cyclical 'waves' of technological development was much discussed. The spectre of technologically-induced mass unemployment remained the dominant theme. Although it was sometimes pointed out that this may be a transitional feature of a massive restructuring of capital, most commentators were at a loss when it came to understanding the basis on which the next boom would be based. Robots don't buy cars, it was said, so where would the mass markets come from for the next wave of commodities to be produced? Again, there was enormous resistance among the male economists who dominated these debates to any suggestion that the automation of domestic labour might have anything to do with the generation of new commodities (CSE Microelectronics Group, 1981).

Meanwhile in the trade union movement some first-hand experience of the introduction of the technology was beginning to accrue. The question to which most people wanted answers, was: 'how many jobs will it destroy? In some circles any stance other than out-and-out opposition was still regarded as treachery. Sometimes negotiations on the conditions of introduction were refused, which was not in the interests of the workers (generally women) who ended up having to use the machines. In other cases, the white-collar trade union representatives responsible for representing workers' interests in the negotiations were drawn from precisely those strata of lower management, professional and technical staff who had most to benefit from new technology. They were perceived as the cause of, rather than the solution to, the problem by the secretarial and clerical women workers who had most to lose. In some cases this led to increased militancy among the women workers, many of whom, for the first time, put themselves forward for elected union positions and eagerly attended conferences on women and new technology organized by women's groups or trade unions. The technology-related issues they were most concerned with were health and safety, job design and access to training. However it was clear that in many cases these were inseparable from the other problems they faced as women in their workplaces. Meetings called to discuss technology often ended up discussing how to deal with the sexist attitudes of male trade union colleagues or the opposition of husbands or lovers to women being active in the union at all. I can remember one woman (a convertor in a factory which manufactured cosmetics) whose husband would wait impatiently outside the meeting room for her to finish, looking angrily at his watch and accosting anyone else who came out. Another (a school secretary) had been told by her husband to choose between him and the union ('Well', she told me, 'I thought about it for a while and then I decided, I'll take the union, thank you very much').

In the literature we produced at the time there is usually a silence surrounding these problems. Much was written about the burdens of the 'double shift' - the combination of paid work and unpaid housework. Little, however, was said in public about the third shift - the work for the union. In retrospect, this was often more burdensome and brought fewer rewards than either of the others. At its worst, it involved spending exhausting hours in draughty, smoky meeting rooms, in the company of abusive, argumentative men (many of whom would have been completely at a loss socially without a meeting to go to), getting home to a dirty house and an empty fridge long after the shops had closed, being attacked as a militant by the right and a reactionary by the left, never thanked, always blamed, while relationships fell apart about one's ears. As the 1970s progressed, the euphoric moments of victory became ever rarer.

Yet the tone of our publications was relentlessly optimistic. Between 1976 and 1980 I was working on the manuscript of an ambitious 'Working Women's Handbook', supposed to be published by Pluto Press in their Workers' Handbook series. Delayed by overwork, illnesses and bereavements in my own life and overtaken by events (the Thatcher government, once elected in 1979, immediately began to dismantle much of the legislation which I had so painstakingly anatomized), this was never quite finished and remains unpublished to this day. Its language and approach are, however, typical of the period. Each section starts with an analysis of a problem (for instance, lack of childcare facilities, or low pay), illustrated by tightly-edited quotations either taken directly from working women I had interviewed or gleaned from secondary sources. The tone then shifts to a more prescriptive one ('This is what you can do about it'), again copiously illustrated with examples of how particular groups of women workers have successfully overcome it. The collection of all this information, in which I was greatly helped by Jo Fitzpatrick and Marianne Dee, involved not only following up large numbers of personal leads, through contacts made at meetings or conferences, but also the accumulation of large files of newspaper cuttings, magazine articles, pamphlets and books. It could not have been achieved had we not been simultaneously setting up a library of such information at the resource centre. What strikes me when rereading this material now is the curious shift in emotional tone from the extreme pessimism of the way in which 'problems' are presented to the inspirational triumphalism of the 'solutions'. The combined effects of capitalism and patriarchy are presented as producing such an enormity of suffering that language can hardly contain it, yet in these accounts women organizing together, fuelled by feminist understanding and righteous anger, generate such a glow of sisterhood, such strength, that they appear to become invincible. I do not think that this was mere projection, or wishful thinking. It is so general in the socialist feminist literature (and in some films) of the time that I am convinced that it expresses something we really felt, an emotional atmosphere which we breathed, then, but which is difficult to describe now without resorting to cliches about 'the transformation of consciousness through struggle' or the like.

Trade unions were not, of course, the only arena in which women were active then. There was a proliferation of small single-issue groups many of which' by the end of the 1970s, had begun to address various aspects of the relationship between technology and women's lives. Some, either seeing the technology as inevitable, or as 'neutral' and desirable, saw women's exclusion from science and technology as a major problem, and began to agitate for more training for women and, where necessary, for that training to be carried out in women-only groups. Feminist teachers set up projects in schools and colleges, while other women set up groups to raise funds for women's technology training centres. One of the first of these, if not the very first, was the East Leeds Women's Workshop, in which Lynette Willoughby, a feminist electronics engineer, played a key role. There was some debate as to what the purpose of such training was. Were women to be trained simply to fill low-level niches in a system which exploited them? Were a favoured few to be given access to 'male' skills so that they could climb a 'career ladder' leaving most of their sisters behind? Were women to be educated about the technology rather than in it, so that they could develop a critique of an essentially male technology? Or was the technology neutral, capable of delivering good things to society if only it were controlled by women with humanitarian motives, rather than by men with destructive and profit-seeking ones? After a decade in which women have been urged to become assertive, independent and autonomous (not to say greedy). Such questions have a curiously old-fashioned ring to them.

Concern about the neutrality and control of science and technology were not exclusive to the discussion of information technology. These debates were paralleled and cross-nourished during this period by lively (and in some respects more advanced) discussions among feminists about medical technology and its impact on women's lives, and the beginnings of a public debate about the relationship between gender and military technology (which was to culminate several years later in the Greenham Common peace camp).

Another important set of concerns was the role of transnational corporations and the development of international solidarity between women. Copies of Rachel Grossman's (1979) description of conditions in the silicon chip factories of South East Asia had reached the UK by 1979, and profoundly shocked many women who had focused their attention on the impact of information technology on the work processes of the user industries, forgetting to ask how it was itself produced.

In 1979 and 1980, several feminist conferences on women and information technology were held, each very well-attended. I still have the roneoed double-sided sheet of paper which was handed out to advertise one of them, organized in the name of the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Socialist Feminist Group. This conference gave birth to the West Yorkshire Women and New Technology Group, which later produced a special issue of the magazine Scarlet Women on the subject (West Yorkshire, 1982). The leaflet is reproduced as an appendix to this chapter because it gives what still seems to me one of the best summaries of 'Why New Technology Specially Affects Women' (the title of the paper) while still giving off a pungent odour of its time. The rhetorical question of the title was answered under four main headings: 'Because of the sorts of jobs we have'; 'Because we also work at home'; 'Because of how we are educated' and 'Because economic crisis hits women hardest' . Under these four headings it manages to work in a remarkably complete agenda of the issues which were of major concern at the time. These include: 'skill loss'; 'double shift'; 'mobility'; 'trade unions'; 'consumption'; 'homeworking'; 'unemployment'; 'cuts' and 'multinationals'. After an anxiety-provoking run-through of all the detrimental effects on women's lives the new technology was likely to bring, it ends with a series of open-ended questions, under the general heading: 'Could new technology bring women's liberation?' I can remember writing it, with Jude Stoddart, after an exhausted brainstorming session, late one night, typing straight onto a stencil with a mechanical typewriter. The need to say everything on two sides of A4 paper, to keep the language simple, and to avoid saying anything which might lead to an inadvertent interpretation which was not politically correct, meant that every word had to be carefully scrutinized before it was committed to the stencil. Not much room for subjectivity here.

In 1979 the centre where I worked actually received some money (from the Equal Opportunities Commission) for research on the impact of new technology on women's working lives. This meant that, for the first time, I had to grapple with some serious methodological problems. There did not appear to be a single academic discipline which could provide the tools for any systematic analysis of the social impact of technological change. During the 1960s, as a summer job when I was a student, I had worked as a reporter on a series of interdisciplinary conferences on the 'City of the Future', and had picked up a little knowledge of forecasting techniques, but even futurology seemed to be of little help here. The relevant books I could find were scattered across library shelves: some in economics; some in sociology; some in psychology; some in medicine; some in technology; some in geography; some in the newly-emerging 'women's studies' and 'business studies' sections. Many of the most useful pieces of empirical information came from none of these, but from trade journals, newspapers, conference papers and government reports. Yet these often had a certain circularity. A tentative speculation made in one quarter would be published as a prediction in another, which would then be cited as an authoritative source in a third. The unique library classification system we had at the resource centre (devised by Marianne Dee) meant that these could all be filed together under commonsense headings related to the research in hand, and made it possible to develop some sort of overview of the literature (a resource which was frequently used, usually without acknowledgement, by visiting academics). Nevertheless, this did not necessarily produce a very coherent conceptual framework. I found myself collecting scraps of empirical information, almost randomly, and then sorting them and resorting them until I could identify headings under which they could be grouped without too much distortion.

A central difficulty was finding quantitative information which would enable me to assess the relative importance of different types of women's employment. Which sorts of jobs were likely to be automated? And how many women were employed in such jobs? All the up-to-date employment figures I could find were based on industries, rather than occupations. Research which had been done in the past on the distribution of occupations within industries (Crum and Gudgin, 1977) was useless for my purposes because it aggregated the figures for men and women, making gender segregation invisible. In order to collect this information, and establish the long-term trends in occupational change and changes in their gender composition, it was necessary to go back to the primary sources (censuses of population and employment, going back to the beginning of the century) and spend many tedious hours with a calculator (a task I could not have achieved without the unstinting help of Quentin Outram). This was my first first-hand encounter with official statistics, and a very disillusioning one.

I was aware of the work of the Radical Statistics Group, which was about to publish a book called Demystifying Social Statistics (Irvine et al., 1979), so I was prepared to find that the statistics embodied values which might be regarded as 'establishment' ones. However up to that point I had somewhat naively believed in the comprehensiveness of official data. It came as a great shock to me to discover that, on a range of issues which one might have thought would have been important to the government for its own policy-making purposes, the relevant statistics simply did not exist. It would be several years before I became confident enough to formulate specific criticisms of government research-gathering instruments, or suggest changes to them. At the time, I simply felt lost and lonely, stranded without a map in a jungle of conflicting facts. This existential angst is, perhaps, an inescapable part of the process of becoming a researcher. As the certainties crumble, and hypotheses collapse, we discover that there is no parental god up there with the 'right' answers, and it is up to us to construct our own version of reality. I cannot say that I have got used to it yet. I still write with the expectation that somewhere a reader will be taking each sentence apart, pointing out factual errors or logical flaws in the argument, and I am not sure whether I am relieved or disappointed when, having sent the finished work out into the world, there is no reaction at all, apart from citations in other people's, equally anxious, productions.

This is not the place to describe this research in detail. It did, however, establish a pattern in my life which was to last for nearly a decade, whereby each piece of research was essentially written up twice: once in the accepted scholarly way, for the client who had funded it, and then again in a popular form, for 'ordinary people'. As the 1980s progressed, however, this became more and more difficult to do, as the organizations which were willing or able to publish the popular versions dwindled in size and number. In the absence of successful mass movements or any large-scale public culture of resistance it also became more difficult to identify who this 'ordinary person' might be for whom one was producing these materials. Nowadays, having lost any sense that I have the 'right answers', I am increasingly uncomfortable using any authorial voice which is not identi- fiably my own. But this is a digression. In 1980, despite the unmistakable signs of an impending recession and the most reactionary and anti-woman government in living memory, it still seemed vitally important to make everything one learned available, as quickly as possible (while it was still warm, so to speak) to the widest possible working-class audience. I wrote Your Job in the Eighties ( 1982c) (intended as a popular women's guide to the effects of new technology on employment) in a two-week burst (fuelled by the high blood pressure of mid-pregnancy) in 1981, but its spirit is from the 1970s. It still has the 'you too can do it; all you need is organization and courage' tone of the rallying publications of the previous decade. It still focuses exclusively on collective action, implicitly suggesting that the individual, acting as an individual, is powerless.

During the early 1980s this mood was to change. The individual members of the discussion and campaigning groups of the later 1970s went their separate ways. Some went to work for the Greater London Council or one of the other newly radical local authorities which seemed, for a time, to offer the possibility of islands of socialism within the greater sea of Thatcherism. Some became academics. Some withdrew into child-bearing and domesticity. Some went to work full-time for trade unions, charities or campaigning bodies. Some set up training projects or consultancies or other new enterprises. Some retrained so that they could practice psychotherapy or osteopathy or other, more esoteric alternative therapies. Some became professional politicians. Some died. As survival became more difficult, and the experience of political defeat more common, only a few, with exceptional stamina, managed to sustain the rhythm of regular meetings and continue to engage in discussion for discussion's sake. Activities which had previously been carried out in people's spare time, for their own sake, without payment, were increasingly becoming the preserve of a professionalized 'voluntary sector'. It was often difficult to tell whether people were speaking from their own political beliefs or regurgitating the terms of their job description.

These changes inevitably led to a shift of focus, often a narrowing, more directed to the achievement of realizable short-term goals: the setting up of a particular training course; the opening of a women's centre; a change in policy. A new and pragmatic generation was emerging, familiar with feminist and socialist ideas because they had heard them from radical teachers at school and university, but also hard-nosed about their own survival. They often made the veterans of the 1960s feel hopelessly naive and unrealistic. Many of the theoretical debates of the 1970s were left unresolved because they suddenly seemed irrelevant. The contents of the shelves of feminist book shops changed out of all recognition. When I looked, in about 1984, under the heading 'employment' in Sisterwrite (my local feminist book shop) expecting to find, as I would have a decade earlier, a selection of heavy works of political economy, campaigning pamphlets, autobiographical accounts and sociological studies, all I could find was one book about sexual harassment at work, three guides to setting up one's own business and an even larger number of handbooks for developing greater assertiveness. It wasn't that feminist publishing had declined. Far from it. There were shelves and shelves of poetry and fiction, books about sexuality, about race, about health, about housing, 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.

This change did not happen all at once, however. During the early 1980s an immense amount of empirical work was done on employment, technology and gender, often designed to test the hypotheses we had developed in our discussions in the late 1970s. Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle, in Australia, published Gender at Work (1984), Cynthia Cockburn in Britain published Brothers (1983). It became clear that skill was a much more complex concept than Braverman had supposed, more a social construct than any acquired set of competencies which could be objectively measured for their difficulty. It also became clear that the impact of information technology on women's jobs was far more diverse than simplistic Marxist analyses had predicted. It was true that in some industries and some occupations there was a Fordist tendency to reduce tasks to their simplest components, minimizing the skills component and reducing the workforce to a homogeneous, interchangeable mass. In others, however, the introduction of new technology obliged workers to acquire a lot of new skills. Because they were usually fairly low-paid women, and the technology was seen by their employers as an extension of the typewriter, they were often not provided with adequate training. The word 'reskilling' began to be used alongside 'deskilling', and evening classes in word processing had long waiting lists.

Many of us were still grappling with broader theoretical and political issues, trying to tease out the implications of what we had learned and apply them to other debates. I can remember, for instance, writing an article in which I attempted to apply Marx's theory of alienation to domestic labour, by developing an analogy between the worker's relationship with the means of production in the workplace and the housewife's relationship with the means of reproduction (the home itself, and domestic technology). Because workers were increasingly being required to become owners of these means of reproduction, I argued, they could not express their hatred of them and organize against them as factory workers could, although they were just as surely enslaved to the cash economy by the need to pay for them. I wanted to develop this argument to explore the question of what sorts of self-hatred and neurosis might ensue from this relationship, but lacked the courage to do so. I had so often been put down by academic Marxists for arguing 'on the wrong level of abstraction' that I dared not risk it again. Instead, I swung back to a discussion of high-tech homeworking, the subject on which I had originally been asked to write (Huws, 1985a).

Meanwhile Rosemary Crompton was carrying out research (published under the title White-collar Proletariat) which brought detailed empirical evidence to the debate about how the working class is to be defined, challenging Marxist orthodoxies in the process (1984).

An idea which received a good deal of attention during this period in discussions of technological change was that of 'socially useful production'. The charismatic figure of Mike Cooley, who had been the main architect of the Lucas Aerospace workers' 'alternative plan for Lucas' was largely responsible for this (Wainwright and Elliott, 1982; Cooley, 1981).

When asked to produce a feminist critique of this idea I found myself returning, yet again, to the subject of domestic labour and its relationship with the money economy. It was, I thought, the emphasis on commodity production (and with it, the idea of the 'real worker' as somebody exclusively engaged in commodity production) which was suspect in any vision of alternative work which was supposed to prefigure a socialist society. Was the socialist dislike of service sector employment simply a consequence of its being largely identified with women's work, or were there more complex issues at stake? I realized that the relationship between unpaid labour, service employment and commodity production was a dynamic one, whose boundaries were constantly changing, partly in association with the introduction of new technologies. The history of capitalism could be seen as the history of the gradual drawing out into the money economy of activities which had previously been carried out unpaid in the household. An essential part of this process was that of commodification and each wave of new technology generated new commodities. The introduction of these commodities brought changes in work processes (and hence in skills) both for the workers involved in their production and for the users of these commodities. To attempt to freeze a particular set of skills or work processes and apply them to the development of 'alternative' commodities seemed likely to be doomed to failure. Even if it succeeded, it would most likely be anti-woman in its effects, since it would also freeze the particular form of the division of labour (and hence of social relations) of the moment in which it was captured (Huws, 1985b). Increasingly, however, such articles seemed to produce no response. One might as well have dropped them into a void for all the debate they generated.

By 1982 I was living in London, alone with a baby, carrying out research on what later came to be known as 'teleworking' (a clumsy attempt on my part to translate the French coinage 'teletravail', used to refer to work carried out at a distance using information technology). This relative isolation may have coloured my experiences of the next few years. It was certainly the case that I felt distanced from whatever political debates were going on. Instead of being carried out voluntarily, the research which was going on in the areas I was interested in was increasingly being funded in academic, local government or voluntary sector contexts. A note of wariness and competitiveness began to creep into the discussions when researchers met each other. Although for some knowledge was still something to be shared as widely as possible, so that common reaming could take place, for others it was clearly a valuable commodity, to be parted with only for money, promotion or glory. There were still some occasions, like the conferences organized by the Women and Computing network, which retained the atmosphere of the 1970s, but other, more academic ones, seemed imbued with a more guarded and self-seeking atmosphere. There was a terrible conflict between the sharing feminist ethic and the need to earn a living. Because I was now self-employed, survival was hard, and I sometimes felt exploited when my work was used by others without acknowledgement or payment. However, I also felt a great need to be part of an intellectual community where ideas could be freely shared, and realized that I could not have it both ways. It was my impression that, in

Britain at least, such a community hardly existed any more, although on the rare occasions when I could afford to go to conferences in other countries, my faith in the possibility of its existence was rekindled.

The first such occasion was a conference on women and new technology organized by ISIS in Switzerland in 1983.3 There was a sense of excitement and urgency to communicate which made one realize how demoralized feminists had become in Britain under the Thatcher government. There was a wonderful paper from a group of women from the Japanese Committee for the Protection of Women in the Computer World (1983). Trini Leung, from Hong Kong, spoke movingly and inspiringly about the need for international solidarity among women working for multinational corporations in the electronics industry, and there were thought-provoking contributions from many other countries. I came away convinced that continuing to bang one's head against the brick wall of Thatcherism, as so much of the British left was doing, was not the best strategy. Instead, we should be concentrating on developing international links, and confronting international capital.

The work that I had been doing on teleworking had made me aware that when new technology is introduced it can change not just the nature, but also the location, of work. This does not just involve shifts from the office to the home or from the city centre to the suburb, but may involve regional or international shifts. It seemed possible that the sort of international division of labour which had grown up in manufacturing industries during the 1960s and 1970s might well be repeated in service industries in the 1980s and 1990s. Helped by some leads from the United States office-workers' organization '9 to 5', I had begun to collect information about the growing use of offshore information processing by companies based in North America, Europe and Australia. I was never able to get funding to develop this work systematically, but it undoubtedly informed the work I was doing with women's groups at the time, most notably in the setting up of the City Centre, a resource centre for office workers in the City of London (in which Sarah Stewart played a key role) and in Women Working Worldwide, a group specifically set up to develop international solidarity among working women, into whose development Gerry Reardon and Helen O'Connell put an especially impressive amount of energy. In general, there appeared to be something of a retreat from internationalism in the British left at the time, although there were some exceptions. The Greater London Council sponsored some work on multinational corporations (notably Kodak and Ford) and funded the London Transnationals Information Centre, but such initiatives often seemed to be regarded as aspects of development education, as do-gooding, rather than real politics. It was a rare surprise to meet someone - like Swasti Mitter - who combined an active interest in theoretical issues with a commitment to internationalism which took precedence over other political concerns (Mister 1986).

As the 1980s ground on, either feminist initiatives on new technology became scarcer or I lost touch with them. Such projects as there were seemed mainly addressed to practical issues. The Women and Computing Network gave birth to Microsyster, a project set up to provide training and computing services to women's groups, as well as a lively newsletter.4 Otherwise, my main contact with the issues was through correspondence with Ph.D. students, visits from overseas researchers and the occasional conference. Much of my paid work did not relate directly to technology, although there was a steady trickle of interest in teleworking. I have written elsewhere at length on the different meanings this concept acquired over the years and will not repeat myself here (Huws, 1991; 1993; Huws et al. 1989).

It is, though, perhaps worth noting two central preoccupations in relation to technology which surfaced during this period, which had been largely absent during the 1970s. The first of these was the concern, already referred to, with the spatial dimensions of technological change. Here, I found relatively little that was useful in either feminist theory or Marxism. The most creative thinking in the area seemed to be going on among radical geographers, such as Mark Hepworth and his colleagues at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies in Newcastle (Hepworth, 1989), and in some work on racism and imperialism, notably that of Sivanandan at the Institute of Race Relations (Sivanandan, 1980).

The other concern was with the ways in which information technology not only changed the labour process itself but was also associated with transformations in relationships between employers and employees, in particular its role in bringing about the casualization of employment. When I had discussed the possibility of writing a book on the subject of the casualization of employment with Pluto Press in 1982 (shortly before the company folded), I was told by the editor concerned that there was no such word, and that even if we were to coin it, the concept would have no meaning for people. Over the ensuing decade it became abundantly clear that even if the word was not known, the condition was being experienced widely. Under the rubric of 'flexibility', large numbers of previously secure, permanent jobs were becoming temporary or casual, or farmed out to subcontractors and agencies, helped in no small measure by government policies which removed employment protection from large sections of the workforce, dismantled minimum wages and obliged public employers to subcontract many of their services. In the discussions about casualization, however, the role of technology became less and less important. It was clear that, while it was often a facilitator of casualization, the technology did not itself cause these social and legal changes (Huws et al., 1989).

Perhaps partly because during the 1980s most of us had ourselves become direct users of information technology (I acquired my first personal computer in 1983, a modem in 1985, a fax in 1987), it was becoming harder and harder to focus on it as a separate issue in its own right, and the earnest debates of the 1970s about whether or not it was a 'good thing' seemed at best irrelevant, at worst downright silly. For most people in Britain under the age of forty, information technology was now a taken-for-granted feature of everyday life. It had become necessary to be familiar with it or risk being seriously disadvantaged in one's career. Ten years after I had written that first Hazards Bulletin article about VDU hazards, I suffered the supreme irony of developing repetitive strain injury while working on a book on that very subject, commissioned by the London Hazards Centre (Huws, 1987). Since then, I have discovered that many of my women friends who are writers have developed the same condition.

This brings me to what is, perhaps, the central paradox of so many feminists' lives - our complete failure to practice what we preach! We write about the dangers of stress-related illnesses while leading incredibly stressful lives ourselves. We fight for the rights of low-paid workers while often accepting pitifully low fees or working for nothing ourselves. Some of us write about the exploitation and isolation of casually-paid homeworkers, while working as home-based freelances ourselves. We encourage other women to act collectively out of self-interest and not allow themselves to be guilt-tripped into self-sacrifice while ourselves taking on the most self-punishing roles in the interests of the common good. Are all our goals mere projections of our own unexpressed needs? In puzzling over such questions I find myself returning again and again to the conflict between individualism and collectivism. In retrospect, 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 seems to me that this has not just led to demoralization among people with a political commitment to trying to make life better for working women, it has also led many thousands of individual working people to make choices in their lives (which they might not have made in less fearful times) which, together, have transformed the nature of employment and of other features of their working lives. Losing faith in the possibility of public organizations being able to remain good landlords, they have bought their previously rented apartments. Losing faith in the possibility of getting their children decently eared for in public childcare facilities, they have chosen to work from home and look after them themselves. Losing faith in the possibility that their trade unions can secure their future, they have chosen instead to put money into private pension schemes. The sum of all these individual decisions has been a near-complete collapse of the public infrastructure in which new collectivities can be woven. I do not know whether this British experience has been reflected elsewhere in the world, although the news stories from Eastern Europe suggest that features of it are certainly evident there. What does seem apparent to me is that any solutions which we might wish to propose, any demands which we might wish to make for the future, must take this context into account. It may be that there is still the possibility of generating some enormous, collective act of hope which will enable people to begin trusting each other again. Failing this, we must try to find demands which do not force them to make a harsh choice between self (and individual certainty) and others (and possible loss). We cannot demand altruism. The best we can do is to trust women to see where their own best interests lie, and pursue them, with or without the aid of information technology.

Contents - Previous - Next