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

Why does new technology specially affect women ?

Because of the sorts of jobs we have

Service sector In both public and private services, the vast majority of people doing other people's housework are women - in hospitals, nurseries, hotels, schools: cooking, cleaning and caring. Women are also the main processors of information - in shops, offices, banks, local and central government. Many of these areas are already being directly - and drastically - affected by new technology, e.g. word processing is being introduced in offices; automatic checkouts in supermarkets; 'cashpoint' machines in banks; centralized, computer-controlled cooking in schools and hospitals.

Manufacturing In manufacturing the 'service' jobs are affected in the same way, but women are also affected by changes in the production process itself. Here, women are mainly ghettoised in the boring, repetitive, unskilled jobs which are the first targets for automation. Changes in the actual products reduce the number of components necessary - one electrical part can take the place of scores of mechanical ones - and cut the number of fiddly soldering and assembly jobs - also work mainly done by women.

Skill loss These changes mean fewer jobs for women, and higher unemployment all round. For the minority of 'skilled' women workers, the chance to use these skills will disappear. For those classified as 'unskilled', work becomes even more stressful and machine-like.

Because we also work at home

Double shift Our double responsibilities - for home and work restrict the hours we can work, and how far we can travel to get there. New technology brings changes in working hours (e.g. twenty-four-hour shift systems) and location of employment.

Mobility We are moved in and out of the workforce (because we have kids, because husbands move, etc.). This means we have little or no employment protection - and present government policies are removing what little we had. Ours are the jobs that disappear with 'voluntary redundancy' end 'non-replacement' policies.

Trade unions Although our record of militancy is quite as good as men's when we're given a chance, we are poorly served by unions, and badly represented within them. We don't have time to go to meetings (which are held at the wrong times); are patronized or ignored by sexist union officials; and our interests put at the bottom of lists of priorities. We are also much more likely to be working for small firms or isolated in scattered workplaces such as cafes or shops - the areas where unions can't or won't recruit. All this makes it harder to fight back when our jobs are threatened.

Consumption As the people mainly responsible for 'consumption work', women bear the brunt of the depersonalisation and extra work created by automation in services, e.g. queueing for hours in clinics, government offices or supermarket checkouts, coping with the frustration when machines go wrong, and suffering the rudeness of unsatisfied deskilled bureaucrats.

Homeworking Government reports predict that new technology will bring new jobs that can be done in the home, e.g. using terminals linked up to central computers over GPO lines. But how much of a gain will this be for women if homeworkers remain isolated, ununionized and badly paid, pressurized into working too fast because of the inadequate piece rates? Do we really want the stress of having our kids around while we work, machinery cluttering up our living rooms, and the pile of work always there, waiting to be done, twenty-four hours a day?

Because of how we are educated

Conditioning Both the schooling we get and general attitudes to women in society mean that most of us know very little about science and technology. This means that we are unlikely to get the few skilled and relatively creative jobs which new technology introduces. More importantly, it means that we are badly equipped to challenge the increasing domination and control of our lives by the technology and its applications, whether in the workplace (e.g. a machine recording every time you stop for a fag or a pee) or outside it (e.g. your social security file or medical records ending up on the police computer).

Because economic crisis hits women hardest

Unemployment No research has been done on how women's personal lives are affected by unemployment, although male unemployment is recognized as leading to increased suicide, illness (mental and physical) and other 'social problems'. A very high proportion of women are now the sole breadwinners for their families, and many who are not single parents are dependent on their wage to live above starvation level. Women form a growing proportion of the unemployed, and this will continue to rise as male workers demand that 'women's jobs should go first'. In the past, new jobs were created in the service sector for those displaced from manufacturing, but this is no longer the case, as new technology decimates the service jobs.

Cuts Cuts in public spending force women back in to the home at ever-increasing rates. Not only are women's jobs lost from this sector, but the cuts also place a heavy burden on all women - looking after children, preparing school meals, caring for the sick, the elderly and the mentally ill.

Multinationals New technology is capitalism's answer to the crisis. It allows for a major shake-out of labour and investment in new machines which can produce huge increases in productivity with a much smaller, super-productive and super-exploited workforce. To the multinationals, women are an attractive source to draw on for this new labour force cheap, under-organized and dispensable. Already, much of the labour-intensive work required for silicon chip production is done in South East Asia, where the electronics multinationals can employ young girls for as little as 40p a day. The production process is extremely hazardous, and the employment system is highly authoritarian. After four years in this type of work, the eyesight deteriorates to an extent that makes the women unemployable. Often, the only alternative source of income is prostitution.

Could new technology help bring women's liberation?

As the people most directly on the receiving end of all the worst effects of the new technology, in all areas of our lives, women are in the best position to develop a total picture of its likely effects. We are used to bridging the gap between the two worlds of home and outside workplace, and have learned the importance of taking action on both fronts. If new technology is not to be used to erode the gains we have made and oppress us even further, it is up to us to work out the demands we want to make.

• Could the technology be used to get rid of unpleasant jobs - paid or unpaid - and free us for creative lives - or would we need a different technology to liberate us?

• How should we organize to take action at work, in the community and with other women?

• What should our demands be in our unions, and how should we raise them?

• How can we raise these issues with other women?

• How can we combine struggles in unions with struggles elsewhere?

• What sort of technology do we want?

(J. Stoddart and U. Huws for the Planning Group)


1 Much of this literature is reviewed in Huws, 1980; 1982a.

2 Huws, U., New Technology and Domestic Labour, unpublished paper, October, 1979. Parts of this paper formed the basis of Huws (1982b). Some of these ideas were further developed in Huws (1988).

3 This conference, entitled 'ISIS International Conference on New Technology and Women's Employment', was reported in ISIS Bulletin, Geneva, Autumn 1983.

4 The Women and Computing Newsletter (women only), available on subscription from Women and Computing Newsletter, c/o Microsyster, Wesley House, Wild Court, Kingsway, London WC2B 5AU.


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Huws, U. (1982a), New Technology and Women's Employment: Case Studies from West Yorkshire, Manchester, Equal Opportunities Commission

Huws, U. (1982b), 'Domestic Technology: Liberator or Enslaver?', Scarlet Women, No. 14, January; reprinted in Kanter, Lefanu, Shah and Spedding (eds), (1984), Sweeping Statements: Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement 1981-1983, London, The Women's Press

Huws, U. (1982c), Your Job in the Eighties, London, Pluto Press

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Huws, U. (1991), 'Telework: Projections', in Futures, January

Huws, U. (1993), Teleworking in Britain, London, Employment Department Research Series

Huws, U., J. Hurstfield and R. Holtmaat (1989), What Price Flexibility?: the Casualization of Women's Employment, London, Low Pay Unit

Huws, U., W. Korte and S. Robinson (1990), Telework: Towards the Elusive Office Chichester, John Wiley

Irvine, J., I. Miles and J. Evans (eds) (1979), Demystifying Social Statistics, London, Pluto Press

Journalists' Charter, Journalists and New Technology, London, Journalists Charter, undated but almost certainly 1976

Mitter, S. (1986), Common Fate, Common Bond: Women in the Global Economy, London, Pluto Press

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Wainwright, H. and D. Elliott (1982), The Lucas Plan, London, Allison and Busby

West Yorkshire Women and New Technology Group (1982), 'Women and New Technology', Scarlet Women, 14, Leeds, January

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