Shaping Women's Work: Gender, Employment and Information Technology

Article excerpt

Longman, London and New York, 1996, pp. 222 ISBN 0 582 21810 1 (pbk) 11.99

This book by Juliet Webster provides a detailed and insightful account of the impact of information and communication technologies on women's work and of women's place in the development and application of these technologies. It therefore makes a valuable contribution not only to debates concerning the nature of work in computerised society but also to our understanding of the contemporary dynamics of women's paid work and their relationship to Information Technology. During the last two decades a significant body of research had been developed on the issues surrounding the development of new technologies at work. Over this time the focus has shifted away from ideas of technological determinism and a view of technological change as a rational linear process with fixed outcomes, towards `social shaping' and `social constructivist' approaches. The argument of these latter approaches is that technological change takes place across a network of actors in an iterative way and is a function of a complex set of technical, social, economic and political factors. Webster's main criticisms of these approaches to technological change, which this book specifically addresses, is their gender blindness. According to the author they tend: '...to prioritise the role of powerful groups and fail to see the divisions in the social world which marginalises some groups..an omission which is surprising given the extreme sexual division of labour to which the creation and consumption of all technologies, especially Information Technology, is subject:

A second main focus of the book is an understanding of women's position in the labour market in the computerised age. In conducting this analysis, Webster draws on a labour process, structuralist framework focusing in the `economic imperatives of capital and the material interests of patriarchy: The author is critical of more recent postmodern analyses for being too individualist and apolitical in their interpretations. Webster argues that while both technologies and gender relations are constructed through the activities of real individual people, and therefore postmodern analyses are important, it is also important to see these activities and experiences as grounded in their social contexts, in their work, industry, family and structure of everyday lives. However, as with the `social constructivist' perspective, she does criticise the labour process literature because of the gender blind nature of much of this work. A key aim among feminists, Webster argues, has been to develop an understanding of how women's work comes to be done by women, how it comes to be sex-typed and the gender characteristics of sex-- typed jobs. Webster argues that an understanding of the gender relations of work is necessary in order to fully comprehend the dynamics of technological and other forms of change. According to the author: `It is only by focusing on gender that we can fully appreciate the ways in which men, and relations of domination and subordination are implicated in the position and experiences of women at work and in the development of technologies: However, as technology is not taken for granted or black boxed in a deterministic sense, neither is masculinity or male domination. …