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

Article excerpt

Webster, Juliet. Shaping women's work: Gender, employment and information technology. London, Longman, 1996. 222 pp. Tables, bibliography, index. ISBN 0-582-21810-1.

As the information and communication revolution rushes on at dizzying speed, Juliet Webster's research is useful in drawing attention to the particular impact of technology on women workers. The central concern of the book is to document and discuss the evolution of women's employment through changes in the location, organization and automation of jobs, which are made possible by information technology (IT). The author vividly illustrates how the complex interplay between labour market forces, technologies and gender relations shapes and reshapes the employment patterns of women and perpetuates occupational segregation in new forms. Focusing on computer-based technologies in the workplace, she covers a formidable range of material. While the research she reviews is principally from industrialized countries, her analysis of the role of information technology and gender relations is very much situated within the context of a globalized economy, with its contingent relocation of work within and between industrialized and industrializing regions of the world.

A recurrent theme throughout the book is the intimate connection of technological systems and modes of work organization with human activities and know-how. The author stresses that the focus of the analysis should be more on how these interact than on the technology itself. Therefore, issues such as the division of labour (social and sexual), the organization of work by management and the design of jobs and tasks, power relations in the workplace, the allocation of skill labels, skilled status, prestige and rewards are as important as the technologies themselves. Employees also play a part in shaping the development, application and use of technologies and their roles vary according to whether they are men or women.

The first chapters of the book explore how gender relations contribute to the shaping of technology. The conceptual tools which are commonly used to analyse changes in women's work with technologies - particularly concepts of labour markets and labour processes - are discussed. The author also reviews the current debate on the relationship between women and new technologies, in particular feminist research responses to technology. She analyses how gender divisions in the workplace actually condition the pace and direction of technological change. For example, the process of technological change has taken place much more rapidly in those industries with expensive or strongly unionized labour, often men's jobs, and rather more slowly in industries with an abundant supply of cheap, women's labour. Gender divisions and gender relations involved in the production of hardware and software are also examined.

In the second part of the book, Webster's analytical focus shifts to the role of technology as it affects women's jobs and gender relations. Here, she looks at the broad structure, pattern and location of women's employment and occupational segregation. She discusses the perceived threats during the 1980s of job loss for women in offices owing to automation and argues that it is not so much information technology, but other factors which have affected women's employment patterns. …