Women Workers as Users of Computer Technology

By Larwood, Laurie | Computers in Libraries, March 1992 | Go to article overview
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Women Workers as Users of Computer Technology

Larwood, Laurie, Computers in Libraries

A major question in the growth of computer technology has been its effect on different components of the workforce. Among the questions raised: Are personnel in female dominated occupations impacted in an unusual or unequal manner by the advent of computer technology? Are the occupations themselves changed? And are women more or less likely than men to use and be used by the computer? This article briefly examines each of these related issues.

The questions concerning women's work spring from the synthesis of two areas of thought: those dealing with an understanding that the experience of women in the workplace is frequently different from that of men, and those seeing computers as likely to lead to significant workplace changes.

The experience of women has indeed been repeatedly shown to be substantially different from that of men. That differences include the nature of jobs in which women are more often found (lower level, lower payscale, less independent, and less prestigious), training and education obtained by women (less often professional or advanced, less technical), home-family conflict of women (more home responsibilities than men), and discrimination (women are perceived as performing less adequately, and are frequently paid less for the same task, cf. Larwood & Gutek, 1984; Larwood & Wood, 1977; Nieva & Gutek, 1981).

With respect to the other area of thought, computers do lead to workplace changes--although not always in the way predicted. Two early, overly simplistic notions of the use of computer technology ran side by side. At first, computers would make our activities more efficient by doing much of our work for us and by relieving us of the drudgery of certain activities. That this did selectively occur is indisputable; computer-assisted manufacturing systems have revolutionized some industries, and the microchips available in automobiles immediately improved their performance.

The second notion was that computers would do the thinking, relieving many employees in repetitive activities entirely from their jobs, and deskilling the balance, forcing them to become lower paid computer operatives. The divergence predicted was a simple one in which customers of computer technology were to be advantaged while lower-level employees would be fired or disadvantaged by being forced to work under the regimen of computers (Gutek & Larwood, 1987).


The projected impact on women was an obvious one. Being in lower-level, often repetitive positions, women would be told by those making the decisions either to use computers or to leave. Those using the computers would be scarcely better off, endlessly watching icons on screens, and barely using their intelligence. Their work rate (keystrokes, breaktimes, and mistake rate) would be monitored by the same computer at which they worked. The women who were fortunate enough to telecommute (working at home with a computer and transmitting their work by modem) would have the dubious pleasure of taking care of their family and job simultaneously and would be paid less to compensate for their gains. At the consumer end, the lower paid women would be the least likely to be able to afford or benefit from the technology (Gutek & Larwood, 1987, 85-86).


Making the divergence seem archaic today are four observations that are only now becoming increasingly clear:

1. Deskilling (the process of taking the requirement for intelligence and education out of the job) seems most likely to occur when the nature of the task being computerized is repetitive. This process does allow employers to hire less educated and lower aid employees.

2. However, computers are generally used to improve performance or to change or add to the tasks. This process frequently does not result in increased efficiency if the pre-computer standards of work acceptability are observed.

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