Two halves together for a better whole

February 9, 1996

Juliet Webster tells Tim Greenhalgh why she is taking a gender perspective to her new IT research job in Brussels. Juliet Webster is taking the challenge of developing civilised technological change within the European "Information Society" to Brussels in two weeks.

The senior lecturer in innovation studies at the University of East London has been seconded to the European Commission's Directorate General V, which covers employment, industrial relations and social dialogue. Her appointment follows the conclusions of commissioner Martin Bangemann's report on Europe and the Global Information Society, published in May 1994.

The report welcomed change but sounded warnings on its implementation. It prompted the establishment of a group of experts to examine all aspects of social change in the new era on behalf of the Commission.

Dr Webster's role will be to work with the group of experts to develop policy and an action plan on employment, the quality of life, regional cohesion, education and training, democracy and culture within the information society - a wide brief which will develop a finer focus as work progresses.

Her appointment is, in part, recognition of her long record of research and teaching in the field of innovation and technology studies. A theme of her research work to date is that women have benefitted little from the introduction of new technologies in the workplace. Women have not had the kind of access to the process of technological development which might have enabled them to articulate their requirements in relation to new technologies. While there has been path-breaking systems development work by, for example, Lucy Suchman at the Xerox Corporation in the United States and Marja Vehvilainen in Finland, this needs to be applied more widely if women's skills and needs are to be recognised in the process of developing technologies.

By the same token, the majority of working women have had few chances to add to their skills and move into more challenging areas. Dr Webster sees a continual redefinition of "skill" taking place, which privileges technical expertise but overlooks competences which women routinely acquire in their working and home lives.

She experienced this at first hand "in a previous life" as a secretary, after a conventional middle-class upbringing and schooling. The grammar school environment did not inspire her to academic success, and she left with three "mediocre" A levels in art, French and German. While training as a secretary, she took an evening course in A-level sociology. Then one of her employers suggested that she apply to university. She was accepted by Bradford to study sociology and social psychology.

Research followed her upper second degree and, prompted by her experiences of office work, she completed her doctorate on the impact of new word processing technologies on secretarial work. Her first book, Office Automation: the Labour Process and Women's Work in Britain, was the outcome.

Doing research in Bradford's department of industrial technology had a crucial influence on her thinking. "The department was predominantly staffed by engineers, with a few social scientists. Uniquely at that time, it aimed to develop in its students a social analysis of technological change in industry as well as technical expertise."

Dr Webster believes that this type of interdisciplinary education (which is also the hallmark of her current academic home in East London's innovation studies department) is essential in fostering a sense of the intimate interrelationship between technical and social developments - an awareness which is vital for technical professionals and users alike.

"These things do not progress in isolation from one another," she argues. "Technological changes are built upon social and organisational relations, and these arrangements in their turn evolve and alter in response to technological developments."

This premise is amply demonstrated by a look at technological change in the arena of women's work. "In one sense the introduction of new technology hasn't changed women's work very much. Most women's jobs have been and remain routine in the extreme." On the other hand, new technologies are facilitating the increasingly sophisticated use by employers of various forms of "insecure" employment contract. Although part-time work, for example, has long been a feature of many British women's occupations (especially in the service sector), it is now growing at an unprecedented rate throughout the economy. Women, however, remain the principal incumbents.

"In the UK, the number of people working part time rose from 3.3 million in 1971 to almost six million in 1994, and at this point, 78 per cent of part-time jobs were held by women. In the European Union overall, women now hold 83 per cent of part-time jobs."

In some industries such as retailing (which employs significant numbers of women), employers are increasingly using their workforce simply to fill in where circumstances require - as "permanent casuals". In banking, increasing numbers of female clerical workers are now employed on a temporary basis as "seatwarmers" in jobs destined for eradication by automation, or in outsourced operations in remote offices.

These are developments which are occurring because of contemporary trends in management thinking and corporate "human resource" policies, but they are facilitated by information and communications technologies which allow for the relocation of work, the restructuring of work time, and a much finer scheduling of work according to the resources (including female labour) available. In the UK and in the US, the outcome is that many (women's and men's) jobs are becoming increasingly casualised and, in the words of the American feminist Donna Haraway, "feminised" - that is, coming to bear the characteristics of jobs traditionally held exclusively by women. There is a danger that this state of affairs will become commonplace across Europe unless interventions are made into the twin processes of technological and social change.

"Although the 'information society' envisaged by Jacques Delors and Martin Bangemann may have some very positive aspects, this is by no means a given. I think we have to be sceptical of any rhetoric which promises automatic benefits for all, and to strive for concrete policies which will distribute them."

Without wishing to preempt her frame of reference in the European Union, Dr Webster knows that she will be involved in widespread consultations with diverse social groups to develop policies which are sensitive to the needs of all. Her personal concern with the dynamics of technological change in women's working lives, encapsulated in her forthcoming book Shaping Women's Work, will be at the centre of this work.

"I feel very fortunate," she says. "This is an opportunity to shape the policy agenda according to what I believe are pressing social and technological issues, and this sort of opportunity doesn't present itself often."

* Shaping Women's Work: Gender, Employment and Information Technology is to be published by Longman in May.

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