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Gender and Work in the 'Digital Economy'

Gender and Work in the


Gender and Work in the ‘Digital Economy’

Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World

edited by Cecilia Ng and Swasti Mitter; Sage Publications, New Delhi/ Thousand Oaks, London, 2005;

pp 262, Rs 540 (hardcover).


n the last few decades, there has been a great deal of literature on the issue of gender and the world of work. This literature spans several areas from the role of “domestic” or care work, historical work on the transition to an industrial economy, detailed analyses of gender positioning in various industries and their different status within industries, the evolution and development of the informal economy and so on.

It is now commonplace that women have always worked, and also that women’s work has been made invisible and been less acknowledged in history as well as in contemporary analysis. This is true of the care economy, of agricultural work as well as work in the modern economy. It is the women’s movement and feminist analysis that has insisted on the spotlight being focused on issues relating to women’s work.

One of the first debates in the women’s movement, and in feminist analysis, related to the issue of care work, often called the domestic work debate. Feminists also insisted on an analysis of women’s work in the economy. The debate on global capital and women’s roles in the global assembly line and in the emerging free trade zones was at centre stage in the 1970s and 1980s. An important aspect of the debates was the feminisation of employment as well as the underpaid and overworked aspects of women’s work. This is a feature of women’s work that continues to resurface in different sites in different countries of the north and south, especially in the context of globalisation and increased migration of women.

The period beginning with the 1990s was a mixed bag. It saw greater debate on the issue of women’s roles in the growing informal economy and value chains. That debate is still on and will continue to rage as the informal economy proliferates and with it women’s roles as well. An important feature of this period was also the increase of migration among women workers globally, especially though not exclusively, in the ubiquitous and everexpanding entertainment industry. With the increasing use of information and communication technology (ICT) in the 1990s and 2000s, the spotlight was also shared by this new technological revolution. There is an increasing body of research on the ICT sector and its impact on different aspects of the workforce. By the 1990s, the general scenario of gender in the world of work had undergone major changes, with increasing challenges by and for women in almost all fields of society and the economy.

Wars, war industries and industrialisation had earlier made spaces for women in paid work. Teaching, nursing and later clerical jobs in, say, banking found many women venturing out of their homes. All these had and have an impact on gender equations in society.

Impact of ICT

When the impact of IT is considered it has to be seen in this context, by taking note of the above-mentioned areas of work and the similarities and differences in impacts. This needs to be done to bring out the specificity of the impact of the IT industry. This is the expectation when academic debates on the topic enter their second decade. In the initial stages, a mere recording of the impact of IT may have been enough, but now the expectation is of a more specific and detailed analysis.

The book Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World by Cecilia Ng and Swasti Mitter (editors), includes 10 articles that were first published in different volumes of the journal Gender, Technology and Development (GTD), an international refereed journal based at the Gender and Development Field of Study, the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand. The articles make interesting reading as they span several issues and different levels of experiences in different countries – Argentina, the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Morocco and an international virtual university based in Germany, among others. The articles also relate to each other at varied levels. There is an important article by Susan Schaefer Davis that gives a detailed analysis of an interesting experiment of trying to sell carpets made by Moroccan women internationally, on the internet. Another article by Isabel Zorn talks about the attempt to organise and host a virtual women’s university in Germany and to create a virtual international community of women. The article by Dora Ines Munevar M and Juan Aburto Arrieta talks about tools of communication technology like Gender-Net. Outlining of a conceptual framework that can be used to open a space for gender equality and women’s perspectives, in order to contribute to reshaping the ICT revolution, is covered by Gillian M Marcelle.

In the introduction itself, the two editors, Cecilia Ng and Swasti Mitter, make a strong case for addressing the digital divide – “This engagement is another step towards promoting gender equality in the information society.” According to the editors: “The message of this anthology is historically specific; it captures and conveys the aspirations and anxieties of women in the developing countries in the emerging information economy and society.” The authors of the articles in the volume are mainly from the developing world or identify themselves with concerns of women from the south. Some of the articles, the ones on India and

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006 Malaysia, attempt to present the voices of women workers in the IT industries: “The risk of misinterpreting aspirations or requirements of women can, perhaps, be minimised by including poor women, as much as possible in the relevant feasibility studies.”

The article on the Argentinean experience by Martha Roldan brings out the dilemma of neoliberalism well. This ideology expects the governments to be less in control and market forces to take over the economy. At the same time, this way of thinking implies that state/governments must be effective in controlling the abuse of intellectual property rights, vitally important in IT sector. People and women pay a heavy price for the domination of the “free market”.

The article on female spaces in the Philippines’ ICT industry by Czarina Saloma-Akpedonu, raises an important question of the “dilemma of technology”: “…whether women, when in control of technology, would design technologies differently and on account of their own female interests or not.” The article goes into a detailed analysis of the spaces within the ICT industry in the Philippines and makes very interesting reading. It also raises the issue of male domination in technology due to the need for physical strength. This has been a point of debate for a long period of time. There have been studies which argue the opposite – that technology frees women to participate in public spaces as technology dissociates paid work from hard manual labour. Earlier discussions on the aptitude of women and women’s brains being less developed, in terms of dealing with technology and fields like mathematics, seem to have happily fallen behind!

When we read about the Indian scene in an article by Govind Kelkar, Girija Shreshtha and Veena N, it reminds us of the period when women in India entered the banking sector in large numbers. They refused promotions then as it would entail transfers and affect the education of their children and so on. Even today in the banking sector, women are in far less numbers in higher positions than men. IT seems to be replaying the same scene. The pressures of domestic life on paid occupations have remained, though women are dealing with it a bit better now.

In the case of IT, its dependence on different time zones has increased the demand for women working at night. The occupation of nursing had already seen large numbers of women working at night. In IT many women/girls work at night in call centres. Also they are in a totally different occupation from nursing. We have to see how this impacts women; does it create more opportunities for women considering this is a different sector or are these again dead-end jobs? These are some questions that need to be taken up in future research themes, especially in countries like India and China, where the number of women in this sector seems to be progressively on the rise.

ICT and New Avenues

There is little doubt that IT has opened avenues for women, especially young women in some countries of the south. A number of phenomena seem to be occurring at the

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

same time. At one level is the loss of jobs in the formal economy, where men and women in the so-called “old economy” seem to be losing precious secure employment. Hence greater numbers and proportions of people work in the informal economy at the global level. At the second level, men and women from the north seem to be losing employment. At the third level, employment all over seems to be in decline. Very few sectors of the economy are offering employment, the IT sector being one of them.

In this sector, however, the labour market is a very specific one. Women and men from the educated strata, basically urbanised English-speaking people, who belonged to the classes and castes that were able to draw the “benefits” of colonialism are the ones who are more likely to reap the immediate fruits of the IT revolution. The same underlying forces that bring about changes in the economy also push women back into worse working and living conditions with less spending by the state on health, education and the rapid conversion of the formal economy jobs into informal ones. When we look at the impact on gender balance or gender justice we also need to look at the impact on women of the deprived sections of developing countries. As rightly said in the introduction to the book, the impact of IT on gender equations is class, caste and country specific.

Issues for Further Work

May be we can expect a more detailed analysis of the above aspects in later efforts by the editors and authors. There are several challenges that need to be addressed as well. Here we will raise only a few.

When one discusses the evolution of the industrial economy, there is a concept of a transition from the non-industrial economy and its relations of production to an industrial economy that entails different sets of relations of production. It is not merely technological developments and innovations that signify the economy. When one talks of a digital economy, what are these sets of relations of production? How are they different from the capitalist economy or what are the specificities of the digital economy within the capitalist economy? Which are the classes or sections that are being affected in terms of both their demise or their evolution?

How are these sections dealing and coping with these changes; what are their responses, at an organisational or collective level? This could be one major challenge that the authors could address in their future work.

Another major challenge that this book implicitly points out is: What are the social and economic implications of the evolution of the IT industry? What are the social costs that are being paid and by whom? Is there a redistribution of social resources that is detrimental to some sections of society? Who makes the decisions and who pays the price for them? Does the evolution of the IT industry contribute to the polarisation of resources in terms of the north and the south and within the two as well?

The last five decades have seen different configurations of the distribution of work and jobs between the north and the south, starting from the 1960s in a major way. Some types of jobs have relocated in the south. This has had a major impact on working people in the world, their skill levels as well as on their organisations, especially trade unions. What are the changes that the ICT industry is likely to bring about in this scenario? When, for example, jobs get concentrated in call centres in China and India at the expense of Europe, the UK and US; what are the implications for women in these different parts of the world? What are the alternatives the ICT industry is throwing up instead of the opportunities lost? The book talks about creative use of the internet and the challenges that are posed by this as well. This is one area that could be the focus of an entirely new venture for research.

Organisational Possibilities within IT Industry

Another important arena of investigation and research is that of the possibilities and ground realities of women and men in the IT industry organising themselves into collectives. The dominant trend in the formal economy prior to the 1990s was that of collective bargaining. In fact, women in the informal economy, including street vendors and waste pickers, domestic workers and home based workers have been organising themselves vis-à-vis the might of the state, employers or middlemen. The IT industry is, strictly speaking, in the formal economy, in that its capital

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is extremely well organised. After 1990, capital in its drive towards a laissez faire labour market sought the decimation of workers’ organisations and tried to broker individual contracts rather than collective bargaining agreements. This trend seems to have been embedded in the IT industry right since its inception. This is an attempt to make organising redundant. There is some initial research into these aspects of the labour market and related workforce characteristics of the IT industry. Today the IT labour market seems to be a sellers’ market, with talks of poaching of the workforce by competing companies. However, much more research effort is needed to took into these aspects of women in the IT industry, because as history has indicated time and time again, as employees, workers and women, there is much to be gained by collective efforts than by mere competition within the workforce. History has also shown that women workers organising themselves only as workers has not been sufficient to protect the interests of women, even as workers.

The “workforce” in the IT industry is as varied as the IT industry itself. There are self-employed people like the carpetweavers in Morocco who we meet in the book. There are also the workers in call centres in Malaysia, India and the Philippines that the book talks about. There are users of the ICT and “community”-creators, as in the case of the virtual women’s university in Germany. This book tries to represent several faces of this multi-faced giant and makes interesting reading. A great many facets have necessarily to remain for further work to weave in more elements of an industry so dynamic that it changes every day. And relatively speaking, the IT industry is only just being born.



Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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