Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Shaping Women's Work: Gender Employment and Information Technology

Juliet Webster
London: Longman
ISBN 0 582 21810 1
x + 222 pp.

Order this book

Juliet Webster's book is the fifth title in the Longman Sociology Series of undergraduate texts which combines theoretical debates and empirical research in an accessible way. Webster's book covers the issue of technology and gender relations at work offering a novel approach to the ways in which gender relations shape the design, development and implementation of technologies and how gender relations are also shaped by technologies themselves. Gender and technology, in other words, are 'mutually constitutive' and this argument is developed in the opening chapter of the book. Reviewing the theoretical literature on women's work and technology, Webster opts for a 'social constructionist' view of technology which emphasises that technology is not just about physical artifacts but the product of human knowledge and human activities as well. She combines it with a feminist perspective by locating women's relationship to technology in the context of patriarchal and capitalist relations which have historically excluded women from information technology and this exclusion has been reproduced in contemporary work and employment. Webster's position is clearly expressed against the backdrop of a thorough review of women, employment and technology which students will find invaluable.

The main body of the book focuses on empirical research by sociologists and feminists on women's employment and technological change. Chapter 3 looks at gender relations in the shaping of technologies and, drawing on a wide range of comparative material, Webster shows gender divisions of labour are central to the process of technological development. Chapter 4 examines information and communication technologies and the shaping of women's employment. Again, Webster draws on extensive information from around the world to show that rationalization, decentralization, offshore processing and so forth are a threat to women's employment. Chapter 5 focuses, more specifically on the implementation of new technologies in offices, banks, shops and the clothing industry. This chapter, in my view, is the strongest in the book since it draws on Webster's previous research on secretaries and the extent to which they have been deskilled or not. The discussion on bank clerks is also right up to date and, again, an invaluable source of information.

The remaining chapters are somewhat different in focus. Chapter 6 focuses on major feminist initiatives on the design process of computer systems. Webster offers a realistic evaluation of their often limited successes especially when other priorities come to the fore. The concluding chapter provides a final overview of research into new technologies and women's jobs. The majority of women, Webster argues, undertake technological work in 'relatively powerless and peripheral positions' in the workplace. This is a pessimistic picture of women's employment in relation to technology. However, she concludes that there are possibilities for change by developing initiatives which challenge the way in which technology is currently developed, This is a more optimistic picture of the possibilities of change. In other words, Webster has produced a carefully balanced text for students which will quickly find its way on to reading lists on gender, employment and technology.

Fiona Devine
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997