Technology, skill and the gender divisions of labour

Jacqueline Sewell


Two characteristics define modern society (modernity) according to writers such as Boyne and Rattansi (1990). They are, the progressive union of scientific objectivity; and politico-economic rationality. Other writers such as Bell (1974) claimed that: “the basic structure of emerging post industrial society would be a service economy dominated by a technical professional class “.

Within this post industrial society, it is argued, the dominant political structure has little impact on the logical nature of technology. Thus one of the consequences of the application of new technology within organisations would be the disappearance of old irrational labour relations and working practices in favour of a more efficient and effective labour process.

Much of the literature surrounding the debate on the effect of the application of technology on the labour process, has tended to focus on the impact of technical change on the skill of workers. Studies have concentrated on the issue of deskilling /enskilling; and whether the labour relations that follow are a result of an independent variable such as the technology itself or whether they are a result of direct political choice by management.

Writers such as Liff (1990) and Edvardsson(1990) have developed the debate further by focusing specifically on the impact of technology on gender relations in organisations and the skill level of female workers. They have noted that alongside the expansion of the female workforce in the service sector there has been a re-definition of what constitutes a skill. Thus the women who now possess these necessary ‘skills’ for the new technological organisation still find themselves by and large classified as unskilled.

The main argument of this paper is that despite the promise of modernity pre-modern sexual labour divisions remain steadfast in modern organisations, with women still largely occupying the lowest occupational levels.