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Technology: An Equalizer for Women

Technology: An Equalizer for Women

Women's lives at home and work have been altered more in the last 150 years than during any similar period in human history, and most of the change is due to advances in technology. It's hard to determine the most significant turning point. Readily available electricity? Indoor plumbing? Nylon stockings? Reliable birth control? Permanent press finishes for clothing?

Perhaps the most important advance for women in the American workplace started more than a century ago with the typewriter, but it certainly will be information technology that continues the transformation of women's work in the early decades of this century.

Whatever the reason, most jobs now require intelligence and technical skill — brains rather than brawn. It doesn't require a "man's strength" to work in a factory when robots do all the heavy lifting, and these days, jobs are becoming scarce in manufacturing as the Industrial Age gives way to the Information Age. By 2006, the United States Department of Commerce predicts that almost half of the jobs available will produce or use information technology, products and services.

There was a widespread technological boom in the U.S. as the 19th Century became the 20th. The telephone, telegraph and railroads fueled rapid expansion and prosperity. Electricity replaced more uncertain forms of artificial light, allowing longer workdays. Use of the typewriter meant people no longer had to decipher handwriting. Here was a device, much faster than a pen, that could turn out fifty words per minute. For the first time, women were welcomed as office workers-their manual dexterity was considered perfectly suited to the typing task.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, new appliances were appearing on the market, giving the homemaker new options for household tasks. Stoves were now gas or electric, and didn't need all-day stoking. Washing machines and electric irons sped up clothing care. The first automobiles were considered too difficult for women to operate. They had to be hand-cranked to start, and, as there were few mechanics, one had to know how to repair one's own driving machine. By the 1930s, no one claimed cars were for men only.

Even something so commonplace today as the telephone freed women in ways never before imagined. Here was instant connection to the outside world for the homebound — and a service requiring a woman's hand at the switchboard. Today, cell phones make it easier for a woman simultaneously to work and monitor what is going on at home.

Starting in the 1950s, an entirely new industry was established led by the large "mainframe" computer companies such as IBM, RCA, Honeywell, and Univac. These companies opened a host of new jobs producing, maintaining, and servicing computer systems. Computer programmers, keypunch operators, computer service technicians, and computer sales personnel were soon in demand by the tens of thousands-good jobs to support a growing industry.

Yet in less than fifty years, only a relative handful of the jobs created in that initial wave of computerization still exist, held by workers servicing older systems still in operation. In their wake have come millions of still-newer jobs in an ever-widening variety of computer applications created to capitalize on the capacities of hardware and software systems. One's gender matters considerably less than one's skill and ability in utilizing the new technology.

The computer and information technology revolutions have changed virtually every industry in the economy. Consider the ubiquitous barcode. These seemingly insignificant lines mean more than just the simple expedient that groceries can be checked out faster and with greater accuracy than ever before. Clerks no longer have to recognize what they sell. From grocery stores to automobile parts departments, workers no longer need familiarity with the product.

TECHNOLOGY TRANSFORMING U.S. ECONOMY

The rapid computerization and networking of American businesses, industries, and homes has been called a "microprocessor revolution." That revolution is fundamentally transforming the way-and the speed with which-people think, connect, collaborate, design and build, locate resources, manipulate tools, conduct research, analyze and forecast, reach markets, present themselves and their wares, move and track products, make transactions-in short, do business. --
futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century (United States Department of Labor)

The technological revolution has also launched entirely new industries, such as biotechnology. Literally hundreds of new companies have emerged in areas unheard of a decade ago. Advances in virology, cancer research, and neurology are being made as a direct result of advances in computational and information systems. These advances mean a longer lifespan for women, and coupled with advances in birth control, mean more time in the workforce.

Over the century, mass-production occupations have been steadily replaced by office-worker and service-provider occupations. Indeed, virtually all of the jobs that were lost in goods production and distribution since 1969 have been offset by office jobs. Rather than industrial machinery, these workers' tools are telephones, fax machines, and personal computers-tools that are not gender-specific.

With the rapid introduction of mobile phones, laptops, e-mail, and the Internet, the traditional time and space requirements of office workers are no longer the rigid constraints of the past. Women, whose responsibilities often include caring for others, value the increased use of flextime and "flexispace" made possible by these "flexible" technological advances. Varied work schedules and working at home options are on the rise, reducing commuting time and creating more family time.

It's hard to imagine the contemporary woman running her life (or her household) without the many technological advances of the last century. Disposable diapers. VCRs and tape recorders. Velcro used instead of shoelaces on toddlers' shoes. Underwire bras. Teflon and other nonstick surfaces on cooking pans. Microwaves, refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers. Incubators for premature babies. Gore-Tex clothing. Sanitary napkins and tampons. Post-It notes. Duct tape. Sewing machines and sergers. Pantyhose. Television. Zip-lock bags. Antibiotics and vaccines. Hair dyes and permanent waves. I'm sure every woman can add to this list of essentials.

Without them, a woman's place was, by necessity, in the home. With them, a woman's place is wherever she wants it to be.

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