The switch to female factory labor

Assembling Women:

The Feminization of Global Manufacturing

Globalization has prompted a dramatic incorporation of women into the manufacturing sector. But women aren’t dispersed evenly into all jobs. Some jobs have become known as “women’s work,” a trend known as feminization. In Assembling Women, Teri L. Caraway tries to explain what has prompted the feminization of manufacturing work in developing countries and why has it failed to significantly erode gender inequalities.

In explaining feminization, Caraway attempts to answer two critical questions: Why do we see particular industries dominated by female labor? And what social, economic, and political factors shape these trends?

Caraway uses case studies and in-depth analysis of employment changes in Indonesia—combined with cross-national data—to bolster her argument that the feminization produced by industrialization policies has reconfigured and reproduced gender divisions of labor at work rather than overturning or challenging those divisions. Many people will find the book quite technical, and clearly Caraway has written it for an academic audience. There are some useful points to draw out, however.

One of the ways she answers the book’s central questions is by arguing that it is not market orientation—export vs. inwardly-directed industrialization—that matters, but rather the balance of employment between labor-intensive and capital-intensive sectors. In capital-intensive industry, employers can afford to set up internal labor markets that reward tenure with wage increases, which discourages turnover and creates a more “stable” invested workforce. Labor-intensive industries, however, cannot afford to set up this kind of internal labor market, provide fewer opportunities or incentives for wage increases, and thus increase the turnover rate. The higher turnover rate allows employers to cycle women on maternity leave in and out of the workforce, so hiring women becomes more appealing.

While turnover is seen as a negative characteristic of the labor pool in most capital-intensive industries (industries that tend to rely on higher skills and longer training), higher turnover is considered a positive benefit in certain industries because it lowers wages. Pregnancy increases staff turnover when employers are able to evade providing maternity-leave benefits. This is especially important where peak productivity can be reached in short period of time, eliminating the incentive to have a stable workforce. In these industries, there are also “synthetic turnovers” (women leaving due to systematic discrimination against older women, married women, etc.) that serve to maintain a revolving door of low-wage female labor.

However, employers don’t feminize work randomly—they carefully choose specific job categories to feminize while leaving others untouched. An example of this is the automobile industry, which tends to maintain male-dominated assembly lines even though feminization of the jobs could cut wages considerably. This suggests that there are factors in addition to women’s lower wages that make them appealing as workers.

Caraway examines how common ideas about differences between men and women extend to the workplace. One of the most common stereotypes about gender differences are that “women are careful, quiet, easier to control and have more attention to detail” while “men are stronger, more outspoken, and less deft.” These perceived gender differences are due, of course, primarily to the fact that women are specially oppressed around the world. As a specially-oppressed group, it isn’t surprising that women would be considered “easier to control,” and Caraway’s analysis shows that these stereotypes still play a large role in employers’ ideas about what work was best for men or women.

She also compares data from Asia and Latin America to show how political factors have a strong effect on which industries end up employing women. These political factors include government policies that affect fertility rates, education levels, and rates of women’s participation in the labor force. Studies have shown that greater education rates and lower fertility rates result in higher feminization of industry. Fertility has the most direct effect on feminization, as reductions in fertility have led to increases in women’s participation in manufacturing work. Caraway shows how employers use state regulations and legislation to affect fertility rates and education rates in order to create a larger supply of women’s labor. Another cultural factor is the family structure, which affects the participation level of women in the workforce. Caraway further finds that feminization is strongest and women’s share of employment is the highest in countries where labor was organizationally weak and excluded from political power.

Caraway’s findings will prove discouraging to anyone who hopes that globalization has become a positive force in improving the social status of women. Her work gives good evidence for the Marxist idea that economics and oppression are intimately related. That is why, despite the positive effects that women’s entry into paid work has produced, gender inequality will remain as long as there is an economic advantage in perpetuating it. Globalization has shown how gender inequality is exaggerated in a context where exploitation of labor in general has become intensified.

Issue #73

September 2010

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Image and reality in the Bolivia of Evo Morales
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