Looking back, my interest in technology must have begun somewhere around 1947—it started in my mother’s kitchen where, I still remember, she used to resort to ingenious fuel-saving devices in order to stretch the small sum of money that she had for feeding her six children, elderly parent-in-law and umpteen dependants in our typical Indian middle-class family. It was around the time of independence and the partition of India, life was hard—my lawyer/politician father was continually in and out of prison and of parliament—and my mother had the sole responsibility for our survival and education.footnote1
I was good at maths and my mother was very proud of me. ‘Be an engineer, my dear daughter,’ she would encourage me while keeping an eye on her ergonomically sound, highly efficient, home-made cooker, ‘the world does not recognize the skill and ingenuity we, house-bound women, possess. Formal training, a good degree will earn you respect in the wide world.’
It is not easy to be objective about one’s parents, but I always felt that by any standard, my mother was a very intelligent woman. She was married off at the age of twelve and had her first child at thirteen. As she was deprived of formal training herself, she was determined to give her daughters access to vocational education. My lawyer father had ambitions for me as well. Inept as I was and still am at housework—and somehow uncoordinated in handling machines and materials—my father thought for pure practical reasons I was best suited to study philosophy. That demanded reflection, rather than coordination. There were social reasons as well. Since no one was likely to ask the hand of his scatterbrained daughter in marriage, he planned to groom me to be an absent-minded professor—but in a field where I would not compete visibly and aggressively with men. He dismissed my mother’s ambition for me—engineering and science, to him, were antithetical to womanhood; I must be discouraged. If I had to study for a career, rather unfortunate for a woman, I must be spared the stress and strain that women faced in vocations that were dominated by men.
It so happened that I became neither an engineer nor a philosopher, I
At moments of exhaustion, I appreciated my father’s warning about the price women pay in trying to operate in the world of work that is solely geared to the life cycle and time preferences of men. At points of elation, I remembered my mother’s words as a plea never to forget to articulate women’s aspirations outside the domestic sphere. You see, we never manage to get away from our parents, however hard we may try. In my life and in my work, it is the concerned yet conflicting attitudes of my father and my mother that made me reflect on what women really need and demand of technology and science.
It is not really obvious whether women need or should make demands of technologies that are different from those made by men. The juggling act that the majority of women perform, in balancing a home and a job, gives rise to priorities that are quite distinct from those of working men. Yet even those, almost universal, experiences of women do not give them an unquestionable legitimacy to demand different orientations in technological change. As our identities get defined and redefined in terms of ethnicity, religion and class, gender does not always seem the primary factor for forming an alliance, or for determining vulnerability in the field of paid work. The needs and priorities of all women are not the same, even when they are employed in the same industry, by the same company, but in different capacities and in diverse locations.
I continually become aware of the impact of other dimensions in the course of my own research. In 1989, for example, I was sent by the British Council to deliver lectures in my home town, Calcutta—interestingly, as a representative of the United Kingdom. Not very far from the British Council precinct—the site of my lecture—I saw Bengali women from the slums of Calcutta sewing garments for the British and Dutch markets, for companies such as c&a. The scene was not very different from what I have observed in the East End of London. The machines were traditional, but the transference of sewing jobs from the uk or the Netherlands to Calcutta could not have taken place without the use of computers. The design of the season got faxed to Delhi, Bombay and Madras, the garments were cut using cad, and the sewing of the garments was then farmed out to different parts of India, to women and to men.