Telecommuting and Social Change

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There’s a fascinating article in Arab News today: “IT Ministry to Create Women-Only Work Centers.” It seems that the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology is putting a major amount of money into setting up women-only office spaces from which workers could telecommute to a variety of jobs in the government and private sectors. This is seen as a way to tap a well-educated segment of Saudi society (Saudi women are more likely to have advanced degrees than their male counterparts) that has been underrepresented in the workforce due to the country’s gender segregation laws.

No doubt there are some who will see this as a perverse use of web work to prop up a repressive social system that ought to be demolished. While I’m no expert on Saudi society, it is certainly the case that there are many women who are just as happy with the separation of the genders there as the men are. From their point of view, it seems that this does represent a major new set of opportunities, a way to put to use skills that they previously could not find an outlet for. At the same time, I wonder whether creating a workforce that contains more women – even if they’re only seen via network connections – will inevitably have some effect in breaking down the gender barriers within Saudi society.

In western society, web work has acted to widen the choices of the workforce. For example, those of us who choose to stay home and be part of raising our children can still hold down full-time (or in some cases more than full-time) jobs thanks to telecommuting. Other marginalized populations, too, have taken advantage of web work; while success is seldom based purely on merit, one’s personal appearance, disabilities, and so on may matter less when dealing with clients over the web. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out in a society very different from our own.

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