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In Session: Technology and the Human “Touch”: Histories of Automation and Interconnection in Japan
2: From OL to TL: 1980s Office Automation and the Rise of the "Techno Lady"
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Diane Wei Lewis
Washington University in St. Louis, United States
In the early 1980s, office automation (OA) swept the Japanese business world. A variety of new data processing and telecommunications technologies—fax machines, electronic filing systems, microcomputers, and word processors—infiltrated the workplace and home. These technologies, along with the Workers Dispatch Law (1985) and Equal Employment Opportunity Law (1985), promised to transform women’s employment. At first, OA was expected to reduce clerical drudgework and therefore potentially eliminate the need for “office ladies” or OL.However, facing critical shortages of programmers, systems engineers, and other technical specialists, tech companies and temp agencies heavily recruited women and even created all-women work groups and subsidiary companies. TLs (techno-ladies) captured the public imagination. This new breed of woman pursued employment after marriage and childbirth, often leveraging demand for their services into preferential working arrangements, such as telecommuting options and flexible hours. At the same time, emphasis on women’s supposed attention to detail, emotional intelligence, and refined tastes continued to haunt descriptions of female knowledge workers.Within tech communities, ideas about shokuba no hana (office flowers) didn't disappear but were strategically repackaged to assuage anxieties about certain changes in corporate culture.
My paper examines how OA contributed to the reentrenchment of gender stereotypes as well as their revision. Preexisting ideas about gender guided the implementation of new work technologies and policies, even as innovations allowed many women to surmount traditional obstacles. In addition, media representations of female knowledge workers, often highly sensational or speculative in nature, powerfully shaped public understanding of OA.