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(De)constructing gender with office technology

From typewriter to productivity apps
(Dé)construire le genre par la bureautique. De la machine à écrire aux applications de productivité
Lizzie Richardson


Le passage aux bureaux à domicile pendant la pandémie de Covid-19 a mis en évidence la capacité des technologies à modifier l’agencement spatial du travail de bureau. Ce type d’agencement spatial est à son tour lié à l’évolution des relations entre le genre et les technologies de bureau. Le bureau a constitué un lieu clé pour l’entrée des femmes dans l’espace du travail, notamment « comme » machines à écrire en Europe occidentale et en Amérique du Nord au xxe siècle. Avec l’évolution des technologies de bureau, la position des femmes dans le travail de bureau a également changé, gagnant en mobilité, en responsabilité et en égalité supposée avec les hommes. Simultanément, la définition spatiale fixe du travail de bureau a été remise en cause par les technologies mobiles. L’article examine cette relation entre l’espace de bureau, le genre et la technique, en faisant valoir sa non-linéarité et sa contingence, en montrant que si les technologies contemporaines telles que les applications de productivité facilitent une relation fluide entre les lieux de la vie professionnelle et de la vie privée et peuvent donc matériellement « déconstruire » les espaces de travail genrés, elles peuvent également assurer une continuité entre les divisions du travail historiques en fonction du genre. Trois tendances d’évolution des espaces de bureau sont présentées, dont chacune illustre cette relation contingente entre le genre et la technologie : les machines à écrire et l’ancrage de l’exercice du travail dans un lieu ; les ordinateurs et la coordination du travail via les réseaux ; et enfin les applications de productivité et l’articulation du travail à travers les infrastructures de bureau.

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Typing pool at the Scottish government, mid-20th century

Typing pool at the Scottish government, mid-20th century

Licensed under Creative Commons

Business and productivity apps – software applications for carrying out and measuring « office » work used on laptops and mobile devices – were installed 7.1 billion times globally in 2020, up 35% from 2019 (Computer Weekly 2021). These apps claim to aid users in better organising their tasks, so that they can be more « productive » by spending more time on work itself rather than on its administration. The increase in downloads has been attributed to the covid-19 pandemic, when many office workers around the world were told to « work-from-home », and so downloaded programmes enabling video calling, amongst other activities. Indeed, according to the same study, the top three apps of 2020 were Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams, all of which allowed video calling, and none of which had appeared in the top 20 business and productivity apps by download in 2019. This change of usage from before the pandemic stay-at-home orders to during them is starkly demonstrated by Zoom, which in January 2020 was hosting 10 million video meeting participants a day, whereas by March this had increased to 200 million. These online meetings were just one office activity that became geographically distributed from a designated office building as a result of the pandemic, extending existing tendencies towards dispersed or decentralised office work, but curtailing the forms of mobility that were frequently associated with this. Since the 1980s it has been possible to complete office work activities at home, with telework and telecommuting becoming more common in the 1990s. After the turn of the millennium, mobile devices and internet speeds theoretically allowed instantaneous communication on the go, enabling office work to be done not just in different locations but also whilst travelling (Laurier 2004).

1The pandemic has therefore exaggerated the pre-existing possibilities for technologies to alter the spatial parameters of office work, illustrating that the use of any given technology – such as a productivity app – is both situated in places and creates spatial arrangements through which particular social performances occur. Just as the contemporary home office requires business software, cloud computing and high-speed internet, the commercial office of the mid-twentieth century needed typewriters fixed in a designated office building (Dibie 2020). The site of these technologies to some degree defines them as tools of office work, but equally, via their operations and use they themselves qualify the function of this spatial arrangement as an office. So, to understand the social role of such office technologies – and so to make sense of the home office as a distinct contemporary socio-technical arrangement – it is necessary to consider how technologies produce and are produced through particular spatial forms. Over time, office technologies have opened up possibilities for movement from a static location, altering the spatial definition of the office, while simultaneously retaining counter-tendencies of fixity and concentration, as indicated by the home office. Examining the spaces of office technologies therefore offers an account of socio-technical change that is non-linear and differentiated but not without pattern and structure : a variety of « holding operations » (Massey 1999 : 42) are integral to shaping the social form of offices, providing differing degrees of spatial structure at particular times.

2Gender is one such holding operation, which although itself is not fixed, has structured arrangements of office work, and equally opened up processes of differentiation within the office workplace. Whilst the historical characterisation of the home and the office as separate gendered spheres of love and work has been challenged by feminists and materially altered by women’s entry into the office (Weeks 2017), the understanding of the office as a formal sphere of production remains underpinned by this historic spatial division of labour along gender lines. Despite this general gendering of productive and socially reproductive spaces, in practice the office has itself evolved through highly gendered divisions of labour that always have a spatial form. From early on, the arrival of women in the office resulted in the « feminisation » of particular occupations, a process that denoted both the quantitative majority presence of women in those positions and the associated perception of feminine attributes with these roles. Certain occupations were therefore primarily understood to comprise particularly feminine « skills », which were often associated with a specific technology (Wajcman 1991), and indeed were arranged in office space accordingly. The result is that these skills and attributes of office occupations come to reinforce and at times reconfigure understandings of gender, so that as much as gender provides a structure for such spatial arrangements of the office, it is equally performed and so changed through these workplace geographies.

3It is this premise that both technology and gender are spatially constituted and creative of spatial arrangements that is the starting point for this article. Through an essayist account based predominantly on secondary sources, the article considers diachronically the implications for gender of office technologies that account for differing spatial arrangements of the office, including but not limited to their current extension to the home. The article examines sources derived from different disciplines, predominantly sociology, organisation studies and cultural studies, that share a focus on the organisation of office work from the early 20th century onwards. The final sub-section also draws on a preliminary survey conducted in January 2021 of 30 apps listed in the « Productivity » category of the Apple App store, documenting the app name, features and marketing. The geographical focus is on the United Kingdom and the United States of America, although the general trends do extend beyond this, indicated by the francophone sources. As is outlined in the following section, the emphasis on space allows for an approach to gender and technology that is contingent, implying that neither are fixed, but rather are (de)constructed through their situated performances. This contingent constitution nonetheless results in structural consolidations through the spatial arrangements of gender and technology in office work. The main body of the text elaborates this through analysis of the spatial tendencies configuring gender and the office technologies of the typewriter, computer and productivity apps. Rather than providing historical context, the fixed hierarchy and networked coordination associated with the offices of the typewriter and the computer respectively demonstrate the centrality of space to the changing relationship between gender and technology, and thus to comprehending their contemporary configuration with productivity apps and the associated dispersed office work. Whilst a broad historical shift from fixed socio-economic positions and gendered occupational roles, towards more office flexibility and gender-neutral work can be observed, the article emphasises how such spatial arrangements linked to older technologies at least partially remain. Although technologies such as productivity apps deliberately facilitate fluidity between work-life positions and therefore materially « deconstruct » gendered spaces of work, they simultaneously have the capacity to reproduce continuities in historic divisions of labour along gender lines.

Situated performances and spatial arrangements of technology and gender

Conceptions of space are often implicit in understandings of technology and gender. Time is typically the medium through which agency is attributed to technology and although particular sites have been important to gender politics, such as the home for domestic labour, these spaces are frequently construed more as a background rather than an active arrangement worthy of study to understand the composition of social relations. Space therefore tends to serve as the stage for change through time in discussions of social processes and transformations, implying that social agency is contained in space but driven by time. Thus, largely devoid of an active role in societal processes, space is rather « marshalled under the sign of time » (Massey 1999 : 35), enabling the occlusion of difference and processes of differentiation as motors for social processes. Space and spatial configurations though do shape change : social processes occur differently in different places due to their distinct socio-spatial arrangements, and further, these geographical differences in turn alter the course of any action. Space is therefore both socially constructed and necessarily power-filled (Massey 1999 : 41) ; it is a product of social relations and itself is able to shape those relations, as is perhaps best understood concretely through the notion of « place » which can function as a distinct articulation of this spatial dynamic between structure and agency.

4Such an understanding of space is discernible in certain approaches to technology. Anglophone anthropologies of the workplace, for instance, have developed an understanding of technologies through their « situatedness » (Suchman 1987), which describes the necessity to examine a given technology through its operations of use at a specific time and location. Technologies materialise here through their performance, in acts that cannot be fully known in advance of any situated undertaking. Further, technologies are not only defined through their location – situatedness in the workplace has qualified a technology as one of work for example – but they also necessarily produce space, including through the disclosure of visible and invisible action via their operations (Suchman 1995b, Star & Strauss 1999). Rather than a more or less fixed material object that acts on a subject, from this anthropological perspective a technology is understood as a set of operations that materialises in relation to other elements, and so requires attention to these spatial arrangements, functioning similarly to the Deleuzian notion of « agencement » (Cochoy 2020). Technique or skill is therefore the unfolding of this performance of technology that both occurs in situ and creates spatial arrangements. Such an approach to technology bares similarities to the francophone differentiation between technique as « l’action traditionnelle efficace » and technology as « la science [sociale] qui prend la technique pour objet » (Sigaut 2009 : 42). Although maintaining significant differences, in both literatures technology becomes the focal point for, or is consolidated through, the efficacy of actions, « techniques », such that technology is as much analysed as the situated process, or even the product, than as the cause, of social relations.

5Certain contemporary understandings of gender, most notably those that have focused on performativity (Butler 1990, Barad 2003), also allow for a spatial approach that sees gender as materialising through situated performances. Butler’s starting point for her influential theorisation of gender as a normative enactment was a linguistic one, adapting speech act theory to show how an entity or condition could come into being through its uttered performance, and so can direct attention to the spatial processes through which gender norms or differentiation occur. Gender here is a situated performance that is repeatedly enacted in specific locations, such as the workplace, with these spaces providing scope both for distinction from as well as for the reinforcement of norms constituting a given place. Perhaps less apparent in Butler’s theory of performativity because of its discursive emphasis, is the production of space or notions of spatial arrangement that can arise through such gender acts. Others, like Barad (2003), have placed more emphasis on the materiality of performativity, seeking to understand the shifting constitution of gender as entangled with the constitution of scientific knowledge and the operations of technology. From this perspective, the performativity of gender occurs as an arrangement of different material and discursive elements that are productive of spatial form, whose boundaries are subject to repeated alteration with science and technology (Haraway 1991, Suchman 2011). Together then, a spatial focus indicates how gender and technology are differentially performed in particular situations, situations which themselves structure certain spatial arrangements, in a dual process that enables a nuanced account of gender and socio-technical change, elaborated in the discussion of office space.

Office performances and arrangements

The arrangements of office space are productive of and altered through the performed interactions of gender and technology. This section develops this insight by considering the implications for gender of the office technologies that are involved in contemporary spatial arrangements of office work. It shows how technologies have by no means embarked on a linear march of « progressive » change in gendered positions constituting the office, indicated first off by the appearance of the office at home during the pandemic. Domestic space had always involved forms of « homework », which whilst often considered socially reproductive, has also frequently included office-like activities – writing letters, reading papers and so on – carried out in a separate room usually occupied by the man of the house. As Gregg (2018) noted though, even socially reproductive activities undertaken by women were not necessarily at odds with the office. Many techniques of time management that comprised a good proportion of the paper knowledge of the early 20th century office, were developed in part to run « the home enterprise » through « domestic science » and « home economics », as well as to manage the factory (Gregg 2018 : 24). Thus, contemporary office work retains significant elements of the spatial forms and related gender roles that were associated with older technologies. To examine this further, three tendencies in office space are set out that link gender and technology : the fixing of work function to location, the coordination of work via networks, and the articulation of work through office infrastructures. Although each tendency can be associated with a particular technology, the section in combination shows that these spatial tendencies are now frequently contiguous, so that all three are present in configurations of gender and technology comprising contemporary office spaces.

Typewriters : fixing office work function to location

The contemporary prevalence of office work undertaken beyond the office is at odds with an initial purpose of office space to fix bureaucratic work function to a specific location. Such processes of fixing have frequently manifested in gendered divisions of labour in business machine use, perhaps most infamously that of women and the typewriter. It is important to consider, however, what is implied spatially by this coupling of function and location in order to understand differences and continuities. There are two registers of fixing function to location. One is the more general indexing of office work to an office building or designated office space, while the other is the parcelling up and dividing out of space within a given office workplace so that workers are arranged according to their function in the organisation. The former tendency, at least regarding the commercial office, is usually attributed to the expansion of capitalist enterprises at the turn of the twentieth century that produced « a seemingly insatiable appetite for paper » (Shlakman 1951 : 10). The office was initially a site for managing production that was distinct from the factory floor, in a process enabled by the development of telephony that was also a necessary precondition for the emergence of central office districts in US cities (John 2000). Although separate from the factory, the office was a location that developed with its own mechanistic logics of production as « an information processing machine enacted in the form of a built environment » (Bradley 2006 : 69, Robertson 2021), or what Mills (1951) labelled « the enormous file ».

6Such logics gave credence to the second register of fixing in which particular office functions were tied to specific locations in a given office space. For large organisations to operate, it was necessary to coordinate many activities undertaken by different actors, the solution for which was called task specialisation. This involved breaking down the activities of tasks comprising an organisation into their smallest composite elements with clearly defined parameters of activity for each worker, so that when individually undertaken these tasks would collectively achieve a wider organisational goal. To render visible and sometimes practical task specialisation, certain functions were therefore given specific locations in offices, such that task specialisation and task spatialisation formed one and the same process. A common but by no means universal example were the typing pools housing female typists at typewriters. As Davies (1988) noted though, these spaces developed differentiated hierarchies of roles meaning that they should not be understood as homogeneous sites at which single socio-economic functions were held by each worker. Until the 1970s many companies had large typing pools but these sites were « often divided and divided again into finely graduated hierarchies and small promotional steps » (Davies 1988 : 24), in a form of spatial organisation that was not necessarily visible to the untrained eye. Notwithstanding these internal differentiations, there was a broad tendency to express the functionally defined departments of an organisation in the office space occupied, and then within each of these divisions there was a further separation of clerical labour into its composite units, such as billing clerks, payroll clerks, typists and so on.

7It is through this second register of fixing function to location that processes of gender differentiation associated with particular office machines occurred, such as the linking of women to the typewriter. As Gardey noted, two related processes unfolded subsequent to women’s entry to the office : « l’un de “sexuation” de l’objet machine à écrire, l’autre de construction de la féminité de la pratique dactylographique » (1999 : 594). Whilst the feminisation of typing as technique and of the typewriter as a technology was therefore a complex affair, it is nonetheless clear that task specialisation and fixed spatial position in the office played a role. Static business machines justified and entrenched divisions of labour in the office, and typewriters were the most ubiquitous early example of this. This entrenchment occurred because « once a clerical worker had become proficient at operating a particular machine, it could be and was argued that the clerical worker should do nothing else » (Davies 1988 : 27). The specialisation of women to the typewriter then was not a « technological imperative » of the machine but rather the result of a series of decisions concerning divisions of labour. Although women did always hold a number of other occupations in the office and the role of « typist » was indeed more variegated than is suggested by the title, the rapid feminisation of the profession in the early part of the 20th century soon meant that the machine was synonymous with femininity.

8Typing as a technique built on two other frequently feminised and equally sedentary competencies : needlework and piano-playing. Whilst the former was industrialised by the late 19th century and so associated with working-class labour, the latter was largely only available to women of a certain education and social status. There was then an early instability to the status of typing as a technique, such that it was by no means initially considered an unskilled task but rather had elements of dexterity, craft and performance (Gardey 1999). Although by no means universally understood as quick (David 1985, Liebowitz & Margolis 1990), displays of speed by typists – particularly the possibility to reproduce text at the pace of the spoken word – resulted in an early fascination with the typewriter, as person and machine, before it entered into more widespread commercial use. Yet, as the technique and machine became increasingly standardised, the social status of the job decreased. In addition to the perceived repetitive performance of typing itself, a further factor in the gradual classification of typing as low-skilled technique was that the act was, nominally at least, frequently copying or transcribing words of others, rather than the typist creating their own written texts. Thus, the man’s original handwritten or spoken formulation was reproduced mechanistically through the woman typist’s reproductive action on the typewriter (Kittler 1999). So, it gradually became possible to perceive the figure of the typist as part of the office machinery itself, less animate thinker and more automated actor in the process of office paperwork (Stacey & Suchman 2012). Yet, as Gardey noted, there was always a mismatch between the narrative of de-qualification and the position of typing in practice : the feminised figure of the typist in general opened opportunities for the creation of powerful niches for certain women workers in offices.

Female member of bank staff with computer and telephone (1989)

Female member of bank staff with computer and telephone (1989)

Licensed under Creative Commons

9Nevertheless, for the majority of women, typing was an activity that firmly and discretely put them in their place in the office. Aside from being a low status location, this was also materially a place that was increasingly tailored to the needs of the female typist, most notably through the provision of a desk designed to support typing as well as a constellation of related materials and furnishings. In her gender history of office chair design, Kaufman-Buhler (2019 : 378) notes how the desks for male executives, managers and even clerical workers generally had a single height work surface at a standard measure, while the female occupations of secretaries, stenographers, typists and receptionists typically sat at a desk with an integrated typing extension or typing platform. This extension was a secondary work surface that was positioned at a right angle from the primary desk, and set at a lowered height relative to the main work surface specifically to support the use of a typewriter, and over time was consolidated to take a lower height than that standardised for male desks, reflecting the gender-based assumptions in design practice (Kaufman-Buhler 2019 : 378). Thus, although the majority of office work – whether undertaken by men or women – at this time was largely stationary – except perhaps for that of mail runners and the pacing of the office executive in his private office – the particular micro-spaces of work were also differentiated along gender lines through the provision of these specific furnishings, a differentiation that continued into the late 20th century.

10Whilst office work can be and is frequently necessarily now more mobile as is reflected in flexible leasing in real estate provision (Pajević 2021), the fixing of function to location nonetheless remains, both in the tying of office activities to a designated office building and in the undertaking of office work itself. Regarding office buildings, the office as a specific site remains important for the qualification of an activity as work. Presence in the office is still frequently synonymous with work time and although the pandemic has certainly altered this, there is no clear trend that longer term commercial real estate leases taken out on office space by many large companies will be given up completely. Equally, the fixing of function to location in the micro-geographies of office work is still common, particularly in the highest and lowest paid occupations. A private office continues to be synonymous with executive or managerial status, even if the hierarchy of many organisations has been somewhat flattened, and administrative tasks in many cases remain relatively static, with little mobile communication needed to complete the task. In both cases, although the technology certainly largely allows for more mobile working, the social status of these jobs means that the fixing of position to function continues, at least to some degree. Whilst the gendered division of labour has changed – although by no means entirely – in terms of the distribution of pay in office-based occupations in the UK for example, women are still the majority employed in roles classified as administrative and secretarial.

Computers : coordinating office work in networks

The network as a purportedly horizontal and decentralised spatial form has been vital to conceptions of organisation in the latter part of the twentieth century (Boltanski & Chiapello 1999), informing notions of work across organisational boundaries, including that of physical office space (Kellog et al. 2006). The spatial tendencies of the network have frequently produced polarising results for office work in which coordinating enhanced mobility and flexibility of some workers occurs at the expense of highly specified forms of fixity for others. The growth of office computers and their networks at least initially had disparate impacts for gendered divisions of labour in offices. For example, by the mid-1980s men as much as women were now using keyboards to type – albeit with less attention to mechanics than was required for typewriting – and were tied to a desktop computer to do this. Meanwhile, some women were discovering that computers enhanced their agency in, and the diversity of, their work activities, yet for others particular computing technologies produced even more monotonous and fixed activity, such as those positioned in word processing centres (Denis & Pontille 2012). These opposing tendencies in gendered spatial divisions of office work were both produced by and constitutive of a broader gradual move away from task specialisation and hierarchically defined coordination in the structure of organisations, a shift that was associated with computers. By increasing digitised informational content, computers created opportunities for spontaneous rather than pre-defined patterns of organisational interaction that simultaneously changed the constitution of tasks, making tasks more responsive and relationally defined, thereby offering new ways of dealing with complexity and uncertainty (Zammuto et al. 2007). This produced though, in turn, greater organisational contingencies in configuring a specific arrangement of tasks at any given time (Datchary 2008).

11So instead of approaching the organisation as a functional unity that sets out to achieve pre-defined objectives, the potential contingencies of tasks occurring through computer networks meant conceiving of organisations as « heterogenous », « dispersed and fractured » (Thompson 1982 : 235). By the late 1980s, there was a blooming of business and organisational science literature explaining how computers made the organisation « intelligent », « networked » and « virtual », providing a lexicon to describe how organisations function in contingent environments (Hixon 1989, Davidow & Malone 1993, Pinchot & Pinchot 1996). A 1989 publication from Boston Consulting Group provides a typical business example, describing how new organisations work « like a computer network », with « many autonomous, intelligent work units interacting rapidly with the outside world and each other, and quickly rearranging themselves to solve new problems » (Hixon 1989). In practice though, in many organisations the early use of computers is by no means best understood through such vocabulary. Notably, the late 1970s saw the development of what was called the « office automation » movement that continued into the 1980s, which far from allowing flexibility, actually consolidated certain workers in place and entrenched mind-numbing tasks. Contrary to contemporary anglophone understandings of automation, the term was not used to denote the removal of human labour from office work but instead less ominously described a process by which technology would be involved in the creation of novel forms of information and methods for its communication, rather than simply expediating existing office information processing – which was the aim of previous changes via office mechanisation. Managerial decision-making and flexibility would therefore be enhanced by this newly available information through office automation. Less attention was paid, though, to the requirement of this automation for extremely mundane and fixed work on the part of certain workers – overwhelmingly women – in organisations.

12Definitions of automation at the time tended to emphasise new communicative capacities rather than any direct claims concerning the productivity or efficiency of office processes. Olson and Lucas for example described automated offices systems as :

[…] based on interactive workstations connected to a communications network. The workstations have intelligence and storage capacities managed either through a central computer or distributed to the workstation themselves. Each workstation would have some degree of functionality of three components : communications, text processing and personal applications. (1982 : 839)

13So, although office automation was, in terms of functionality, some distance from the personal desktop computer – and indeed developed at odds with it –, one of the major shifts that it instigated in office computing was from independent (or small clusters of) word processing machines to networks offering shared file storage, electronic mail and access to larger computer systems (Haigh 2006 : 19). It was thus symptomatic of the organisational architectures defining the « Information Age » in which « the concept of using a static system to produce a static product was replaced by a dynamic and interactive system utilised to produce rapidly changing products » (Nolan 2000 : 247). Yet despite these network tendencies indicated by Olson and Lucas (1982), centralisation of certain activities was still occurring, which meant rigid task definition and fixed location in the office. The oft cited example of this was the female Video Display Terminal (VDT) operators whose work was centralised and thus set apart spatially from the rest of the workforce (Machung 1988).

14Although proportionately a relatively small amount of clerical work was undertaken through VDTs, the new and distinctive nature of this work meant that it received a significant amount of mostly negative attention. The VDT emerged in the 1980s, as part of the transformation of old-fashioned typing pools into word processing or document production centres that contained the mainly female workforce. VDT operators at this time worked in such centralised word processing centres in « jobs consisting of repetitiously typing letters, reports and memos of various kinds » (Machung 1988 : 52). This work required constant attention both visually and mentally in the input and editing of text so that it was not possible to speak with other adjacently positioned colleagues. Not only was there less social interaction – and interaction with the computer terminal was not viewed as a social one – but there was also a cause for concern regarding the physical health of workers. Ergonomics and occupational health literature from this time particularly noted problems of visual strain and posture caused by excessive hours using this equipment. Perhaps a key concern, certainly for those external critical commentators such as Machung (1988 : 63), was that VDT operators in their separate centres were structurally isolated from the tasks, people and purposes that make up organisations so that « VDT operators’ work often feels ‘trivial’ and ‘pointless’ » (Machung 1988 : 63). This was particularly the case when compared to the activities of secretaries who were still working in one-to-one relationships with their bosses in front offices and undertaking a variety of tasks, normally without computer use.

Fantastical app promotional story Apple App Store (2021)

Fantastical app promotional story Apple App Store (2021)

© Lizzie Richardson

15Quip app on the Apple App Store (2021)These early incarnations of networks associated with office automation reproduced then the fixing of function to particular office space, which exaggerated the existing gender divisions of labour. However, simultaneously some of the same technological processes were resulting in new forms of worker communication that were upsetting conventional geographies of the office. This contradiction was occurring because, as Zuboff astutely noted in her unpacking of the phrase « office automation », new information technologies had two differing implications for work tasks. One was certainly to « automate », which she suggested  – contrary to the definition above – meant the replacement of human effort with a technology that enabled the same work to be performed at less cost and with more control. The other was to create information, what she termed « to informate », through the automation process :

Any activity, from a clerical transaction to spraying paint on an automobile, if it is to be computerised, must first be broken down into its small components and analysed so that it can be translated into the binary language of a computer system. (Zuboff 1985 : 8)

16As such, Zuboff was less describing two separate implications but rather proposing that one action – to automate – necessarily led to the other – to informate. If Zuboff was correct, it is little surprise that by the late 1980s there were two prevailing discourses concerning the possibilities for computers in the office. One was sounding alarm bells about opportunities for electronic surveillance and increased productivity demands, and so turning the office into a « sweatshop » (Attewell 1987, Garson 1989), while the other pointed to new opportunities for the collective agency of workers in « electronic social fields » that would be invisible from managers (Perin 1991). Indeed, a significant body of computer science research at this time was invested not in monitoring workers but rather in understanding how computers could assist social interactions via « computer supported collaborative work » (Kling 1991).

17The notion that the coordinative capacities of networked computers might enable, shape and even compose actors in social interaction over time allowed a different relationship between women and computers. Rather than the fixed machine operator, women and men were gradually constructed as intelligent users when personal computers diffused through offices (Bardini & Horwath 1995). It was only during the 1990s that networked personal computers became commonplace with graphically sophisticated machines hooked into databases and sharing electronic mail. This change enabled typing and editing work to be distributed across male and female workers, resulting in the number of personal secretaries plummeting. As Haigh (2006 : 26) noted, « the shift to email and instant messaging has reinforced this trend, dispelling the formerly widespread assumption that typing is low-status work suitable only for women. » However, the relationship of women to computers was historically more complex than that of victims to the machine (Light 1995, Turkle 1997, Plant 1997). Light (1999) sets out, for example, how the job of computer programmer, more recently conceived as masculine work, in fact originated as feminised clerical labour, and thus demonstrates the formative role of women in early computer design. These and other stories omitted from prevailing histories of computer science perpetuate misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field (Light 1999 : 455). In addition to such feminist histories of computer design though, women and computers were also linked because of their commensurate communicative and coordinative capacities.

18For example, as well as identifying the seductive possibility to relieve oneself of gender through online avatars, Turkle (1997 : 56) also noted that the forms of flexibility, negotiation and compromise – « soft mastery » or « soft skills » – associated by the 1990s with elements of working through a computer, were styles normatively associated with women. Indeed, the idea – usually attributed to Apple – that the personal computer would be a friend, a device with which and through which the user could interact, can be interpreted as a feminised one. Over time though, the act of working through a networked office computer in and of itself became largely « gender neutral » in a country like the UK, although there certainly remain gender divisions across computer-based occupations, with professions such as data scientist being held primarily by men (Analytics Insight 2020). Gradually, as the promise of networked coordination was realised in many offices, specific functions with computer-based activities were no longer attached to particular areas of the office but could now – theoretically – take place dispersed anywhere in the building thanks to the multi-purpose personal computer (Datchary 2008). The growth of email, and eventually instant messaging, meant that fixed paper trails of communication – the inbox and outbox for office correspondence – gradually declined in importance. Such networked coordination of work through personal computers therefore slowly normalised the notion that office work would occur outside office buildings. This has had implications though for the articulation of office work in general and as distinct from other activities in particular, notably those of feminised social reproduction.

Productivity apps : articulating work through office infrastructures

Extending the possibilities of the network, the office can now be understood as a mobile infrastructure through which work is articulated so that rather than a fixed site, office working arrangements can take territorial expression in any number of locations. The corollary of this spatial flexibility of work-life positions is the necessity for the self-management of working activity because it is often not undertaken in spatial proximity to a manager or other colleagues. An infrastructure comprising different software applications has been developed to address this perceived problem, going by the umbrella designation of « productivity apps » because of their supposed aid to the user in efficient and effective task accomplishment. Although video-conferencing apps such as those mentioned in the introduction may be included in the productivity app category, other typical examples are those that assist in the management and arrangement of tasks, all of which are used on personal digital devices (Wajcman 2019). For example, there are « task managers » that make, organise and synchronise to-do lists, tools for focusing that shut out distractions, and apps for note-taking and organising written ideas. In creating an infrastructure for spatial flexibility, these apps deconstruct the gendered division of labour associated with the typewriter and certain usages of the computer. They do not so far appear to produce a clear gendered division of labour nor an immediately obvious gendering of technique concerning the apps themselves, although this comes with some caveats set out below. It is apparent though, and indeed has become more so during the pandemic, that the problem that productivity apps aim to solve – how to manage, and in so doing, to denominate (« tedious » work) tasks – cannot be separated from the situations in which work takes place, and in these spatial arrangements historic gender roles frequently remain.

19Productivity apps both enable and seek to resolve the spatial flexibility of the office, in part by providing an infrastructure to manage the spill-over of office work from a fixed location. The apps replace the physical structure of the office with a portable means of organising and patterning work activities. Their visual language emphasises smooth functioning and simplicity, mirroring the ease with which these tools can « declutter » a busy schedule or even a buzzing head of ideas. For example, one of the most popular to-do list apps, imaginatively called Todoist – the names of the apps span from the highly descriptive to the bewildering –, claims to « capture and organise tasks the moment they pop into your head », and so « build lasting habits », together with task prioritising and associated « personalised productivity trends » that allow « progress checking » (i.e. performance management). Thus, a substantial part of the work of these tools could be construed as the communicative and coordinative labour that had previously been the role of women in the office as typists, secretaries and assistants (Gustavsson 2005). In this vein, Gregg links the emergence of these apps for « techno-mediated efficiency » with « post-Fordism’s reconfiguring of the sexual contract and the gradual emancipations of women from subservient workplace roles » (Gregg 2018 : 92). She argues that as it became increasingly difficult to delegate lesser office tasks to women, tools were needed to substitute for this so that individuals could be free to work without the hassle of this other (lesser) labour.

20The notion that productivity apps replace previously subservient human labour is encouraged by the designers of certain applications. Another app for project management, Trello, explicitly evokes such subservience through its « robot » called « Butler » – the English name given to the male servant in a wealthy household – that can « reduce the number of tedious tasks (and clicks) on your project board », including through automating common actions, « surfacing » upcoming deadlines and scheduling teammate assignments. Therefore, regardless of whether they replace work that was previously undertaken by women, productivity apps are aimed at partially or completely removing certain activities from the worker, and in doing so articulate an image of valuable work – or activity more generally – as free from what are explicitly or implicitly designated tedious tasks. The apps thus replace what was dubbed « articulation work » in earlier studies of information working, denoting « the continuous efforts required in order to bring together discontinuous elements – of organisations, of professional practices, of technologies – into working configurations » (Suchman 1995a : 407). As an activity required to deal with the mismatch between the representation of work and its undertaking, articulation work was frequently invisible, displaced from the main stage of work onto machines or other backstage workers (Star & Strauss 1999). These « invisible » workers were in fact tacitly involved in the design of information systems, and held highly specialised knowledge that was essential to the smooth functioning of « routine » work (Clement 1993).

21Whilst elements of such « articulation work » may historically have been undertaken by women, studies from the last twenty years show how articulation – as both the expression and relation of work tasks – has been incorporated into individual work of all types, regardless of the gendered histories of certain roles. In particular, the self-management of « interruptions » to work, in part associated with the rise of instantaneous communication from Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), is increasingly understood by workers themselves as part of work rather than a disturbance of it (Wajcman & Rose 2011). This has been especially prevalent for managers who find on the one hand that they are required to meet more performance standards whilst on the other that their work role and tasks are increasingly vaguely defined (Diemergard et al. 2004). Indeed, one origin for ‘the task’ that is represented within and delegated to productivity apps is the project logic that guides the work of such managers and is comprised of task-units. As Boltanski and Chiapello (1999) argue, the project is a justificatory regime for activity in general that overcomes the oppositions between work and no-work, materialised in contemporary flexible office spaces where users are called on to « do what they love » (Richardson 2021). Productivity apps make possible this holistic management of activity, regardless of whether such efforts are associated with work or not. For example, returning to Todoist, in promoting the app, the company deliberately uses images of sleek lists of « non-work » activities like a « Workout Plan » with subtasks including the specific exercises « 20 air squats, 20 pushups » and so on. Trello, meanwhile, boasts that it can give users perspective over all their projects « at work and at home », whilst displaying a screenshot of a « project board » entitled « Healthy Living ».

22The changing composition of office work conducted in and beyond the office building with ICTs over the past decades thus suggests the issue of gender both in the type of work undertaken by productivity apps and in relation to their users must remain open. Although the history of delegation of lesser office tasks to women does mean that productivity apps enshrine, as Gregg (2018) argues, a particularly masculine notion of work as freedom from obligation, the generalised move towards worker self-management of multiple tasks in project-based work challenges this as a straightforward gendering of the types of task management enabled by and delegated to the apps. This also implies that rather than the delegation of tasks to free up time necessarily being limited to men then, it is perhaps better to understand delegating actors as a part of a wider structure of « the temporal » that « operates as a form of social power and a type of social difference » (Sharma 2017 : 132). Equally, the role of gender in patterns of productivity app use requires further investigation, particularly given that these tools are frequently not limited to the management of work activity and thus makes data harder to collect. Regardless of such questions, what is clear is that the myth of a decluttered workplace that is proposed through the aesthetics of the software is not born out by the material situations in which these apps are used as office infrastructures.

23The apps’ visual separation of life into bitesize chunks called tasks that may then be classified under certain project headings (« Work », « Healthy Living »), does not play out so easily in practice. Not only are life’s pursuits frequently ill-defined entities in practice but they are also always spatially and temporally situated. The interspersing of work with other activities in the same space witnessed in the pandemic home office has thrown into relief the impossibility of the uncluttered management of tasks when juggled with other responsibilities, so that articulation work of a different kind is required in order to make space and time for the app’s task-at-hand. The juggling of these different kinds of work in domestic space has disproportionately fallen to women over men during the pandemic. As well as the jobs most frequently held by women suffering the most losses, numerous studies from different countries indicate that women’s and girl’s unpaid care work has risen dramatically due to stay-at-home orders combined with the closure of schools and childcare facilities (UN 2021, Lambert & Cayouette-Remblière 2021). The spaces in which technologies like productivity apps are used, then, make a difference to their possibility to deconstruct gender relations. As much as an app can assign and organise tasks, provide simple ways of charting workflow and beautiful visualisations of progress, it cannot (yet) look after an infant, stop the dog barking or organise these many other contingent « interruptions » that might characterise everyday life. Productivity apps allow for « the performance of busyness » without accounting for « the interdependent labour involved in » such seemingly individual acts (Sharma 2017 : 150).

Quip app on the Apple App Store (2021)

Quip app on the Apple App Store (2021)

© Lizzie Richardson

The question of who has the power to delegate work and which technologies are involved in that delegation has been and continues to be central to the gendered organisation of office spaces. The inequalities manifest in socially reproductive labour during the pandemic only serve to reinforce this point. Whilst the design of contemporary office technologies like productivity apps frequently seeks to dissociate specific tasks from the wider complex social arrangements in which they are situated, this claim of abstraction cannot do away with the other forms of work that must occur outside of these office infrastructures, and that are even necessary for their articulation. Contemporary office technologies therefore are not tied to and indeed deconstruct fixed gender positions, but simultaneously obfuscate much of the work – both in the office and in the home – that was previously delegated to women, labour that enabled the articulation of the office as a space where men could « get things done ». Technologies like productivity apps thus provide a spatially extensive office infrastructure but this still relies on a host of other articulation activities to secure a workplace in which gender plays an unfolding role.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Typing pool at the Scottish government, mid-20th century
Crédits Licensed under Creative Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 137k
Titre Woman operating computer (1965)
Crédits Licensed under Creative Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 210k
Titre Female member of bank staff with computer and telephone (1989)
Crédits Licensed under Creative Commons
Fichier image/jpeg, 181k
Titre Fantastical app promotional story Apple App Store (2021)
Crédits © Lizzie Richardson
Fichier image/jpeg, 127k
Titre Quip app on the Apple App Store (2021)
Crédits © Lizzie Richardson
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
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Lizzie Richardson, « (De)constructing gender with office technology », Techniques & Culture [En ligne], Suppléments au n°77, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2022, consulté le 24 septembre 2022. URL :

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Lizzie Richardson

Lizzie Richardson est Junior Professor à l’Institut de géographie humaine et au Lab for Studies of Sciences and Technology (LaSST), Goethe University, Francfort. Après avoir obtenu un doctorat en géographie humaine à l’université de Durham au Royaume-Uni, elle a notamment publié dans les revues Progress in Human Geography et Antipode. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur les relations sociales et économiques entre l’espace de travail et la technologie.

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