Teleworking: Blessing for Malaysian women in the information age?

Introduction

By overcoming the barriers of space and time, teleworking – working from a distance with the support of information and communications technology (ICT) – has been purported to increase the international competitiveness of developing countries in today’s information age. In addition, the lower wage rates, the relatively high literacy levels and language skills in some countries, like India, the Philippines and Malaysia, could provide a comparative advantage in terms of the on-line relocation of information processing jobs, or teletrade, from the industrialised countries to the South. It is also believed that with the ‘end of geography’, teleworking could and would reach the traditionally disadvantaged groups, as well as to those in rural communities, bringing about a more sustainable development in society. Women in the developing world would then be able to partake and benefit from this new and flexible mode of employment, hence increasing their participation rate in the labour force (Mitter and Efendioglu, 1997).

The focus of this chapter is to examine whether Malaysian women, through teleworking, could gain positive entry into the information economy, particularly in the sphere of employment. By focusing on the software industry, this chapter explores the possibilities, fears and barriers faced by women in pursuing teleworking as an alternative work arrangement. Where relevant, teleworking examples from other ICT-led industries, such as the telecommunications and banking and finance sectors, will also be discussed. The chapter will also contribute to the ongoing debate of whether teleworking will further strengthen or neutralise the unequal gender division of labour.

There are four parts to this discussion. The first section briefly summarises the debates regarding teleworking and gender, while the second part looks at the trends in Information Technology (IT) in Malaysia, with a focus on the software industry. The third section of the paper then zeros in on the software case study, by examining the types of teleworking practices and the role of women in these activities. Comparisons with other teleworking arrangements in other industries will also be discussed to enhance this part of the discourse. The conclusion highlights the advantages and barriers to teleworking from women’s perspectives and points to possible teleworking models, based on the experiences of Malaysian women.

Teleworking: Blessing or burden for women?

In the popular imagination, teleworking is a blessing for women who can combine housework with gainful employment. It offers flexibility to working mothers, can potentially liberate women from male control in the office and provide increased autonomy and creativity for them. For those worried about the degeneration of family ties, teleworking is perceived as bringing families closer together as well as bringing down the divorce rates (Huws, 1996; Gunnarsson, 1997). On the other hand, critics, including trade unionists, argue that electronic homeworkers are actually faced with the double burden of work, and actually work longer hours than if they were to work at the office. Indeed, the empirical picture reveals that women are not necessarily obtaining better job opportunities, and at higher value, relative to men (Oldfield, 1991; Bibby, 1996). At best, teleworking offers new work opportunities for women and at worst, it exploits and reinforces the secondary position of women in the labour market as carers and housewives. As noted by Stanworth (1998:60), the effects of the information age on women in the labour market appear to take the form of perpetuation of the existing horizontal and vertical divisions with the bulk of low-skill, low-paid telework jobs done by women, and most of the high status, well-paid jobs done by men. Working in the home does not break down existing segmented sex roles as Toffler predicted, but may reinforce them. There is also no evidence that it breaks down class divisions.

However, Huws correctly warns us not to make a simple bifurcation of the impact of telehomeworking on the gender division of labour, arguing that the empirical data reflect a more complex picture. She points out that while occupational segregation in the formal workplace is mirrored in the home with a higher level of professional jobs tending to be held by men and a minority of women, and the other extreme of female homeworkers undertaking traditionally female work, there is also an in-between ambiguous group with the characteristics of both these groups. It is argued that a deeper analysis must take into account the structural factors (for example, the changing labour market) and the personal motivation of individual teleworkers, both of which are affected by gender, race and class.

While the above debate has been based on the European context, it would be useful to examine the situation in a newly industrialising country like Malaysia, which is determined to enter the digital age and build its knowledge economy at all costs. In addition, Malaysian policy makers view teleworking as a potential vehicle in not only providing higher-valued employment to the country, but that it could be an effective tool for enhancing gender and social equity. By offering flexibility in both time and location, teleworking could draw women with the requisite skills and maintain them in the labour force. However there are worries among Indian scholars about the stereotype that women are best suited for home-based telework (Gothoskar, 1996). Companies might favour employing women working at home as the latter are seen as more docile and are less likely to organise to demand for better wages or improved working conditions. Thus while women might opt for teleworking to enable them to manage their multiple roles, “there is a danger that their contribution to society will remain invisible. It would not challenge the existing gender inequity in the home or the prevailing stereotypes that domestic work is essentially women’s work” (Pooonacha and Rajan in Mitter, 2000).

It is interesting to note that the above debates on gender and teleworking are based on the assumption and even mis-perception of telework – that it is individualised work either undertaken from home or in a remote location. However as this paper will argue in the following sections, earlier predictions of the expansion in home-based teleworking have not materialised. Rather the scenario for teleworking is likely to be collective and based in some kind of office context, whether employer-maintained satellite offices/telecentres or clients’ offices or outsourced call centres or back offices, or simply new forms of team and cooperative networking made possible by the growth of electronic network technologies.

Information technology and the software industry

The software industry has been recognised as increasingly being the driving force behind the IT industry. The pervasiveness and the increasing role of computers in society as a whole, the advent of multimedia technology and the demand for content, point to the critical need for software as a dynamic segment in the IT era.

The critical role of IT is enshrined in the Seventh Malaysia Plan (1996- 2000), and was subsequently reflected in the formation of the National Information Technology Council (NITC) which unveiled the National Information Technology Agenda (NITA) in 1996. The seriousness of the government in promoting IT is concretised in the announcement, in 1966 of the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). Spanning an area 15 km by 50 km, it boasts of comprising a system of capabilities, technologies, infrastructure, legislation and policies, and creating an environment specially crafted to meet the needs of leading edge companies seeking to reap the rewards of the Information Age (Ng, 1997). As declared by the Prime Minister, Malaysia is offering a green field site ‘unencumbered by industrial practices and legacies or entrenched interests. It is a site dedicated to new age electronic commerce’ (New Straits Times, November 22, 1997).

In order to be part of the Information Era, the necessary infrastructure needs to be set in place to support the growth of this generic technology and its multi-various applications. The National Information Infrastructure (NII) is such an infrastructure based on broadband networks and multimedia which will form the backbone of the information superhighway. Hence, if teleworking is to succeed as an alternative mode of employment, then the NII has to be set in place to ensure easy access to telematic links for communication, exchange of information and business transactions.

Malaysia’s teledensity is still low compared to the west and high-income Asia-Pacific countries, but it is more advanced compared to its ASEAN neighbours, with the exception of Brunei and Singapore. Nevertheless Malaysia’s telecommunications growth rate is quite high, making teleworking and teletrade a potential mode of employment in the future.

As for the software industry, it can be said that most of the software companies have the adequate infrastructure for telework and teletrade projects. Some companies have invested in ISDN and leased lines, although these facilities are rather expensive in Malaysia. As a result, companies prefer to subscribe to the local ISPs such as Jaring or TmNet, and use dial-up facilities to network with organisations at the global level.

Teleworking trends in the software industry

This section discusses the findings of the 10 firms which were identified for the case-study research. Five were local companies, two were joint-ventures, two foreign-based and one was a home-based independent entrepreneur. In terms of employment, about 30 percent of IT professionals were women, while at the administrative level, the majority of the employees were women. As for occupational levels, women formed 21 percent of management, 28 percent of executive and 59 percent of non-executive staff. However, only five percent were in the technical section while the overwhelming majority were administrative and clerical personnel. It should be noted that the concentration of women as data entry clerks was in one firm, which had employed them as contract workers for a particular project.

This pattern points to the new opportunities provided to women in the software industry, particularly in the local and joint venture firms where the proportion of female executives has clocked 34 percent of the total. In four of the nine firms, women were highly positioned as project and IT managers, although in terms of corporate leadership, there was only one women managing director.

In the Malaysian IT industry, women are able to position themselves into higher professional jobs due to several factors. One main reason is the growing demand for IT and IT-related personnel to serve the burgeoning IT industry, both locally and globally. As such there is no choice but for the education system to promote and encourage its young population, regardless of gender and ethnicity, to enter into computer technology fields. Indeed, female computer science students make up at least 50 percent of total enrolment in the Computer Science or IT Faculties in the public universities in Malaysia (Ng and Thambiah, 1997). IT courses offered by private colleges are equally popular for both men and women. For these women, their entry into the fast expanding IT-related sectors, despite the present economic downturn, is almost guaranteed. They would also be the potential high-skilled teleworkers who would command a high wage in this labour scarce sector.

The present MSC initiative sees strong encouragement from the Malaysian state in the promotion of IT in all sectors of the economy. Despite the numbers of women and men employed in the IT sector, there is still a gap in meeting the skills sought by the industry. In the software, telecommunications and banking and finance industries, there is a limited supply of specialised skills and hence, the sector is ‘open’ towards employing anyone who possesses those skills, including women. This openness towards the employment of women also coincides with a changing trend in corporate culture. Management practices, such as ‘fluid and/or change management’, are characterised by a flatter line of authority, decentralised decision-making and a merit-oriented approach towards recruitment and career advancement.

Nonetheless, women IT professionals only represent a minority of the female labour force, as the majority of women employees are still at the bottom of the occupational ladder. Hence, in the service sectors which are fast becoming computerised, most of these low-skilled job categories, such as data entry operators and typists, are predominantly held by women. These women also represent a potential constituency for would-be teleworkers, albeit at the lower end of the teleworking continuum.

Teleworking practices

Based on the field work, the types of teleworking forms existing in the Malaysian software industry are as follows:

1. Multiple-location telework. The majority of teleworkers, both male and female, work remotely at client sites and use an electronic link to connect to the main offices. They work for as short as one month to as long as four years in the offices of their various clients. Most of the time, the project team is based in that particular site and members go into their main office once in a while for face-to-face meetings, pick up their mail, etc.

2. Outsourced telework (national). This takes place either on a freelance individual! consultancy basis or is contracted to firms when a particular job needs to be done. The work is then undertaken from the place of work of the contractee, that is, his/her office or at the client’s site. However, outsourced telework is rare, as Malaysian software firms prefer to depend on in-house staff to customise/develop their products. But, if in need, there have been cases of firms which have used part-time or short-term systems analysts, usually male, based in the industrialised countries to write a certain module due to the lack of local expertise.

In one unique situation, one of the software managers, due to health and traffic problems, became a teleworking consultant. She used her husband’s office as her base of operations rather than work at home due to the presence of small children in the house which she felt would be a distraction to her work.

Generally, outsourcing is currently not a preferred option for software companies in Malaysia, except in particular circumstances. This was the case of a company which contracted about 160 data-entry clerks, mainly rural-based girls from different districts, to key in land records into a Land Registration System computerisation project.

3. Mobile telework. Most of the mobile teleworkers are male technicians whose responsibilities are hardware-related. They are armed with notebooks for analysing problems and have Internet access to their head offices. In terms of hardware support, the technicians go to the sites physically, but software support can be resolved from the headquarters. Marketing personnel, notably males, are also equipped with notebooks and do not have to come into their offices first before making their marketing rounds. These employees can dial up to servers to access databases when they are in different towns.

4. Home-based telework (informal and formal). Most of the electronic homeworkers are in-house staff who take home work on an informal basis. Many senior employees have their own machines (desktops or laptops) at home which are linked electronically to their offices. In terms of formal arrangements, there was one outsourced female translator who worked from home on a part-time basis. As for the home-based software entrepreneur, he had set up his office at home and had spent three years developing an investment package that he is now selling on the Internet.

5. International telework (teletrade). With the globalisation of information and communication technologies international telework, that is, teletrade is proving to be a popular and cost-effective mode of business operations in the IT industry. Several companies engage in teletrade relationships while two foreign companies see the potential of offshore (outsourced) programming in Malaysia, in terms of domestic market as well as a regional marketing centre. The two foreign firms interviewed hired predominantly male expatriates in their Malaysian offices.

What opportunities for women?

As can be seen, there are many forms of teleworking being practised in the software industry today. The question is to what extent do these opportunities present clear career paths for female teleworkers? The following section presents the different types of teleworking arrangements, and from these cases, attempts to evaluate the gender-differentiated career opportunities as well as those offered to various groups of women.

Theresa – a mobile teleworking consultant

Theresa, a partner as well as a consultant in a joint venture firm, is a full-time teleworker. She was previously a manager of a team of systems analysts and programmers but found it difficult to maintain her position as a manager due to health problems. Moreover, the traffic jam and distance from her home to the office, which took about three to four daily commuting hours became very stressful for her, contributing to her health problems. As a result, Theresa decided to resign from the company in early 1997. However, the managing director gave her the option to telework, an offer she took up from March 1997. Theresa is paid a consultant’s fee (including transport allowance) which, according to her, is very reasonable.

The company provides her with the necessary equipment such as a computer, modem, as well as access to the Internet and e-mail facilities. She has her own fax machine and printer. The company pays for the telephone bill and maintenance of the office equipment.

As a teleworker, she comes into the company office at least two or three days a week. The rest of the week she works the normal working hours from her husband’s office. Her husband is a businessman and has his own office that is within walking distance from their home. She found it impossible to work directly from home as she has children who would always disturb her. Hence, she shifted from teleworking at home to her husband’s office. Theresa points out that she is fortunate to have a ‘support network’, as her mother-in- law and a helper take care of her children.

Being an independent consultant, Theresa discloses that she has full authority to discuss prices, negotiate on software details and other technical matters with clients. Theresa points out that she is happy to be given the opportunity to be a teleworker and to continue with her career. She is less stressed, is healthier and her productivity has increased considerably. She says she also spends more quality time with her family. In a nutshell, she enjoys working as a teleworker and has achieved greater job satisfaction.

Joo, a teleworker based at the client’s site for five years

In 1993, when Joo, upon graduation, applied for a job in a prestigious local firm, she was informed during her interview that she would be working at the client’s site. When interviewed in early 1998, Joo had just completed her assignment at the client’s site where she had been teleworking for the past five years. During her term she was promoted from analyst programmer to senior analyst programmer, and subsequently to her present position as systems analyst. Joo says she enjoys teleworking and find the job at the client’s site quite challenging.

In this project, Joo has to work with employees from three other firms. Initially she and her nine other colleagues had problems adjusting to the different work culture and ethics of these companies. Everyone needed some time to adjust to this team which was made up of employees from various companies. One of the other companies had also sub-contracted about 10 programmers from India for one year and communicating with them was initially difficult.

When asked about the advantages of teleworking, Joo stated that she gained a lot of experience and knowledge by working with employees from other companies. She also learnt about teamwork. In addition, at the client’s site, the employee was involved and focused in only one project. However, at the main office, an employee might be asked to assist in various other projects. As for disadvantages, the only problem was the initial adjustment of working with employees from other companies and the lack of personal contact with the main office. Otherwise she did not face any other major problems.

Ken, a male teleworker based at the client’s site

Ken was recently promoted from systems operator to his current position as senior analyst programmer. When he was a systems operator, he was required to telework for about 11 months. He was based at Metro Vision, a local television station, to maintain the Interactive System which allowed participants to telephone the television station when the game show was on the air. The programmes ran from 12 noon to 2 pm, seven days a week until the end of 1997. He was chosen because he was trained on the system that ran the game show. Initially, he found the work at Metro Vision interesting as there were lots of things to learn, but it soon became a daily routine and he found it very challenging trying to be disciplined. Management eventually promoted him and found a replacement for his work at Metro Vision. Since being based at the office, Ken has yet been promoted again.

Aslinda, a contracted data entry clerk

Aslinda, a 20-year-old girl who grew up in a village, is one of the 160-odd data-entry clerks employed on a one-year contract to key in land registration data in the east coast state of Pahang. Most of the clerks who work at the clients’ site are computer-literate girls from the rural areas and have just completed their secondary education. According to the project manager, girls were chosen as he felt they were more conscientious and docile.

Aslinda’s tasks include keying in information from land titles, double-checking the entries and liasing with the officials in the Land Office. It is work of a semi-skilled nature as they need to pick up skills in reading the various land titles in the state. They are paid above market rates and, although employed on a contract basis, they receive all the minimum statutory employment benefits. While most of them will not be joining the software company upon termination of their contract, they have, nevertheless, picked up certain useful skills and experience. If given the opportunity, Aslinda would like to further her studies in computer education as she sees good career prospects in the IT sector.

Wee, a home-based tele-entrepreuner

Wee has been working from home as a software developer since he and his family returned from Hong Kong, where he was lecturing at the University of Hong Kong. His wife, Chooi, was with a regional organisation in Hong Kong, and since coming back to Malaysia has been employed by the NGO sector. They have two children, five and four years old, and have hired an Indonesian maid to help in household chores as well as to take care of the children. As such, Wee does not deal very much in household responsibilities and his children have been trained not to disturb ‘Papa’ when he is working in his room.

However, both agree that Wee’s presence at home has meant that there is a stabilising force in the family. Wee is glad that he can be at home with the children, and does take time off to be with them.

Chooi’s parents and siblings live around the housing estate and the children are sent quite often to their cousin’s house to play. In fact this was the main reason that Chooi decided to buy a house in that vicinity – to be close to her relatives who would provide that support system for her and her family.

Rani, a home-based teleworker

Rani, an ex-teacher who majored in the Tamil language, graduated in 1995. She taught for one year, got married and gave birth to a baby girl in 1996. However, as she could not obtain any help to take care of her baby, she resigned from the teaching profession in mid-1996. Her husband teaches computer studies in a local college and was her previous computer teacher. He has developed a Tamil software which is being used in desktop publishing. In early 1997, they approached a multi-media firm to use their Tamil software in their edutainment product. Subsequently the CEO of the firm offered Rani a job as a Tamil translator of their scripts. She accepted the part- time position and since then she has worked on several translation projects, as well as does voice recording in Tamil. Rani is paid RM500 per project which can take as long as two to three months to complete, depending on the volume of the text. Besides the fee, she does not obtain any other benefits. For example, she does not receive any travel allowance when she goes to the studio for recording.

Rani works from home and has her own computer and printer in the living room which is maintained by the family. Documents are downloaded to her via e-mail from the company and she does likewise when she has completed the translation. If she needs to fax she goes to a relative’s house; otherwise communication is usually through the telephone or via e-mail. She works 3-4 hours daily, dividing her time between housework and her job. Rani elaborates that she usually works after midnight; however her husband is very supportive of her work and helps in the housework and childcare.

Rani is quite happy with her home-based teleworking as she feels it is part of her contribution to the Tamil community. She stresses that she does not work for the money but for love of the work. As a result she is disciplined in her work and meets deadlines. Working from home also saves time and energy; she says “other things can be done at the same time, there is more control over my work, it is more flexible – I would not have chosen to work if it is not at home”. The disadvantage for her is that she does not get to meet people and that if she were in the office she would learn other things as well as learn to work in a team, inculcating attitudes like tolerance and patience.

The call centre operators’ frozen smile

One of the significant findings of the study was the presence of call centres, particularly in the telecommunications and banking and finance sectors. Many of these centres are located in or adjacent to the main premises of the company, unlike the European case where call centres have been remotely sited, even in a different country. These call centres have been recently set up to serve customers in various areas such as billings, collection centres, telemarketing and standard telemediated customer support functions.

In the banking sector, the call centre customer service personnel are placed in a dual level track – the executive and clerical levels. While most call centre workers expressed job satisfaction, there were also complaints about how stressful the job was. One reason given was the highly competitive environment as incentives are given to top performers in call success rates (for example, in debt collection efforts), implying reprimands and threats of dismissals for low success rates. These employees have to deal most civilly with their recipients many of whom tend to be abusive or even hysterical. While the call centre industry has the ability to provide young women with the means of entry into the banking sector, the danger lies with it being a dead-end job, with limited career promotion prospects.

Teleworking and the gender division of labour

As noted above, the software industry offers differential employment conditions for different types of teleworkers. The differences seem to hinge on the type of work performed and the skills level of the teleworker in question. Joo and Ken who work at the client’s site represent the young and upwardly mobile male and female IT personnel who are progressing fast up the organisational hierarchy. Their experiences at the client’s site are positive factors in terms of the ability to manage projects independently as well as to work as a team with those from different cultures. Gender does not seem to be a factor in influencing their promotional prospects.

As for Theresa and Rani, while both are women, they are evaluated quite differently. As a highly-skilled software professional, Theresa can command more income and is provided more facilities. She also has a strong support system – her mother-in-law takes care of her children and her entrepreneur husband offers her an office space in his office. On the other hand, Rani is not provided any benefits or facilities; her income is also quite low for the amount of work she has to do. The company seems to take advantage of her dedication and her informal work as a translator, compared to professional translators who would be paid more at the market rate. As such she has no prospects for training nor career advancement. What the two women have in common is the support of the family in their choice to be teleworkers. In the case of Rani, the alternative would be no work at all. Here, it is not gender, but their skills base and concomitant bargaining power which separate Theresa and Rani in the labour market.

Similarly, Wee is able to be a home-based software entrepreneur due to the support of his wife, the maid, and her extended family. Despite not earning a regular income nor his product being a runaway success, his commitment to his work and his belief in his professional ability manages to keep him going. As a man, he is also able to steer away from household responsibilities, a role that Theresa could not abdicate, and thus had to work from her husband’s office to avoid taking care of the children.

Aslinda represents the 160 odd data-entry operators who are mainly young computer literate girls from the rural areas involved in low-skilled work without much prospects of joining the company at the end of the contract. Indeed Aslinda fits into the gender stereotype of the typical data entry operator/clerk who, in the words of the manager, is almost always a female ‘deft with her hands’ and ‘will not give trouble to the company’. Her upward mobility is restricted due to her lack of more sophisticated IT skills. And her family, because of rural poverty, cannot afford to send her for further training.

Conclusion

On the whole, software firms in Malaysia practise teleworking on a project and ad hoc basis, comprising various work arrangements. Except for one foreign firm, there are no formal teleworking policies adopted by the firms interviewed, although teletrade is becoming a business opportunity for the more robust firms, particularly those which are foreign-based.

The most prevalent form of teleworking is multiple-location, usually client- based, where both male and female in-house remote workers, due to their experiences and skills, have equal opportunities to be promoted. There are many others like Joo and Ken who have worked off-site and have not been marginalised in the company. In fact, their experiences have enhanced their standing in the company, and they have been promptly promoted, irrespective of gender. Their experiences working with other companies are also useful in teletrade relationships, where firms in industrialised countries find it more cost-effective to externalise their information processing activities across borders.

This form of international teletrade has actually been undertaken by one upbeat local firm which has developed a software product jointly with an American firm based in Silicon Valley. The e-commerce based product was developed in Malaysia with the American firm hiring a local female project manager to be in charge on the Malaysian side. It was noted by both the Malaysian and US managers that the ability to partake in this higher learning technological curve was due to the openness of both firms to a more fluid style of management and corporate sharing. Hence, as noted by Gunnarsson (1997: 73), ‘when teleworking is not only seen by managers as a means of relocating work but also coincides with modem management strategies aiming at a less hierarchical organisation it will probably lead to an increase in gender equality’.

On the other hand, freelance telewokers have a more precarious livelihood, with the key factors of software and marketing skills differentiating their position in the labour market. As noted, the benefits of being a highly skilled IT professional are experienced by Theresa, who wanted to resign but was offered the attractive teleworking package. However, this package was not offered to Rani, a translator, nor Aslinda a data entry clerk, confirming the vertical division of labour mentioned by Stanworth (1998) – that class barriers have certainly not been broken by teleworking.

The case studies reveal concerns over adopting teleworking as a full-scale employment option. The issue of gender and class equity arises in the way skills are graded according to their marketability. In the case of the software industry, it places greater market value on the specialised and professional skills of Joo and Teresa as compared to Rani’s skill as a translator. The higher market value of Joo and Teresa also allows them to have ‘choices’ to unburden their dual role as women to domestic maids, whilst in Wee’s case, as a man, he passes some of his home responsibilities to the maid and the wife’s kinship structure. In Rani’s case, she has little choice. To be sure, the 160 rural-based data entry teleworkers will also not be able to climb up the occupational ladder due to the absence of IT skills. And firms are not about to provide training for them as in my interviews with the management, they replied that they would accept the disadvantaged groups, for example, pensioners, disabled, rural women, as teleworkers as long as they have the appropriate skills.

Besides the skills set, another barrier to the ability of the poor in backward areas to benefit from teleworking is the lack of infrastructure facilities in the rural areas. The low penetration of telephony makes it difficult for the rural population to have access to reliable and efficient telecommunication facilities, let alone be exposed to computer literacy. For example, the percentage of students using computers in predominantly rural Sarawak is 16 percent, compared to 20 percent at the national level and 80 percent in Singapore. In terms of economic status, only 8.6 percent of these students from the lower income group have such exposure compared to 62 percent of those from the higher income group. Rural women because of their lower educational levels would then be further excluded from the benefits of IT.

Has the domestic division of labour been altered as a result of men and women working at home? The cases above disclose that not much has changed, and women, be they wives, in-laws or domestic helpers, are still responsible for housework. In the case of Rani, the support of her husband was encouraging, and reflects changing gender roles – although she mainly works at night when her baby has gone to bed.

Studies in India also point to the advantages and disadvantages of home- based teleworking for women (Gothoskar, 2000). Some of the advantages include the choices open to women between home and career and the ability to balance both in a relatively stress-free environment. The disadvantages concluded were the loss of workplace culture, teamwork and camaraderie leading to increased isolation and stress. For women, this could mean a reinforcement of their role in the domestic spheres leading to further invisibility and vulnerability in public and social spaces.

To conclude, for teleworking to benefit women, it must first seriously consider the existing socio-economic conditions under which it is implemented so as not to reinforce and/or reproduce the unequal social and gender relations in society. Secondly, the kind of model to be adopted must also be gender and culturally friendly. Flatter management organisations seem to be more flexible in terms of providing more gender equity at work. Malaysians still prefer face-to-face contact in dealing with each other. Key women activists and academicians are hesitant about women working from home, given the prevalent gender subordination and domestic abuse faced by Malaysian women. They also point to the lack of space at home, especially for the urban poor who live in cramped two-room low-cost flats. Homes, unlike those in the western countries, might not be suitable places for women to work from due to the fact that very often, several generations live under the same household.

Hence, telecentres and/or neighbourhood centres might be more appropriate teleworking models for the conflicting needs and aspirations of women. These centres will not only allow women (and men) to combine work with collective child-care facilities but also enable them to interact with peer groups, enabling the acquisition and improvement of their tacit and IT literacy skills.

As another form of collective teleworking, call centres have recently opened up opportunities for young women. But as the case studies have shown, these women, as in traditional offices, tend to concentrate in the low value-added, single-skilled occupations with limited opportunities for promotion. Thus it is important to ensure that the glass ceiling barriers that women face be addressed, at both the societal and policy levels. If not properly monitored, the current dynamic growth of call centres will just be another IT sweat-shop operation for women serving both the local and international clientele.

Thirdly, it is critical that the whole family supports whoever has chosen to telework, enabling the domestic division of labour to be shared out equitably by all family members. And finally, for teleworking to be adopted at the national and global level, the state has to provide the appropriate regulatory framework which would not only protect teleworkers from exploitation, but would also enhance their skills in new and creative ways. For instance, policy makers should be aware of the thorny and problematic every-day issues of childcare, health and safety, contractual status, employment benefits and career/skills development opportunities offered to teleworkers, and where necessary, formulate policies and/or regulations to address these issues. In addition, consultation between the government, NGOs and the private sector on joint initiatives in the implementation of teleworking programmes, for example, the establishment of community/neighbourhood telecentres, should be encouraged.

Government policies to attract teletrade investment should also ensure that the competitive edge offered by developing countries for professional services is not centred on the availability of ‘cheap’ or low waged labour. Without equitable policies and regulatory safeguards, the international competitiveness of developing countries would only mean a competitive downgrading of the conditions of employment and work, with or without teleworking.

Article contributed by Cecelia Ng

Source: Teleworking and Development in Malaysia
Reprinted with permission from the UNDP and Southbound

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