The Gendered Semiconductor

Cindy Jeffers
May 3, 2004

"[T]he 'new' international division of labor is increasingly based on gender, as well as class and nation... high-tech industry is at the forefront of these trends toward a globalized, 'gendered' labor division" -Karen Hossfeld, 150.

In the last fifty years women have entered the labor force by the hundreds of thousands world-wide, permanently altering the structure of labor. As the computer industry mass-produced semiconductors in the 1980s, research indicated that up to ninety percent of the people working on the assembly lines of computer manufacturing factories were women. (Hossfeld, 154) The mass-production of semiconductors and other electrical components have been intricately connected to gender from the beginning. The Global Protest Map seeks to explore the convergence of gender and technology through the labor issues arising out of technology manufacturing. The following are brief statements on the focal points of my research.

health problems
There are several known ways of contracting illnesses directly related to semiconductor fabrication. Former employees of IBM, National Semiconductor, Fairchild, Harris Semiconductor, Intel and Signetics have all reported numerous cases of cancer, miscarriage and birth defects as a result of working near chemicals used to clean semiconductors: "IBM toxicologists in the United States have collected 10,000 death certificates. We have begun a detailed study of the IBM death certificates which are revealing that the rate of cancer for IBM employees is twice as great as the rate for the general population. More striking is that the number of brain cancers for IBM workers is six times higher than the rate of brain cancer in the general population." ( Currently, there are 257 pending lawsuits against IBM for health problems resulting from working in the "clean rooms", where semiconductors are cleaned. What remains to be seen is the exact breakdown of these health problems in women and men. If women constitute up to ninety percent of the employees of these factories, are these health issues disproportionately affecting women?

Women working in semiconductor factories outside the U.S. have faced strong opposition to unionizing. For example, many goverments do not permit unions or are opposed to them, "The governments of Singapore, Korea, and the Philippines have strongly discouraged and in some cases outlawed labor organizing and strikes" (Hossfeld 153). In many cases the governments have worked hard to attract foreign business and investments. In addition, American companies abroad prohibit unionizing. In a few cases, employees in American factories outside the U.S. have tried to unionize, but the companies either prevented it or moved the factory elsewhere (Todd and Bhopal 86).

Figure 1

gender and motion
In the 1930s Ralph Barnes reported on his motion efficiency studies in Motion and Time Study. He examined assembly line workers' movements to demonstrate how the greatest amount of speed and accuracy secured the utmost in production. The majority of the images in the book displayed women's movements, as well as outlines of the total shape of the meta-spaces they inhabited. [See Figure 1 above.] In Barnes studies, motion and gender were used to underscore women's position and physical occupancy of the workspace. What emerged were the overlying shapes of gendered spaces and the visual aspects that made them gendered. These studies were an interesting attempt at mechanizing human movement and revealed the degree to which movement can be gendered. These studies encouraged me to develop a vocabulary of movement, to explore the ways in which movement creates gendered spaces.

gender and electricty
All of these projects have contributed to an articulation of the overarching theme in my work- the development of a visual language around gender and electricity. There are connections in form between the binary codifications of gender and electricity. Gendered biological signifiers serve to map women and men in the same way that logic gates distinguish between voltage levels. Neither form exists solely in extremes. The gendered body becomes a series of cultural differentiations or logic gates indicating male or female, high or low, five or zero volts. The works of Judith Butler, Diana Fuss, and Donna Haraway work in contrast to the binary translation of gender. They erase the imposed shapes and lines of gender and draw new flexible and malleable forms, which indicate infinite possibilities and choices. These writers have created conceptual inroads into a fundamental rethinking of gender as something built and performed. Positioning myself within these new forms and shapes, I hope to develop a visual language that displays the connections between gender, electricity and technology.


Barnes, Ralph. Motion and Time Study. New York: Wiley, 1958.

Hossfeld, Karen. "Their Logic Against Them." Women Workers and Global Restructuring. Ed. Kathryn Ward. Ithica: ILR, 1990. 149-78.

International Labor Organization. Yearbook of Labor Statistics. Geneva: ILO, 2001.

Matthews, Glenna. Silicon Valley, Women, and the California Dream: Gender, Class, and the Opportunity in the Twentieth Century. Palo Alto: Stanford U. Press, 2003.

Todd, Patricia and Bhopal, Mhinder. "Trade unions, segmentation and diversity" as presented in Colgan, Fiona and Ledwith, Sue, Eds. Gender, Diversity and Trade Unions: International Perspectives 2002 London.