Analyzing Knowledge Created through Gendered Divisions of Labor

Divisions of labor—in which certain groups within a society tend to perform certain types of work—lead to divisions of knowledge. People responsible for a given task will develop knowledge specific to that task. Much knowledge divides along gendered lines because labor—both physical and cognitive—divides along gendered lines.

  • Example: In sub-Saharan Africa, women do most of the subsistence farming and are for that reason experts in plant and seed selection (Momsen, 2007). Women in the Kilombero district of Tanzania are experts in soil conditions because they are the primary fetchers of water and need to know which soils yield the most water (Fisher, 2006). Similarly, women's roles as caregivers in many societies make them holders of knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants (Eagly et al., 2006; Guérin et al., 1998).

  • Example: Military service is predominantly performed by men, and this is especially true of combat roles. During World War II, optical instruments such as binoculars and rifle scopes were widely used by infantry. However, the polished objective lenses of these devices tended to reflect light, producing glare that made the user visible and hence a target. German optical engineers developed anti-reflective coatings to address this problem (Thelen, 2005). These coatings remained military secrets throughout the Second World War (Fink, 2009). After the War, this technology (originally developed to meet the needs of men in a military context) became important to both men and women in civilian contexts. Anti-reflective coatings are now critical to the design eyeglasses, photographic lenses, and scientific instruments such as microscopes and telescopes (Arnaud, 1997). 

Analyzing how knowledge is created through social divisions of labor is what is sometimes known as standpoint theory (Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1993). Historically, women's experience has been devalued and excluded from knowledge. Analyzing gender-specific experience can serve as a resource for knowledge production and technolgical design.

Works Cited

Arnaud, A. (1997). Industrial Production of Coated Glass: Future Trends for Expanding Needs. Journal of Non-Crystalline Solids, 218, 12-18.

Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Billton, B. (2006). Building the Profile of Women in the Mining Industry. Sustainability Report.

Eagly, A., & Koenig, A. (2006). Social Role Theory of Sex Differences and Similarities: Implications for Prosocial Behavior. In Canary, D., & Dindia, K. (Eds.), Sex Differences and Similarities in Communications, Second Edition (Chapter 9). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fink, M. (2009). Types of Anti-Reflective Treatments and When to Use Them. Photonics Solutions, January, 28-31.

Fisher, J. (2006). For Her it's the Big Issue: Putting Women at the Centre of Water Supply, Sanitation, and Hygiene. Geneva: Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

Guérin-McManus, M., Famolare, L., Bowles, I., Malone, S., Mittermeier, R., & Rosenfeld, A. (1998). Bioprospecting in Practice: A Case Study of the Suriname ICBG Project and Benefits Sharing under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Montreal: International Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives. Feminist Studies, 14, 575–599.

Harding, S. (1993).  Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is Strong Objectivity? In Alcoff, L., & Potter, E. (Eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (pp. 49-82). New York: Routledge.

Momsen, J. (2007). Gender and Biodiversity: A New Approach to Linking Environment and Development. Geography Compass, 1 (2), 149-162.

Somerville, M., & Abrahamsson, L. (2003). Trainers and Learners Constructing a Community of Practice: Masculine Work Cultures and Learning Safety in the Mining Industry. Studies in the Education of Adults, 35 (1), 19-34.

Thelen, A. (2005). Milestones in Optical Coating Technology—From Oleksandr Smakula / John Strong until Today. Proceedings of the International Society for Optical Engineering, 5963, 1-5.



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