Struggles over Skills: Lived Experiences of Evolving Technologies and Gendered Hierarchies at Work
Annals of the American Association of Geographers
How are skills struggled over in occupations transforming through evolving technologies? This article contributes a feminist labor geography perspective amidst reinvigorated interest in skills. Within economic geography, human capital approaches view skills as resources measurable through quantitative proxies. Such analyses reveal place-based endowments and skills mismatches but, unable to capture lived experience or uneven power relations, overlook how skill facilitates agency for different workers. In contrast, we theorize skill as both processual—constantly unfolding and contested—and a mechanism unevenly empowering workers based on recognition (or lack thereof). Ethnographic research proceeded with workers employed by automotive shops, a context at the forefront of disruptive technologies. Two key roles underpin profitable operations. Technicians, overwhelmingly men, work individually from shop floors, diagnosing problems, repairing, and maintaining vehicles. Customer care staff, predominantly women, work in small teams from reception spaces, managing “car count” and mediating interactions between technicians and customers. In both roles, workers upskill to meet shifting service demands and retain brand-managed expertise. Yet, enduring and newly acquired skills are unevenly recognized and rewarded. Three factors fortified systemic barriers to progression: tasks extended and co-evolved unevenly with multi-skilled working bodies; gender-biased skills recognition favored technicians (skills with cars/deemed scarce) over customer service (skills of interactive translation/deemed replaceable); and workers positioned atop hierarchies refuted co-workers’ skills claims within workplaces. For geographers concerned with the quality and fairness of work amidst evolving technological change, we argue that skill unveils the socio-spatial foundations of agency: materializing unevenly and struggled over in everyday life.
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