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      Telephone, women, telecommunications policy, technology, gender


            Few detailed studies have been made in any country of telephone usage. This paper reports a qualitative national study of 200 women, metropolitan and country, which embraces women of diverse conditions and ages across Australia. It presents evidence of a deeply entrenched, caring, feminine culture of the telephone which underlies our family, community, and national development. Importantly, it conveys the voices and attitudes of women to a communication technology which, locally and internationally, is undergoing policy change. At a time when a ‘new telecommunications framework’ is being considered in Australia, the data challenge traditional ‘malestream’ conceptions of telephone usage and telecommunications policy, and focus the point that women and men make significantly different use of, and have very different access to, decision-making about technology.


            Author and article information

            Critical Studies in Innovation
            Pluto Journals
            June 1989
            : 7
            : 1
            : 5-31
            8629038 Prometheus, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1989: pp. 5–31
            Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

            All content is freely available without charge to users or their institutions. Users are allowed to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of the articles in this journal without asking prior permission of the publisher or the author. Articles published in the journal are distributed under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

            Page count
            Figures: 0, Tables: 0, References: 45, Pages: 27
            Original Articles

            Computer science,Arts,Social & Behavioral Sciences,Law,History,Economics
            gender,women,Telephone,telecommunications policy,technology


            1. Australian telecommunications services: a framework. 25 May 1988. Report. 228 pp. and Summary., Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988.

            2. Cf. Ann Moyal, Clear Across Australia. A history of telecommunications., Nelson, Melbourne, 1984.

            3. Summary, op. cit., p. 3.

            4. There has, for example, been considerable controversy in USA, Canada and elsewhere as to how cross-subsidization works between the local telephone and trunk networks, two schools of thought contesting that (i) trunk networks profits sustain local networks and, conversely (ii) that local calls, as some American economists suggest, sustain trunks. In Australia, only meagre information on the elements of cross subsidy has been publicly available and research on the subject is in short supply. Evans’ Report., acknowledges that “it is not clear how much economic loss actually arises from the current pattern of cross-subsidies” (p. 40). For a historical perspective see Moyal, op. cit. and I.W. McLean, ‘Telephone Pricing and Cross-Subsidization under the PMG, 1901 to 1976’, Australian National University, Working Papers in Economic History No. 27, September 1984.

            5. Ian Reinecke, ‘Regulating Deregulation in Australian Telecommunications’, Communications Institute of Australia, Canberra, Occasional Paper No. 6, July 1988.

            6. But see Grant Noble, ‘Discriminating between the intrinsic and instrumental domestic telephone user’. Australian Journal of Communication., No. 11, 1987, pp. 63–85 for a broad examination of 100 people.

            7. I. de Sola Pool (ed.), The Social Impact of the Telephone., Cambridge, MIT Press, 1977, a collection of essays assembled to mark the centenary of the invention of the telephone in 1976, remains the most seminal source book. In addition broad commentary on telephone use can be found in S. Aronson, ‘The sociology of the telephone’, in C. Gumpert and R. Carthcart (eds), Intermedia: Interpersonal Communication in a Media World., 3rd ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1986; Guy Fielding and Peter Hartley, ‘The telephone: a neglected medium’, in A. Cashdan and M. Jordin (eds), Studies in Communication., Oxford, Blackwell, 1988; Frederick Williams (ed.), Technology and Communication Behavior., Belmont, California, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1987; and Herbert S. Dordick, ‘Reflections on a wired world’, Media & Values., 26, Winter 1984, pp. 2–3 and Intermedia., 1983. Place specific studies of suites of telephone users include G. Claisse and F. Rowe, ‘The telephone in question: questions on communication’, Computer Networks and ISDN Systems., International Journal of Computer and Telecommunications Networking, 24, 2–5, 1987, pp. 207–219 which examines 663 French telephone callers in 1984; Belinda Brandon (ed.), The Effect of the Demographies of Individual Households on their Telephone Usage., Cambridge, Mass., Ballinger, 1981, a detailed analysis of the household characteristics of some 500 telephone users in Chicago, 1972–4; and W Infosino, ‘Relationship between demand for local telephone calls and household characteristics’, Bell Telephone Technical Journal., 59, 6, July 1980, pp. 31–53, a study of 998 individuals in California and Cincinnati, 1972–3, 1975–6.

            8. Noble, op. cit., p. 83.

            9. These found full expression in submissions to the Davidson Inquiry, and its Report of the Committee to inquire into telecommunications services in Australia., 1981/82, rejected by the Hawke Government.

            10. Quoted Suzanne Keller, ‘The telephone in new communities and old’, Pool, op. cit., p. 289.

            11. The ‘instrumental/intrinsic’ categorisation was first defined by Keller, op. cit., p. 284. See also Noble, op. cit.

            12. From its design stages and as the research grew, it has attracted the interest of a spectrum of women's organizations including the Office of the Status of Women, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the National Council of Women of Australia, the Rural Womens’ Network of the Victorian Department of Agriculture, the Rural Women's Information Service of S.A., Department of Agriculture, the Northern Territory Women's Advisory Council, and the National Women's Consultative Council. I thank them for their encouragement and constructive ideas.

            13. Diane Bell. Photographs by Ponch Hawkes, Generations. Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters. Bicentennial Landmark Publication for Women, Gribble/Penguin, 1988.

            14. Telecommunication carriers, including Telecom, suggest that survey respondents relying on memory invariably underestimate their calling patterns when it comes to challenging telephone bills and, conversely, would overestimate the average number and duration of local calls per day. Martin Mayer confirms this in ‘The telephone and the uses of time’, in Pool, op. cit. In the present survey, a comparison of time sheets and recorded calls suggested that interviewees tended rather to underestimate. both the number, and duration, of calls.

            15. Distribution among capital cities was: Sydney 40, Melbourne 25, Canberra 17, Brisbane 14, Adelaide 12, Perth 11, Hobart 9, and Darwin 6. Country distribution included country towns, rural fringe and remote settlements: NSW 14, Victoria 16, Northern Territory 15, Queensland 11, South Australia 5, and Western Australia 5.

            16. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1987. In this source, 11 per cent of Australian women were aged 0–14, 8 per cent aged 15–19; 32 per cent, 20–39; 16.5 per cent aged 40–54; 9 per cent aged 55–64; 7 per cent aged 65–74 and 5 per cent over 75. The skewing to a higher percentile representation in the survey arises from the absence of any representatives of respondents aged 0–14.

            17. The survey did not seek information on work-based calls for either those made in the workforce or from home.

            18. A similar resistance to altering established and participatory shopping patterns is also reported from Japan. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ‘The communications revolution’ and the household: some thoughts from the Japanese experience, Prometheus., 6, 2, 1988, p. 242.

            19. Comparative data on weekly calls made by women in other countries is not available. Neither Brandon's (ed.) 1981 study of telephone use in Chicago households, op. cit., or Infosino's 1980 study of Cincinnati and California households, op. cit., or Claisse and Rowe's 1983 study of French urban telephone use, op. cit., offer data breakdown on gender. Mayer, op. cit., demonstrates the pervasiveness of male value judgments on the issue when he alludes to an American ‘Statewide’ survey where the average length of call of four and a half minutes was “dragged up by those who hang on the phone” (p. 228). Unfortunately Lana F. Rakow's pioneering gender study, Gender, Communication and Technology. A Case Study of Women and the Telephone., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Ph.D. 1987 (University Microfilm International, copy held by Macquarie University Library) based on interview data of 43 women and their telephone use and attitudes in the Midwestern rural town of Prospect, USA, furnishes no record of call duration or number of telephone calls made.

            20. The concept of three minutes as the basic unit of telephone call ‘conversation time’ has long been accepted internationally. The calculation is based on recorded call time measured at telephone exchanges at the busiest time of day and encompasses an average over all types of business and residential voice calls. While little independent research has been published on the subject, it is now considered in Sweden, for example, that as unanswered (unsuccessful) calls, wrong numbers, etc. are included in the calculation, the measure of ‘conversation time’ is artificial.

            21. The educational range of the sample encompassed 5 women without formal education, 24 with primary education, 118 with secondary education, 48 with tertiary education and 5 with postgraduate qualifications. No attempt was made in this survey to establish incomes of respondents.

            22. Noble, 1987, op. cit., p. 81.

            23. Feminist scholar, Dale Spender points out that little research has yet been done on listening, a form of interactional work particularly associated with women and ‘as complex and important as talk’ quoted by Rakow, op. cit., p. 175.

            24. Rakow, op. cit., p. 176.

            25. Data retrieved on children's telephone use was both random, and small. It points, however, to a revealing area of telephone usage for further research.

            26. There were 421,255 women aged 75 + in Australia and 917,056 women aged 65 years and over in June 1987 against a male population of 736,769 aged 65 +. Australian Bureau of Statistics (1987). Combined, the total number of Australians aged 65 +, represented 11 per cent of the population.

            27. Hal. L. Kendig and John McCallum, Ageing and the Family Project., Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988.

            28. It is, for example, worth noting that the questionnaire of the ‘Survey of the Aged in Sydney’ conducted by the ANU Ageing and the Family Project in 1981, only briefly listed ‘phone contact’ with enquiries about numbers of children, days seen, letters received, and the broad question ‘is there a phone in the home or flat’. More recently the ‘Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing, Initial Survey Questionnaire (1988), of the Centre for Ageing Studies, Flinders University (a WHO Collaborating Centre for research on the epidemiology of ageing), with its many questions on the physical condition, illnesses, available services, emergencies, relationships, leisure activities of the aged, contains only one question — the strictly functional ‘do you need help using the telephone?’ for a survey concerned with the biomedical, psychological and social characteristics of ageing.

            29. Alice T. Day, ‘Family Caregiving and the Elderly: Myths, Realities and Environmental Implications, Seminar in Human Sciences, Australian National University, 11 August 1988.

            30. Interestingly, Brandon's American findings, which combine men and women in the sample, sugest that “the medians of total local and suburban message units display a strong downward trend with increasing age”, 1981, op. cit., p. 6.

            31. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 19 July 1988 that “only 73 per cent of males, compared to 91 per cent of females, living alone, had the telephone connected”.

            32. The Red Cross Telephone Security Service, a voluntary caring service aimed at providing security for aged, frail, sick, disabled or housebound people living alone and medically at risk offers an example for further development. In this scheme, volunteers telephone recipients of the service each morning 7 days a week to check their well-being. If there is no answer after a repeated call, the Red Cross office is advised and an emergency procedure taken to contact the recipient. The service is provided to recipients free of charge (In Action., 17, June 1988). In Japan, experiments are currently being conducted with videophones that may enable doctors to offer a service of ‘checking up on elderly invalids with no acute health problem’ over the phone; Morris-Suzuki, op. cit., p. 242.

            33. The Home Tutor Scheme, a Joint Government and Community Service, from 1988 offered telephone instruction in English to homebound migrants.

            34. The role of the Women's Information Switchboard in Adelaide, for example, in helping migrant women in difficult home situation via telephone contact is noteworthy, though no such use was recorded in this survey. Cf. Des Storer (ed.), Ethnic Family Values in Australia., Institute of Family Studies. Prentice-Hall of Australia, 1985.

            35. See Endnote 7. Fielding and Hartley, commenting on the paucity of telephone communication research, op. cit., 1987, summed up: “we know little and are therefore forced to speculate”.

            36. Cf. Ann Moyal, Women and the Telephone in Australia. A Report to Telecom Australia., April 1989.

            37. Alexander Graham Bell was guilty of the suggestion that the telephone would become a venue “where Mrs Smith could spend an enjoyable hour with Mrs Brown, pleasantly dissecting Mrs Jones” and the theme resounds through the literature. See John Brooks, ‘The first and only century of telephone literature’ in Pool, op. cit., 1977, pp. 208–224. In Australia, a Sydney Morning Herald. column on telephone use, 15 June, 1988, characteristically proclaimed ‘Women Do Love to Chinwag’.

            38. Cheris Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women's Voices., New York, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988, Preface, pp. 5 and 7.

            39. Gender, Communications, and Technology, op. tit., 1987, pp. 1–2, and Lana F. Rakow, ‘Women and the telephone: the gendering of a communications technology’, in Kramarae (ed.), Technology and Women's Voices., pp. 207–228.

            40. Ibid. See also Lana F. Rakow, ‘Rethinking gender research in communications’, Journal of Communications., Autumn 1986, 36, pp. 11–26; and Lana F. Rakow, ‘Looking to the future: five questions for gender research’, Women's Studies in Communication., Fall 1987, 10, pp. 79–86.

            41. op. cit., p. 10.

            42. Their opposition was also widely articulated when Telecom Australia opened the debate on timed local calling in late 1987–88, promoting a statement from the Prime Minister in February 1988, that Australia would not introduce timed local calls. The issue, however, remains on the telecommunications policy agenda.

            43. Since its inauguration in June 1975, Telecom Australia has kept its telephone charges down. ‘Average price increase for the overall range of basic services’ have risen by 36 per cent between June 1975 and June 1987, compared with a 167 per cent rise in the Consumer Price Index, 211 per cent rise in Public Transport Fares, a 230 per cent rise in fuel and light, and a 279 per cent rise in petrol prices. Australian Telecommunication Commission Annual Report., 1987–88.

            44. Telecom, to date, appears short of data relating to length of local calls. Some ‘very limited surveys’ suggest an average voice business call occupies 21/2 to 3 minutes; and an average domestic call under 6 minutes. Telecom Australia.

            45. Robert Pike and Vincent Musco, ‘Canadian consumers and telephone pricing: from luxury to necessity and back again?’, Telecommunications Policy., March 1986, 10, 1, pp. 17–32.


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