Women, Gender, and Technology
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-252-07336-3
Chapter One Using the Lenses of Feminist Theories to Focus on Women and Technology SUE V. ROSSER
The case studies and increasing numbers of well-documented interactions of women with specific technologies appear to be ready for examination using a broader spectrum of feminist lenses to reveal insights such as those found for women and science (Rosser, 1993), women's health (Rosser, 1994), and women's relationship to bio- and reproductive technologies (Rosser, 1998, 2000). As Juliet Webster (1995) notes, feminist analyses of technology have typically fallen under the three categories of liberal feminism, ecofeminism, and, most particularly, socialist feminism. Webster and others (Cockburn, 1981, 1983, 1985; Hacker, 1981, 1989; Wacjman, 1991) may have favored socialist feminist approaches because women's relationships with technology typically have been subordinated and excluded from study, including, to some extent, from studies of the social shaping of technology. Scholars exploring gender and technology interactions have tended to concentrate more on gender and technology in the workforce and somewhat less on women asusers of technology. Limited studies have explored how technological designs, especially for information technologies (IT) and household appliances, might differ depending on the gender of the designer and user. Although some funded, co-curricular, and pedagogical projects have explored techniques to attract women students and retain them in engineering curricula, none has significantly changed curricular content or affected, as one woman engineer stated, "the fundamentals." The framework provided by the perspective of each feminist theory lends itself to an examination of three areas: women in the technology workforce, women as users of technology, and women and technology design. Examining technology and gender using the fuller range of feminist theories may indeed uncover subtle, rich insights into the dynamics of the co-evolution of gender and technology.
A general definition of liberal feminism is the belief that women are suppressed in contemporary society because they suffer unjust discrimination (Jaggar, 1983). Liberal feminists seek no special privileges for women and simply demand that everyone receive equal consideration without discrimination on the basis of sex.
When it comes to technology jobs, most engineers and others involved with technology take a liberal feminist stance and assume that the focus should be on employment, access, and discrimination issues. For example, nationally organized programs such as Women's Engineering Program Advocates Network (WEPAN) and Society of Women in Engineering (SWE), as well as women in engineering programs developed by individual institutions, demonstrate a liberal feminist focus in their attempts to remove documented overt and covert barriers that prevent women from entering engineering education and remaining as practicing engineers. Social scientists studying the gender distribution of the technology workforce point out that historically and presently, the technology workforce represents a vertically and horizontally gender-stratified labor market, with women concentrated in the lowest-paid positions, closest to the most tedious, hands-on making of the products and furthest from the creative design of technology.
In this framework, Cynthia Cockburn's (1983) study of compositors is insightful at showing the way in which gender works to keep women out of technology jobs. Male typesetters tried to retain their high pay by demanding the sole rights to use computer typesetting equipment. In these demands they excluded women and defined them as unskilled. The technological innovation that led to typesetting being equivalent to electronic keyboarding (QWERTY) opened the door for management to replace male Linotype operators with cheaper female typists. Today most women working in the IT industry engage in the tedious, eye-straining work of electronic assembly. Men predominate in the decision-making, creative, and design sectors as venture capitalists, computer scientists, and engineers producing startups, new software, and hardware design.
Liberal feminists would seek to remove barriers that prevent equal access for women to technology jobs not only to ensure economic equality but also to provide access to higher paying jobs for women. Unequal access has implications that go well beyond the composition of the workforce. Two decades ago, colleagues in biology (Birke, 1986; Bleier, 1984, 1986; Fausto-Sterling, 1992; Hubbard, 1990; Keller, 1983, 1985; Rosser, 1988; Spanier, 1982) revealed that a predominance of male scientists had tended to introduce a source of bias by excluding females as experimental subjects, focusing on problems of primary interest to males, employing faulty experimental designs, and interpreting data based in language or ideas constricted by patriarchal parameters. This exclusion led to bias that had particularly problematic consequences in areas such as health, where the bias resulted in underdiagnosis, inappropriate treatment, and higher death rates for cardiovascular and other diseases in women (Healy, 1991; Rosser, 1994).
Male dominance in engineering and the creative decision-making sectors of the IT workforce may result in similar bias, particularly design and user bias. Shirley Malcom (personal communication, March 9, 1998) suggests that the air bag fiasco suffered by the U.S. auto industry serves as an excellent example of gender bias reflected in design; this failure would have been much less likely had a woman engineer been on the design team. Since women, on average, tend to be smaller than men, a woman designer might have recognized that a bag which implicitly used the male body as a norm would be flawed when applied to smaller individuals, killing rather than protecting children and small women.
Having large numbers of male engineers and creators of technologies often results in technologies that are useful from a male perspective (i.e., these technologies fail to address important issues for women users). In addition to the military origins for the development and funding of much technology (Barnaby, 1981; Norman, 1979), which makes its civilian application less useful for women's lives (Cockburn, 1983), men designing technology for the home frequently focus on issues less important to women users. For example, Anne-Jorunn Berg's (1999) analysis of "smart houses" reveals that such houses do not include new technologies; instead they focus on "integration, centralized control and regulation of all functions in the home" (p. 306). "Housework is no part of what this house will 'do' for you" (p. 307).
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