Environment & Sciences / Feminism / Society

Women and Technology, a Story of Love and Hate

Can women’s alliance with technology help remedy gender inequality?

by Marion Bouvier

Women and technology_CC

Women and scientific subjects still have a complicated relationship: in 2012, close to 80% of the British students taking A-level Physics were male. In the UK, 5,3% of women are involved in SET careers (Science, Engineering and Technology), compared with 33% of the men[1]. Likewise in the US, in 2012 women made up only 18% of computer science majors. Yet technologies represent an important part of women’s daily lives, and in fact women use the Internet 17% more than men in western countries, and form the majority of technological devices’ owners[2].

This paradox illustrates that despite women being involved in new technologies, the mastery and consequently control of technology oftentimes remain out of women’s reach, for reasons that have to do with the structure of our patriarchal societies and with cultural norms. Although one can consider technology as one of the modern means used to reinforce male domination, technology may turn out to be the very ally of the post-modern women, whether because they master the use of technologies and therefore bring down old power balances, or because the new interactions technology allows may help them go beyond biological yokes.

A continuous lack of women in SET (Science, Engineering, Technology) careers

Women and technology may prove out to be the future leading couple in a society that constantly sought to keep them away from one another. It is clear that the industrialization and democratization of our societies throughout the twentieth century has not thoroughly remedied the inequalities women face[3]. As a result of centuries of patriarchal order, women were traditionally assimilated to the household and kept out of the business and working fields; they were supposed to provide men with happiness and therefore devote their lives to the well-being of the family. In 1847, Charlotte Brontë was already articulating the frustration of women confined to a domestic role in Jane Eyre:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags[4].

This conception of women’s role may seem to belong to a remote past; however one should not forget that it has deeply permeated the social roles that continue to pervade society today. As an example, women in engineering schools are a lot less numerous than their male classmates: in the US studies show that around 20% of engineering students are women, but also that 40% of women who graduated in engineering never enter or leave the field because of “inhospitable work climates [and] lack of advancement.”[5] In France, the ministry of Education evaluated that women made up around 27% of students in engineering schools. This is a big progress compared to just 20 years ago; yet it remains clear that men constitute the large majority of SET majors. Of course, women are now expected to have a career as well, and to earn money of their own; that new expectancy contributed to a growing opening of traditionally men-allotted jobs to women, such as physician, CEO, lawyer[6]

However, as mentioned before, SET jobs are still mostly exercised by men[7], partly because women are still alleged to be less apt to think logically and less gifted to deal with abstract thinking. In turn, these stereotypes influence the attitude parents have when it comes to their daughters’ educational perspectives, as well as the girls’ own beliefs of the career that is both possible and valuable for them. On top of that, the fact that schools dedicated to train future scientists often have an overwhelming percentage of male students can contribute to deterring young females from joining-whether from fear of being singled out, discriminated against, or not taken seriously (as shown by the American Psychological Association, see note 5).

Maryam Mirzakhani, who is the first woman to have received the Fields Medal © Ro Khanna

Maryam Mirzakhani, who is the first woman to have received the Fields Medal © Ro Khanna

Limiting the potential of women through stereotyping

Besides, consumer goods also convey the idea of an intrinsic distinction between men and women. One could argue that marketing is about seducing people and therefore has to define as precisely as possible what its consumers want. However, it is difficult to determine who really defines who wants what. Do women naturally want pink appliances? Or are they induced into thinking it highlights their womanhood? Whatever the answer, one could argue, it remains their will to conform themselves to a trend, after all, they can wear or buy whatever they want. But the will of the individual cannot be isolated from the socio-cultural context in which he or she lives. Recently, as a debate arose after a study found that products such as razors were more expensive in the women’s section than in the men’s section, you could frequently read the following comment (written by men): “So if the blue razor [sold in the men’s section] is less expensive and the woman still buys the pink one [sold in the women’s section], then she is just stupid!” These male commentators did not ask themselves whether they would go to the women’s section and buy the pink razor for themselves if it proved less expensive, but I am guessing the answer would most probably be no. Society’s pressure is often more pervasive than one would like to think, especially when it comes to how women look, since unfortunately it remains a defining criterion to judge a woman.

In any case, the consequence is that companies continue to consider women as a group of consumers, with the same tastes, expectations, needs, even though this uniformity is not really taking into account the diversity of women’s lives. Yes, women may constitute a group because of some biological, physical traits and life experiences that they share, but considering women as a group in every aspect of their lives backs the idea that women and men are so inherently opposed that they cannot individually have the same expectations when it comes to a product. I think that’s a mistake, especially when it comes to tech devices[8].

Yes, some particular products have a reason to be marketed along the lines of gender, for example pads for women[9]. But when you start thinking about it, it’s only a very small number of items that can only be wanted by one gender: you can be a woman and want to wear men’s boxer briefs, you can be a man who does not want to smell like ‘strong musk and pepper’ but prefer neutral deodorants sold in the women’s section, and your kids can fit anywhere on the gender spectrum and want to buy toys that do not tell them what they should like depending on whether they were born a girl or a boy. I am not saying that nothing should be sold in blue or in pink, or with various characteristics like flowery scents or musky aromas, I am saying that this diversity of products should not have to be marketed for either men or women. It should be for anyone who likes it, full stop.

But back to technological products, which have taken a major place in our lives and whose mastery remains instrumental to access many jobs and positions of power. Fortunately, tech devices are not generally marketed as being specifically for women or for men, contrary to cosmetics or clothes. There is the usual pink treatment that’s applied to a number of cellphones, laptops and even calculators, but apart form their colors most of the models are not generally targeting a specific gender, although there are notable exceptions: Fujitsu’s “Floral Kiss” laptop was designed specifically for women, and included features such as the automatic storage of pictures and URLs “of the items, retail stores, recipes, and other content” that women would browse on the internet, because of course women are primarily using the Internet to browse retail stores and recipes. Other main features included a diary and daily horoscopes, because everyone knows women are superstitious and like to write their little ladylike secrets in their diaries[10].

Sony Vaio's pink computer for ladies

Sony Vaio’s pink computer for ladies

But generally, in terms of technical design, there is rightly not so much of a distinction between the computers, cell phones or cameras used by men and those used by women. What is more alarming though is the widespread belief that women are not as capable to use technology as men are. Yet many women master technology on the same level as men do, and it all comes down to the individual skills and acquired abilities whether someone is good at using tech equipment or not. If some women may indeed be disoriented by technology, it is mostly because they have internalized that being feminine means not being a geek, not being too good at solving problems and fixing their own car.

And indeed, the image often relayed in advertisements and in the media may lead to some specific female behavior towards technology to the extent that women are induced to think this distinction is based on scientific facts. From an early age, girls are told not to ask for robots and guns as toys for Christmas, and growing up they are rewarded when they are kind to others rather than when they are investigative, when their clothes are clean when coming back from school rather than when they play sports and jump in the mud, and they are encouraged to join extra-curricular activities such as ballet and piano lessons, not football and orienteering[11]. In class, their ability to write and speak properly, to read and analyse feelings rather than facts seems to be the most socially recognized talent[12]. What young girls more or less consciously comprehend from all these social experiences is that being as perfect and sensitive a human being they possibly can be is their main task. Men will cope with the technical hardships.

Again, this pattern may seem exaggerated, yet it is a global framework within which little girls grow up. It is therefore not surprising that women may buy the computer that has the simplest interface and less functionality. Likewise, why should women try to understand the underlying functioning of a computer, when they can ask their boyfriend or male friend to do it for them? I actually have been told by a young woman holding a Master’s degree in political sciences that she did not need to know how to create the transitions between slides in Photoshop for her presentation, because “[she would] ask her boyfriend to do it for her”. This is just one example amongst the many times I have heard a woman saying she would ask someone (preferably a man) to do something for her on her computer instead of trying to do it by herself, or learning to do it by herself. And in the meantime, she will have lost the opportunity to change the social pattern that turns her into the powerless user who is unable to understand how the devices she is using everyday work.

It is most probably true[13] that there are some innate differences in the brain structure of female-born people and male-born people, mostly because of the influence of sex hormones on brain development[14]. Some of these differences, measured later in the children’s lives, include better language skills for girls and better spatial localization capacities for boys. Yet these features themselves are influenced by the way children are socialized, and the fact that boys are encouraged to participate in activities such as sports and exploration of their physical environment more than girls has direct consequences on their brain development too. Likewise, biological features can merely justify for a few particular differences (like the much emphasized capacity of men to build muscles faster), but for the rest, there is no limit that should be put on what women can want and can achieve.

Technology and power, a very political couple

All the superpowers of our globalized world have grasped the dramatic importance of mastering new technologies, as they are the very tools ensuring global influence and control over the world, through the media and through the role of cutting-edge techniques in taking the lead over other countries and markets. Technology is power. It allows states to increase the value of the goods they sell, to multiply the potentialities of the tools they use, and to exert a more thorough control on their citizens[15]. Men have historically been the first to be in charge of technology, as it is largely contingent to social power, and as socio-political power has been exerted almost exclusively by men in the past centuries.

On top of that, it is undeniable that men had a key role in inventing and developing technologies-even though many women were also involved in these processes but have often been left in the shadows of official history[16]. The problem remains that if the positions of men and women in society have changed towards a greater parity, political and technological power has hardly been shared in equal parts. As stated before, there are indeed socio-cultural trends that insulate women from the mastery of technologies. But those “inclinations” are also the counterpart of gender roles whose aim was ultimately to prevent women from accessing social and political power. So there is a tricky question lying there: why do men want to keep women away from power so much?

Of course, within the group of men that consciously or unconsciously want to prevent women from accessing positions of power, a significant part of them may just want to maintain the status quo, and women, because they represent a workforce that is gradually obtaining the same qualifications as men possess, can appear as a potential threat. Discrimination against women at work makes it easier for a man holding the same diploma to obtain the job. The more responsibilities are attached to a job, the more bosses usually hesitate to give it to a woman, oftentimes using the pretext of them potentially becoming pregnant.

Thus men generally enjoy a relatively lessened competition the higher their professional position is, and I guess a large number of them would prefer not to rebel against the way society is, and for which they are not directly responsible, and keep their jobs. To a certain extent the comparison can be made with apartheid: white people who did not publicly condemn and oppose the system were not necessarily racists, but they were worried about the possible chaos the changing of this domination could beget, not to mention the eventuality of a complete reversal of the situations, which could be linked to revenge. There are limits to this comparison since apartheid is filled with the idea of a distinction between races, not just between genders. Yet it allows us to approach the complexity of human attitudes when it comes to power and self-protection.

Apart from the men who just do not want to complicate their lives with gender equality, there are those who are just not ready to accept the idea of women controlling technologies. It has to do with the traditional conception of the man meeting the family’s needs, being strong and powerful to protect his relatives and his possessions. If now women can take on this responsibility, what are men to do? Keep the house clean? It would be in opposition to their own upbringing, and to the whole socially validated image of what it is to be a man. When they cannot hang on to these social references to masculinity, a lot of men seem unable to define who they are as individuals[17].

What is more, the interesting element that technology brings in is the possibility of a domination that does not require strength or charismatic authority. This I guess is crucial when dealing with women’s relationship to technology and power. In fact, through technology women can be granted the physical abilities nature did not give them. During the Middle Ages, it would have seemed unthinkable that a woman would become a knight[18]: armours were too heavy, swords hard to carry, and inflicting blows would take a lot of physical power which women did not possess. Women of that time lacked neither guts nor faith, but war was designed for men; and somehow it still is. However, now women are more and more numerous in the military, and this can be explained for three reasons. First, as the idea of equality progressed, women have been granted the right to fight for their country in their quality of citizens. Secondly, facilities have been set up to materially permit women to be a soldier, such as specially adjusted outfits. Thirdly, they have become able to bypass the strength flaw through the mastery of technology. Handling a gun or driving a tank mostly requires more training and dexterity, and less brute strength. Women can also enroll into more strategic positions, where what they need is intelligence, craftiness, and analytical capacities.

Joan of Arc by Sir William Blake Richmond, 18

Joan of Arc by Sir William Blake Richmond

The same way technical power can be affected by technological changes, the allocation of political power is impacted by technologies. It is no surprise that quite a number of women have been running for president these previous years; Hillary Clinton, Ségolène Royal, Michele Bachelet, Benazir Bhutto, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and so on…. They were able to rise up because of a growing (although wobbly) acceptation of women as political leaders in our societies; and eventually they took the opportunity technology gave them to be known and to show their ability to handle things. Hillary Clinton raised billions of dollars thanks to her website in which she posted personal notes, data, and videos of her talking to her supporters. She was a senator, a former president’s wife. She became a superstar, the target of both the most devoted idol worshipping and the meanest expressions of hate. She crisscrossed the country by plane, used microphones to give her voice the strength it lacked, broadcast her message through cell phones and computers[19]. Technology was her first ally. It does not mean that her being a woman did not influence voters. She insisted on her compassion, commitment towards human beings, listening capacities; qualities that are said to be women’s privilege. She did not choose to play the part of a cyborg to reach power. She wanted to reconcile being a woman, in the social acceptation of it, and being conferred power and national responsibilities. Her failure obviously has many different explanations, but one of them is certainly the people’s reluctance to accept the conciliation of these two statuses.

Can technology bring a real transformation in the actual repartition of power? In the sense that women can use their brains instead of their muscles to accomplish all the tasks they want, there is a strong potentiality that women will effectively gain access to jobs they were previously denied. However, the evolution of society is critical to ensure that gender equality thrives, and public opinion and society’s expectations can only be overcome with great difficulty. Traditional attitudes and fears towards change take time to evolve. And there is definitely a deep-seated fear that upsetting traditional gender roles may bring havoc to western civilization[20].

Towards cyborgs, goddesses, or simply equality?

The remaining question seems to be: if technology can be an ally to women, are they to become cyborgs or goddesses? The underlying issue is precisely the quintessential nature of women and men, and therefore whether equal empowerment and abilities are likely to neutralize the differences that are said to divide the two genders. The cyborg would not exactly be in the middle of the gap, maybe beyond, and would represent an individual detached from their physical determinism, and therefore by essence a being, a “non-gendered” being. But would it still constitute a human being? It seems difficult to say, as technology-based selection of human characteristics are likely to tend to the building up of an ideal being, that could embody the fantasies we have about humanity; but then, if a fantasy is made true, reality becomes blurry as its substance is emanating from a dream, and its origin is nothing more than the human desire to free oneself from the human condition–defined by birth and death.

Alternatively, technology could simply offer women the priceless opportunity to expand their areas of influence and gain more power. This is where the question of access to technology is essential: once technology is acquired, women only need their capacities to potentially overthrow a centuries-old domination. Why? Because authority and hierarchical structures tend to fade away with the ubiquity that technology allows and because the basic requirement of technology remains the dexterity to use it to achieve something that has not been done before. This is precisely the way some women accessed very high position: by inventing, with their creativity and intelligence and through technology, new means to tackle global issues, such as global warming. One of the richest persons in China is a middle-class woman who developed a firm specialized in recycling waste. Women can take the lead and outshine their traditionally limited perspectives when they ally with technology.

Technology is linked to gender to the extent that it has been used by men to expand their domain of influence and that it reinforced the traditional definition of women as unable to handle technical matters. However, it has also become a tool for women to increasingly take part in positions of power. As a perspective for the future, I am hoping that technology will allow women to thrive as individuals, and to find their own path, one that will lead them beyond the reductive definitions of gender. Maybe that will lead us to reinvent womanhood too, or maybe genders will become less constraining and more fluid than they are now. In any case, there is no need to panic; gender equality will not put an end to civilization, it will in fact maybe be the only way to save it.

[1] Source: http://www.wes.org.uk/statistics

[2]Source: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-state-of-women-in-technology-15-data-points-you-should-know/

[3] As a quick reminder, women in the European Union earn in average 16% less per hour than men do, and this despite the fact that women do better at school than men do. Source: European Commission, full report available here: http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/gender_pay_gap/140319_gpg_en.pdf

[4] Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, 1847, Smith, Elder &co, chapter 12

[5]Source: American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/08/women-engineering.aspx

[6] In fact women now make up close to 50% of the enrolled J.Ds (Juris Doctor) in the US, compared to 10% in the early 1970s.

[7] The US Department of Commerce counted that women account for less than 25% of the STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math) workforce in 2011. Source: http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf

[8] Including computers, cellphones, portable music players, tablets, smart watches, etc.

[9] Although you can be a man with a vagina and therefore still need pads or tampons; so even this example is not that relevant.

[10] Note that I am certainly not saying that keeping a diary or reading one’s horoscope is bad or that women should refrain from doing it. I am just saying that it’s stupid to include these as prominent computer features targeting women in particular.

[11] Obviously there are exceptions, and some parents are more willing to encourage the growth of their kid indistinctly of their gender than others. Yet the majority of the population continues to rely (oftentimes with very good intentions) on the social norms and bias that they themselves have grown up with.

[12] In fact women are less likely to realize their potential than men, for a variety of reasons that are well detailed in this study by the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development: http://www.gifted.uconn.edu/general/faculty/reis/Internal_Barriers_Gifted_Females.html

[13] I am saying most probably because there is not one study that is entirely conclusive about how biology alone is responsible for the differences in brain developments between boys and girls.

[14] The following research highlights the specific brain structures of men and women in a sample of individuals ranging from babies to 80 year-old people: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/males-and-females-differ-in-specific-brain-structures

[15] The French philosopher Michel Foucault, for example, talked about how the modern state uses technology to control its citizens, resulting in a disciplinary structure that allows a few people to exert social control over the masses.

[16] Including none other than Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), who wrote the first algorithm designed for a machine when she assisted Charles Babbage in his work to engineer the first programmable computer.

[17] I think this is one of the main damage that the patriarchal society is inflicting on men: they are so confined to a ‘manly’ role that many of them lose their sense of individual identity and adhere to gender norms out of sheer lack of self-confidence and of self-definition.

[18] Joan of Arc notably donned an armor, subsequently got accused of “cross-dressing” and of being a witch and was burnt after she brought France a decisive victory. Thanks Joan, but next time stay at home and take care of the kids, or fight but in a dress please, you are threatening the stability of society with your perversion of gender roles.

[19] Which also backfires now that she is accused of having breached the law by using her private e-mail address instead of a professional one while she was Secretary of State.

[20] I personally find this fear so fascinating that it may be the topic of a future article.

Additional recommended readings:

– FAULKNER, Wendy, ARNOLD, Erik (eds), 1985, Smothered by invention, London: Pluto Press Limited
– WRIGHT, Barbara Dryguslki (ed), 1987, Women, Work, and Technology, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
– MITTER, Swasti, ROWBOTHAM, Sheila (eds), 1995, Women Encounter Technology, Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World, London: Routledge

Picture credits:

– Sony Vaio: Alle / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
– Joan of Arc: Sofi / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0


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