A key problem created by gender imbalances in the tech and engineering industries is that it means fewer women than men have access to the means of designing and producing technological artefacts. If most programmers and engineers are men, then most software and hardware is going to be designed by men. As the sociologist Judy Wajcman points out in her book TechnoFeminism, “every aspect of our lives is touched by sociotechnical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the levers of power” (111).
Technology has never before played a more central role in our lives and technological innovations during the past century have had an immense impact on sex roles and women’s experiences in society, from the introduction of hormonal contraceptives that gave women control over their reproductive choices to advances in industrial automation that led to the decline of factory-based work and the rise of the knowledge and service industries which rely less on physical strength and endurance. Technology therefore has the potential to subvert dominant societal structures, and offers progressive opportunities for women and other marginalised groups.
However, women have typically not been the creators of technologies, even when they’ve predominantly been the ones consuming them. In their case study of a manufacturer of microwave ovens in Britain in the 1980s, Cynthia Cockburn and Susan Ormrod noted that the company’s managers and engineers were predominantly men while women mainly worked on the production line, despite the company’s expectation that it would mainly be women buying the ovens. Both managers and employees at the company put this division of labour down to ‘natural’ sex differences such as women being more tolerant of boring, repetitive work and men needing more mental stimulation and having a bent for technology lacked by women, however the researchers also witnessed how these assumptions about sex differences themselves influenced training and promotion practices: for example, 95% of the employees sponsored by the company to do City & Guilds technical training were male. The practical effects of this were that women carried less authority within the company due to possessing less technical knowledge and management responsibility, they earned less money than their male colleagues in management and technical roles, and they were prevented from being able to influence the design and development of the product. On top of this, the knowledge of the female ‘home economists’ employed to advise the designers on food properties and to test the ovens and report back on their cooking properties was undervalued within the company: they were not seen as engineers because they were ‘just cooks’.
Wajcman describes how socialist feminists linked the sexual division of labour to Marxist critiques of production along class lines, while criticising the gender-blindness of classical Marxism in its failure to consider how sexual hierarchies operate within production processes. Cockburn and Ormrod’s case study is a useful example of how “the sexual division of labour separated women from control over the technologies they utilized both in the workplace and at home” (Wajcman, 28).
Wajcman, Cockburn and Ormrod view gender and technology as being co-constructed or mutually shaped, in that social expectations or assumptions about gender influence how technology is designed, and technologies in turn shaped the lived experience of gender. Wajcman refers to Nelly Oudshoorn’s case study of the development of the contraceptive pill to highlight this: since 18th century medicine viewed male and female bodies as essentially different and saw reproduction as an essentially female characteristic, physiological contraceptive research initially focused on women which resulted in the development of female hormonal contraceptives in their widespread availability by the mid 20th century. This is a particularly relevant example given the current attention paid to the development and testing of a male hormonal contraceptive treatment, which has itself drawn awareness to the side-effects, both positive and negative, of hormonal contraceptive treatments on women. Another interesting side point is that the combined pill was designed to mimic women’s ‘normal’ 28-day menstrual cycle: since individual women’s menstrual cycles actually vary widely, this design decision resulted in the physical alteration and homogenisation of the menstrual cycles of women taking the combined pill.
Londa Schiebinger has also drawn attention to the unequal impacts of supposedly unisex medical and engineering innovations due to a failure to consider differences in body types and health concerns amongst men and women. She notes how several large-scale drug trials and health surveys during the 1980s failed to include female research subjects and extrapolated findings derived purely from male subjects to produce recommendations and drug treatments aimed at both men and women, which led to higher levels of adverse reactions to treatments and higher death rates amongst female patients. A more recent example is the design of car seatbelts to favour male body types over female ones (eg designed for taller people with an absence of breast tissue), which leads to a greater risk of injury for female drivers and passengers.
Science and technology researchers argue that increasing the presence of women, along with other under-represented groups, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields is one of the necessary conditions for creating more accurate and useful scientific findings and technological innovations. One of the main barriers preventing more women from entering the technology and engineering professions is their stereotyping as ‘male’ industries. Wajcman traces this back to the late 19th century and the emergence of elite engineering professionals who mobilised a discourse of masculinity “to ensure that class, race and gender boundaries were drawn around the engineering bastion” (16). Numerous studies have shown that a continuing symbolic association of technology with masculinity, along with the current reality of the tech and engineering industries being populated mainly by men, can put girls and women off entering these industries as it requires them to relinquish their femininity—an issue not faced by boys or men entering these fields. As Cockburn and Ormrod argue, prejudices about sex differences in technical aptitudes can also create a feedback loop whereby negative stereotypes about women’s technical ability lead to women being discouraged from studying technical subjects or going into technical industries, which in turn produces technically unconfident women who have not been provided with opportunities to develop their technical skills and knowledge.
However, even if more women do enter these professions they may not have the power to change established processes and methods of working by themselves. For example, the increased presence of women in the biomedical sciences during the past few decades didn’t prevent the sex imbalances in the medical research programmes highlighted by Schiebinger above. As Cockburn and Ormrod put it: “A woman becoming an engineer steps into a masculine symbolic sphere and also, more practically, into a masculine professional and organizational culture. She is not a free feminine, let alone feminist, agent, even if she sees herself as such” (75-76). Schiebinger also notes that simply increasing the number of women working in a field without increasing the awareness of gendered issues (and raced and classed issues, etc) will have little impact.
Makerspaces are an alternative space outside of the STEM professions that enable people currently under-represented in these fields to access the means of production for creating technological artefacts, and importantly they also provide people with access to a community of makers willing to share their design and engineering knowledge. Since they operate outside of traditional research and development processes and utilise personal fabrication technologies like 3D printers and laser cutters that are geared towards one-off or small batch product runs, innovations coming out of makerspaces often focus on customisation. Makers are heavily involved in the e-NABLE project that provides customised 3D-printed prosthetics for people in need of artificial hands and arms, and a new startup called Disrupt Disability, based at the Machines Room in London, are producing designs for customisable modular wheelchairs. These projects and others like them release their designs under open source licenses so that others can continue to modify their designs, and enable affordable distributed production systems where people with access to the right tools can produce their own products at home or in their makerspace. These moves towards open and customisable designs, and providing access to the means of production in makerspaces, are potential correctives to mass-produced one-size-fits-all devices that favour certain body types or abilities over others.
The benefit of recognising the impact of gender on technology, and vice versa, is that it also recognises that technology can be influenced by changing societal attitudes. Innovations don’t occur in a vacuum, and are influenced by cultural assumptions about what’s possible (and what’s desirable) as much as they’re influenced by practical and economic concerns. Gender expectations and cultural notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are contextual and continually in process, varying according to different cultures and time periods (though, as Cockburn and Ormrod note, they are always relational and unequal). This means that assumptions about gendered relationships with technology are flexible and can be influenced by interventions from feminist activists and academics. This process of change may be slow and difficult, but it’s also necessary for providing women and other under-represented groups with more power over their own lives and futures: as Wajcman argues, “to be in command of the very latest technology signifies a greater involvement in, if not power over, the future” (12).
Note: apologies for any cis-normative language and the lack of focus on intersectionality in this post. It is intended to review research on gender and technology that has not typically taken these issues into account.
Header image by Machines Room.