Gender in Technology: Feature or Culture?

I was pretty tired when i got home last night: a long day in London, a delayed train home, it was gone midnight when i opened the door and stepped inside. Only as i was falling asleep did i realise what had happened: at a session with around forty people, gathered to share ideas and stories about emerging wearable technology, i don’t recall seeing more than five or six woman. Including the receptionist. And the person serving the food.

Gender in Technology

There are many women in technology, and many role models of women in senior positions, but it got me thinking: what factors exclude women, is it the types of devices, the functionality of those devices, our culture or the career opportunities that exist? Why do we see women ‘breaking into‘ technology when men don’t have to? Why are so many of the role models exceptional because they have fought their way to the top? Why is there a fight?

It’s not an insignificant question: the Social Age is facilitated by technology. Is that technology built by and for men, or by and for women? Or is it agnostic? It’s not just a question of equality and fairness: it’s a question of effectiveness. If there’s some inbuilt bias in the software or technology, we are deploying an uneven playing field between the genders.

No doubt culture plays a part: even when i was growing up, girls were studying ‘domestic science‘ whilst the boys studied metalwork. My father worked, my mother worked part time and kept the home. Engineers were men. Librarians were women. It’s common now for men or women to be developers or engineers, but is it women playing in a man’s world, or a level playing field for everyone? Where is the institutionalised inequality, where are the battles left to fight?

I asked around: Petra, “I think it comes back to the grass routes thing maybe, education/what other kids were doing… That ‘intimidation’ Dionne mentions, fewer other girls being into it so less natural a field to pursue?” A notion that you are a pioneer or tomboy if you pursue technology?

Clearly attitudes are evolving and maybe removing barriers, but i was still shocked by how male dominated that room was as it was grass roots level: active developers and explorers, the people shaping the technology.

To my shame, i shared a story yesterday in a meeting: i was listening to the radio on an article about neuroscience. The news reader kept saying, ‘the scientists think this…‘, until at the end he said ‘she‘ and i could feel it trip in my head. My assumption had been that the neuroscientist was a man. It’s like cars: my assumption is that when i take my car to the garage, a man will fix it. I’m not particularly right or wrong, i’m just wired to think like that through experience and culture. But it doesn’t mean i should accept it unquestioningly.

The Social Age is facilitated by technology: what is the fundamentals are skewed? What if we are operating in a world designed by men, for men, with features and functions, devices and interactions that men have designed? A technologist yesterday described how they had ‘tested a device with women‘, as though that was how it works: we build for men and test for women. I may be being radically unfair, but inequality, even if only a small factor, is still a factor. If the foundations of the Social Age are uneven, we cannot truly be equal.

Some cultures still frown on women being engineers or software developers. Some don’t even let women drive cars. The bias is real: it’s our fight to overcome it. And for anyone working in a global business that is trading today, this is a real fight, not an abstract thought.

Opportunities may not exist and when they do the recruitment process may be biased.

Petra again: “I think it’s a matter of what the community expects you to be interested in tailoring more of your actions and interests as a kid then one thinks? I was always called a ‘tomboy’ for being into certain sports, for having a motor bike, for having gadgets. And a big part of me did think ‘hey, maybe I should be more girly’ and maybe that shaped a lot of the relationship to technology.

It may be a matter of desire. Caron raises an interesting perspective: “I’m generally not that interested in technology unless it has a useful practical application – couldn’t really give a monkeys about tech specs etc…..even tho I worked in technology – loved it much more when Apple saw the consumer appeal – looks nice, does some useful stuff, now I can play music, take pix etc….rather than about processing power etc… I think generally (and this is probably hugely stereotyping) – there’s still a lot of men that love technology for technology sake but that appeals a lot less to the female psyche – I just want to see the point of it not what it’s made of. Now the world is more app-oriented though maybe that will change…….

Maybe (at least in our generations) there are differences in our attitude to technology that are deeply routed. Maybe we currently identify them as ‘male‘ or ‘female‘ traits, but in time they will simply be ‘technology‘ and ‘function‘ traits. People who care how stuff works, people who care what it does.

The Social Age is very much about what the technology does: the device and chipset is irrelevant. It’s how it facilitates our ‘sense making‘ functions that counts, how it lets us curate and share.

Petra: “I just really don’t think there’s such a thing as a basic female ‘mind’ that biologically reacts with more or less interest to technology. We grow up with preconceptions and notions based in the society we spend most time in and they become part of our personalities and shape some (although not all) interests. I don’t see the difference between a man not into tech and a woman who is – why would the change be anything beyond personality and society? To me it’s the same as the lack of men in dance classes for kids, or lack of girls in the football camps over here. Where I grew up girls in football was a huge thing and normal, and yet here the perceptions seem really different.

For young people, role models are important: in this transitional phase, i guess it’s inevitable that those role models will be pioneering women, but hopefully they will, increasingly, just be pioneers.

One aspect of the gender dynamics of technology is still unclear in my mind: the extent to which the hardware, the genres of devices, are affected by historic gender influence. Was it men, addicted to email, that led to the BlackBerry? Or am i imagining this? Looking under rocks for skeletons that don’t exist.

I’m not sure: it strikes me that there is still imbalance: almost certainly in the functions, design and opportunities presented by technology. Whilst i’m sure things are improving, it’s on my mind that it may influence how we behave in social spaces.

One of the components of Social Leadership is Social Capital: the humility to put the needs of others before ourselves, the desire to fight for equality, the need to ensure nobody is disenfranchised through the technology that is supposed to help us. Man or woman. It’s irrelevant: it’s about equality.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Equality, Gender, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Gender in Technology: Feature or Culture?

  1. Claude Emond says:

    Excellent post Julian. I am going to scoop.it to the world (hum…not the whole world follows me, I must humbly admit…but there are a few men and women out there in my enslaved followers 🙂 who will benefit from your pondering on this most important issue). Thanks

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