Gender and Technology

Posted by Sanchia de Souza at May 11, 2009 03:35 PM |
A course module designed by CIS for the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore



Let us begin with three statements of facts and reflect upon them:

  1. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ninety per cent of the paintings are about women, and ninety percent of the painters are men.

  2. In Star Trek, the space ship is a mother ship that is guided by Captain Kirk.

  3. George Eliot, the famous author of novels like Middlemarch and Mill on The Floss is a woman, who wrote under a man’s name.


These sound like disjointed bits of trivia, and indeed, are probably facts that are all too familiar to us. But what joins them together? What are the common implications that these three statements are suggesting to us? We need to see, that the theme that runs common in all the three statements is that they are all about women and their relationship with technology in some form. Let us look at all the three sentences in detail and see if we can work out the implications:


In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ninety per cent of the paintings are about women, and ninety percent of the painters are men.


Does this imply that women are less artistic than men? Surely, the question is no; in fact, men who take to the arts, are often perceived as feminine and that arts and culture are in the domain of the women. We, of course, can make a certain historical reading and suggest that art as a profession belonged to the realm of the public and hence women did not have access to these arenas – the choice to be a female painter, or artist, or writer. And that is indeed a valid reading of such a statement. However, deeper than that is the relationship that women had with technology. We often forget that even arts when they first were taken up institutionally, were techniques and technologies. That historically, the art of painting – which was indeed a technology that had its heyday in Renaissance Europe – was also a technology, and one that was unavailable to women for a very long time. It is only when these technologies get superseded by newer technological inventions that they become rare, private, and feminine enough to be granted to women.


However, that does not mean that women did not have any relationship with technology. What the statement draws our attention to is that women were indeed the major subject of technologised cultural productions – as mythical creatures, as objects of erotic representation, as monsters, as demons, as beasts, as goddesses and as sometimes representative of abject and frail human conditions, women have been almost obsessively at the centre of all technology imagination. Even now, when we look around us, at billboards, and advertisements, we constantly see the messages of consumption and selling, as etched on the body of a woman; even in instances when the product being sold or the body of the woman have nothing in particular.


And Virginia Woolf draws our attention to exactly that. At the Ox-bridge library that she is in, she discovers a long list of “women and…”i and then reflects, “Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? ‘Wise men never say anything else apparently.” (Chapter 2, just before footnote 3)


Let us remain with these thoughts for a moment then: that there is, when we talk of technology and technologised production, a certain gendered relationship; that women did not always have access to acts of production and control over technology, and that they were obsessively the subjects of technology and technologised production; and as an aside, that what we today understand as ‘arts’ or ‘artistic’ was historically in the domains of technology and science and that such shifts happen due to a series of socio-political and econo-cultural events which we will think of sometime later. And now let us look at the second statement:


In Star Trek, the space ship is a mother ship that is guided by Captain Kirk.


If you throw back your mind to some of the most iconic and cult representations of technology in almost any of your favourite sci-fi movies, you might realize, that most of these representations are women. Starting all the way from the movie Metropolis, where you have the demonized robot Maria, to Star Trek, where the mother ship is indeed, a mother; to Lara Croft Tomb Raider to the ghost in the machine – the mother board, the mother ship, the robots and the systems that need to be controlled and tamed, are always women or appropriating the female form or feminine in nature. In the slight variations from the law, you have an occasional character like Sonny in the movie I, Robot, but there too, we also have the feminine V.I.K.I. who turns out to be the actual villain of the story. We need to look into why, our imaginations of technology – and we are not looking at technologised production right now, but technology itself – are so gendered in nature. Why is it that we always have a particular idea of technology as feminine, as irrational, as demonic, as something that needs to be tamed and controlled, preferably by men?


Isn’t it a strange thing that on the one hand, we identify science as the domain of the masculine and the male, and the technologies that govern science as feminine in nature? We are going to perhaps complicate our first ideas about the gendered nature of technology now: We are going to say that it is not as if the gendered biases or construction of technology are limited to the cultural production and technologised arts but to the very imaginations of technology itself. When we talk of even our daily electrical gadgets – computers, laptops, cellphones, ipods, wiis we catch ourselves talking about them in a feminine form – objects of consumption, objects we have an eroticized relationship with, and objects which need certain control and mastery. Now keeping these in mind, let us go to the third statement that we began with:


George Eliot, the famous author of novels like Middlemarch and Mill on The Floss is a woman, who wrote under a man’s name.


It sounds alien to our ears, used to listening to the Arundhati Roys and Jhumpa Leharis of our time, to imagine that there was a time when women were not allowed to write; and if they were allowed to write, they were allowed to write only a particular kind of things, and that even if they were allowed to write, they were not necessarily allowed to become published authors within a publishing industry market. It seem perhaps funny, to imagine that there was a time when women tried on the names of men to write; just like it must have seemed funny, to somebody in the eighteenth century, to think that women would have to wear men’s clothes in order to enter the professional world. Once we remove the ‘funny’ quotient from this particular statement, what remains is the hard fact that technologies are a part of the culture industry – there are markets, there are audiences and consumers, there is an economics of visibility and distribution which is at work. And as with other technologies, for a very long time, the technologies of print and writing, also kept women as either the audiences to their products or the subject of their production, but very rarely at the centre, as creators and masters of those technologies. So that, when women wanted to write, not mere romances, but larger fictions, they had to take on the guise of men and write without their own names and identities.

To go back to the question of technology, then, we also need to look at the gender and technology question as not simply a question of art and expression, but also that of economic forces that shape these ideas and reinforce certain kind of images within us.


Reading 1: (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3 available at )


Let us take for example, the case study that Virginia Woolf gives us, about Judith Shakespeare – William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister.

(Please refer to the text and addresses the following questions on technology and gender relationships:)

  1. Why is technology always thought of as more easily accessible to men than women? Is it in the inherent nature of technology that it makes itself available to men or is there an entire social construct to legitimize only some kinds of usages of technology as valid? The story of Judith Shakespeare that Woolf draws, addresses these questions quite effectively. It also points out how, the question of livelihood and gender is also closely linked in with our understanding of technology.

  2. How does this masculine imagination of technology change the very nature of the person who controls technology? For example, a man who is not very good at different technologies would be considered effeminate or not masculine enough. On the contrary, men who are more adept at certain kinds of technologies are also considered not male enough. Similarly, women who enter into certain kinds of technology oriented roles, will always be looked upon as ‘women in a man’s world’ or sometimes as ‘one of the boys’; gendered with masculinity, beyond her own control. Extending that logic, women have their own technologies and women who do not take to those are also labeled as aberrant or deviant. We are now trying to posit the idea that it is not as if being a man or a woman precedes technology; but in fact, the socio-political gendered contexts within which technologies operate, indeed create us as men and women, masculine and feminine, in our access to technologies, in our role within the technology paradigm, and our ability to control certain kinds of technologies.

  3. The common sense understanding that technologies follow gender – in books like Why Men won’t listen and women can’t read maps; or in bio-deterministic assumptions that boys should be good at numbers and women should be good with languages – needs to be questioned. There is a small (and perhaps very clever) claptrap that comes into being when we try and dismantle these notions. When we question, as Woolf does, any of the tenets of technology, at the level of the imaginary, the arguments that are posited against it are at the level of material technologies. Let’s take that example of the very popular book title, ‘Why Men won’t listen and Women Can’t read maps”. If we were to suggest, keeping the technology and gender relationship in mind, that the maps reading exercise, requires a certain kind of masculine identity, which women are not encouraged to perform and hence, even though they might have the capacity to read maps, they are never trained or indeed discriminated against if they can read maps, the argument that is given to us is that in a given sample, certain percentage of female participants responded in an identifiable pattern which is their inability to read map. The evidence presented is at the level of majority acts, of biological and neural research – research that presumes that technology is a neutral tool to which the brain responds without any kind of external influence; research that further presumes that the brain is an autonomous independent entity that innately responds to certain kinds of technologised stimuli. We need to avoid this kind of oppositional dialectic between the scientific and the cultural, and perhaps learn to understand that science is indeed a social construct and arises out of different cultural practices, and that culture is not merely in the realms of the imaginary but also has very material and significant consequences.


We have so far deduced a few things:

  1. That technology and gender are not mutually exclusive domains of understanding but that technology, in its very conception, is gendered.

  2. That different technologies are made accessible to certain kinds of gendered behaviours through complex socio-cultural and economic processes.

  3. That technologies are not neutral, and indeed, in their imaginary (and sometimes material) construct, demand a masculine or a feminine identity on the part of the person they are interacting with.

  4. That technologised productions are indeed about representation and their politics but they are also about the politics of access and livelihood and create a relationship between genders; where one is produced and the other is the producer.

  5. That the relationship between gender and technology is one of transactions, where, technology is often treated as the feminine, which would then need to be tamed, domesticated or exorcised of its excesses, and brought under the control of Man with a capital M.

It is with these ideas in the back of our mind that we need to now look at a new relationship between technology and gender. Let us look at how technologies indeed become feminized – not only in their representations and access, but in their economic development and proliferation.

Reading 2 (Jennifer Light. When Computers Were Women. Available at

As with the earlier part of the module, let us again begin with looking at three examples, but this time in the very specific realms of digital technologies and computers. We shall go through three exercises and then see if we can bind them together to talk about a different dimension to explore the gendered nature and the gendering role of technologies.

  1. Starting with the Father: If you paid attention to the history of computing in your school days, you will remember that the father of the Computer is Charles Babbage. One is not particularly sure what Fatherly function Mr. Babbage performed, but it must be something unmentionable with a circuit board and some vacuum tubes. In the history of technology – even as it is unfolding right now - there are a few names that emerge as the architects, the creators, the fathers, the grandfathers, the builders and the miracle workers of technology.

Especially in the very accelerated world of computers and internet, we always hear of new names cropping up as THE people who made the internet, the www, and now the web 2.0, what it is now. Let us do a quick exercise and try to list down ten names that we think are influential in our contemporary understanding of technology. Let me give you a few of the more obvious ones – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sabeer Bhatia, Jimmy Wales… you can continue with this list till you have exhausted the most famous of your internet icons – the people who made the internet. And now let us pause and review the list. Chances are, that your list doesn’t have any women in them. If there are women, they might be less than one third of your list.

Why does this discrepancy happen? When you look at the IT city of Bangalore, you realize that there are as many women as men employed in the IT sector. Indeed, if we expand the scope of IT to include mobile and networked economies like the BPO and the Outsourcing industry, we know for a fact that the number of women employed and involved by these new economies is significantly higher than the number of men employees. Why then, is the IT still treated as a.) an essentially male domain created and dominated by men b.) as the play ground of the alpha male nerd who controls technology c.) as dangerous or not conducive to women?

  1. Let’s stay with those questions and see if we can tie them up with the next thing we need to do. Here is a small news-paper clipping from not so very long ago in Bangalore - Let’s discuss what are the issues that the article is raising up. Can we see a certain kind of connection between gender and technology being created here, even if it is not clearly spelled out for us? While violence against working women who enter the public sphere, is indeed a concern, the specific nature of the call centre and its technologised economy and related lifestyle is actually more a concern than the women who are working and the violence that affects them. The article, and indeed, much of the discourse that followed this particular case of a call centre employee raped and murdered by the cab driver, very vocally suggested that technology creates conditions of terror for women. Perils and dangers seem to attach themselves to women in the IT industry. There is an underlined sense of danger and fear that is etched whenever it comes to talking about gender and technology and this is one such instance.

  1. The third exercise we want to do is to do a bit of profiling. We will look at a list of words and try and imagine what kind of gendered images we produce out of our popular understanding of them:

    1. Nerd

    2. Geek

    3. IT engineer

    4. Call Centre employee

    5. Systems Administrator

How are these terms gendered and how does our perception of these terms reflect the biases of technology and the material bodies that are made to bear the burden of technologies? How are we conditioned to think of our bodies in relation to technology? How, lastly, do economic factors determine what kind of bodies inhabit what kind of activities, and which, activities, indeed, become more visible, public and masculine.

The reading for this module deals especially with these questions. Light, shows us, in her history of computing, that there was a time when there was a reversal of roles and a reversal in recognizing the most important parts of computing. The system administrator, the Man who created the entire mainframe where the computing took place, was the obviously most important person(s) in the system. The system administrators were able to control the operating system, fix the bugs, and direct women, fresh mathematics graduates, who did the actually computing, to carry the data from one source to another so that results could be aggregated. In those times, when computers were so large that people were actually able to walk through the machines, the women, were actually called computers!

However, as mainframes started shrinking, and as we entered the era of personal computing, the system admin guy was a fast disappearing category. His job was taken over by a reliable assembly line and automated programme aggregators that ensured that assembled machines with pre-installed operating systems were being delivered to the individual users. The women, on the other hand, were the first programmers as we understand them. They had intricate knowledge of the ways in which computing worked and were the only people who actually knew how to write programmes in different languages and lead them to a fruitful execution.

With the change in the nature of programming, the systems admin men slowly took over the role of the programmers and through various figures, like the nerd, and the geek, and the maths wiz, reinforced an older idea that women were not good at numbers, that the new computers were technologised demons which needed to be mastered, and that it is a man’s job to work with the machines and so women should not be considered an integral part of it. So quick and invisible was this transition, that they literally re-wrote history, so that we never really understand the role women played in the history of computing and we don’t remember any mothers of computers or the female architects of the internets. How does such a shift happen? What are the kind of forces that allow for such a radical re-writing of the history? How do economic and market forces, feminize and masculinise technologies, so that the role and the contributions of women in those areas become obliterated and certain prototypical stereotypes get reinforced in a loop?

Light’s essay brings into question the gendered relationship between technology and human beings, but it also draws our attention to questions of livelihood, which we need to ask, following our earlier questions of access. Technologies get gendered, not only through questions of access or historical constructs, but often through figuring out its public reach and market worth. It would be a worthwhile experiment to see, for instance, how, if it is a feminine trait to keep in touch and network, the credit for inventing the first social networking systems, goes to men? What are the institutional processes that keep women’s contribution, labour and efforts within a technology domain as invisible?

And following these, are the concerns of how, even though we see women in the fields of technology, participating and evolving these new technologies, why do we buy so easily into the idea that the relationship between women and technology is always one of danger or terror? Why do we often reinforce the idea that digital technologies is necessarily a domain of the masculine, when it comes to the production of the spaces, but again, the domain more of the feminine, when it comes to consumption of these technologies? Light’s essay demonstrates to us that apart from the imaginary role of technology and its feminization/demonization, there are also material forces and processes by which these technologies get defined as not only available to male or female performers but also marked as feminine or masculine in the kind of roles that it demands from the participants. The material history of technology, from a gender perspective, makes us aware of the fact that the imaginary biases of technology have very real consequences in the lived practices around us and often are subject to the forces of market economies and emerging cultural practices.


i The list that Woolf makes in the second chapter and her immediate reflections after that: “Condition in Middle Ages of,
Habits in the Fiji Islands of,
Worshipped as goddesses by,
Weaker in moral sense than, Idealism of,
Greater conscientiousness of,
South Sea Islanders, age of puberty among,
Attractiveness of,
Offered as sacrifice to,
Small size of brain of,
Profounder sub–consciousness of,
Less hair on the body of,
Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,
Love of children of,
Greater length of life of,
Weaker muscles of,
Strength of affections of,
Vanity of,
Higher education of,
Shakespeare’s opinion of,
Lord Birkenhead’s opinion of,
Dean Inge’s opinion of,
La Bruyere’s opinion of,
Dr Johnson’s opinion of,
Mr Oscar Browning’s opinion of, . . .

Here I drew breath and added, indeed, in the margin, Why does Samuel Butler say, ‘Wise men never say what they think of women’? ‘Wise men never say anything else apparently. But, I continued, leaning back in my chair and looking at the vast dome in which I was a single but by now somewhat harassed thought, what is so unfortunate is that wise men never think the same thing about women. Here is Pope:

Most women have no character at all.

And here is La Bruyère:

Les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que les

a direct contradiction by keen observers who were contemporary. Are they capable of education or incapable? Napoleon thought them incapable. Dr Johnson thought the opposite. Have they souls or have they not souls? Some savages say they have none. Others, on the contrary, maintain that women are half divine and worship them on that account. Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness. Goethe honoured them; Mussolini despises them. Wherever one looked men thought about women and thought differently. It was impossible to make head or tail of it all, I decided, glancing with envy at the reader next door who was making the neatest abstracts, headed often with an A or a B or a C, while my own notebook rioted with the wildest scribble of contradictory jottings. It was distressing, it was bewildering, it was humiliating. Truth had run through my fingers. Every drop had escaped.”



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