Worlds Apart: Women, Men and Technology


This article originally appeared in Issue# 49

An exploration of the impact on women of the male technological world view.

By my early teens, while boys my age were discovering cars and pinball machines, I discovered books and horses. Later in adolescence, Friday night at the local drive-in would be spent with boys discussing cars or football and the girls discussing clothes or gossiping about friends. In high school, shop was required for boys and home economics for girls, but even if any of the girls had had a choice, we would never have ventured into the world of tools and grease.

Unlike most of the girls I knew, however, I liked science in high school and majored in chemistry in college. I was odd enough to enjoy mathematics and theoretical work, but still I avoided or skipped labs. In graduate school, as a physical chemist, I was in one of the "hard" sciences and my husband was in English. Yet he was the one who did the plumbing repairs and tuned up the car.

There is a clear pattern here. Even though I like mathematics and scientific theory, I have never felt "at home" around machines and technology. I am not alone in this – it is typical for women.

In our society, boys and men are expected to learn about machines, tools and how things work. In addition, they absorb, ideally, a "technological world view" that grew up along with industrial society. Such a world view emphasizes objectiv­ity, rationality, control over nature and distance from human emotions. Con­versely, girls and women are not expected to know much about technical matters. Instead, they are to be good at interper­sonal relationships and to focus on people and emotion.

These differences have consequences in two different areas: first, technology itself can be seen as a "language." Second, men's control over technology and their adherence to a technological world view have consequences for language and verbal communication and create a situ­ation where women are ‘silenced.'

This is not to say that women do not use tools and machines in our society. Every­one interacts with the underlying techno­logical system; we both use telephones and TVs. But there are important differ­ences.

I have never felt "at home" around machines and technology.

I am not alone in this – it is typical for women.

First of all, much equipment tends to be gender-typed. There are machines and tools suitable" for men – saws, trucks, wrenches, guns and forklifts, for example – and those "suitable" for women — vacuum cleaners, typewriters and food processors.

Men repair cars, drive large trucks, operate cranes, build houses, captain ships, use guns, design computers and do scien­tific experiments. Not all men do all of these things, but these and actions like them define a male domain that women enter only as exceptions. Women typically do not engage in behavior that changes the physical world or involves much control over it.

This domination over nature, i.e., control over the physical world, is part of the technical world view (which is the male norm, remember), the belief in one's right to control the material world. Part of successful socialization as a man in our society involves gathering confidence in one's actual ability to exercise that control. Women generally do not think they have the right to control the material world and have little confidence in their ability to do so; as long as they doubt either, it is very difficult for them to use a technology created by those who accept domination / control as a given.

The development of new technologies based on different assumptions about the world and on a changed relationship to nature might make access to the technological realm easier for women. Such al­ternatives to present technology could provide a "vocabulary" that is more com­patible with experiences and issues out­side the mainstream of a technical view of the world.

Gender Styles

Even where males and females do have access to the same technology as a means of self-expression, the way in which they use it is often very different. Videogames, for example, are played almost exclu­sively by boys and young men. Part of the appeal of these games seems to be that of control – in this case the possibility of increasing levels of control over a limited. well-defined world. Given this, more may be involved in making video games attractive to girls than simply substituting "Ms." for Mr. Pacman.

There are also differences in self-expression. When Sherry Turkle, author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, investigated children's behavior in a computer-rich environment she found they became proficient in creat­ing programs for animated designs and cartoons.

Approaches varied however, and Turkle characterizes two important styles. In one, the students conform to our ideas of "computer people" or engineers: these children were concerned with mastering the technology itself – with developing an orderly, rational, systematic approach to achieving precisely defined goals Other children were more like "artists" – the esthetics of the final result were more important than a precise blueprint for how to get there, and they often worked by trial and error.

Not surprisingly, girls tend to have the second, "artistic" sort of approach, while those concerned with mastering the tech­nology itself are overwhelmingly male. Feminist critiques of science and technol­ogy have questioned whether the proper approach may be to look for new styles that do not include domination or control.

TV images of a male authority figure using pseudo-scientific terms to sell detergent, orange juice or headache reme­dies to women are merely an exaggeration of the ordinary terms of communication between men and women.

Men see themselves as authorities, "the experts." Their real power in society, their scientific/technical world view and their greater expertise in a wide variety of "male" areas make this inevitable. The areas of male expertise are defined by men as the only legitimate areas of concern; women's whole realm is dismissed as unworthy of serious notice. The resulting communication between men and women is thus largely asymmetrical, and women's contribution is often mainly that of finding topics that men want to discuss.

Men's Club

Where men have interests in some com­mon technical area, either at work or as a hobby, discussion becomes a way of re­lating to peers. Men and women, how­ever, do not communicate as equals about technology. The information flow is almost entirely one-sided. Men may explain a technological matter to women but they do not discuss it with them: that they do with other men. The education process in technological fields, for example, is heavily dependent on learning from fellow students and this asymmetry becomes a major problem for women.

It is very difficult for women to discuss technical problems, particularly experi­mental ones, with male peers – they either condescend or they want to perform whatever task is at issue themselves. In either case, asking a question or raising a problem in discussion is proof (if any is needed) that women don't know what they are doing. Male students, needless to say, do not get this treatment.

The general inequality in communication is unfair to women, but it also has consequences for men. Men frequently complain that they "don't know what women are talking about." In part, this results from the kind of tunnel vision that comes from total acceptance of the domi­nant definition of reality. With no perception of the assumption underlying the non-technological world view that comes out of women's experience and women's responsibilities, men are literally unable to understand what is being said.

The whole realm of technology and the communication around it reinforces the idea of women's powerlessness. But men lose too; they lose touch with a reality outside their own technical world view. In addition, both men and women lose the chance to develop a technology that would serve other goals than those of a small group of privileged (usually white) men.

There is no easy solution to the problem. Yes, women do need to learn more about technology and gain more confi­dence. Yes, men do need to be more sensitive to other perceptions. But these are only preconditions. Fundamental change can only come about by an attack on all the structures of domination in the society. As a part of this process, we will have to change science and technology to give more primacy to the kinds of approaches now considered "feminine." If we can do that, the consequences will be new kinds of technology as well as new kinds of people.



Excerpted from the book Technology and Women's Voices, edited by Cheris Kramarae. Copyright 1988 by Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc.

Author Bio: 

Margaret Brenston teaches jointly in the Computing Science Department and the Women's Studies Program at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.