Philobiblon: Book review: The Gender Politics of ICT

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Book review: The Gender Politics of ICT

Every year the internet and its associated technologies seem to have a bigger place in our world, in our lives; it sometimes seems that screen life is life. That's as true for women as it is for men. And you'd think if you were a young person thinking about setting out on a career, or an older person thinking about a new one, it would be a logical place to look. Yet the percentage of women employed in what is inelegantly called ICT (information and communication technology) is actually going down, a study of seven states across the European Union has found.

The figures are reported in the first paper of a new book, The Gender Politics of ICT, edited by Jacqueline Archibald, Judy Emms, Frances Grundy, Janet Payne and Eva Turner. It consists of the papers from the 6th International Women into Computing Conference and, commendably, was published within weeks of the gathering. (One of the great problems of most books on the sociology of the wired world is that by the time they've been through the whole publishing mill they're hopelessly out of date.)

But this is as up-to-date as it could possibly be, and also wide-ranging. Often books about the technological world are US-centric, with perhaps a token nod to Britain, Australia and Canada, but this text ranges widely across Europe, "old" and "new" and even extends to Japan and Nigeria.

Eva Turner goes looking to see how women in computing is regarded in the Czech Republic, her country of origin. It is not a pretty picture. Turner says:

"...when I requested an interview with the Minister for Infomatics and explained that I am interested in questions of Gender and Computing, the minister's secretary said to me 'I can already envisage what you look like'. (tak to us Vas dovedu predstavit). I did not ask what his image of me actually was.

As that passage suggests, while there are plenty of dry, but necessary, statistics and theoretical analyses in this text, it also has the immediacy and freshness of a good personal presentation. It is uneven, as you'd expect, but it is I'd suggest it is essential for anyone interested not just in "gender and computers", but anyone seeking up-to-date information on the computer industry in general.

The central theme running through the book is "where are the women?", not just in "computing", but in related areas such as engineering and general science. A number of answers emerge. The most obvious, perhaps, is that many computing jobs demand long hours, to the extreme even of "sleeping at your desk", that make them almost impossible for women with family responsibilities. So even women who enter the industry tend to drop out at this point in their lives.

Then there's the culture issue (with which I can sympathise, since the media is much the same). A group of researchers looking at women in IT in the North West of England found that women "had to distance themselves from their gender in the effort to blend in ... and such an astounding level of fear and loathing towards them that it is remarkable that any women at all persevere with an IT career". Their interviewees spoke of having to drink with the boys, ignore sexual banter and talk about football, just to fit in.

But there's also a bigger problem of identity. Juliet Webster writes about engineering being more "gender authentic" for men. Many of the men she interviews "provided little or no account of their choice - precisely because there is nothing remarkable for a man about choosing to be an engineer. By contrast virtually all of the women I interviewed have a story to tell about why they made the choice: like not having children as a woman, it demands an explanation". Is this the same in IT? I suspect it is.

Answers to these problems are rather thinner on the ground. Rosa Michaelson outlines the European Commission's process of "gender mainstreaming", addressed broadly at the "leaky pipeline of female scientists". (I'm one of those, having done a first science degree then fled in other direction as fast as possible.) Her report is broadly positive, yet this of course is only one area of employment.

In Norway, Hilde Corneliussen studied a group of non-specialist women studying computing, and asked the interesting question: did they get pleasure out of it, and why? The answer was a clear "yes" - mainly because they "discovered they could manage and they could learn", but this was a surprise, because they had internalised a societal belief that computers were not for their gender - this was almost a forbidden pleasure to the women. Corneliussen suggests: "For the future, why not invite women to computer education by telling them that "You might even fall in love with the technology!"

So why does the lack of women matter - in addition to the obvious loss of opportunities?

A number of papers in the collection address this issue. Katherine R.B. Greyson looked at how students, given a choice, constructed pedagogic agents, and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they were most comfortable with avatars (I learnt the jargon is "Intelligent Agents" or "embodied Communication Agents") that resembled themselves in race, body shape etcetera. Yet existing agents tended to stereotypical gender designs and either white or racially ambiguous. Her study implies that if mono-cultural agents are producers, the result too will be monocultural, and geneder-stereotyped.

Another issue is addressed by Tanja Carstensen and Gabriele Winker, who look at the potential of the internet for the women's movement and activists - unlikely to be fully realised if insufficient numbers of women are at least comfortable with IT. I don't entirely agree with their conclusion that "women's policy networks use the Internet particularly for finding and providing information, but that interactive options such as forums and chats, and thereby potential for discussion and opinion-forming are little used. Political action via the net is almost completely non-existent."

In terms of actively spreading information I think of Women's E-news, in terms of campaigning of the Justice for Linda campaign, in terms of simple grassroots activism of Radical Geek's Bombing for Choice. (You'll find my link on the bottom of the sidebar.) I might even proclaim my own humble effort of the Carnival of Feminists as a networking effort.

Nonetheless, I think it would be fair to say that women’s groups have been slower to adopt the technology and its possibilities than would be ideal, and women bloggers, in particular, and for understandable reasons have not pushed themselves forward as far as they might have.

Which brings me to blogs - and the one paper on this subject. (Even conferences have a lag-time, and I'd hazard a guess the next will have a lot more.) The paper is by Tess Pierce who takes a heavily theoretical approach in trying to compare "cybergrrls" and "cyberfeminists", and finds "two conflicting narratives. One ... operates on a sophisticated theoretical level of feminism and technoscience, with Donna Haraway's cyborg as central character. The other integrates women's everyday lives with the actual use of communication for political organising."

The study then uses three rather odd examples (for this purpose) - in blogs from Iran (Notes of an Iranian Girl), Iraq (Baghdad Burning) and Afghanistan (The Upper Echelon of Happiness). To be frank, I found little here of use, but one has to sympathise with the theorist trying to keep up with something as fast moving as the world of blogs.

There's more, as the telemarketers always say, that I haven't got room to include here - on issues of computing and technology ethics, on pedagogic methods and how these might impact specifically on female students, and on the democratic possibility of involving users in software design. This is an essential collection for anyone who wants to think about the nature of the computer society that we are creating - and there's many an IT boss who'd benefit from even a cursory browse of its contents.

Published by Middlesex University Press, you can get the book on Amazon UK or directly (and most easily) from one of the editors.


Anonymous Keith M Ellis said...

"Is this the same in IT? I suspect it is."

As a male who has worked in IT in the US, my experience has been that although women are the minority it is not so exceptional that they each have a narrative of how they made their career decision. I'm 41. My father was in IT as well, a mainframe programmer, and in his day women were extremely rare in the field and faced a lot of discrimination. This was only 20+ years ago.

I do have an IT sex discrimination story, though. I worked in a smallish software development group, about 12 people. There was only one woman. The group's manager encouraged the habit of celebrating birthdays and there was always a cake. I noticed that the lone woman was the baker. Being sensitive to this sort of thing, I asked her about it. Seems that the manager had come to her directly and asked her to bake those cakes. She wasn't particularly offended by it, but she was aware of the gender bias. No one else, to my knowledge, noticed it at all. It annoyed me.

10/27/2005 10:29:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks Keith. This story doesn't surprise me; I've always resisted hard being forced into such roles - it is such a "secretary picking up the dry cleaning" sort of thing - your time and effort are being regarded as less valuable, less professional, than everyone else's.

10/27/2005 07:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a male working in IT I would have a little more sympathy with your point of view if there was similar outrage and hand-wringing about all the professions (e.g. infant & junior school teaching, etc.) where women predominate.

But there aren't.

At a time when girls are powering ahead of boys in educational achievements, science and engineering is probably the only example where boys still do better.

And we're attacked for it.

Grow up. Try learning to be even-handed for a change.

10/31/2005 08:32:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Dear Mr Anonymous.

There is actually some handwringing about the lack of male role-models, particularly in primary schools, at least in the UK, because of this lack of men.

I'll be very happy to worry about it more when "infant and junior school teachers" are well paid, have high social status, and their jobs are highly sought-after because of their desirability.

Then the women holding these jobs will be both highly surprised, and no doubt delighted. And I've no doubt, a lot more men would start applying for the jobs.

10/31/2005 02:10:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The disparity of treatment is bad enough but I have experienced telephone threats and stalking by male employees in a company dominated by white males in IT and engineering. Does my degree count for less because I am a female? I find I have to work harder, faster and smarter and be content to be paid less. A death threat was the last straw and the company is now under federal investigation. Women need to be willing to fight these bullies.

12/21/2005 03:37:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Whilst there is a lot of discrimination across the workplace on gender roles, gender splits in IT ('ICT' is only ever used by politicians, teachers, and academics) may have a more basic source.

Until it hit a mainstream social tipping point, people went into IT at a heavily tech level. More accurately, it wasn't IT, it was 'Tech'. That sort of geek/tech level tends to ring the bell of people somewhere along the autism spectrum adjacent to Asperger's syndrome. Its even called Geek Syndrome in some quarters.

Folk like that gravitated towards computers, and away from other people by the neurological equivalent of gravity.

Whilst Autism has a 4:1 gender ratio, Asperger's has a 10:1 gender ratio. Basically, you get 10 male geeks for every female geek. This appears to be biological, not environmental.

As IT becomes more pervasive, and disassociates from the raw tech., it becomes mainstream. It becomes a social tool.

Gender ratios for the use of 'retail' IT. will then depend more on other (cultural) things.

So in all likelihood, there was never an original 1:1 gender ratio for IT. Plenty of discrimination will have come along later, as the geek/90% male image for tech involvement stuck.

Its also worth mentioning that the Aspergers/Geek mentality rarely discriminates on gender/racial lines: discrimination is an (unpleasant) social skill, and a specific feature of Aspergers/Geek types, is the absence of social skills. If someone wrote good code, they wrote good code. Nothing else mattered. With a 10:1 ratio, 90% of them just happened to be male.

The geek/male association that stemmed from this numerical inequality may have led others (parents etc) to block female geeks from doing what they would have been good at.

A lot of historical discrimination may have been introduced by management, and the social and cultural aspects of a workplace environment that was typically male by default, but for a geek, any discrimination was (to quote Mr. Spock) simply illogical.

I'm not sure which will come first: the shedding of the geek stereotyping of those who work with any form of IT, or a stable, secure, and robust version of Windows.

1/30/2006 10:20:00 pm  

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