Friday, July 7, 2006

Who cares about women and technology? Just bring me the hermaphrodites!

I often think about the gender and technology question, especially as it impacts what I teach undergraduate students in social studies of science & tech. And I say gender - not women - because I think we really need to examine what kinds of men are, and are not, involved in computing-related fields, as well as what kinds of women.

In academic contexts I've found it useful to focus specifically on feminist and queer theories and technology, which places the onus on articulating one's approach to a shared concern, rather than allowing people to lazily 'debate' whether or not there are "enough women" or "too many men" working in tech-related fields.

The shared concern, of course, is how gendered identities and practices shape, and are shaped by, technological assemblages and processes.

We like to talk so much about hybridity - about hybrid spaces, hybrid technologies - but we never seem to treat people as hybrids (not even when they're intersexed). Why are we so content to offer pithy disclaimers against any implications of essentialism, before concluding with even pithier and essentially essentialist claims?

What happened to Haraway's cyborg? What would happen if we actively pursued some sort of fluid techno-hermaphrodism? Well actually I'm not sure, but I like to think that there would be more papers and presentations about the everyday technological lives of trannies than about online porn, as was the case at the CHI 2006 Sexual Interactions workshop.

I mean, when I compiled this list of female researchers it wasn't to promote some sort of 'positive discrimination,' or even 'positive action.' It wasn't so that historically male-dominated conferences could be better populated with women, or so that women would become more visible to men. (Victim feminism pisses me off.) I posted it to del.icio.us, instead of here, and asked anyone who found it to please suggest researchers from outside Europe and North America. Thoughtful people have emailed me a dozen or so excellent additions to the first iteration of the list, but still none from "the rest of the world". In my mind, the list is far more interesting in terms of geographical distribution and specialisation than it will ever be in terms of gender.

So, in going through Rocket science or social science? Involving women in the creation of computing (pdf) I pull out these quotes for class this fall:

"Women’s increasing engagement with computers as users has not been accompanied by a parallel increase in the proportion of women studying for and working in computing jobs. Hopes that the Internet and mobile phones—both, in general, now used by women in equal numbers to men—would level the playing field have not proved grounded. Women seem inclined to regard these technologies as enabling tools for communication and the execution of other goals, rather than interesting objects of study in themselves. So, while the ever changing nature of technology itself is, no doubt, introducing new challenges, and therefore demanding new strategies, it would appear that the discomfort and indifference that many women feel with technology persists.

[...]

So in proposing change, participants in the forum made a distinction between initiatives that seek to change women and those that change the environment; elegantly caught in the phrase: ‘change the water, not the fish’. The participants raised the question that comes up in all debates about equal opportunities: do we focus on attempts to change women—such as giving them different skills and making them tough enough to cope in masculine cultures—or do we want to change the culture so that women are more comfortable in it in the first place?" (via)

Now I just need to find ways to apply my hermaphroditic critique...

5 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

I find myself wondering...

With respect to, say, religion, we have a nice gradiated scale of language. You're devout, you believe, you're agnostic, you don't believe, you're opposed etc.

We don't often apply the same sort of fuzzy scale to sexuality, but I feel we should. Identify as x, leaning towards x, neutral (i.e. no assertion one way of the other).

We certainly don't apply the same sort of fuzzy thinking to gender. Here, we seem to let certain overt physical traits overpower the idea that there might be an equally fuzzy scale at work in gender terms (although the older philosophies do seem to presume it, curiously).

Gender and sexuality are as much issues of belief as religion. Perhaps we should consider them this way from time to time.

I have no particular point. Your post just teased out a miniature ramble. Pay it no especial heed. :)

My best wishes to you!

08:26  
Anonymous anne said...

chris - in my first anthropology and sociology courses i was taught that sex is biological (male/female) and gender is cultural (man/woman or masculine/feminine) - it's a standard distinction made to this day, despite the fact that a multitude of official forms ask you to mark which *gender* you are, male or female. (political correctness at work?)

but after studying science and tech for years, it became obvious to me that sex too was cultural. or rather, that the division of human beings into EITHER male OR female came with the advent of western science. other cultures - and times - have been quite adept at engaging the human sexuality gradient you describe. today, on the other hand, we *fix* hermaphrodites, as if they're broken people.

but i'm not sure that treating sex and gender as issues of "belief" is very helpful if we want to understand how scientific practice has actually created (and destroyed) sexual categories over time.

it also seems to suggest that sexuality is a *choice* we make, which may or may not be true, but nonetheless becomes politically loaded, say, when discussing whether or not homosexuality is "natural". (even science has been conflicted on this - homosexuality was considered a treatable mental disorder in psychological practice until the 70s.)

all of which is to say - yes, we do struggle with these questions. perhaps even more so because christian ethics make it difficult to discuss sexuality with any sort of candor, or even curiosity.

personally, i understand both gender and sexuality to change over a person's lifetime. with so much flux and variation (did you know there is more internal variation within each sex than between each sex?) i find it unproductive to get hung up on either/or answers.

in any case, i think there are all sorts of interesting questions to be asked about intersections and interpellations between science and religion that have shaped our understandings of sex and gender.

good stuff.

00:11  
Anonymous anne said...

um, that was supposed to say:

did you know there is more internal variation within each sex than between the sexes?

:-)

ps - same can be said for racial differences as well, which makes them kind of weird categories to base decisions on...

00:14  
Anonymous Sam said...

Hi Anne,

Interesting stuff... another name for your list might be Yanna Vogiazou:

http://www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/departments/design/staff/vogiazou.php

http://kmi.open.ac.uk/people/yanna/

I was fortunate to help test Yanna's project CitiTag in Bristol (UK) and have enjoyed reading some of her work - worth checking out!

Hope that's of interest, I enjoy reading your blog and, as somebody just starting out on my PhD, I have taken a huge amount of inspiration from your enthusiasm and commitment, thank you.

Best wishes for finishing!!

10:32  
Blogger Chris said...

Regards my use of 'belief', please be clear that my philosophy of science is working to demonstrate that the scientific process is a belief-driven process, and that coming from Wittgenstein I see all words as expressions of some kind of belief. Beliefs need not be choices, however.

Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I constantly find your perspective invaluable.

21:58  

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