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Technologies of Inclusion: Gender in the Information Society ed. by Knut Holtan Sørensen, Wendy Faulkner, and Els Rommes (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 509-510 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0042

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Reviewed by
Technologies of Inclusion: Gender in the Information Society. Edited by Knut Holtan Sørensen, Wendy Faulkner, and Els Rommes. Trondheim: Akademika Publishing, 2011. Pp. 300. $69.

Although this collection’s subtitle is “gender in the information society,” it would be more appropriate if it were “women and girls in the information society.” The volume consists of chapters that draw on a large number of separate studies (forty-eight in all) done under the auspices of a European program aimed at increasing the inclusion of women and girls in information and communication technology (ICT). As pointed out in the introduction, the lower proportion of women and girls designing, maintaining, and (sometimes) using ICTs has direct negative consequences for women’s economic equality, as well as secondary and tertiary consequences for women’s political and cultural position, and even their medical well-being.

Since these studies were done in the service of changing policy to enhance women’s equality within Western Europe, they are practical and concrete. They focus on looking at how to advance women’s inclusion—without dwelling on the ways in which women have been excluded—in order to highlight the “much needed positive and practical insights” whereby the “potential benefits of the Information Society” can be spread equally between men and women (p. 6). The volume attempts to redirect the conversation of women and technology away from a discourse of “lack” or “difference” and toward one focused on building on incremental successes already achieved. It tries to help us understand what can be learned from these recent successful cases and deployed in other scenarios.

The volume’s mandate to provide practical, actionable solutions succeeds very well in several chapters. Particularly compelling were the discussions of women’s empowerment through online communities focused [End Page 509] on illness and disability—especially those which disproportionately affect women and which, not coincidentally, tend to be less well-understood by the medical establishment. Illnesses like lupus, which affects many more women than men, often leave people to suffer alone if they cannot seek community and knowledge from peers online. In addition, several of the studies that the book draws on look at how early educational initiatives—programs that try to give girls a “head start” in computing—succeed or fail. These explicit investigations are a boon to researchers. Still other studies focus on the co-creation of normative genders with widely used technologies, looking at how workers and users both wield and tend to conform to digital tools and media. Several studies focus on rural users, the poor, and other technologically underserved subsets of the “information society.”

The explicit focus on positivity and constructive critique throughout is laudable, particularly in light of the damage that can be done through stereotype threat produced by the accretion of studies that point out women’s unequal position. Many of the examples add important texture to our understanding of the current state of ICT in Europe, which, in turn, gives valuable insights into similar problems in the United States and in other contexts.

Nevertheless, the presentist nature of the volume leads to some significant historical misunderstandings. The authors assert that the book’s focus on inclusion “represents a radical departure from the dominant traditions in the study of gender and technology” (p. 16, italics added). For at least two decades scholars working on gender and technology, from fields as diverse as history, women’s studies, STS, literature, and cultural anthropology have been producing work that focuses on inclusion and which studies women’s participation in technology. To rhetorically position this work as somehow outside the mainstream of studies of gender and technology ultimately does the book’s powerful argument a disservice.

In addition, although the authors briefly mention queer analyses of gender, few if any of the studies seem to seriously engage with femininities or masculinities unmoored from a heteronormative, cisgender viewpoint. Because this book is mostly concerned with contemporary social and political studies of ICT, and how to use the recent past to apply feminist methodologies to ongoing state initiatives, the inclusion and serious study of more diverse gender identities would have been extremely helpful. By the time the insights...