- Through the Lenses of Feminist Theory:Focus on Women and Information Technology
Scholars exploring gender and technology interactions have tended to concentrate on gender and technology in the workforce and somewhat less on women as users of technology. Limited studies explored how technological designs, especially for information technologies (IT), might differ depending on the gender of the designer and user. In this paper I explore some contributions of feminist theories, ranging from liberal feminism through radical feminism to postcolonial feminism, to the understanding of gender and information technology. I will attempt to use the framework provided by the perspective of each feminist theory to examine at least one example from each of the three following areas: women in the information technology workforce, women as users of information technology, and women and information technology design. Since each theory tended to evolve in response to a deficit or exclusionary perspective perceived in previous theories, examining information technology and gender using the fuller range of feminist theories uncovers subtle, rich insights into the dynamics of gender and technology.
The term cyberfeminism, which explicitly fuses gender and information technology, arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As Hawthorne and Klein note in their book, Cyberfeminism: "Just as there are liberal, socialist, radical and postmodern feminists, so too one finds these positions reflected in the interpretations of cyberfeminism."1 Because cyberfeminism appears currently to pick and choose among aspects of various feminist theories in a somewhat uncritical fashion without developing a coherent or successor theory, I conclude the paper with a brief exploration of what each of the feminist theories suggests for this less developed theory of cyberfeminism.
A general definition of liberal feminism is the belief that women are suppressed in contemporary society because they suffer unjust discrimination.2 Liberal [End Page 1] feminists seek no special privileges for women and simply demand that everyone receive equal consideration without discrimination on the basis of sex.
When it comes to information technology jobs, most engineers and others involved with information technology take a liberal feminist stance and assume that the focus should be on employment, access, and discrimination issues. Social scientists studying the gender distribution of the technology workforce point out that historically and today, the technology workforce represents a vertically and horizontally gender-stratified labor market, with women concentrated in the lowest-paid positions, closest to the most tedious, hands-on making of the products and furthest from the creative design of technology. Most women working in the IT industry engage in the tedious, eye-straining work of electronic assembly. Men predominate in the decision-making, creative design sectors as venture capitalists, computer scientists, and engineers producing startups, new software, and hardware design.3
Liberal feminists would seek to remove barriers that prevent equal access for women to information technology jobs not only to provide economic equality but to provide access to higher-paying jobs for women. Unequal access has implications that go well beyond the composition of the workforce. Two decades ago, biologists4 revealed that a predominance of male scientists tended to introduce bias by excluding females as experimental subjects, focusing on problems of primary interest to males, employing faulty experimental designs, and interpreting data based in language or ideas constricted by patriarchal parameters. This exclusion bias resulted in under-diagnosis, inappropriate treatment, and higher death rates for cardiovascular and other diseases in women.5 Male dominance in engineering and the creative decision-making sectors of the IT workforce may result in similar bias, particularly design and user bias.
Having large numbers of male engineers and creators of technologies also often results in technologies that are useful from a male perspective (that is, these technologies fail to address important issues for women users). Many studies6 have explored the overt and covert links between the military, engineering and masculinity, and design and use of technology. For example, Janet Abbate7 studied the origins of the Internet in ARPANET. The unique improvement of [End Page 2] the Internet was that it was a network, overcoming the vulnerability to nuclear attack of the previous star configuration computer network.
Liberal feminism suggests that now that...