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Gender Analysis

Gender and Information and Communication Technology: Towardsan Analytical Framework*

by Peregrine Wood

The past two decades have demonstrated the growing strength
of the global women’s movement in advocating issues on women’s
equality and empowerment. Among these issues are women’s
marginalisation and invisibility in all aspects of technology.

This paper presents a range of perspectives on gender and information and communication technology (ICT) drawn from a review of literature. It aims to present some of the major debates and critiques of ICT to highlight some important issues of concern for women. It also provides an analytical framework from where to view women’s global participation in the need for and critique of computer networking. The framework builds on an initial paper developed for a research study undertaken by the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Networking Support Programme on women’s global networking by incorporating more international perspectives into the discussion, and highlighting some issues and observations specific to women working in ICT.

Judy Wajcman’s book Feminism Confronts Technology concludes: “The time is ripe for reworking the relationship between technology and gender. The old masculinist ideology has been made increasingly untenable by the dramatic changes in technology, by the challenge of feminism ... Technologies reveal the societies that invent and use them, their notions of social status and distributive justice. In so far as technology currently reflects a man’s world, the struggle to transform it demands a transformation of gender relations.” [166]

Defining the Concepts

Before embarking on a discussion of gender and ICT, it is important to clarify important terms used in this paper. According to Wajcman, ‘technology’ has at least three different layers of meaning. [14] First, ‘technology’ refers to what people know including the know-how to use technology, repair it, design it and make it. Second, ‘technology’ refers to the human activities and practices of technology such as steel making and computer programming. And finally, ‘technology’ refers to the hardware or the sets of physical objects such as computers or cars.

Swasti Mitter differentiates ‘information technology’ as a group of technologies that process rather than merely store or transmit information. [Mitter and Rowbatham 3] At the core of information technology is computers and software.

Pilar Riano defines ‘communications’ as “a social system of shared symbols and meanings (which) binds people together into a group, a community, or a culture”. [280]

The term ‘gender,’ on the other hand, refers to the different roles men and women play in a society or a community. [Parker 18] These roles are determined by cultural, social and economic factors and differ within and between cultures and countries. Sheila Rowbotham notes that the term ‘gender’ has no single meaning, but is affected by a whole complex of social relationships. [Mitter and Rowbotham 341] Gender roles are different from sex differences in that sex differences are biological, and for the most part, unchangeable. Gender roles are dynamic and change over time. [UNDP 3]

Some Feminist Perspectives on Women and ICT

‘Hidden from history’

One of the first things pointed out in the gender and technology literature is that women’s contributions to the field have been left out of history. The task of early feminist scholars was to “uncover and recover the women hidden from history” who have contributed to technological developments. [Wajcman 15] During the industrial revolution, women invented and contributed to the invention of such crucial machines as the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the small electric motor, and the loom. Similarly, feminist work on the history of computing and information technology draws attention to the fact that women have always been involved in computing. To fully comprehend women’s contributions to technological development, feminist writers argue for a movement away from the traditional conception of technology (which sees technology in terms of male activities) to a greater emphasis on women’s activities.

Women in technology

The ‘women in technology’ literature focuses on women’s exclusion from technology, with change understood as coming about via increased access and further equal opportunities policies. Early studies of women and the engineering, computing and information technology sectors draw attention to women’s under-representation in technical occupations and their over-representation in operator and clerical jobs. Although, more recent studies show women making some inroads into technical and higher level occupations, there is an increasing feminisation of some of the lower level jobs. Educational data, too, show a distinct gender pattern with women representing a small and declining proportion of entrants to university computer studies courses. Studies on the conditions of work for women in technology draw attention to salary differences which show women earning less than men. [Henwood 32-37] The solution to these problems from the ‘women in technology’ perspective is to increase the number and proportion of women in computing and information technology.

A technology based on women's values

In the 1980s, feminists turned their attention to the gendered character of technology itself. “Rather than asking how women could be more equitably treated within and by a neutral technology, many feminists now argue that Western technology itself embodies patriarchal values.” [Wajcman 17] Technology, like science, is seen as deeply implicated in the masculine project of the domination and control of women and nature. The argument from this perspective is for a technology based on women’s values. Eco-feminists’ critiques of technology have been particularly visible from this perspective concentrating on military technology and the ecological effects of modern technologies, which they view as products of a patriarchal culture. [Rothchild 1983] Feminists from this perspective promote women’s greater humanism, pacifism, nurturance and spiritual development and seek a new vision of technology that would incorporate these values.

Technology and the division of labour

Building on the Marxist labour process debates of the 1970s (which saw the social relations of technology in class terms), technology from this perspective is understood as neutral but misused under capitalism to de-skill workers and increase managerial control over the labour process. Feminist contributions to these debates see women’s exclusion from technology as a consequence of the gender division of labour and the male domination of skilled trades that developed under capitalism. As Wajcman points out, women’s alienation from technology is accounted for in terms of the historical and cultural construction of technology as masculine. [20] Thus, technology from its origins reflects male power as well as capitalist domination.

Gender and technology socially-defined

Rejecting the notion that technology is neutral, this perspective understands technology and gender as socially-defined. Historically, technology has been defined exclusively as male activities in such a way that many tasks women have traditionally performed (such as knitting) are not defined as technical despite involving a high degree of manual dexterity and computation. [Cockburn quoted in Henwood 40] Similarly, Game and Pringle point to distinctions such as ‘heavy/light,’ ‘dirty/clean,’ and ‘technical/non-technical’ which (they argue) are constructed to preserve a sexual division of labour. [17] Thus, rather than argue for women’s inclusion in work currently defined as skilled and technical, this perspective suggests a total re-evaluation of work so that many of women’s traditional tasks are recognised as skilled and technical and be given appropriate remuneration.

Technology as culture

More recently, a number of feminists see the newly emerging cultural analyses of technology as a suitable framework for analysing gender and ICT relationships. This framework understands both technology and gender not as fixed and given, but as cultural processes which (like other cultural processes) are subject to “negotiation, contestation, and, ultimately transformation”. [Henwood 44] There is a fundamental difference between this ‘technology as culture’ perspective and the many studies of women and technology that talk of the masculine culture of technology and stress ways in which boys and men dominate the design and use of technologies, how the language of technology reflects male priorities and interests, and how women are excluded from full participation in technological work. In the cultural analyses of technology, technologies are ‘cultural products,’ ‘objects’ or ‘processes’ which take on meaning when experienced in everyday life. As Henwood says:

“Our theorizing of the gender and information technology relationship should not be reduced to the simple ‘man equals technology literate, women equals technology illiterate’ formulation. Technological meanings are not ‘given’; they are made. Our task trying to transform the gendered relations of technology should not be focused on gaining access to the knowledge as it is but with creating that knowledge. By this I mean to be involved at the level of definition, of making meanings and in creating technological culture”. [44]

Henwood (and others from the technology as culture view) call for more research from this perspective to understand women’s subjective experience and practices of technology and take these as a starting point for definitions of ‘technology,’ ‘technological work,’ and ‘skill’.

Democratising knowledge and technology

Adding an important voice for the South in the gender and technology literature, Vandana Shiva argues the inappropriateness of modern western knowledge and technologies for the third world. Underlying her arguments is the view that the North’s approach to science and technology has led to western systems of knowledge and technology (based on a particular culture, class and gender) that are now being foisted on the South. Shiva challenges the claim these systems are universal: “emerging from a dominating and colonising culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonising”. [9] As a result, this ‘monoculture of the mind’ (or process of technology and knowledge transfer) displaces local knowledge and experiences. Moreover, “the power by which the dominant knowledge system has subjugated all others makes it exclusive and undemocratic”. [60] In opposition to global capitalism, Shiva calls for an alternative, community-based technology and a redefining of knowledge such that “the local and diverse become legitimate”. [62] Thus, the ‘democratising of knowledge and technology’ perspective is linked to human freedoms because “it frees knowledge from the dependency on established regimes of thought, making it simultaneously more autonomous and more authentic” [62]

‘Subsistence perspective’

A number of feminists offer new visions of technology and society that are nonexploitative, non-colonial, and non-patriarchal. Many of these initiatives draw attention to the need for qualitative changes in the economy and oppose the view that more growth, technology, science and progress will solve the ecological and economic crisis. Maria Mies of fers one vision where technology is conceptualised from a perspective of subsistence based on the colonisation of women, nature, and other peoples. This ‘subsistence perspective’ is based on and promotes participatory or grassroots’ democracy in political, economic, social and technological decisions. [319] Like Ecofeminism, it recognises that power systems and problems are interconnected and cannot be solved in isolation or by a mere technological fix. This necessarily requires a new paradigm of science, technology and knowledge that allows people to maintain control over their technology. Opposing the prevailing instrumentalist, reductionist science and technology, Mies’s new paradigm is based on a multidimensional approach that incorporates ecologically sound, traditional, grassroots, women and people-based knowledge systems. As Mies says, “such science and technology will therefore not reinforce unequal social relationships but will be such as to make possible greater social justice”. [320] Although some feminists such as Mitter and Rowbotham are not convinced of the practical feasibility of Mies’s “critique of modernization”, the ‘subsistence perpsective’ shows a conceptual way forward for an alternative vision of gender and technology.

‘From the experiences of daily life’

Other voices from the South welcome modern technologies as long as women can have their say in the manner by which technology is adopted. These women are cautious of the so-called “critics of modernization” who “muffle the appeals and aspirations of many millions of less privileged women and men, who are ‘hungry’ for the information revolution and advanced technologies”. [Mitter and Rowbotham 17] They argue that it is difficult for women to shift the balance of power if they are to use only indigenous social and knowledge systems in opposition to modernisation and modern technologies. Mitter says, “women usually have insignificant power over decision-making when they are confined by traditions and constrained by the norms of behaviour in their communities”. [17] Third world feminists from this perspective praise the liberating aspects of the information revolution and advanced technologies which, in some circumstances, “gives them economic power, autonomy and the chance to escape the tyrannies of traditional societies”. [Mitter and Rowbotham 17] They demand knowledge of and access to technical know-how and business skills, and welcome international exchange of experience in organising to counteract the pitfalls of the new technologies. As Rowbotham concludes, “a new relationship between technology and gender cannot be devised only in the seminar, it has to be created, by users and workers internationally, from the experiences of daily life.” [66]

Gender in communications

In Women in Grassroots Communications, Pilar Riano maps out women’s contribution to the debates on gender in communication that starts off with the subordinate position of women in the industry. The recurring themes point to the lack of women’s participation and representation in mainstream media, the sexist portrayal of women in the media, the absence of women in news and current affairs, and women’s disadvantaged access to new communication technologies.* Early contributions to the gender in communications debates from women in the South, women of Colour, and other marginalised groups emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Riano. Their debates focused on the negative portrayal of these women in the mainstream media, demanded equity, and moved on to an emphasis on the qualitative differences these women make in democratising communications. These collective perspectives suggest that gender identity and the ways women experience subordination are ‘connected and mediated’ by other variables such as race, class, sexual orientation, age and generation, history, culture and colonialism. Riano points to the creation of coalitions among women in communications as having made the most significant advances. These include women’s information networks, women’s press, worldwide networks of independent women filmmakers and video makers, participation of women in journalism schools and mainstream media, and feminists’ works in media, cultural and communication studies. [30-31] These networks create alternative communication channels that articulate other visions of women and act as a form of power that challenges the stereotypical representations of women as passive and silent. [Moraga & Anzaldúa; Charnley as quoted in Riano 31]

Feminist communications: diversity and complexity

Riano describes a number of principles and concerns that act as a framework to her typology of ‘feminist communications’ and link to the debate on the ‘democratization of communications’. [xiii] Her ‘feminist communications’ approach is important because it points to the diversity contained in the category ‘women’ and the complexity of communication strategies and processes. These principles and concerns refer to:

  • Women as the main actors of the communication process including women’s control over decision-making, planning, access to resources, production and distribution
  • Rooting women’s communication experiences and ways of communicating in their social and cultural concerns and background
  • Defining communication enterprises as acts of naming and reframing oppressions and as larger movements seeking change
  • Considering grassroots participation as critical to the democratisation of communications

This includes a recognition of a variety of communication processes, practices and systems that are distinguished by their grassroots origins (such as women’s informal communication practices, networks and associations, or indigenous communication systems and practices), as well as the active involvement of a community or group in using communication to produce their own messages and to engage audiences in critical thinking [xi]

  • Identifying women as diverse subjects with different experiences which shape their perceptions and identities - “as subjects of struggles, as partners of communication, as mothers, as workers, as activists, as citizens”
  • These principles and concerns address the broader issues that connect questions of gender and communication with the various ways in which race, class, culture, sexual orientation, age, history, colonialism, and the social division of labour intersect and shape women’s communication experiences and identities.

Some Issues and Observations

Technology and democratic process

The loss of democratic control over technological choice is an important issue for women rooted in the historical debates on the impact of technology on society. It is included here because it relates to APC’s dedication to equalising the free flow of information. Writing in the late 1960s, Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine describes the domination of society by a small, powerful elite that uses modern communication technologies to centralise social control. He warns that both individual freedom and community will be submerged to “the mega-machine (which will) furnish and process an endless quantity of data, in order to expand the role and ensure the domination of the power system.”

Similarly, in The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin writes about her concerns on the scale of intervention by technologies in everyday life which results in “a culture of compliance” where technology itself becomes an agent of social control. Today, the monopolisation of global information and communication structures where government monopolies control a huge share of the world’s telecommunication flows, while a few huge corporations dominate the world’s mass media presents a very real challenge to women and the democratic process of society.

Increasing disparities

Increasing disparities as a result of new information technologies relate to APC’s dedication to bridging the gap between the information rich and the information poor. The consensus in the literature suggests there will be an even wider gap between the information-haves and have-nots in the new electronic era. It is particularly important to ensure women from the South participate in the new communication processes since they are often marginalised because of inadequate infrastructure and the cost of transmitting data.

Democratisation of communications

‘Democratisation of communications’ is an important issue that appears in the gender and communications literature. It is understood as a process whereby: (a) the individual is an active subject and not only an object of communication, (b) various messages are exchanged democratically, and (c) “the extent and quality of social representation or participation is augmented.” [Riano 281]

The concept was introduced by the MacBride report “Many Voices, One World” where discussions on a new world information and communication order saw democratisation being achieved through policy regulation and institutional change at the national and international level. Riano adds, however, that all actors, at all levels (including local and grassroots) need to be considered for an adequate debate on the democratisation of communications to be carried out.

Difficulties of access for women

The difficulty of access to new information and communication technologies for women includes access in terms of sheer hardware and software, as well as requiring access to meaningful resources about women. The fact that most computer networks are currently dominated by men raises further questions about women’s access to new information technologies. (One study quantifies the male domination of computer networks at 95%). [Ebben and Kramarae 17]

In Nattering on the Net, Dale Spender notes that women’s marginalisation from the new communication technologies has “less to do with women and more to do with computers” arguing that computers are the sites of wealth, power, and influence. She warns women cannot afford “to permit white male dominance of these technologies because a very distorted view of the world is created when only one social group, with one set of experiences pronounces on how it will be for all.” Relevant and useful resources about women will not appear unless women work to create them (often under difficult situations). But, since women’s knowledge is presently encoded in books, women’s knowledge may be endangered if the shift from the print to electronic medium is not made.

Currently, there are few women in positions of leadership making the decisions about what electronic materials will be constructed and what they will contain. Women’s task, according to Maureen Ebben and Cheris Kramarae is “to create, electronically, a cyberspace of our own that fosters women’s communication in this time of rapid technological transition”. [16]

Failure of training programmes

Another important observation is the shortcoming of mainstream training methods for women. Many writers and researchers, including Maureen Ebben and Cheris Kramarae contend that the problem is not so much a problem of how to teach women effectively, but rather “training (as) ad hoc, unsystematic, and male-centred.” [18] One such training offered at computer sites at universities consisted of “directions posted on walls, photocopied sections of published manuals left in strategic places, or an hour’s worth of group instruction in which participants are led through a manual’s directives”. [18] They concluded that the instruction is seldom customised and there is little opportunity to follow-up on questions and problems that arise during actual use.

Other commentators suggest that the lack of training is a more severe problem for women than for men because of the culture of technology which “shares an image of machismo and valorizes the adventurer.” [Hacker; Turkle]

Research findings also point out different learning styles for men and women. Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert’s research say that women prefer to learn through an orderly routine where they understand the reason for each step, whereas men (and boys) have been encouraged to learn through experimentation and trial and error. Women take fewer risks than men who also prefer to tinker new environments. This, coupled with male-style, unsystematic learning practices, puts women at a disadvantage.

Women working in technology

Women Encounter Technology (eds. Swasti Mitter and Sheila Rowbotham) explores the impact of technology on women’s employment and the nature of women’s work in third world countries. The following observations provide an “authentic international perspective” on women and technology that can inform further research:

  • Gender is one of many factors that determine the impact of information technology on women’s working lives. Ethnicity, religion, age and class can play even greater roles in defining women’s working position. Similarly, the degrees of exclusivity that arise from the information revolution sharply differentiate regions and communities.
  • Technological changes affect the quality and quantity of women’s work. Employment issues of concern to women working in technology relate to contractual terms, intensification of workloads, wages, training, and health and safety such as VDU hazards and repetitive strain injuries.
  • Increased job opportunities bring new tensions in women’s domestic lives. For example, Acero’s case study documents the typical life of a woman textile worker in Argentina: “My marriage started to break down when I started to work… I had more chances than he did. So things started to go wrong.” Deeper insights are needed into the links between women’s status and roles at work and at home.
  • Women are rarely represented in the decision-making areas of technology. As a number of essays document, women are predominantly employed in blue-collar jobs. These are precisely the jobs that will be vulnerable in the next phase of the technological change.
  • Upgrading women’s skills through a continuous learning process benefits women and society
  • Radical thinking about training is essential for utilising women’s potentials. In particular, training needs to take into account ethnicity, class, religion and age.
  • Women’s sharing of experiences has proved rewarding at the community, national and international levels. More international exchanges of experience in organising around some of the new issues relating to the electronic era are needed in order to ensure employment benefits of women from new technologies are not outweighed by the associated health and environmental costs.


Works Cited

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*This paper was written (circa 1998 or 1999) and can be accessed at We edited this paper for purposes of this manual.)