In 1988, Joan Rothschild wrote a feminist curriculum for technology.1 And yet, 30 years later, there is still a general dearth of feminist curricula in the teaching of technology - just like in many other subjects, outside of women's/gender studies.
We cannot ignore feminist teachings in the educational system and expect feminist results as an end product
While companies and governments across the UK and the world ask themselves how they can improve gender parity in STEM, it is one of the key questions that needs to be addressed. We cannot ignore feminist teachings in the educational system and expect feminist results as an end product.
Rothschild was by no means alone in her efforts. The Feminist Library, where I volunteer coordinating the Feminism & Tech programme - delivering a series of critical discussions and workshops on tech - holds hundreds of books on the topic. These titles are predominantly from the second wave of the feminist movement (late 60s to early 90s) and largely forgotten by now. But they were one of the key inspirations for the Feminism & Tech programme at the Library.
In Teaching Technology from a Feminist Perspective, Rothschild sets out four principles or stages of analysis to be applied in the making of feminist education in the context of technology, (but the approach could be applied to other areas equally well); 'women and technology', 'women in technology', 'feminist critical thought' and 'applied feminist theory'.
The first looks at how women interact with technology. The second - at the representation of women in technology, both in terms of historical figures and the current state of affairs. The third applies the learnings of women's/gender studies to the teachings of technology. And, finally, the fourth creates applications of those teachings within the field technology itself - developing both critical theory and practice.
At the moment, not just with technology, but in many other areas, we seem to have stalled at the second stage, to the detriment of the others. Yet all four are needed in order to really analyse and understand the root causes of inequality - and ultimately address them effectively. In all areas, not just in technology.
Why is it so important, you might ask? Surely, if we have more of an equal representation in workplaces, they will become more egalitarian almost 'naturally'. The truth is, it's a bit more complicated than that and that's where feminist theory and research comes in.
Did you know that, according to data, we had more female computer scientists in the 80s than we do now? Makes one wonder, doesn't it? Considering all the 'women in tech' and 'women in STEM' initiatives out there, one might assume that the reverse would be true. One of the most interesting, and telling, stats is on when most industry women leave - it tends to be around the same time that they start having children, and their workplaces seem not to offer much when it comes to work-life balance. Research also points to other, wider, institutional problems that cannot be addressed by simply trying to channel more and more women into STEM.
applying feminism to education, at every level, is so important
The problems start at the earliest stages with stereotypes and values transmitted, consciously or otherwise, by parents and teachers. And they are often reinforced in the workplace by the persistent gender imbalance, lack of work-life balance and the resulting climate of sexism and harassment. But one has to start by looking at early interventions in education, rather than trying to simply fix the problem in the workplace after extensive damage had already been done. Research on the topic is abundant - we just have to look and apply it. But one doesn't even have to dig that deep in order to understand why applying feminism to education, at every level, is so important. You simply have to talk to women. I was recently in a consciousness raising group organised by the Feminist Library as part of its Women's Studies without Walls course. Lack of feminism in education quickly transpired as a theme. Most of us, as it turned out, had no brush with feminism at any level in formal education. We had to find it by ourselves - along with our confidence to understand and stand up to sexism and harassment in the workplace, which came through as another common theme of the conversation.
How can any woman be expected to thrive and/or compete with men at an equal footing in such an environment? Why should she?
Perhaps that is one of the key reasons that the rate at which women are setting up their own enterprises is fast increasing - women who have had to put up with sexist workplaces are deciding that enough is enough, and trying to make it on their own.
It might be a great end result for many women - making it on their own, finding their calling, doing what they are really passionate about. But again, why should any woman have go through experiences like workplace harassment in order to get there?
Expectation of equal gender representation, and diversity more generally, in the workplace is quickly becoming the norm for UK companies, as pressures from the government and women in the community pile up. These days, many employers talk the talk about equal opportunities and pay, as well as workplace harassment and sexism. But what are they really doing about this beyond having the conversation?
The approach of more 'women in [enter your chosen profession]' has been tried and, clearly, largely failed, so perhaps it is high time they/we started looking at the root causes of these problems.
Ultimately, how can we expect to create equal workplaces, if women-centred and women-developed approaches and principles of analysis are all but ignored throughout education? This is where we come a full circle - back to Joan Rothschild and her theory on feminist education in tech - and many other brilliant feminist theories and best practices on the topic.
You can find many such resources at the Feminist Library. I highly encourage you to visit - you are bound to be inspired.
Magda Oldziejewska is a feminist organiser, blogger and activist, with a background in research. She is passionate about and writes on the topics of women's history, reproductive justice, women's sexuality, feminist education and feminism more generally. She's been working with the Feminist Library for two and a half years, in various roles, including fundraising and tech.
1: Rothschild, J. (1988) Teaching Technology from a Feminist Perspective: a practical guide. New York, NY: Pergamon Press.