When I first encountered the Women and Computing Newsletter (WACN) in the journal archives at the Feminist Library in London, I had no idea that it would become the pivotal object in my research. The DIY aesthetic of this simple publication, as with many artefacts of second wave feminism, belied the strength and significance of its contents. In production from 1981 to 1993, the WACN concerned itself with supporting and encouraging women to take up computing education and careers, called out governments, institutions and companies on their sexism in relation to the technology industry and facilitated feminist discussion on gender and technology. I was struck by how the issues raised back then were very much similar to those of today; lack of female representation, appropriation and domination of the technology by males, sexism in computer games, advertising and technology design.
Growing up in the 80s, I remember the hype surrounding computing. After much begging to my parents, I finally got my hands on a second hand Sinclair ZX Spectrum...and games of space wars...or dungeons and dragons. The novelty soon wore off and I realised I'd much rather spend time with friends or riding a pony. If only they had made games about ponies!! Sigh! It became clear, I wasn't the target consumer for computer games.
We have arrived at a stage where technology mediates almost our every move and it's something we need to understand, question and critique
Fast-forward some years and we encounter a computer games industry that is male-dominated, packed full of hyper-sexualised female characters and generally hostile to women as both players and creators.1 It's a perfect example of the what I call the Women and Technology Loop; Technology created by mainly white men, for men, which doesn't interest/alienates/excludes women, so women are put off careers in tech,2 which leads back to further technology developments being made by white men. We have arrived at a stage where technology mediates almost our every move and it's something we need to understand, question and critique but through the various cycles of technological creation and advancement over the last forty years, women have been mainly absent and without voice.3,4,5 Yes, we can teach women to code, and that's a start, however with years of masculinised innovation behind them, how much of an impact can women now make?
In her 1991 book, Feminism Confronts Technology, Judy Wajcman stated:
"By securing control of key technologies, men are denying women the practical experience upon which inventiveness depends [...] Innovation [...] lies largely in seeing ways in which existing devices can be improved, and in extending the scope of techniques successful in one area into new areas. Therefore giving women access to formal technical knowledge alone does not provide the resources necessary for invention. Experience of existing technology is a precondition for the invention of a new technology."
Over the course of my research, I have delved into many books and articles discussing women and technology from a number of angles and one thing is clear, no matter whether the writing is from the 80s, 90s, 00s or more recent, or whatever the particular topic; technology careers, education, home computing, gaming, technology media, internet, coding, VR, AI, algorithmic bias, the Women and Technology Loop is very much in evidence. Sample the reading for this article's references list and I'm sure you will agree.
Despite its rapid advancement and adoption, and the ubiquitousness of computing today, the current socio-technological situation is no different to the 1980s. We see a continued masculine image of technology careers,6 gender bias and sexism across social media, gaming, AI and personal digital assistants. Women still do not have much of a voice in future tech developments, but I believe that can change. However, I do think that we need to look backwards as well as forwards .By understanding and learning from the feminist technology discourse of the past,7,8 we are better placed to make sound arguments and judgements for the future.
Technological developments need the input of a wider range of voices and views
The technological utopianism of the 1990s and early 2000s has given way to a rising backlash against the tech giants and big data. We are starting to see many questions raised regarding diversity and ethics in the technology industry, in both the products being created and within the companies that are creating them. Women are writing the forgotten women of technology and computing back into the history (herstory?) books (Abbate, 2017; Evans, 2018), while others bring to light the many of years of gender discrimination in the field (Chang, 2018).
Technological developments need the input of a wider range of voices and views to ensure fair, ethical and inclusive products and platforms are created. This doesn't only mean that development teams should be more diverse, but also that technology companies should employ or consult with ethics and equality specialists and gain input from a more heterogeneous group; ideally reflecting the whole variety of people who might use the product.
Feminists, I believe, are uniquely placed to offer relevant critique of and input into the design of technology today. We require a feminist politics of technology as an agent to examine and critique the gender-technology discourse and bring about change. With a fourth wave of feminism now strongly ascendant, now is the time to revive a feminist technology publication in the spirit of the WACN and make our voices heard. Welcome to Feminist Voices in Technology!
Helen Taranowski is a graphic designer and researcher with an interest in feminism and technology an is the editor and designer of the FVT publication and website.
1:Chang, E. (2018) Brotopia: breaking up the boys club of Silicon Valley. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
2:Turkle, S. (1986) 'Computational Reticence: Why Women Fear the Intimate Machine' in Kramarae, C. (ed.) (1986) in Technology and Womens Voices: keeping in touch. New York: Pergamon Press, pp. 41-61
3:Wajcman, J. (1991) Feminism Confronts Technology. Cambridge: Polity Press.
4:Wajcman, J. (2004) TechnoFeminism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
5:Warnick, B. (2002) Critical Literacy in a Digital Era: technology, rhetoric, and the public interest. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
6:Misa, T. J. ed., (2010) Gender Codes: why women are leaving computing. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
7:Millar, M. S. (1998) Cracking the Gender Code: who rules the Wired world? Toronto: Second Story Press.
8:Wilding, F. (1998) 'Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?', in n.paradoxa, 2, pp. 6-12.