Thursday , February 29 2024
There's many a computing industry boss who'd benefit from even a cursory browse of its contents.

Book Review: The Gender Politics of ICT

Every year the internet and its associated technologies seem to have a bigger place in our world, in our lives; it sometimes seems that screen life is life. That’s as true for women as it is for men. And you’d think if you were a young person thinking about setting out on a career, or an older person thinking about a new one, it would be a logical place to look. Yet the percentage of women employed in what is inelegantly called ICT (information and communication technology) is actually going down, a study of seven states across the European Union has found.

The figures are reported in the first paper of a new book, The Gender Politics of ICT, edited by Jacqueline Archibald, Judy Emms, Frances Grundy, Janet Payne and Eva Turner. It consists of the papers from the 6th International Women into Computing Conference and, commendably, was published within weeks of the gathering. (One of the great problems of most books on the sociology of the wired world is that by the time they’ve been through the whole publishing mill they’re hopelessly out of date.)

But this is as up-to-date as it could possibly be, and also wide-ranging. Often books about the technological world are US-centric, with perhaps a token nod to Britain, Australia and Canada, but this text ranges widely across Europe, “old” and “new” and even extends to Japan and Nigeria.

Eva Turner goes looking to see how women in computing is regarded in the Czech Republic, her country of origin. It is not a pretty picture. Turner says:

“…when I requested an interview with the Minister for Infomatics and explained that I am interested in questions of Gender and Computing, the minister’s secretary said to me ‘I can already envisage what you look like’. (tak to us Vas dovedu predstavit). I did not ask what his image of me actually was.

As that passage suggests, while there are plenty of dry, but necessary, statistics and theoretical analyses in this text, it also has the immediacy and freshness of a good personal presentation. It is uneven, as you’d expect, but it is I’d suggest it is essential for anyone interested not just in “gender and computers”, but anyone seeking up-to-date information on the computer industry in general.

The central theme running through the book is “where are the women?”, not just in “computing”, but in related areas such as engineering and general science. A number of answers emerge. The most obvious, perhaps, is that many computing jobs demand long hours, to the extreme even of “sleeping at your desk”, that make them almost impossible for women with family responsibilities. So even women who enter the industry tend to drop out at this point in their lives.

Then there’s the culture issue (with which I can sympathise, since the media is much the same). A group of researchers looking at women in IT in the North West of England found that women “had to distance themselves from their gender in the effort to blend in … and such an astounding level of fear and loathing towards them that it is remarkable that any women at all persevere with an IT career”. Their interviewees spoke of having to drink with the boys, ignore sexual banter and talk about football, just to fit in.

But there’s also a bigger problem of identity. Juliet Webster writes about engineering being more “gender authentic” for men. Many of the men she interviews “provided little or no account of their choice – precisely because there is nothing remarkable for a man about choosing to be an engineer. By contrast virtually all of the women I interviewed have a story to tell about why they made the choice: like not having children as a woman, it demands an explanation”. Is this the same in IT? I suspect it is.

Answers to these problems are rather thinner on the ground. Rosa Michaelson outlines the European Commission’s process of “gender mainstreaming”, addressed broadly at the “leaky pipeline of female scientists”. (I’m one of those, having done a first science degree then fled in other direction as fast as possible.) Her report is broadly positive, yet this of course is only one area of employment.

In Norway, Hilde Corneliussen studied a group of non-specialist women studying computing, and asked the interesting question: did they get pleasure out of it, and why? The answer was a clear “yes” – mainly because they “discovered they could manage and they could learn”, but this was a surprise, because they had internalised a societal belief that computers were not for their gender – this was almost a forbidden pleasure to the women. Corneliussen suggests: “For the future, why not invite women to computer education by telling them that “You might even fall in love with the technology!”

So why does the lack of women matter – in addition to the obvious loss of opportunities?

A number of papers in the collection address this issue. Katherine R.B. Greyson looked at how students, given a choice, constructed pedagogic agents, and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that they were most comfortable with avatars (I learnt the jargon is “Intelligent Agents” or “embodied Communication Agents”) that resembled themselves in race, body shape etcetera. Yet existing agents tended to stereotypical gender designs and either white or racially ambiguous. Her study implies that if mono-cultural agents are producers, the result too will be monocultural, and geneder-stereotyped.

Another issue is addressed by Tanja Carstensen and Gabriele Winker, who look at the potential of the internet for the women’s movement and activists – unlikely to be fully realised if insufficient numbers of women are at least comfortable with IT. I don’t entirely agree with their conclusion that “women’s policy networks use the Internet particularly for finding and providing information, but that interactive options such as forums and chats, and thereby potential for discussion and opinion-forming are little used. Political action via the net is almost completely non-existent.”

In terms of actively spreading information I think of Women’s E-news, in terms of campaigning of the Justice for Linda campaign, in terms of simple grassroots activism of Radical Geek’s Bombing for Choice. I might even proclaim my own humble effort of the Carnival of Feminists as a networking effort.

Nonetheless, I think it would be fair to say that women’s groups have been slower to adopt the technology and its possibilities than would be ideal, and women bloggers, in particular, and for understandable reasons have not pushed themselves forward as far as they might have.

Which brings me to blogs – and the one paper on this subject. (Even conferences have a lag-time, and I’d hazard a guess the next will have a lot more.) The paper is by Tess Pierce who takes a heavily theoretical approach in trying to compare “cybergrrls” and “cyberfeminists”, and finds “two conflicting narratives. One … operates on a sophisticated theoretical level of feminism and technoscience, with Donna Haraway’s cyborg as central character. The other integrates women’s everyday lives with the actual use of communication for political organising.”

The study then uses three rather odd examples (for this purpose) – in blogs from Iran (Notes of an Iranian Girl), Iraq (Baghdad Burning) and Afghanistan (The Upper Echelon of Happiness). To be frank, I found little here of use, but one has to sympathise with the theorist trying to keep up with something as fast moving as the world of blogs.

There’s more, as the telemarketers always say, that I haven’t got room to include here – on issues of computing and technology ethics, on pedagogic methods and how these might impact specifically on female students, and on the democratic possibility of involving users in software design. This is an essential collection for anyone who wants to think about the nature of the computer society that we are creating – and there’s many an IT boss who’d benefit from even a cursory browse of its contents.

Published by Middlesex University Press, you can get the book on Amazon UK or directly (and most easily) from one of the editors.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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