Week 13 – Wrap it up already

April 1st, 2008

This is the last week in the semester, which has gone by both blurringly fast and painstakingly slow. Ain’t that always the way? The readings for this week are the final chapter in Judy Wajcman’s Technofeminism (2004) as well as the last chapter in Juliet Webster’s Shaping women’s work: Gender, employment and information technology (1995).

Wajcman and Webster are both hardcore scholars. I appreciate so much their rigor, and their steadfastness in the face of those relentless bastions of patriarchy: technology and the academy. Not only are they rock solid, they are the rock stars of feminist constructivist theory, though this may not – at first blush – appear such a sexy thing. Indeed, Wajcman doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia, despite being a forerunner the field, and Webster seems to have fallen off the academic map completely, though her book had to have been a major contribution.

Wajman concludes her concise yet elegant account of the intersection of feminism and technology studies with her own updated offering. Thus far I had found the book extremely useful and, importantly, accessible to students who, although in fourth year, had had little contact with either academic tradition. In her typically simple yet masterful prose, Wajcman gently introduced them to the various strains of feminism, mapping the field and its evolving challenge to a thoroughly classed and gendered technoscience. By the time she got to cyborgs and cyberfeminism, students were ready and willing to travel with her to the frontiers of cyberspace: virtual reality, the digital divide and disembodied identity.

In her final chapter, Wajcman discusses her addition to the ever-growing body of feminist constructivist theory. She identifies the polarization in social theory between “metaphor and materiality” (the name of this chapter). Wajcman thus retains a materialist analysis, including an unflinching critique of capitalism while pointing of the need to avoid the technological determinism of socialist feminism. She praises Donna Haraway for surpassing the limitations of cyberfeminism, with its tendency toward essentialism, in her attempt to marry socialist and postmodern feminism(s). Remaining thoroughly in the constructivist camp, she says: “An emerging technofeminism conceives of a mutually shaping relationship between gender and technology, in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations” (107).

Wajcman argues that new digital technologies differ in important ways from earlier technologies, as do the social networks in which they are embedded (108). “Whereas the key technologies of the industrial era were largely muscle-enhancing, information technologies are considered to be brain-enhancing” (109). While this prepares the ground for a subversion of sex-stereotyping in the digital era, women continue to be underrepresented among graduates in infotech and computer science (and of course engineering) – and therefore in these fields of employment. Thus Wajcman advises revisiting the liberal feminist program of equal opportunities and equal pay.

Missing from the debate is the fact that the absence of women in technoscience deeply affects how the world is made. The insight of technofeminism? “Every aspect of our lives is touched by sociotechnical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the levers of power” (p. 111). We must see technology as a culture that “expresses and consolidates relations amongst men” in order to understand the connection between male power and technoscience (ibid).

Wajcman maintains the negative stereotype, proffered by Turkle (1984), of the hacker, the dominant image of the young, white, male nerd who works 16 hour days in relative isolation (p. 111). “The masculine workplace culture of passionate virtuosity, typified by hacker-style work, epitomizes a world of masterly, individualism and non-sensuality” (ibid). She does not stop there, however, stating that “Being in an intimate relationship with the computer is both a substitute for and a refuge from the much more uncertain and complex relationships that characterize social life” (ibid). Ouch. Now I haven’t done any empirical research on the topic, but the self-identified hackers and geeks that I know are a far sight more socialized than this and while they are predominantly (though not exclusively) male they engage in human relationships and in fact, have a highly developed social conscience. But enough of me and my work.

Importantly, Wajcman defuses the cyber-hype that surrounds the feminist project on the Internet. The appeal of digital virtuality for cyberfeminism is the chance to transcend the dualism of gender. “However, while escaping the corporeal body may be an appealing emancipatory strategy, it leaves untouched the gendered distribution of materials and resources that typically afford women less scope for initiatives in the workplace” (p. 115).

The key to renegotiating the cultural equation between masculinity and technology a technofeminist politics draws attention to the concrete sociotechnical practices of men and women. Women’s emancipation relies upon altering the “woman-machine” relationship to develop women’s capacity vis a vis technical work. It is not cyberspace or digital technologies per se that will grant women their freedom; they are not gender-neutral. In true constructivist form, Wajcman reminds that the Internet, and particularly the www, is flexible and full of contradictory possibility. She also cautions that the digital divide is being purposefully widened by corporate initiatives, such as the “throttling” policy of Bell and Sympatico, which limits their subscribers from downloading certain content and charging more for large bandwidth use. Find out more about the campaign to stop this here.

Wajcman concludes with an affirmation of the “frankly political agenda” of feminist technoscience. Technofeminism takes politics as an a priori feature of a network, “and a feminist politics is a necessary extension of network analysis” (p. 126). She reminds us of the critical observation that science and technology embody dominant (e.g. patriarchal, capitalist) values but that both endeavours have the potential to embody different values. The gig is not up. Indeed, the strength of feminism – and what draws me to it – is that it connects rigorous research and social analysis to a “political practice of making a difference”, to a goal of progressive social transformation (p. 127).

Having some time ago run out of reader indulgence, I will not go into the Webster text in any detail. Suffice it to say, she concludes that computer-based technologies have not had a uniform impact on women’s employment across industry sectors or countries. The benefits have mainly accrued to the employer (shocker). In fact, what she calls an “innovatory technology” has failed to help reduce inequalities between rich and poor countries. Neither has it aided in a restructuring of sexual divisions of labour, as was initially hoped. “The class and gender inequalities of capitalist societies remain in place and these are not threatened by the introduction throughout economies of information technologies.

In fact, Webster argues that information technologies have facilitated the double burden of paid and unpaid work that women carry. Overall, she paints a fairly gloomy picture. She raises – though not hopefully – the strategy of designing “feminist technologies”, grounded in a “rationality of caring” that considers technical design in the context of human health, environmental sustainability and collective security (p. 191). She wonders (and no wonder) about the likelihood of feminist systems design under capitalism, where the owners of capital and their managerial representatives are men, and where the main object is profit and control, not the development of human potential.

However, like Wajcman, Webster reminds us that feminist research into science and technology is an emancipatory project, with political engagement as the priority. It is also an incomplete project, and one that beckons.

Week 11: Gender, identity and community online

March 18th, 2008

This week’s readings comprise something of a hodgepodge. The themes are interrelated and certainly mutually informing, yet each on its own could be the focus of an entire class – an entire course, even. So little time. Yet, as always, I think these are important issues to include. Thus far in CMNS 455, weekly readings have really gelled with one another. This is the first time that the texts are disjointed thematically, and do not smoothly assimilate one to the other.

Judy Wajcman’s (2006) chapter, Virtual Gender (in Technofeminism), is solid, as one would expect, and grounds the week’s readings. She contextualizes, reviews and critiques cyberfeminism, which is found wanting in conclusion. Briefly, postfeminists have interpreted cyberspace as the final frontier where the virtual disembodiment offers freedom from gender-based inequality and oppression in the material world. Unlike outer space, cyberspace is somewhere most of us can visit. While cultivating human life on other planets remains light years away, cyberspace has been colonized at a breathtaking rate. As Wajman notes, “Rarely having made it into outer space, little wonder that feminists have seized upon new digital technologies for their potential to finally free women from the constraints of their sex” (57).

Cyberfeminists seized on the idea of cyberspace as a utopia. The notion of technological progress as central to salvation has been a persistent undertone in Western culture from late Middle Ages. As salvation became secularized, the digital realm revealed its utopian potential for a non-hierarchical democratic space, ripe for the realization global democracy at long last. In cyberspace, one can transcend the bounds of time, space and flesh. The modern divisions of race, class, ethnicity, gender and sex dissolve into bits.The original cyberoptimists, like Howard Rheingold, had high hopes the Internet would be a powerful force in breaking down barriers of prejudice and inequality.

Wajcman challenges the attendant notion of virtual community – a heady combination of technology, networks and freedom – as representing a new form of sociability and social interaction. Such “communities of choice” appear no less homogeneous or exclusive than the real world (RL) counterparts. She criticizes “cybergurus” like Negroponte and Castells – who attribute a technological and social revolution to the internet – for reviving a McLuhanist determinism. “The conservative overtones of these debates…betray a nostalgia for an idealized past when people belonged to a harmonious community” (p. 59), one that never really existed.

The optimism of the virtual community as heralding the “good society” is characteristic of cyberfeminism, which arose in reaction to negative feminist interpretations of technology during the 1980s. Rather than emphasizing the innately masculine and thus oppressive attributes of technology, cyberfeminism celebrates digital technologies as liberatory, agentic and subjective. The internet is the “ideal feminine medium”: distributed, non-linear, fluid, nodal, unpredictable. As such, the “digital revolution” marks the decline of “traditional hegemonic structures and power bases of male domination because it represents a new kind of technical system” (p. 64)

Cyberfeminism invokes a new relationship between woman and machine, one that inverts the stereotype of “woman” and valorizes women’s sexual difference, rather than uses it as a basis of subjugation. Digital technologies further enable gender-bending, and the challenging of rigid gender-based identities and roles. But Wajcman is critical of this idea of technology as freedom. She sees it as a “twist” on negative determinist interpretations of technology. “The political consequence of this avant-gardist celebration of the ‘new media’ is paradoxically to legitimate the existing order” (p. 73). If digital technology is inherently feminize, as some versions of cyberfeminism assert, no political action is required. Thus cyberfeminism is revealed as little more than a revisioning of radical or cultural feminism: essentializing women through positive affirmation of their sexual difference. “This belief in some inner essence of womanhood as an ahistorical category lies at the very heart of traditional and conservative conceptions of womanhood” (ibid).

According to Wajcman, cyberfeminism contains a tension between the utopian and the descriptive. Utopian thinking is useful in providing a critical perspective on current social relations. The force of utopian thought “derives precisely from being about a place that does not exist, in the light of which the present can be criticized” (p. 75). Cyberfeminism conflates the distinction between utopia as “no-where” versus “now-here”. Cyberfeminism flattens this distinction presenting the utopian image of cyberspace as a description of what currently exists. “If what is imagined is in the process of becoming, there is no need for politics to bring it into being” (ibid). In this way, technology substitutes for projects of progressive social change, and the value of utopian thinking is negated. As utopian thinking has been central to feminism, cyberfeminism must therefore be considered post-feminist

The next reading for this week is Julian Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace. This is a strictly descriptive account of some peculiar events of a particular MOO. Specifically, it details how one avatar transgressed the unspoken norms of an online community, and how that community responded. I thought it would be helpful for understanding the construction and deconstruction of gender/identity in the digital realm. Further, as the subtitle – “How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society” – suggests, the article also deals with issues of online community formation.

The final reading is a chapter out of Rhiannon Bury’s 2005 book, Cyberspaces of their own: female fandoms online. I have to say I didn’t care much for this reading. Fist of all, I don’t think I selected the right chapter for this week’s theme. It didn’t read so well as a stand alone essay or chapter. It started out strong, contextualizing the formation of female-only online spaces with a genealogy of the forced containment of women in the private sphere throughout Western history. From there, the chapter unraveled into a piecemeal and confusing account of the case study (women-only list servs devoted to two TV shows). The notion of cyberspace as heterotopia (invoking Foucault, of course) is interesting but fruitless, as far as I can tell. What remains of the chapter is little more than a collection of extended quotations from list members, buffered by little commentary/analysis. Perhaps one needs to read the full book. At any rate, this reading is the first dud of the semester, which really isn’t too bad, all things considered.

Week 9: Women in the Information Society

March 5th, 2008

I teach a 4th year seminar in the School of Communication at SFU entitled CMNS 455: Women and New Information Technology. The following is my synopsis on this week’s readings, grouped together under the vague title “Women in the Information Society.” I wish I’d been blogging the readings all along (as I did with my comprehensive exams) but this blog wasn’t up and running before the start of the semester, and then I sort of got busy, and forgot about it (!). Here goes…

In “Constructing the information society: Women, information technology and design,” Jane E. Fountain (2000) explores the underrepresentation of women in IT. This translates into a human resources shortage, and lowered productivity. Her main argument is that a stronger showing by women as experts, owners and designers of infotech would likely alter and broaden the range of technological apps, standards and practices, contributing to progressive social change.

In CMNS 455 we have encountered the (liberal feminist) idea that increasing the numbers of women in this or that field would help eliminate gender discrimination and bring about equality. Many feminist theorists are critical of this notion posed as a solution, insofar as informal barriers to equality still remain, such as “male culture” in the workplace and sexual division of labour. According to Fountain, however, implementation of IT within organizations has “eroded the importance of hierarchy and command-and-control authority systems that structured power…” (p. 47). She also asserts (somewhat problematically, I think) that the skills required in IT work require “a distinct set of organizational, communication and managerial skills, at which women tend to be proficient” (ibid). In the course readings thus far, we have seen how the “feminization” of labour has occurred by identifying and labeling certain “female qualities” that are required for certain jobs, and then devaluing them to reinforce the ghettoization of women in the paid labour force.

Fountain points out the higher ratio of women to men computer users (using stats for 1997) but portrays user influence as limited. “Designers fashion technology more deeply, pervasively and fundamentally” (p. 47). The “social possibilities” we encounter in ITs are in the main “products of ‘deep’ design, characteristics and properties not readily, or not at all, open to modification by users” (ibid). So much for a Feenbergian (or even constructivist) reading. So, for Fountain, technical design seems to be a black box: designers define the technological needs of users; they create the processes, design the codes, build the systems that structure Web use. In short: “designers affect society through technology in ways that users cannot” (p. 48). True, of course, but I don’t think it’s as stark as all that.

Juliet Webster (1995) begins her chapter entitled “Women in systems design – values, methods and artifacts” by stating that the definition of information technology systems has failed women in workplaces (p. 148). That is to say, there is a disconnect between the world of systems designers and that of women’s work: because women are not represented in the development process, their needs and concerns remain unmet. This is a familiar feminist-constructivist refrain.

But she complexifies Fountain’s liberal-feminist argument, which locates the problem with women themselves and offers simplistic equal opportunity solutions. Rather, Webster suggests that it is more than a numbers game – the problem is more serious than women’s numerical absences from all computing work but the most menial and mundane. The issue also goes beyond the conditions of computing work – long, anti-social hours that are often antithetical to women’s lives and their double burden of paid and (unpaid) domestic labour. And it is more still than a problem of “masculine culture” and values of IT firms.

In addition to all of this but most importantly for Webster, it is the very processes and methods that comprise the development of computer systems – carried out in isolation from the worker/user – that pose the biggest barrier. This is because, according to Webster, computer systems development follows a typically positivist and technicist bent, focalizing on tools – the “killer app” – and techniques, as well as the technical limits and potentials of the machine. Invoking Marcuse’s notion of technological rationality (without acknowledging it, I might add), she describes how information and data are privileged over relationships among people.

More problematic is the ignorance of power and gender issues, which is then projected to the work to be automated. “The failure of computer systems developers to address critically the organization of the work they confront means that they often simply replicate oppressive systems of work organization in automated form.” (p. 149). Computer users are excluded from the design process because they are not “experts” – thought they possess knowledge of the work that the designers could not possibly have. The inherent gender-blindness of the innovation process means women remain objects – voiceless and invisible – rather than empowered subjects. Women also remain the point of origin for the problem, an approach that fails to problematize tech work and refuses to account for power relations.

Indeed, Webster points out that the gendered division of the computing industry is becoming more deeply entrenched, despite liberal feminist “awareness” campaigns and other “solutions.” Women are all too aware, it seems, of the high personal costs: hostile work environment, strained relationships with friends and family, identity challenges. Some feminists have attempted to move beyond the simple equal opportunity formulations, subverting gender relations by placing “women at the centre of development projects, both as the subjects of these projects and as the agents of strategic intervention, with the purpose of creating ‘woman-friendly’ or ‘woman-centred’ technologies” (p. 152).

Webster’s query of whether women technologists have different values that result in different technical artifacts is an intriguing one. Do women bring specifically “female” qualities and values to the process of IT development and do these translate into devices and systems with obviously feminine attributes? The scant literature on the subject seems to indicate that women have “caring values”, a less competitive way of interacting with others, and a greater concern for users and social context of technology. Women in IT are identified as having the interpersonal skills that “are learnt through an apprenticeship in womanhood and which are undervalued because they are possessed by women, deriving from and contributing to their subordination” (p. 161).

Some feminist research acknowledges and celebrates these personal competences that arise out of women’s subordination. Webster cautions that this can be progressive as well as problematic. Progressive because it aims to reverse dominant assumptions about these skills and thus women’s value. Problematic in that it dabbles in essentialism, affirming women’s role as caregivers and supporters. “As long as women continue to be identified with such attributes, even if these are recognized to be the products of socialization, then the attributes will be regarded as unimportant precisely because they are held by women, who are regarded as unimportant” (p. 162). One recommendation is to associate the gender qualities of certain types of work with the labour process itself, rather than with the women who perform it so as to prevent women from being denied skill recognition (p.168). Webster further acknowledges that it is difficult to translate values of any type directly into technology, let alone its design. The most she can say is that female computer scientists might chose different problems and develop different methods.

Webster veers into critical constructivist territory in her discussion of users “interpreting” technology, with the result that “the design process is only fully completed when the computer system is implemented and used” (p. 165). She calls this a “radical reconcpetualization” of computer systems development, one that considers the implementation process as innovative, and that values the “local expertise of users. If women’s “local knowledge” were to be redefined as authorativative, it could then inform the development of computer systems. She invokes Suchman’s (1994) term “artful integrations” of design and use during the implementation process, which is none other than Feenberg’s (1999) “creative appropriation”. Articulating and integrating into systems design the obscured and devalued knowledge and experience of women at work is a key aspect of feminist methods of tech dev. The tool designer thus begins with the work of the user. A radical concept (goddess forbid)!

Tam and Bassett Jr. examine and consider the reasons for the IT gender divide in their chapter in the edited collection, Removing barriers: Women in academic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Bystydzienski & Bird, 2006). They note that while the gender gap in internet usage has been closing, the gender gap in education – women majoring in computer-related fields – has not. The authors contend that the “gender gap in educational achievement and employment opportunities puts women at a distinct disadvantage in a society that values computer technology” (110). You think?

While Tam and Bassett Jr. seek to understand the nature and causes of this phenomenon (or say they do), little analysis (but much number crunching) is evident). From a large study conducted using statistics from the University of Illinois-Chicago, they demonstrate that math performance is a significant predictor for becoming an IT major – but less so for female students. They also show that the technology gender gap is not due to differences in math performance, because while the math performance gender gap is shrinking, the IT gender gap continues to widen. the authors then consider other factors that influence the choice of university major and occupation, including: negative experience in computer science classes in grad school; less hands-on experience with technology before collage; women’s doubt of their math ability; girls’ perception of computers as “boy stuff”; and finally, lack of role models and the few female IT teachers.

In order to reduce the technology gender gap, the authors say what is needed is a change in societal and parental expectations, plus a concerted effort to encourage women’s participation in technology education. Again, these are the simplistic suggestions we’ve seen posited in liberal feminist accounts. They offer no concrete strategies for achieving these goals, nor any in depth analyses for understanding why the situation has occurred. Really, this chapter is little more than reassertions of the obvious, backed up but not illuminated by statistics. But for those who want empirical “proof” as to the lack of gender equality in our society, Tam and Bassett’s offering is important.

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