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Gender and Technology

Reenvisioning Our Knowledge Tradition. From GenderBlind to GenderAware

Mary Kirk


The ways in which we have learned to think about technoscience1 are influenced by our assumptions about gender—our notions of both maleness/ masculinity and femaleness/femininity. However, this influence is often invisible because most view technoscience as genderneutral when it is actually just genderblind (Wajcman, 2004). Technoscience has been defined as a male/ masculine domain that excludes the female/feminine (sometimes literally; Frehill, 2004; Lohan & Faulkner, 2004; Millar, 1998). This genderblindness has not only excluded multiple perspectives as technoscientific creators; it has also limited the creations themselves.

Both the technologies we create and the ways in which those technologies are used are profoundly influenced by gender-blind assumptions. For example, Judy Wajcman (2004) tells a tale of two Internets. One reflects the liberatory potential of undermining old social relations, redefining gender roles, strengthening participatory democracy via electronic communities, reaching across our cultural divides, and sharing ideas beyond the control of any one group. The other reflects the oppressive limitations of eliminating personal privacy and expanding the white male hacker culture, burgeoning international racism, economic colonialism, the dominance of ideas from English-speaking cultures, and the massive explosion of pornography and the international sex trade. The question of which Internet predominates will be answered by those who shape its continued creation and by whether they have become genderaware.

J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014

Wajcman (2004) suggested adopting a technofeminist perspective to help us become genderaware and to see the dynamic “relationship between gender and technology, in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations” (p. 7). Harding (2008)—who engaged in a rich interdisciplinary analysis that included feminist science studies, mainstream “traditional” science and technology studies, modernism, and postcolonial studies—recommended that our perspective extend beyond the exclusive concerns of the Northern Hemisphere. Wajcman (2004) underlines the need for this broader vision via the following example of how North, South, East, and West are already interconnected in complex ways with varying economic and cultural benefits/costs:

For a young woman in the West, her silver cell phone is experienced as a liberating extension of her body. The social relations of production that underpin its existence are invisible to her . . . [Cell phones] require the scarce mineral Coltan. One of the few places where this can be found is Central Africa, where it is mined under semi-feudal and colonial labour relations, to provide a raw product for Western multinational companies. The sharp rise in the price of Coltan on global markets has local effects, accentuating exploitation and conflict among competing militias, with the very specific consequences for women that military conflict brings—namely, rape and prostitution. (pp. 121-122)

Although wars in Coltan-producing states such as Rwanda are fueled by global economic concerns, they are often described to the world as ethnic conflicts. Meanwhile, such wars have led to food crises that have raised serious environmental concerns as gorilla populations are decimated to sell “bush” meat to the hungry. As this example shows, the interactions between people and technoscience are dynamic and multidimensional. And that is actually the good news.

From a gender-aware perspective, we have the opportunity to include a multiplicity of viewpoints in developing technologies that serve human beings instead of putting human beings in service to them. Technoscience has the potential to be a site for redefining culture in service of our highest human good or for reifying our current gendered power relations—which potential arises will be the direct result of our degree of genderawareness.

This three-part chapter explains how our knowledge tradition teaches genderblindness: “Dualistic Delusions of Gender”2 describes how we learn gender and explores the nature/nurture debate; “Gendered Philosophy of Science (and Technology)” reveals the ways in which technoscience is gendered, while claiming to be genderneutral; and “Invisible Women in Science and Technology” shares the growing history of women in science and technology, which (until recently) has been omitted from our knowledge tradition.3 By exposing our learned genderblindness, I hope to help readers develop the genderawareness that is critical to increasing technological literacy in the twenty-first century.

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