“Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” some thoughts on gender and technology, by Maya Ober

Talking about gender and technology, first, we have to acknowledge that the patriarchal logic and the logic of cultural thinking assume the inferiority of women. Sherry Ortner’s influential text “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?”[1] can serve as a basis for the understanding of the issue. According to Ortner, the condition of female subjugation is universal to all cultures and manifests itself on different levels:

  1. devaluating women, their roles, their products, their insight
  2. in a symbolic way degrading women
  3. through social constructs which exclude women from participation at the most powerful positions within society

Ortner believes the universal devaluation of women to stem from the fact that through the patriarchal logic, woman is being identified with “nature”, which as such is perceived as less valuable in comparison to culture. Culture creates artefacts, products, controls nature and bends it.  Therefore, we can equate culture with the products of the human mind: conceptual ideologies or physical technologies.

Women due to their biological ability to procreate have been perceived as closer to nature, while men’s bodies have given them more freedom since they are not physiologically created to reproduce. Ortner writes:

“In other words, woman’s body seems to doom her to mere reproduction of life; the male, in contrast, lacking natural creative functions, must (or has the opportunity to) assert his creativity externally, “artificially,” through the medium of technology and symbols. In so doing, he creates relatively lasting, eternal, transcendent objects, while the woman creates only perishables – human beings.” 

But not the physiological processes made women’s position inferior to the one held by men, rather the social framework in which these mechanisms were given certain significance. The patriarchal logic assigned women particular stereotypical features such as the notion of femininity (as opposed to masculinity), thus limited them to domestic labour, while men were hunting, ruling, creating technology and producing.  Associating women with domesticity confined and excluded them from participation in public life. The socially constructed dissonance between biological family and public aspect of society, domestic-public binary, hierarchised the position of women and men and their respective participation within society.

“(…) so the cultural reasoning seems to go, men are the “natural” proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action in which universalistic statements of spiritual and social synthesis are made. Thus men are identified not only with culture, in the sense of all human creativity, as opposed to nature; they are identified in particular with culture in the old-fashioned sense of the finer and higher aspects of human thought – art, religion, law, etc.” (Ortner)

And here comes technology, as it is perceived as the higher level of human activity and human genie. Technology not only controls nature but also manages to bend its laws. Humans as a species were born without wings, and yet conceptualised, developed and produced aeroplanes. Technology is the highest manifestation of the opposition of nature, therefore in the patriarchal structure, it is almost exclusively male-dominated, systematically barring females’ participation.

One of the processes to exclude women from creating and often using technology is the limited access to higher education. The difference between the education that men used to get and still do and the one given to women is very significant to the understanding of oppressive mechanisms within this specific field. Only in the 1920s, women started getting broader access to higher education and even this was restricted by the maximal number of women allowed to study. When my grandmother matriculated at the Medicine Department in the late 30s there were only 5 spots reserved for women out of 100. Being Jewish and female at the same time in Europe, meant for her to face double hurdles while trying to get admitted.  And it took even longer for women to become lecturers, professors, deans, who actively shape academic curricula. When we look today at the devastating disproportion between female students and female senior members of faculty, it is easy to conclude that women are systematically deprived an active role in co-creation of knowledge and forming academic content.

All these processes in a structural way intend to block the access of women to receive the necessary tools to create technology. Those female individuals, who managed to succeed in spite of the hardships, are either marginalised or accounted for their gender. If we look globally the fact that women can acquire a higher education is quite a recent one and still for many it means a constant struggle to overcome, to unlearn, much of the social conditioning. And though women have fought to get access to many fields, still the top of the top (according to the patriarchal logic): technology, science and industry/architecture are mostly male-dominated. Boys are in the overwhelming majority of schools encouraged to focus on science (math, physics, computer studies) while girls are directed to “liberal arts” social sciences, history, literature etc. This disparity can be further observed at any technological school or university and reflects itself within the industry. The sexist attitudes and socialisation of women are directly responsible for this state, but the root, in my opinion, lies within the concept of gender binary itself. Gender is a mix of stereotypical, sexist assumptions which led to the creation of the destructive and oppressive idea of femininity. Femininity, a made-up social construct and a very foundation of patriarchy, implies that females have a certain set of features, behaviours and roles. Only through the dismantling of the gender construct, we can liberate women from the structural oppression.

The structural processes of excluding women and confining them to the stereotypical roles, while keeping for men lucrative and prestigious fields such as architecture, science, and technology, not only influenced the debarment of women as practitioners and professionals but also neglected their needs as users. One recent example is the menstruation tracker in iPhone’s Health App, which Apple introduced only two years ago. The fact that the male body in the course of the history served as a model one, as a standard, resulted in creating a myriad of products simply discriminatory towards women users, such as guns, tools etc. An electric drill is another great example of this distorted standard, I have been wondering for years, why I don’t like drilling and why it was always a hassle for me to drill holes in the wall, which led me to refrain from buying shelves. Only recently focusing more on the research of standards in design, I understood that the vast majority of the electric drills are designed for a taller and bigger body – mostly a male one. Cockpit design, car design, air-bags are some examples of a complete disregard for female users.

Many argue, especially social feminists and Black feminists [2], that women might produce different technology than the one developed by men, reflecting their priorities and their experiences. Since women have been constantly discriminated as users within the field, one can claim that through the experience of exclusion and oppression they will result in creating user-friendly more inclusive technologies, taking into account the aspects of gender, class, ability and race.

Each discipline reflects the bodies that create it, thus male dominance within technology affects the ways in which the field has been developing, as well as influences its sets of priorities, its assumptions etc. The symbolic violence has been systematically undermining women and their achievements. Still women active within the areas historically and societally associated with men, are at all time accounted not for their knowledge and their performance, rather are they examined and portrayed through their sex. So, we talk about “female astronaut” in comparison to “astronaut”, “female programmer”, “female game designer”, “female physicist” etc. all these terms are juxtaposed with sex and gender-neutral equivalent, which is by default male.

Colossus.jpg

Operators of Colossus the first electronic digital programmable computing deviceUnknown – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record FO850/234

The first computer programme was written by Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, but yet the mainstream image and the reality of computer science are male-dominated. The second World War paradoxically enabled women broader access to technology and industry, because of men’s absence, due to the draft to the army. Many women mathematicians who previously were directed to be math teachers at the elementary schools suddenly had an opportunity to work in technology, as operators of the very first computers, but even then, this specific work was not perceived as prestigious and still men were the ones focused on developing hardware and women were “merely” operators.

In my opinion, speaking about technology we should not only focus on the individual women whose achievements were forgotten and dismissed, or on those who managed in spite of obstacles to have a successful career and recognition, but more importantly, we should contextualise technology within the patriarchal framework and analyse the processes taking place in it through the feminist theory. Only when we highlight the power structures, only when we understand the systematic means taken to exclude women from technology in the course of history, we can get a more comprehensive view on what technology nowadays is, what it stands for, what values have been made important and what has been omitted and neglected.

An intersectional analysis of gender distribution in technology brings a broader understanding of the oppressive mechanisms operating within our society which intersect on so many levels. Class, race together with gender are social constructs that influence one’s position within the hierarchical structure of the society. Especially, in the technology these disparities are enormous. In the Global North, most of the positions at startups are held by middle-upper-class white men. Race, gender, and class are intertwined and perpetuate patriarchy and capitalism at the same time.

What we can conclude, is that the more prestigious (according to patriarchal logic), the most distant from “nature” a discipline is, the more exclusive and male-centred it becomes; fewer women and people of colour either participate or get visibility in it. As mentioned before, science, technology, and architecture are in my opinion these three “divine” areas.

 

[1] Ortner, Sherry B. Is female to male as nature is to culture? In M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds), Woman, culture, and society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 68-87.

[2] Sue V. Rosser, Through the Lenses of Feminist Theory: Focus on Women and Information Technology,  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005), pp. 1-23

 

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