Gender and Technology: new capabilities or old, masked prejudices?

AG About Gender – International Journal of Gender Studies

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Gender and Technology: new capabilities or old, masked prejudices?

Gender is pervasive in our societies, and, therefore, it also influences technology. The relationship between gender and technology has been a specific area of study since the 1980s.
Initially, attention was focused on trying to understand how some stereotypes had developed: for example, that men differ from women due to their alleged technological and manual superiority (if not exclusivity). Within the framework of this stereotype, men would have a natural and exclusive aptitude to understand the functioning of an electrical system or the engine of a car. This aptitude, absent in women, would be “compensated” by the latter’s natural and exclusive ability to manage technology in other areas, such as the domestic environment (Cockburn and Omrod, 1993).
From this perspective, women and men could be distinguished according to their natural or acquired ability to use technology. The male monopoly over technology and the technological incompetence of women were initially seen as important factors for maintaining inequalities and creating new imbalances between the two genders.
It has been questioned whether or not women were deliberately excluded from the official history of technological development, to which they had indeed contributed (Stanley, 1995). In pursuit of this question, the consequences brought about by the diffusion of new technologies in most female work sectors (Hartman et al., 1984) and in domestic life (Cowan, 1983) were studied.
However, by the end of the 1980s, the focus shifted to the analysis of how technology is developed and used and how this development is connected to the mechanisms creating gender perceptions. According to radical feminism, for example, in the Western world technology has been embodying patriarchal values, and a keen interest in new reproductive technologies has developed from this perspective (Denny, 1994; Mandell, 1995).
More recently, after attracting the attention of fields such as anthropology, cultural anthropology, philosophy or law, technology has further been redesigned as a means of communication, object of consumption, text (Haraway, 1997). In addition, the relationship between gender and technology has been yet re-analyzed, this time starting from the hypothesis of a reciprocal co-construction (Wajcman, 1991).
It is evident that even the contents spread by means of information technologies are powerful intensifiers of gender divisions. This can be seen in the gender differences present in video games: predominantly populated by male characters, with female characters being highly sexualized (Ivory, 2006; Jaggi, 2014).
The arrival of the Internet, social media, and pervasive computing has created new incentives for studying IT tools. Within society 2.0, constantly progressing towards the massive use of big data, one of the topics that are attracting the interest of gender studies experts is the control of citizens through databases; in particular, the use of data, and the traces of information that individuals leave – consciously or not – in cyberspace (Mantelero and Vaciago, 2013; Baarber and Pasley, 2005).
Additionally, Horizon 2020, the research and development programme of the European Union, has included gender as a cross-cutting priority to be considered in each European project (Schiebinger, 2013). This choice has significant potential for the diffusion of the concept of gender in all stages of technological research. However, the analysis of EU documents shows both clear and unclear issues regarding this topic. It is therefore appropriate to initiate critical analysis in this area, not least to help those who do research and have no expertise in gender studies to orient themselves and understand what meanings can be given to the issue of gender and technology, both today and in the near future.
Technologies emerge from society; this implies that they incorporate functions that are suited to the world in which they operate, conveying values related to that world, independently of the level of awareness of their inventors. The powerful pervasiveness of new technologies, such as information and communication or biological innovation, requires an urgent and continual assessment of their development. Achieving these objectives is also conditional to the ability to understand the social and ethical implications of the choices made when developing these technologies (Johnson, 1985).
The goal of the editors of the volume is to collect contributions that allow for investigation and call for reflections and discussion of the relationship between technology and gender. Particular attention is devoted to new technologies and their ability to shape the world, exploring the various implications of different approaches: philosophical, sociological, bioethical, political, and legal, just to name a few.
Among the possible macro issues, we mention gender in conjunction with computer technologies, technologies for the monitoring of space and / or people, communication technologies, reproductive technologies and technologies developed for treatment and care (e.g. for the disabled or the elderly).

Edited by: Rita Bencivenga (LEGS-Laboratoire d’études de genre et de sexualité- CNRS/Université Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis et Université Paris Ouest), Francesca Bosco (United Nation Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute), Susanna Pozzolo (Università degli Studi di Brescia).

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