Gender and Technology: Mind the Gap!

Michela Cozza. Organizational Communication and Sustainable Development: ICTs for Mobility. Editor: Anette Hallin & Tina Karrbom Gustavsson, Information Science Reference, 2010.

Introduction

There is a large amount of writing that falls under the rubric of “technologies studies”. In their reflections on the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, many social scientists as well as popular commentators have given attention to tremendous power of technology to shape the identities, the public and private life, the social trends and transformations. Nevertheless, the sociological literature has failed for a long time to consider whether this technological revolution—that in this chapter will be associated to Information Communication Technology (ICT) and particularly to Internet—might be analyzed in a perspective of gender.

This “gender blindness” (Maddock & Parkin, 1993) arises from the myth of a neutral and pure technology, which is free from any sexual and gendered implication (and implications of race, class and so on, too). Nevertheless, if we take into account that technology evolves continually, involving new ways of doing, making and producing things (tools, appliances, machines), it becomes clear that technology is a fundamental part of social and everyday life. In this sense technology and the relations in which the social construction of a technology occurs are also inevitably gender relations. “Inevitably, because gender is one of the major structures of the social order and gender relations are found wherever people are found” (Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993, p. 155).

Feminist and gender studies have contributed to pinpoint the relation between gender and technology. More precisely, within this growing stream of research it is useful to distinguish between gender in technology and gender of technology: in both cases the two-way mutual shaping relationship between gender and technology is emphasized.

In the former case, gender relations are both embodied in and constructed or reinforced by artifacts to yield a very material form of the mutual shaping of gender and technology. In the latter, the gendering of artifacts is more by association than by material embodiment. In practice, various forms of gendering can be identified between these two scenarios. (Faulkner, 2001, p. 83)

The idea of this mutual process benefits on one hand from the representation of gender as a relational play: gender identity is what people do, think and say about material and immaterial things in relation to other people conceived as sexed (Connell, 1987). On the other hand the reflections on this co-production arises from the concept of technology as relational too. As deployed in production, in everyday life, in the household, technological artifacts entail relations. They embody “some” (those that went into their making); they prefigure “others” (those implied in their use, abuse or neglect) (Cockburn, 1992).

This chapter is based on a fundamental statement: it is difficult, if not obtuse, to attempt an understanding of technology, technological contexts and social networks-mainly in post-modern society or rather in the digital age-without taking account of gender. Technology can tell us something we need to know about gender identity. Gender identity can tell us something we need to know about technology.

The increasing importance of gender and technology studies in the international scenario is a result of the sociological and feminist research carried out in the 20th century. Thanks to important analysis on co-construction of gender and technology in organizational contexts (for instance: Cockburn & Ormrod, 1993; Cockburn, 1985; Coombs, Knights & Willmot, 1992; Har-away, 1988; 1997; Henwood, 1993; Stone, 1995; Turkle, 1984; 1995; Wajcman, 1991; 2004) we now work from the basis that neither masculinity, femininity nor technology are fixed, unitary categories, but that they are situated, they contain multiple possibilities and they are constructed in relation to each other. There are many academic groups that focus on gender science and technology studies, with a specific attention to women status. For instance there is the Center for Women & Information Technology (University of Maryland, Baltimore), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Society of Women Engineers, the WICS: Women in Computer Science (Stanford), the WICSE: Women in Computer Science & Electrical Engineering (U.C. Berkeley), the WISE: Women in Applied Science and Engineering (Arizona State), the [email protected] – Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, the Centro di Studi Interdisciplinari di Genere (Italy, Trento), the Nordic Research School in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies. Besides there are many international refereed journals, also online, that serve as forum for exploring the linkages among changing gender relations, technological development and organizations such as “Gender, Technology and Development”, “Gender, Work and Organization”,

Gender and Development”, “Feminist Theory” or the recently established “International Journal of Feminist Technoscience” (http://feministtechno-science.se). The last, using an open peer review process, may be considered an example of the feminist practice in ICT.

This debate might be the framework of reference for many researchers for networking and developing new researches and programs, passing from a gender blind vision to a gender-aware vision (Wajcman, 2004). Making the gender dimension explicit in technology studies might affect the practices of “experts” in Information Technology (IT) field, the policy of decision-makers and the lives of individual men and women.

The rapid development of new information and communication technologies is changing the way that governments, private sector and civil society all conduct their daily business and activities. In particular Internet might be considered—as I try to highlight in this chapter—the symbol of technologies that are not an end in themselves, but rather an important tool and a key that can unlock many doors, for instance to parts of the labor market, to new information, to education, to the ability to connect and communicate with the entire world. Given this significance, it seems obvious that those shut out of this innovation have much to lose (UNCTAD, 2002). Moreover, without a balanced involvement of different “stakeholders” (by sex, race, class and so on) the potential of ITs and Internet, as tools promoting sustainable development in terms of human development and empowerment, might be wasted.

Practitioners and decision-makers should cooperate with researchers to learn more about gender dynamics in IT sector. The results of gender technology studies should feed back into policies that help to redress adverse gender effects. This virtuous circle responds more effectively to objectives of a sustainable development—that is the motif of this book.

Sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. (WCED, 1987, p. 57)

If the aim of this book is to shed light on the advantages as well as the disadvantages of the use of technologies in and for human interaction, I try to contribute to it adopting a pluralistic understanding by exploring, at the beginning, the tensions among and inside the different theoretical visions of gender and technology.

The first focus is to point at the different ways in which IT—in particular Internet and the virtual relations that it makes possible—is studied through gender-aware research. The synthesis of approaches is not exhaustive, but it copes with the intention to clarify ambiguity of technological development. Internet may be considered emblematic: it embeds the dream of a gender friendly cyberspace; yet, if technological development does not proceed in a balanced manner, it enhances new barriers or widens existing gender gaps. How does the two-way mutual shaping relationship between gender and technology make sense of the “digital gender gap”? Is this gap the same everywhere? What are the principal aspects of the gender gap on Internet as tool and symbol of technological potential? What are the strategic issues of a gender-aware research agenda and how might it weigh on technology sustainable development?

I will try to answer to these questions bearing in mind that gender and technology are not separated but co-constructed in every day life: gender is a fundamental way of organizing and classifying our social experience as well as technologies create new kinds of social relationships and a host of new activities and practices.

The “Either/Or” Technology on the Background

A deep division marks the scientific literature on technology: on one side the “optimists”, on the other the “pessimists” (Kraft & Siegenthaler, 1989). By this traditional distinction, the technology is either “good” or “bad”.

Communication technologies, in particular, either help us to stay informed or they overload us with too much information; they either connect us with like-minded people or they allow harassers to track us down; they either make us feel a part of something social or they alienate us. (Takayoshi, 2000, p. 132)

The blindly confident and enthusiastic attitude towards technology has been defined “rhetoric of technology” (Hawisher & Selfe, 1991). This positive tendency is typical of Eighties: “a period characterized by general optimism regarding the potential of the Internet to provide increased opportunities for traditionally subordinate groups” (Herring, 2000). In this perspective the medium (the computer, but also Internet) is considered intrinsically democratic, egalitarian, immune to gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices (Adam, 2002; Ahuja, 2002; Herring, 2000; Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1989; Panteli, Stack & Ramsay, 2001). As tools, new ICTs and particularly Internet offer many possibilities for making our lives more efficient and thus for increasing the prosperity of nation. People can make “productive” use of time spent in third spaces such as airports, cars, subways and cafes by phoning, sending text messages, and increasingly accessing their e-mail and information services. The easily available Internet makes the web a convenient place to find quick information and makes e-mail a handy way to share quick thoughts. It also makes it easier to work from home. Flexible working regimes and opportunities for “telecommuting” (working from home with the aid of electronic communications) provide new possibilities for people to balance reproductive work with productive work. Gershuny (2003), on the basis of the United Kingdom time-diary panel study, investigates the impact of the Worldwide Web on time-use patterns and concludes that the Internet is positively associated with efficiency and effectiveness because it resets the “dead time”. Likewise, Wellman (2001) takes into account the “social affordances” of technology examining the opportunities of computerized communication networks. He states that “these ties have transformed cyberspace into cyberplaces, as people connect online with kindred spirits, engage in supportive and sociable relationships with them, and imbue their activity online with meaning, belonging and identity” (Wellman, 2001, p. 229).

The apocalyptic scenario is quite different. The pessimistic vision of technology looks at the “Post-Market Era” as the epoch of “the end of work”. The intelligent machines, taking the place of human beings in many working activities, produce an increasing rate of unemployment, a general aggravation of economic, political and cultural life, a segmentation of society and the weakening of relationships (Lash, 2002; Newman, 1988; Rifkin, 1995; Schor, 1992). Many researchers and policy makers have expressed concern that inequality in access to Internet technology increases the existing polarity between countries as well as between groups within a country. Without a cultural turn and—more concretely—in the absence of the access to market, skills and decision-making positions at the highest levels, the availability of infrastructures alone does not enhance participation of traditionally subordinated groups in digital economy, it does not reduce the digital gap. Besides, the cost of infrastructure is likely to remain a major issue for both women and men, particularly in the poorer countries. In Bangladesh, for example, the cost of a computer equals nearly two years’ salary for a professional person, and a modem costs more than a cow (Mitter, 2001).

The mainstream researchers—as “apocalyptic” as “integrated”—not only has strengthened a dichotomic logic (either/or), that is typical of western thought, but they have also associated themselves to the image of an (apparently) gender-neutral techno science. The role recently—but not easily—gained by feminist and gender studies in the scientific community and the work done at the international level by women’s advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have addressed the question of gender construction into the debate on the digital divide and ICT policy making.

Nevertheless, if we turn our attention to feminist and gender studies on gender and technology, does the conflict between optimistic and pessimistic vision of technology disappear? How is this tension constructed around the gender? A significant debate is that concerning the gender of the Internet that I am going to map.

Gendering the Internet

Internet is a contested medium as far as its social cultural meanings and significance are concerned. A core issue in the debate is the meaning of the Internet for gender: both are multidimensional concepts that are articulated in complex and contradictory ways. The analysis of different visions of this topic may be a good starting point for the following understanding of digital gender gap. In particular, it is interesting to discuss the common claims and interpretations of the Internet as masculine, Internet as feminine, Internet as the medium that enables new identities not limited by gender (De Ruggieri & Pugliese, 2006). In this section I consider only the first and second approach.

The first perspective expresses a negative vision of technology and Internet because they are perceived as deeply embedded in masculine codes which then spill over into digital culture and world of work; the second one is based on a positive view of the Web and IT because they appear gender-friendly in terms of opportunities and challenges in areas such as education and training, health, participation in public life and the productive sphere. Anyway, it is useful to go on step by step.

For some scholars the Web, as it came to life in the Sixties for defensive purposes from the collaboration between American universities and the Pentagon (Edwards, 1990; Naughton, 1999; Perry & Greber, 1990), is a medium being deep-seated in men’s values (van Zoonen, 1992). According to this perspective the (material and discursive) construction of technology (Berner, 1997) represent “male hegemony” (Connell, 1987; Hearn, 2004) and include the values of patriarchal tradition (Wajcman, 1995; 2004) insomuch as Jane Caputi (1988) talks of “Phallotechnology”.

Technology is more than a set of physical objects or artifacts. It also fundamentally embodies a culture or set of social relations made up of certain sorts of knowledge, beliefs, desires and practices. Treating technology as a culture has enabled us to see the way in which technology is expressive of masculinity and how, in turn, men characteristically view themselves in relation to these machines. (Wajcman, 1991, p. 149)

For instance, this perspective shares the opinion that the technological devices for home-based work instead of being a real chance for women have reinforced the traditional patterns regarding gender. The telework may foster overly the traditional division of labor at home (first of all the care giving), confirming the cultural norms that mandate different priorities for men and women in terms of public and private obligations, and management of time and space. Besides, the literature has focused the risks arising from female home-based work such as the deprivation of the status of working women and the restraint on their professional or business efficiency (Rodrigues Araújo, 2008; UNCAT, 2002). This perspective marks also some analysis about increasing globalization. Joan Acker states, “the new dominant growth sectors, information technology, biotech innovation, and global finance, are all heavily male-dominated” (2004, p. 31). As identified by Acker, much of the work on gender and globalization is actually research on women, work, and family under contemporary conditions of economic transformations. This gender research may include men as their actions and practices shape the worlds of women. Again, much feminist research on globalization is about women in the South, the Third World, or in “peripheral” or “developing” countries where certain IT-enabled services have grown exponentially employing a large number of low-paid female workers (Wajc-man, 1995).

The advances in computer and communication technologies have made it possible to transfer digitized data online when there is an adequate supply of infrastructure and bandwidth. Through the use of networking technologies, large amounts of information can be transported at a very low cost from the companies’ core offices to satellite or subcontracting units. This possibility has led companies to externalize and decentralize non-core sections of business operations to distant and often cheaper locations. The targeted sites are usually the ones that offer the promises of a cheap, skilled computer and English literate workforce. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCAT) Report on e-commerce and development explains the correlation of outsourcing, English proficiency and inclusion of women in digital economy.

Since the top two outsourcing markets—the United States and the United Kingdom—are both English-speaking, those developing countries that would want to tap those markets would have to learn English […] This gives rise to some policy implications for improving the schooling and literacy of women where a second language—English—should be learned. (UNCAT, 2002, p. 78)

Some recent feminist studies have claimed the intrinsic femininity of Internet by repositioning its cultural meaning as opposed to the male logic of the American military-industrial-academic apparatus from which it originated. This positioning within the feminist debate leaves behind the adverse criticism towards men’s technological hegemony and gives space to optimism as regards the potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Dale Spender (1995), for instance, made an early feminist claim on Internet as a medium especially relevant for individual and collective networking of women, and also for other traditionally subordinated groups, for that matter. Sherry Turkle, professor in the sociology of science at the MIT and author of an influential book on the construction of identities through Internet communication (Turkle, 1995), claims that one needs an ethic of community, consensus and communication on the Internet and this is what she thinks women in particular are good at.

Other authors have compared the experience of the Net, the immersion of its textual, visual and virtual realities, to that of the fetus in the womb. Internet experience is considered analogous to the secure and unconstrained experience of the maternal matrix that offers an escape from the constraints of the body (Smelik, 2000, as cited in van Zoonen, 2002). If we look at the developing countries, the UNCAT’s Report (2002) offers numerous examples of attractive possibilities given to women entrepreneurs by ITs: the telecentres in Senegal and Marocco, phone shops in Ghana, Internet cafes or kiosks in Thailand and Malaysia. According to some scholars, the telework too is considered a good opportunity: with the computer and a modem, people can be connected to the office and can perform their professional work from a distant site such as a neighborhood centre or their own home. This new mode of working has received much attention, particularly in the context of women’s career prospects and work-family balance.

Briefly, some feminist theories of the gender and technology relationship have long oscillated, in the same way as mainstream technology studies, between pessimism and optimism, “utopian” and “dystopian” visions. The (feminist) utopian view is that technology and Internet have an emancipatory potential because women—as traditionally subordinated group—can “transcend” their corporeal “limitations” to participate fully in the digital age. On the other extreme, dystopian visions of the future seen through the lens of various feminisms posit that technological advances will continue to subjugate women through the masculine project of dominating women and nature: for instance, life becomes further biomedicalized and commodified through genetic and reproductive engineering. Looking at the world of work, the demands of post-industrial capitalist society for cheap and flexible labor will continue, with women (their knowledge, skills and body), remaining the pool from which the “knowledge economy” draws to maintain and extend its capital gains (Moore et al., 2008).

According to Takayoshi (2000) this dualistic approach can be overcome by adopting a “balanced perspective” ascribing to the technology the possibility of being both oppressive and empowering. The figure of cyborg (Haraway, 1991) that has inspired the cyber feminism makes it possible to keep tensions and contradictions, possibilities and risks arising from gender and technology relationship.

The “Transgender” Identity of Internet

In order to complete the review, I have to discuss the third claim about gender and Internet concerning the cyber feminist interpretation of it.

The proposal of cyber feminist authors is added to the previous ones: nevertheless their prevailing techno-enthusiasm flows into a different definition of Internet. The cyber feminists—and many other feminist authors (for instance: Butler, 1990; Knights & Kerfoot, 2004; Linstead & Brewis, 2004)—contend a transgression of the dichotomous categories of male and female defining Internet as “transgender” (Braidotti, 1996), “a gender laboratory, a playground for experimenting with gender symbols and identity, a space to escape from the dichotomy of gender and the boundaries produced by physical bodies” (van Zoonen, 2002, p. 12).

Cyber feminism is a term for a variety of academic and artistic practices that centre around and in Internet and other Information Communication Technologies. It is the interpreter of a new generation of feminism interested in the online world, named “cyberspace” by William Gibson. In a social context imbued with technology and with the imaginary world arising from it, the contemporary feminism has redefined itself, its own epistemology and political positioning. Donna Haraway’s writing on cyborgs offers the almost canonical frame of reference here, the cyborg being “a cybernetic organism, a fusion of the organic and the technical forged in particular, historical, cultural practices” (Haraway, 1997, p. 51).

The cyborg might be used as a metaphor of the already mentioned technological ambivalence because, according to Donna Haraway (1991), it may suggest the increased control, command and communication in science and society, provided for instance by the connectivity or the “always on” capacity of wireless devices, but the metaphor of cyborg may suggest too the possibility to change the images of universality, modernity and progress in favor of the (re) construction and (re) constitution of gender, ethnicity, age and class as intertwined with networks of socio-technical relations (Jansson, Mörtberg, & Berg, 2007).

Cyber feminism on the Internet is found among others in the so-called Multi User Dungeons (MUDs). MUDs have attracted the attention of many feminist authors and seem to have become paradigmatic for the Internet as a laboratory for gender.

MUDs are text-based, virtual games, which may have the different purposes of seeking adventure and killing monsters, of socializing with others and building new communities. They also offer a tool for teaching by constructing virtual classrooms. One usually does not access a MUD through the World Wide Web, but links up through Telnet. When login on for the first time, one chooses a name for the character one wants to be and keeps that name for the duration of the game, which can—in fact—go on for years. It is precisely this choice of identity at the beginning of the game that the MUD reputation of being a laboratory for gender experiments comes from. Women play as men, men operate as women, others choose multiple identities […] or try what it means to operate as an “it”. (van Zoonen, 2002, p. 13).

There are many places in Internet for women and men to socialize, blurring (or maintaining) the gender identity. In Usenet, the largest public area of Internet, people get together in newsgroups to discuss diverse subjects. For people who want to role-play in another persona, or even another gender, there are not only MUD but also Multi-User Shared Hallucination (MUSH): it is a text-based online social medium to which multiple users are connected at the same time. MUSH is often used for online social intercourse and role-playing games, although the first forms of MUSH do not appear to be coded specifically to implement gaming activity. Besides there are mailing lists, chat, forum, blog and many other Internet services.

For cyber feminism, cyberspace represents the post-gendered world where the traditional ideas about gendered identities and roles are subverted empowering women (Plant, 1998). Internet is a democratic agora, an electronic meeting place where individuals throughout the world could interact as equals despite differences in nationality, race, social status, sex, and other status or physical attributes. However this transcendence of the body are very problematic because they concern a particularly masculine form of reasoning.

Several authors have noted that women’s work often involves looking after bodies, cleaning and feeding the young, old and the sick […] Looking after bodily needs is a process which sinks into invisibility and leaves men free to live the higher status life of the mind. Small wonder that transcending the body should have become associated with masculinist modes of reasoning and should be reflected, not only in the work of AI [Artificial Intelligence] robotics but also in the desire of cyber culture enthusiasts to leave the body behind in cyberspace. (Adam, 1997, p. 21)

Cyberspace has its own (gender) culture, morals, and expectations, but in just as many ways, it replicates the biases, contradictions, prejudices, stereotypes and gender social practices. “Cyberspace is no paradise on Earth. Quite the contrary!” (Neutopia, 1994).

The way in which Internet allows new kinds of social relationships by revolutionizing communication and access to information does not seem therefore to suffice to celebrate its democratic vocation. Most importantly, the techno-enthusiasm of cyber feminism does not substantiate its claim to make women’s lives better. It shows little engagement with the growing body of empirical research on gender and technology. The apparent absence of a political agenda is reinforced by the alliance of cyber feminism to cyberpunk, science fiction versions of cyber culture which are deliberately alienated from politics.

In order to follow a more concrete reasoning about gender and technology that is about the way in which the gender studies can help professionals and decision-makers, in the next paragraph the digital divide and the gender gap will be analyzed—in relation to Internet—as principal obstacles to a sustainable technological development.

Different Aspects of Digital Gender Gap

Inclusion and openness are features, which have marked Internet since its birth and have fed the myth of a democratic and egalitarian network being able to fill geographical and social gaps among people. The democratic vocation of the Internet would seem confirmed also by its extraordinary development from 1994 on, without precedents in the history of media; but the possibility to access or not to ICT, and particularly to Internet, determines considerable differences among individuals, families and countries. These disparities impact on life quality and on job and cultural opportunities, overdrawing, on technological level, traditional mechanisms of social stratification.

Such a fracture is defined as “digital divide”: this expression summarizes all kinds of inequality existing in relation with technology both inside and outside of a country. The expression “digital divide” generally refers to the gap dividing the minority of privileged people connected to Internet from the big majority of world population who cannot access to basic communication infrastructures yet. In reality researchers have also noticed in different social groups great disparities in the mastery of this medium and in the freedom of action. These differences can be interpreted in a gender perspective, by considering the cultural and material elements distinguishing the technological positioning of male users from that of female users. Mainly, the literature stresses the women’s disadvantage so that the gender perspective, in many cases, focus on feminine situation.

In considering the gender gap on the Internet, Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott (2005) define three aspects: (1) access to the Internet, (2) frequency of use of the Internet, and (3) scope of the use of the Internet.

Access refers to the opportunity for individuals to use the web because they can utilize a computer in a public or private setting and have connections to the Internet. The frequency of use refers to the amount of time that an individual devotes to the use of the Internet. The scope of use refers to the variety of websites […] used by an individual. (Wasserman & Richmond-Abbott, 2005, p. 254)

The question of the access has been interpreted differently in relation to the period and analytical perspective. In the early stages of home computer, the new technology was popularly portrayed as a male domain; at that time, women were more likely to be “technophobic”.

There is much talk about women and “computer phobia”. My research suggests that women’s phobic reactions to the machine are a transitional phenomenon. There is the legacy of women’s traditional socialization into relationships with technical objects, for many of them best summed up by the admonishment: “Don’t touch it, you’ll get a shock”. There is the legacy of a computer culture that has traditionally been dominated by images of competition, sports and violence. There are still computer operating systems that communicate to their users in terms of “killing” and “aborting” programs. These are things that have kept women fearful and far away from the machine. But these are things that are subject to change. (Turkle, 1988, p. 41)

The most recent studies have conflicting opinions about the numbers of women that today access to ICT and Internet (Huyer & Carr, 2002; Ono & Zavodny, 2003). Yet in literature and statistical overview, we found that there is a general increase in the number of women using ICTs, whereas there is not a corresponding increase in women working within the ICT professions and there is still a gender gap in terms of ownership of ICT products. If we consider the Europe “the overall picture is a contradictory one: optimistic with respect to what we call women and ICT (that is, women as users) and pessimistic with respect to women in ICT (that is, women within the ICT professions)” (Faulkner & Lie, 2007, p.158).

The transnational/(post) colonial feminism, leaving a logo centric point of view and giving attention to spaces and opportunities offered to the so called “third-world” by electronic networks and cyberspace (Calás & Smircich 2006), extends the discussion about the question of access to the Internet and ICTs, recognizing that even if Internet has its “headquarters” in the first world, this does not mean neither that it is contextually empowering all women in the Northern societies, nor that Internet is the panacea for the problems of Southern under-privileged women.

Whether located in the Northern hemisphere or the South, whether rich or poor, global structures or power (through their “invisible” control of the market, Internet service providers, software design, language and so on) clearly determine women’s use of the Internet. If cyber feminists want to ensure that the Internet is empowering, it is not enough to “get connected” and set up websites and maintain e-mail-discussion lists. The latter tasks, while necessary, are only a minuscule part of the battle. (Gajjala & Mamidipudi, 1999, pp. 15-16)

“It is not enough to get connected”: indeed, the gender gap is directly linked to social and cultural factors. For instance, the access to ITs and Internet is associated to different roles and positions of women and men in society and family. In developing countries—especially in low-income families—the parents tend to give priority to the education of boys rather than girls. Also, women often have less control over family income (in particular if men are the main income earners), which makes it more difficult for them to pursue (fee-based) training in IT-related fields or spend family income on ICT access and use (UNCAT, 2002). Again, in developing and developed countries too, the prevailing gender stereotypes sustain the male hegemony in the world of work and discourage girls from pursuing science, technology or engineering careers (Adya & Kaiser, 2005).

Following the analysis of Wasserman and Richmond-Abbott (2005), the second aspect of gender gap is the frequency of use of the Internet. It involves the amount of time an individual uses the web for social and/or professional activity. Many individuals use Internet for social entertainment, to play games, and for hobby interests. By contrast, other individuals use this ICT for business and commercial activities (i.e., banking, stock transactions). Nevertheless the frequency of use can be analyzed, apart from the consideration of the time one dedicates to Internet, also in relation with the level of socializing and familiarity with technology. As regards the process of socializing with technology we know that it begins during childhood and that toys have an important role of “facilitators” in this phase.

Children enter a world that is heavily reliant on technology in both a physical and culture sense […] Often the first social commentary on technology that children encounter is mediated through the toys they are given which are not only technologically based themselves but also carry messages about the social relations in which technology, gender, class, and much more are embedded. The impact of these first cultural utensils cannot be overlooked […] Successes in strong gender demarcation by toy manufactures who have firm ideas as to what sells best to each gender reinforce for the industry notions that girls and boys are different, but they also promote that precise idea to children. (Varney, 2002, pp. 154-155).

Business strategies and manufacturing processes in the field of ICT can bear on digital gender gap in a way or in another. Women are poorly represented as information technology designers and experts and, as feminists have stressed, the women’s absence from spheres of influence, among the principal actors in technological design and decision-making, is a key feature of gender power relation (Fountain, 2000; Wajcman, 2004). In the ICT sector, as well in many other techno scientist fields, the occupational segregation legitimizes the reproduction of gender stereotypes. At the productive level, we might consider the problem of scripting language: into many professional communities prevails the use of “I-methodology”—that refers to a design practice in which designers consider themselves as representative of the users (Oudshoorn, Rommes & Stienstra, 2004)—gender identity and the stereotypical perceptions of designers about the users shape the gender of technological artifacts (Balka, 1997). The case study of Faulkner and Lie (2007), that is the designing of an electronics girlish game, is emblematic.

This case highlights the prevalence of the I-methodology in ICT design. This means that the designers, usually young or middle-aged men from Europe, USA or Japan, make what they themselves find interesting or attractive. When imagining other user groups, they tend to lean on their own imaginings of the group. (Faulkner & Lie, 2007, p. 171)

The gender imbalance in professional communities reflects the gender imbalance in decision-making structures, which may influence the technological innovation and its sustainability. For instance women are under-represented in organizations such as European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE). These international working groups have high influence on IT corporations because they undertake policy deliberations and propagate Internet standards, but they do not involve equally women and men professionals in their decisions. This situation clashes, at the base, with the definition of sustainable development as socially equal.

The third aspect of digital gender gap is that of the scope of the use of the Internet. There are very different websites. Some of these sites (i.e., sports, sexually explicit materials) are more likely to be male oriented; others (i.e. cooking, religious) are classified as female oriented, while a vast majority of them (i.e., health and fitness, games) might be classified as “androgynous” (Wasserman & Richmond-Abbott, 2005).

The variation in the scope and frequency of use of these various sites by gender may be caused first by socioeconomic differences between men and women. These differences are generally related to the fact that men have higher income levels and, at this moment, a greater presence in science, engineering and technological areas starting from the educational context. On the contrary in the same area there is an “educational pipeline” for women (Cozza, 2008; Levenson, 1990; Schumacher & Morahan-Martin, 2001; Trauth, 2002). The different use of Internet between men and women may also be related to work and home activity by men and women that influence the availability of the web and of free time to navigate online systems. Secondly, as we have already said, the variation in frequency and scope of use may be caused by lifetime experience with technology. Generally speaking, men have been more familiar with computers and Internet than women and they are more involved in decision-making processes than feminine colleagues.

In this sense interest and competence in ICTs evolve within complex interactions between education, work and leisure (Faulkner & Lie, 2007). The phenomenon of digital gender gap needs to be raised again, systematically discussed and included in the research agenda: the results of gender technology studies should feed back into action-researches, empirical projects and co-operations between researchers, practitioners and decision-makers too, aimed to redress adverse gender effects.

What to Do?

Gender refers to the distinct roles that men and women are assigned in any society. As a result, women and men assume distinct socially and culturally defined responsibilities and tasks both within the household and in the wider community. The situated knowledge and experience gained from undertaking these tasks, as well as their requirements, lead women and men to have different needs and aspirations. This concept of gender differentiation underpins the conviction that “science and technology for development” must systematically and purposefully recognize the gender-specific nature of development and respond to the concerns, needs, and aspirations of both women and men appropriately and equitably (UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, 1995).

The research and knowledge have an increased salience in the technological innovation and this role is worldwide recognized (Etzkowitz & Ley-desdorff, 2000). According to Neimanis (2002), the research agenda (both in natural and in social sciences) should be constructed with reference to the “gender mainstreaming” (United Nations, 1997) strategy, that is an approach that does not look at women in isolation, but looks at women and men—both as actors in the development process, and as its beneficiaries.

The contribute of gender studies might be significant in this way, mainly in relation to some issues and related policy and program options for the consideration of national governments and science and technology bodies and agencies. With reference to the recommendations of UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (1995), specific attention should be devoted to these topics:

  • Gender equity in science and technology The transformative actions recommended might regard (1) the equity in gaining the access to formal education both from boys and girls; (2) the equality of opportunity within schools, for instance recognizing the importance of mentors and role models by women science teachers and provide rewards to those who devote substantial time to this activity; (3) the opportunity for distance education introducing new approaches to science and technology education, such as distance learning, making optimal use of both old (radio) and new (multimedia) technologies.
  • Removing obstacles to women in scientifc and technological careers. The transformative actions recommended might encompass initiatives in academia and the school system such as (1) establish networks of female professionals in science and engineering; (2) enhance mentoring, role-model, and career advisory programs; (3) provide fexible tenure criteria to accommodate family roles and responsibilities; (4) provide refresher courses and re-entry scholarships for women returning to careers in science.
  • Making the science and technology decision-making process more “gender-aware”. The transformative actions recommended should involve end users, men and women equally, in the determination of research priorities and in the design and implementation of technology and development programs. This will require explicit attention to the participation of women. Subject all development programs with a high science and technology component to “gender impact analysis” before initiation. Gender analysis should be included in the design and the subsequent monitoring and evaluation. Technology-assessment techniques and decision framework should incorporate a gender dimension. Governments should establish a focal point of expertise in gender, science and technology to be available to advise government departments, facilitate training sessions, and monitor and report on the implementation of government strategies in gender, science, and technology.
  • Relating better with local knowledge systems. The transformative actions recommended involve development agencies that should give full consideration to the contributions of local knowledge systems, giving specific recognition to the gendered nature of these systems and the situated character of digital gender gap, too.

It is clear that the level of intervention, arising from a gender-aware research agenda, will depend on the specific needs and priorities revealed by a gender-sensitive situation assessment.

Future Trends for Gender Studies on Technology

The discussion about the gender of the Internet arises from the feminist technology studies. This particular research trajectory provides a helpful framework for analyzing the “co-production” of gender and technology. In this perspective both are seen as performed and processual in character, rather than given and unchanging. In particular, there are two key foundations to remember: first, two-way mutually shaping relationship between gender and technology in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations and vice versa; second, gender-technology relations are manifest not only in gender structures but also in gender symbols and identities (Cockburn, 1985; Faulkner, 2001; Wajcman, 1991). Thus, a useful way to approach the subject matter is to ask the question “how is technology gendered?” This issue is open to debate because it is referred to changeable practices (Poggio, 2006) and effects that are unpredictable (Eriksson-Zetterquist, 2007). The future of gender-technology studies depends on the ability of researchers to abandon gender as a fixed binary, constructing other platforms that enable critique to gendered technology (Landström, 2007).

This methodological turn defies the kind of simplistic treatments in which technology is seen as either “good” or “bad”, and Internet either de-terministically patriarchal—a “toy for boys”—or empowering for women—an exciting tool and a means of gaining technical confidence.

There are some important implications of this challenge for feminist research and gender studies about technology.

First, if technology is considered—both materially and symbolically-a huge, often critical, element of hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1987), the effort has to be going beyond the technology-masculinity equation. Further research has to be done on the diverse interactions between technologies and masculinities found in practice: there are many versions of gender, different masculinities (as well as femininities) lived differently in different times and places, but also varying within particular times and places (Acker, 2004). Internet offers many places or virtual spaces differently gendered.

Second, serious attention has to be given to the notion of the cyborg (Haraway, 1997), understanding its theoretical and “disturbing” potential. For Haraway the denaturalizing of cyborg bodies—at once organic and inorganic, machine and flesh—is an important response to the technophobia of a school of feminist analysis, which she sees as retrograde in its recourse to an organic, essential femininity grounded in the body (Currier, 2003). Despite critics to this transcendence of the body—that is accused to be a particularly masculine form of reasoning (Adam, 1997)—the cyber feminism gives new theoretical tools (in terms of representations and concepts) to understand and analyze the ongoing gendering practices in virtual settings as Internet.

In conclusion, there are a number of matters arising out of feminist and gender studies about technology, and the question for the future remains: “how is technology gendered?”

Conclusion

One noted dimension of inequality in Internet access and usage is gender. A number of studies have noted that women are less likely than men to use the Internet, particularly when the technology was first accessible to the general public in the mind-1990s. Gender differences in adoption rates may exit because men and women differ, on average, in socioeconomic status, which influences Internet access and use. Alternatively, men tend to be more interested in computers than women, on average, contributing—also in terms of design—to gender differences in Internet use. These gender differences in Internet are frequently examined with quantitative methods, using several measures, the cross-sectional data, report descriptive statistics and cross-tabulations (Ono & Zavodny, 2003).

Intentionally, this chapter is based on qualitative approach, positioning the discussion about Internet within gender and technology studies. The reasoning is aimed to shed light on the gender of the Internet sustaining that gender and technology are co-produced. This chapter may be considered, on one side, a contribute to view gender as an integral part of the social shaping of technology—which is neither unproblematic nor neutral—and, on the other side, an attempt to focus on gendered dimension of sustainable human and technological development, actually hampered by the digital gender gap.

In this sense, the chapter is aligned with the feminist theories that, as Marta Calás and Linda Smircich state, are “not in search of universal “knowledge” but as a way to continue critical engagement in a world that evolves in multiple directions maintaining, or even exacerbating, conditions of inequality” (2006, p. 328). Nevertheless, the conclusion does not want to be pessimistic because, in relation to gendering on the Internet, the gaze looks at the potential of the cyberspace: it may open new places and subject positions breaking the gendered boundaries.