Is Sexism Intrinsic to Technology? An Introspection


I’m writing this as a response to a thoughtful article called “If tech discussion was really about tech, it wouldn’t be sexist” by Restructure.  The author writes, “There is sexism in tech culture. However, I continue to love tech, because I think of the sexism as a separate, unnecessary appendage to pure tech. I cannot think of sexism as intrinsic to or inevitable in tech, because then I would be either self-hating, or I would have to give up my love for technology. Maybe my personal ontology is compartmentalized thinking in order to survive as a woman in tech, but I think it’s also true.”

She hits an interesting move in technology-centered fields to move towards a more humanistic understanding of technology so that, as she points out, more women will be involved in the tech industry.   While it may be a good sign that those in the tech industry are taking the underrepresentation of women seriously, this logic just perpetuates that idea that there is something implicit in technology that makes it more suited for men.

One issue I have with this logic is that it assumes that there is a ‘pure’ technology—some sort of natural state (I’m resisting going to Heidegger for fear of eye rolling en mass).   Is there really anything about technology itself (whatever that means) that makes it more male?  Certainly not.  These, like concepts of gender, are socially constructed and normed over hundreds of years.  I included the picture of the woman as a table because it hints that women are a technology, or rather, technology exploits women.  Not only are women exploited in the picture, but they are hypersexualized and posed in suggestive and submissive positions.  It is reminiscent of discussions of sexual harassment at open source tech conferences (such as booth babes and so forth–for another post).

This is why one of the author’s claims worries me.  She says that she is sick of being inundated with discussions of sexism in technology.  She doesn’t want to be reminded that she’s being oppressed 100% of the time.  I am worried partly because I wonder if there isn’t some truth to that.  But what worries me more is the thought that the discourse about the exclusion of women in technology fields is finally starting to gain some traction, and people are beginning to question the social institutions that claim men are more suited for a job in tech.

She ends the article by saying, “More women than men discuss sexism, and it is not because we find the topic more fun, entertaining, or enjoyable than men. It is because sexism gets in the way of our freedom. I blog about sexism in geek culture not because it’s my passion, but because it gets in the way of my passions. My struggle against my marginalization is not my hobby.”

Do I blog about sexism because it gets in the way of my passions?  Or is blogging about sexism my passion and I feel that technology is where it is most prevalent at the moment?  What sort of assumptions would I make and what sort of blind spots would I have as a result of these different perspectives?

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Is Sexism Intrinsic to Technology? An Introspection”

  1. Jeremy Cushman says:

    I have far too much to say in reply alexlayne, far too much. So I’m just going to say thanks for the post. You’re concerns, I think, a spot on.

    Well okay, I’ll also say that ‘pure tech’ in a weird way is already carrying traces of sexism (and racism). I mean what the hell is ‘pure tech’? The phrase gives my the heebie-geebies and pissed me off at the same time. Is it ‘pure’ because it somehow is untainted by the social? As if anything that we might call tech is pure because it just showed up on the scene, separated from the stuff of life? That’s a tired and disgusting position to hold. ‘Pure?’ Seriously? So I guess my problem is not that sexism and racism might be “intrinsic to or inevitable in tech;” my problem is believing (even wanting to believe) tech has a magic key to something called pure. Pure, if we think of it as “unmarked,” has gotta mean something, right? And it’s not hard to guess what ‘pure,’ ‘unmarked,’ ‘abstract,’ etc. probably means, is it? So no, tech might not be intrinsically sexist or racist. But you bet your ass ‘pure tech’ is.

  2. Don says:

    Hmmm…is the tech, any tech so neatly separable from the culture it transmits? On one hand, it seems to me that technology is created by and used in the transmission of certain values in a recursive process–this has me thinking about Regis Debray’s Transmitting Culture. On the other hand, the term passions skews the whole essentialist/existentialist argument with Lacan, Freud, and psychoanalysis. Hmmm…

  3. dr. b. says:

    Jeremy is trying to scoop my post and podcast bit already. I am spot on with you Alex about technology being intrinsicly sexist and I would also say racist as well. This is something that goes waaaaaayyyy back. It goes way back to medical (and communication) technologies. Think back to hysteria treatments (pre and post vibrators), the Tuskegee Experiment, birth control testing/eugenics, and Bell Phone Co. Much of this is inextricably sexist and racist and dealing with fertility and genocide all on US soil (or originating here in the case of birth control, eugenics, and Margaret Sanger). And that definitely opens up a whole new can of worms.