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What the tech is… Technofeminism

Technofeminism is a multi-disciplinary study of the role that technologies have had in both the advancement and prohibition of gender equality. More specifically, it is the name given to a movement of academics, thinkers, entrepreneurs and women in tech who have questioned how technological proliferation has shaped the current state of gender relations.

A brief history

The relationship between women and technology has fluctuated over the course of history. Judy Wajcman, who first coined the term technofeminism, identifies women as some of the earliest technologists in that they crafted tools designed to better facilitate their domestic work, i.e. the pestle or sickle.

In the 18th century, however, the technological arena was defined by industrial engineering.  As an inherently science-based, and therefore male-dominated field, technology became synonymous with men. Long established gender roles dictated that, until the 20th century, the only technologies designed for women were those that enabled them to be increasingly efficient within the home.

The first notable shift in male-centric perceptions of technology came in the 1970s. The women’s liberation movement during this era spurred scientists, albeit male ones, to develop technologies designed to improve birth control and abortion conditions for women. In diminishing the need for dangerous medical procedures, and allowing women greater control over their own careers, these technologies showed women how their own cultural emancipation could be contingent on cultural development. 

Technofeminism as a discipline developed fervently throughout the 1980s. Despite the historical disparities that have since become apparent, technology had generally been perceived as ostensibly gender-neutral. Leading female academics and activists began to dissect this notion of neutrality, arguing that inequity in technology was not only caused by existing gender prejudices but was, in fact, continuing to advance them.

A famous example of this is demonstrated by the above photo. Childcare has long been part of the female domain, but has curiously not benefited from the proliferation of accessibility and mobility technologies that developed throughout the 20th century. Despite persistent campaigning, cities did not become more accessible to women travelling with prams or young children until legislation changed on accessibility for wheelchair users.

The birth of the internet and associated social technologies has also contributed to a more equitable redistribution of power between men and women. This is known as cyberfeminism. Digital socialization has, to some extent, diminished the burden of physical being and allowed women to communicate, interact and work without having to make any sort of physically gendered projection. 

Most recently, the focus of technofeminists has been to look at the discrepancy between men and women working within the technological sphere. The gender disparity in this space, although slowly closing, is still enormous. Inequality of education, ill-informed careers advice and professional stereotyping at a young age are some of the many cited causes.

So what’s next?

Technofeminism as a discipline has been challenging the way that women fit into the technological discourse for a long time and has successfully brought many of these issues to the forefront of the feminist agenda.

Startup Stock Photos

 

It has been well documented that gender disparities within the technology sector are caused by exposure to gender stereotyping and inequality of opportunity for girls at a young age. Fortunately, Women in Tech has become an increasingly important aspect of our cultural zeitgeist and this is being reflected in both the attitudes of young girls and the young women choosing to enter the job market.

Tech leaders such as Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) and Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) are becoming new role models for young girls whilst simultaneously demonstrating to their peers that women are just as capable in these leading roles. In fact, 187 million women worldwide are currently starting or running a business enterprise and 20% of all engineering students are women which has been growing steadily over the last 25 years.

A gradual shift in attitudes has also led to the development of a wide range of creative technologies created for women by women. Peanut, an app that connects single mothers with common interests much like a dating app or Fearless, an interactive documentary about the experiences of women on India’s public transport system, are great examples of tech designed with the sole purpose of improving conditions for women.

We have come a long way since ‘modern’ technologies of the 18th century defined technology as an inherently male sphere. Technology is a fundamental part of our everyday lives and ubiquitous in virtually everything we do, which means that it is crucial that it is harnessed effectively in working towards a more equitable and fair society.

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