From mobile phones to household technology to birth control pills, few of us take the time to consider whether technologies we use in our daily lives are gender neutral or if in some way they encourage gender stereotypes. We wake up every day to the sound of an alarm set on our phones, check what’s new on social media from our pc. Basically we can’t imagine a life without emails, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, name it. We dread the thought of not carrying headphones or air pods because who wants to deal with the ‘noise’ from strangers or people who force conversations just because you’re seated next to each other in a matatu… What I’m getting at is that in our day to day lives technology seems mundane, normal, and gender neutral.
Nothing about using a phone or computer seems gendered, right? But, let’s trace back to our childhood, most of us realize that technology was introduced to us and brought into our home by a man for the benefit of the man—Dad had a laptop for his marketing job whereas mom probably used the traditional method of keeping track of things, a pen and a note book. Boys got addicted to playing video games all day whilst their sisters got introduced to household technologies, like how to use an oven, gas cooker etc.
Household appliances such as vacuum cleaners, blenders, iron boxes etc. all these technologies were invented in association with the societal view of women’s labor. Don’t get me wrong, they definitely make work easier but it is obvious that there are certain technologies that have been greatly feminized, for instance reproductive technologies such as birth control. Yes, reproductive technologies can be liberating, but according to Linda Layne, In Feminist Technology, these technologies were invented by men, with the comfort of men—not women—in mind. It is evident that there are technologies that have been specifically established for women and which continue to further embed the gender stereotypes.
So, let’s ask ourselves, is technology indeed gender neutral if it serves to reinforce gender stereotypes and puts men at a greater privilege than women? In Feminist Theories of Technology, Judy Wajcman states that gendered technology dates back to the Age of Enlightenment. The history of this period is clearly male-biased and this is because it speaks only of men and their contribution, completely ignoring women’s significant achievements that were taking place at the same time in similar fields. The new inventions allowed for men to study the moon, stars, and galaxies. Yet still in the subsequent years, technology came to be associated with traditional military weapons, factory machinery, and work tools, all these consigned to the sphere of men. So technologies of the past were undoubtedly gendered—but clearly so is contemporary technology.
The progressive nature of our contemporary world has led to most people being more accepting of the new approaches in technology. This is evident in the steady increase of women in STEM careers globally, however a gender gap still exists. This gap begins in education, fueled by gender stereotypes and expectations regarding ‘women’s work.’ In spite of similar achievement scores among children of all genders in math and science, men are the overwhelming majority of students studying STEM fields in higher education. The few women who begin careers in STEM face male-dominated workplaces with high rates of discrimination and receive less pay in comparison to their male counterparts.
Systems of bias that push women out of STEM careers can also influence the products and services developed by STEM organizations, such as artificial intelligence (AI). Think about this, digital voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa, are often designed with female names and gendered voices. Their role is to perform tasks that have traditionally been assigned to women, such as scheduling appointments and setting reminders. The development of these assistants consistently with a female voice continues to encourage traditional gender roles. Check out this article https://www.catalyst.org/research/ai-gender-stereotypes/ for more on how AI reinforces gender stereotypes.
So is technology really gender neutral? No, it is gendered. This is because technology is designed and developed by humans, meaning that it reflects the biases held by those who build it, further promoting gender stereotypes based on those biases.