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...Starving Women's Studies
The problems of researching women in Information Technology
Anita Greenhill
Paper presented to "Food for Thought" conference, University of NSW, July 1998 and subsequently in the proceedings of the conference.

This paper is an exploration of the contrasting theoretical positions regarding feminism that are found among researchers within a project examining women, Information Technology (IT) and education. When presenting these ideas at the "Food for Thought" conference the claim was made that, 'it is not necessary to dichtomise existing feminist theoretical positions'. This statement frames the context of this paper. The current research project, in which I am involved, seeks to examine university student's educational experiences in order to obtain an understanding of the manifold (multifaceted) nature of IT careers. The study incorporates the data collected from an ongoing empirical study among university students undertaking an IT degree and provides the foundations for a broader analytical framework. The initial study in 1995 aimed at addressing the problems of recruiting women into tertiary level IT studies. This body of research that has been amassed since that time and represents an ongoing debate regarding contemporary feminism. Grosz (1995) describes the theoretical rift arising between feminists as a conflict between differing principles of 'purity'. This paper presents an overview of our own conflicts of 'purity' which we have faced in conducting a cross-disciplinary contemporary women's studies project. My own bias in these conflicts is apparent as I argue for a difference feminist approach to IT, women and education.

Research Background

Our initial 1995 study utilised focus group interviews with Griffith University students who were studying in the IT course. Initial interpretation of these interviews revealed that a range of factors such as cultural background, ethnicity, gender and life history affected the students views of their future IT careers. This collection of influences were then extrapolated to explore the more generalised misunderstanding surrounding computer-based information systems. We sought to identify whether students understood information systems as primarily technical systems or as social systems that are technically implemented. The study examined if this understanding was a factor in the declining numbers of female students in the IT course and, more recently, students generally.

Recent analysis of our interviews has revealed that the male domination of the IT courses stunts female students' study performance. This is achieved through tactics such as undervaluing the worth of 'soft' skills, such as communication and information (Edwards 1990, 104), engaging in practices that reduce the sharing of skills and reinforcing a culture that permits the open degradation of female students abilities.

The issues explored in this paper, and through our research, are contentious but core issues for feminist theory. For example, to what extent do gendered ascriptions perpetuate stereotypical and generalized understandings of IT and women? The large variety of theoretical possibilities which conceptualise 'woman-ness' has led us to consider contemporary feminist debates within the context of our research. The background to our central debate regarding feminist positions is foreshadowed by Elizabeth Grosz, in Space, Time and Perversion. Grosz attributes the core of the debate between feminists as a "demand for a position of purity". She argues that there is a tension between the achievement of academic purity, which she described as "a purity from social, personal, and political factors that may mitigate or interfere with the goals of scholarly research" and a political purity, which she describes as "the influence of patriarchal and masculinist values". She claims, however, that these two position cannot be separated in feminist research. Grosz's conclusion is that feminist works should not attempt to aspire to the level of so-called 'purity' as feminists are not faced with the simple binary option of purity or impurity (1995, 56).

Theories and Feminism

Feminism at its core is about addressing the possibility of, and in my opinion reversing, inequalities between men and women. There is also a need within feminist discourse to consider the dialectic found in 'same' and 'difference' positions. By emphasising the polarisation of these theoretical stances, in a manner similar to that employed by post-structuralist approaches, the underlying political workings can then be disentangled to challenge the stability of this dichotomy. Feminists are not, however, confronted with such a bald choice. The theoretical positions available to them constitute a range of possibilites from the extremes of sameness and difference. Categorising people through their sex or gender has an existing history of debate in the fields of women's, feminist, gender and queer studies. The biologically-based category of woman is not necessarily an inclusive category. To possess female biology is not, in itself, sufficient to automatically secure acceptance into the popular understandings of 'woman-ness'.

Gender studies addresses these difficulties of categorization by examining the ascrption of feminine and masculine attributes to individual. People are generally categorized by their possession, or otherwise, of masculine or feminine attributes. Essentialism is perpetuated by the ascription of observable social practices to men or women. This is found in many innocuous places. For example, sugar and spice and all things nice as the core constitution of girls assumes a fundamental difference of sex, albeit in a poetic manner (Kramer and Lehman, 1990). Universalism, in contrast, emphasises the categorization of women according to an inclusivity in which certain "social categories, functions and activities to which all women in all cultures are assigned" (Grosz 1995, 48). The most quoted emblem for this position is found in women's capacity to bear children. Stress is placed upon inclusion and sameness in this position on 'woman-ness'. Same feminist positions argue that women have a collection of essential and shared qualities that bind them together. This perspective reflects a perpetuation of acceptance that men and women possess differing fundamental collections of qualities. Such a position makes alternative arguments difficult to contemplate. The presence of differing theoretical positions within our research team has revealed, for me, the hidden complexities of utilising either gender or women as a single boundary for research. The instigation of change from research conducted with these parameters can also be severely impeded.

Same Feminism

Our research with women in IT education has, to date, utilised the perspective of sameness feminism to interpret women's low participation rates in both IT degrees and IT careers. As a consequence of this perspective, some of the central activities for our research have included the examination of men's and women's use of computers, comparative studies of study and work patterns and of the various motivations and inspirations to undertake an IT course. This work has emphasised the unity of women's experience and understanding of IT. The claims generated by this research have therefore focussed upon essential and universal factors that have created these gendered patterns of experience (see also Turkle 1980).

This is the position pursued, to a large degree, by the feminist research of the 60's and 70's. The most obvious criticism leveled at this methodological approach focuses upon its position of inclusivity and, as a consequence, its inability to contemplate those who are excluded and 'others' to the norm. The notion of difference is not consider and is obscured by the hierarchy of power that is perpetuated by being 'same'. The all-inclusive 'woman', from its conception, establishes a role of assumed inferiority position to men. Emphasising an imagined unity and togetherness can neglect attention to the maintenance of the power relationships that exist between men and women. It is for this reason that demanding equality by an already established inferior group has yet to be achieved.

Difference Feminism

Difference feminism, in contrast, acknowledges an individual's position and the qualities, that have traditionally been allocated to men and women. This approach considers roles as constructions and emphasises the variety of ways in which women can be constituted as 'other'. Being 'other' is not solely about possessing woman-ness. Although this is clearly one of its parameters. Individually woman can be multiple and simultaneous 'others'. 'Other' exists in difference to being mainstream and, hence, dominant. For example, the individual may experience physical, social and sexual discrimination at varying levels in varying situations where each experience is, in itself, a legitimate experience of inequality. The dominant position or stereotypical representation of technology is associated with masculinity. The social construction of women as technophobes, and as being disinterested in computers, reinforces the stereotypical image of women being guided by the skills of a male techno-wizard. Even though women are as capable as men are, it is the complexity of each individual's life narrative that enables inequality to continue. A level of reflexivity is necessary to look beyond existing inequality and in order to see beyond the confines of individual perspective. This adjustment in theoretical outlook has yet to occur within our project. However, it may eventuate with through the influence of a growing voice of feminist writers who are questioning the traditional positions of sameness (see Luce Irgaray, Jane Gallop, Helene Cixous or Naomi Schor). Few of these writers, however, conduct these critiques in relation to women, men and technology.

Gender, Culture and IT

Gender plays a significant role in an individual's ability to successfully perform the tasks of daily life. This is a consequence, in no small part, of the culturally constructed and socially specific basis for 'being' 'female'. Ones' gendered identity is not, however, a convenient synonym for biologically-defined sex difference but, rather, a recognisable and common series of knowledge's and relationships which are found, experienced and defined within specific social environments (James & Saville-Smith 1994, 7). These knowledges in Western and possibly other societies are heavily and purposefully dichotomised into feminine and masculine extremities (Stasz Stoll 1978, 76). Culture incorporates a distillation of these experiences of gender, and, in fact, all knowledge's that are passed from generation to generation, group to individual and individual to group. This allows the indefinite concept of culture to persist as a slowly evolving ideational storehouse of mores and experiences of daily life, which assist in the perpetuation of distinct social groupings (Stasz Stoll 1978, 55-56). As a culturally defined 'thing', gender is learned.

In our research there is an attempt to explore the 'same' feminist position through an examination of IT skills and study experiences among female and male students. Beginning with the expectation that females and males have equal ability to develop these skills, there is an expectation that certain gendered experiences will be also be the same. Responses from our survey such as "No problems as a woman ... I have coped with this OK, now all my friends are guys ... women do fairly well - up against the guys most are more serious about it" highlight the same sentiments. "There is not much difference for men and women ... they have the same worries as us" are also to confirms this framework. However, the position of sameness is quickly challenged by the number of first year students regardless of gender who respond that "programming is the easiest" when asked which is the hardest subject they have taken.

Feminism and IT

The arguments of Benton (1988) and Wajcman (1991) illustrate the depth and length of this debate in relation to technology. Benston and Wajcman present opposing feminist positions on the issue of women's access to technology. Benston (1988, 15) argues that technology is a language and traditional gender construction, which excludes women from actively being included in this dialogue. These processes result in women being excluded from important decision making processes and from positions of power that are now emerging with the development of new communication systems such as the Internet (Benston 1988, 16-17). Much of Benston's position embraces same feminist notions and Benston's assertions culminate with the claim that "men are experts and women are not" and that "…generally, because they lack the knowledge, women do not discuss technology with other women" (Benston 1988, 24-26). In contrast, Wajcman emphasises that presentations such as Benston's, "diminish the significance of women's technologies" and in doing so "reproduces the stereotype of women as technologically ignorant and incapable" (Wajcman 1991, 137). It is from within this feminist position that Wajcman challenges the passive role of socialisation (Wajcman 1991, 152). It is this challenge that is most significant to this discussion. Barton and Walker (1995) argue that many young women use their femininity as a form of empowerment, resisting both school structure and traditional feminine roles ascribed to them. There are many actively participating women in IT, and that women ad hoc are not intimidated by technology as Benston (1988), Spender (1995) and others emphasise.

This suggests that the argument which claims women have a limited technological is inappropriate. The consequences of this argument are that women can be empowered in social settings that are information- and technology-rich. Within the area of gender and IT, feminist analysis can understand women and men as individually different but systemically distinguished. It is necessary therefore for such differences to be taken into account in terms of the social construction of technology by men and in the gendered approaches to the use of technology (see also Turkle and Papert, 1990; Cockburne and Furst-Dilic,1994; Game and Pringle, 1983).

The notion of gender 'sameness' is heavily entrenched in many worldviews. This can be seen in female student's responses to interview questions, "Males, they are smarter than women - in my tutorial group what I observe guys are smarter. [They are] getting better results and they answer more questions from the tutor" and "It's [in] logical thinking [that] men do better, for example if you are looking for a programmer most of them are guys. But I think it is in the capability for women to do this - but guys just do better. When guys think, they think logically and carefully. Men are expected to do that".

'Information Technology' has increasingly been constructed as a gendered term and 'thinking space' of masculinity. Benston argues that all representations, actions and behaviorism are allied with tools and machinery is an artifact of power and imbued with masculine qualities (Benston 1988, 15-16). The computer, as the requisite tool for participation in Information Technology, is therefore, in this analysis, inherently masculine. This simplified relationship of gender to information technology discounts many of the complexities that exist in everyday interaction by perpetuating the expectation that women are passive. This qualified distinction of the passive female in contrast to an assumed active male typifies difference feminist positions which perpetuate a generic gender representation that is exclusionary and subordinates women (Crowley & Himmelweit 1992, 39). Culture, however, rarely, if ever, is practiced or experienced in such clearly polarised forms. Emphasis upon the culturally constructed definitions of gender identity allows the significance of potentially fluid or transitory factors to emerge. Similarly, the dynamic exchange that occurs between differing cultural practices can also be surveyed with this perspective.

Disentangling Feminism & IT

The machinations of culture and the possession of a particular gendered identity are not a static or unchanging process. Post-structuralist analysis and feminism have shown that by re-examining the dichotomised views of convenient binaries such as woman & man, or poor & rich, permits a destabilising of the accepted norm and therefore a political challenge on existing power relationships (Threadgold 1990, 3). This consideration is all the more significant when examining the construction of gender and cultural knowledge's in specific social groups which are organised outside the framework of positivistically-inspired and Western assertions (Leung & Kleiman 1982, 109). Cultural differences as well as the particularly gendered expectations surrounding an individual's social performance, it could be argued, need to be considered within the wider context of the surrounding milieu described as the 'social'. It is these efforts to develop an understanding of the interwoven influences upon the contemporary construction of social distinctions which provides mechanisms to assist in further understanding the complex issues which influence women's participation within Information Technology.


Using women as a category highlights many of the practicing theoretical problems being experienced when studying women, technology and education. Feminists, and others with a social science tradition, such as anthropology and sociology, are being forced to rethink about their positions as researchers. It would appear appropriate for researchers of women, technology and education to similarly do this. Our research has called for expertise in two distinct academic disciplines to work together to explore unresolved issues relating to IT, education and women. However, these academic partnerships are never a simple melting pot of individuals. The current political and academic climate operating within Australian Universities is impacting on research being carried out in non-traditional academic fields, of which both the studies of women and IT occupy. Continuing research in these areas must tackle the complex theoretical and philosophical debates that this lack of traditions engenders. Our consideration of IT as a masculinised domain has been conducted through the application of traditional (difference) feminist theory. The aim of this has been two-fold; both to stimulate discussion which enables a sharing of information between fellow researchers and to introduce contemporary feminist viewpoints into research with intended policy and practice outcomes. In stimulating a reaction it is hoped that new light will be shed on issues that are considered difficult with the conduct of women's studies based research. It must be stated that in practical terms the generalised and narrow understanding of what IT encapsulates is also not easily altered. The concept of IT is heavily bound with a series of power relationships that are well established, constantly maintained and policed. This presents a major problem to those who are attempting to address the problem of low participation rates by women in IT courses and industry. The examination of other studies confirms that increasingly the skills required for pursuing an IT career are not limited to programming and working with computers alone, but range from non-technical (non-computer) generic skills right through to very specific and refined technical skills.

It cannot be denied that there is an over-representation of men in the field of information technology. This, however, does not necessarily define the field as being somehow predestined as a masculinist domain nor does it imply that only men are culturally capable to legitimately participate within information technology. The stereotypical characteristics of masculinity, such as aggressiveness and physical strength, actually appear to be incongruous to the tasks of information technology (Wood 1994, 235) to the extent that the opposite skills are required, although this is not to imply that those skills are inherently feminine. Therefore, it should be stressed that, the predominance of men within information technology is a consequence of contemporaneous cultural factors, which reinforce the apparent masculinity of the field. This expectation, coupled with the demographic influence of those participants, perpetuates a self-referential over-loading of information technology, which could lead to the conclusion that information technology is inherently masculine. Other influences, however, weigh upon the apparent strength of this conclusion and should be brought to bears upon an analysis of this situation. Other cultural factors including the exclusion of positive feminine identities within information technology further work to exclude women from the field. In this sense, the representation of information technology is doubly bound within a gendered stereotype.

The experiences and practices of information technology at an institutional level also operate to perpetuate specific sets of cultural beliefs, values and goals (Wood 1994, 261) and formulate a specific culture, in itself. These factors influence the framework, which shapes the interaction within the practices of information technology including decisions regarding hiring, firing, promotions, pedagogy, and programme development. Examining these existing practices provides a reflection of the gendered stereotypes that operate institutionally. Other culturally significant elements, such as those relating to ethnicity, also provide a challenge to the stereotypes that operate within the filed and the rationales, which found their ongoing legitimacy. This challenge would seek to introduce women into contemporary information technology while also acknowledging the already significant contribution of women in the field.


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