By Paula MacDowell
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 Abstract: Academic and industry research from the past 30 years documents that many females live in circumstances that ignore or deny their experiences in the technology sphere: their ideas and perspectives are de-signified, de-authorized, or disavowed. Although today’s girls are the most avid technology users of any generation, they are significantly underrepresented in its creation and innovation. This has serious consequences for girlhood, womanhood, and the future of our technology-driven world, for if girls do not reach their full potential, then society does not benefit from their full potential either. In this article, I explore how we can prepare girls for future roles as technology leaders and change makers by engaging them with diverse tools, materials, mentorship, and hands-on design experiences. My position is that all girls need meaningful opportunities to be the makers and innovators of the technologies that make our world— and thereby take part in changing who controls, owns, and shapes our future.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 For centuries, societal norms and gender stereotypes have influenced who girls are, what girls should do, and how girls should behave, thereby limiting their participation in the technology sphere (e.g., Ashcraft and Blithe 2010; Doyle 2013; DuBow 2011; Duca 2014; Duggan 2015; Farmer 2008; Hafkin 2006; Hill et al. 2010; Honey et al. 1991; Kearney 2006; Lauzen 2014; Legewie and DiPrete 2014; Leonard 2003; Lewis, 1987; MacDowell 2015; McDonald 2014; Misa 2010; Sadker 2015; Sandberg 2013; Turkle 1984; Wajcman 1998, 2004; Weststar and Andrei-Gedga 2015; Wu 2014; Zweben 2012). Perceived gender barriers about girlhood remain powerful, and females (of all ages, race, and class) are marginalized and underrepresented in technology fields, careers, symbolism, and ideologies. Hence, today’s girls are not developing the confidence, literacies, and skills that are necessary for them to fully benefit from or participate in advancing our increasingly mediated and technologically dependent society. Rather than helping girls adapt to the predominantly male world of technology, how can we ensure that their concerns, ideas, interests, perspectives, and talents are respected and valued?
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Girls need to know that their ingenuity matters and is significant in technology culture: “If technology is designed mostly by the half of our population that’s male, we’re missing out on the innovations, solutions, and creations that 50% of the population could bring” (Ashcraft, Eger and Friend 2012). Increasing girls’ opportunities to be the makers and inventors (not merely consumers) of the media and technology that makes our world is essential to ensure that they can take part in changing who controls, owns, and shapes our future (MacDowell 2015). Empowering girls as technology leaders, innovators, and change-makers is further important, as Solnit explains in The Faraway Nearby: “to become a maker is to make the world for others, not only the material world but the world of ideas that rules over the material world, the dreams we dream and inhabit together” (2013: 33).
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I have been thinking a great deal about a comment made by the late education researcher Myra Sadker (1995): “If the cure for cancer was in the mind of a girl, we might never discover it.” Girls need diverse educational spaces (mobile, physical, and virtual) where they are inspired and supported to explore new identities as technology creators and to experiment with their ideas for innovation (whereby building, crafting, coding, hacking, inventing, and tinkering are means of agency, empowerment, and transformation). It’s not that females lack technological ingenuity or a creative spirit, they lack opportunity to contribute to technology culture, as Hillary Clinton is frequently quoted: “women are the world’s most underused resource.”
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 This article is divided into two main sections. The first includes a review of research literature that connects contemporary girl innovators to the lengthy herstory of technology, including The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Schwartz-Cowan 1995), Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress (Leonard 2003), Feminism Confronts Technology (Wajcman 1998), and TechnoFeminism (Wajcman 2004). In the second section, I analyze the design and development of momME, an intergenerational social media game, which is an example of girls transforming technology culture in pro-feminist, pro-social, and empowering ways. I conclude by advocating that we need to provoke/invoke/evoke new and diverse opportunities for females to be leaders of technological innovation and change.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Deriving from the Greek technê, meaning “art, craft, method, system,” the meaning of technology has evolved over the centuries to “discourse or treatise on an art or the arts” (1610) to “science of the mechanical and industrial arts” (1859) to the latest and most advanced “high technology” (Petrina and Rusnak 2010). Girls’ lives have also undergone massive transformation over the last century, and their relationships about, for, from, and with/against technology are currently being subjected to profound and urgent questioning. Due to widespread access to the most ubiquitous communication and productivity tools in human history, girls are defining new patterns of behaviour, values, and ways of being-with-technology more rapidly than researchers can study them. If today’s girls are not the most avid technology users of any generation, they are certainly the most linguistically innovative with the new technologies (Tagliamonte and D’Arcy 2005; Tagliamonte and Denis 2008). Despite all the liberating possibilities, girls are significantly under-represented in development and innovation, and their current ways of interacting with technology are an increasing concern from the point of view of education, economics, and culture (Hafkin 2006; Legewie and DiPrete 2014; Sandberg 2013; Zweben 2012).
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 It is well documented that even though girls are initially excited to learn new technological skills, by the age of 15 to 16 many girls’ interests in technology are limited to their own personal communication and social use, such as chatting, gaming, pinning, surfing, and connecting with friends in diverse networked publics and game environments (Farmer 2008; Kearney 2006). What happens between pre and post adolescence? Why do few girls enrol in computer science and technology-based courses at either the high school or post-secondary level? Consider the following statistics: the National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that female SAT takers intending to major in computer and information sciences decreased from 20% in 2001 to 12% in 2006. Hence, teenage girls are eight times less likely than boys to consider enrolling in post-secondary technology classes (DuBow 2011). Recent findings from the Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey indicate that only 12% of bachelor’s degrees and 19% of doctoral degrees in computer science programs were awarded to women in 2010–11 (Zweben 2012). By the time these girls graduate and enter the job market, their lack of education and experience in these areas translates into a shortage of qualified women in technology-related professions and industries.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 Although the technology workforce is one of the fastest growing and highest paying, with demand far greater than current supply, not enough females are pursuing these jobs and the opportunities they afford. For example, in Gender codes: Why women are leaving computing, Misa (2010) reveals that women working in the United States computing and information technology sector has decreased from a peak of 38% (1985) to 33.1% (1993) to 29.6% (1999) to 27% (2010). After they make it into the field, women often leave due to the undesirable working conditions, undermining, and incivility that many females experience within a male-dominated sector (McDonald 2014; Wu 2014). According to a study commissioned by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women comprised a minority 26% of key roles (e.g., cinematographers, directors, editors, producers, and writers) in the interactive entertainment and television industry, only a 1% increase since 1998 (Lauzen 2014). In a recent industry survey for the International Game Developers Association, Weststar and Andrei-Gedja (2015) report that only 22% of games developers identify as female. Despite the fact that 57% of computer and video gamers are women, 60% of American adults believe that gaming is a male activity (Duggan 2015). Who holds the power when few females feature amongst the designers, developers, and producers of today’s new media and technology?
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 The chronic under-representation of females in technology-related areas of study and work is a challenging issue involving a multitude of attitudinal, cultural, curricular, economical, familial, institutional, pedagogical, psychological, and social factors. This complex problem is both progressive as the farther along the pipeline the fewer women you find, and persistent as progress is halting despite special initiatives, educational programs, and government policies geared toward the advancement of women and minorities in technology (Misa 2010; Sandberg 2013; Zweben 2012). The statistics cited above show that worldwide efforts over the past 30 years to attract more women to the technology field have not achieved their intended results. Why not? What can and should be done to bring about equitable and sustainable change? As Wajcman warns: “Every aspect of our lives is touched by socio-technical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the lever of power” (1994: 111).
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Historically speaking, technology has often acted against the best interests of women and children; hence feminist scholars have complex and conflicting perspectives involving both utopian and dystopian visions regarding our techno-cultural futures. Despite all the media hype and rhetoric that associates technology with opportunity and prosperity, an extensive and diverse academic literature challenges these naive and universalizing claims and argues that men’s historical dominance of technology continues such that its impact on the lives of females is both liberating and limiting. Wajcman reiterates that even when new technological advancements are determined to be in the best interests of women, “it would be unwise to presume that the direction of technological change has simply changed sides to benefit women where once it benefitted men” (1994: 76).
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 3 With considerable injustice, the well-established meaning of technology has a patriarchal bias that is defined in terms of the activities, artifacts, desires, knowledge, processes, and skills that interest men, subsequently diminishing the significance and lengthy herstory of feminine technologies like horticulture, cooking, childcare, and textiles. The popularized history of technology is predominantly a masculine version, resulting in the taken-for-granted association of technology with overwhelming maleness. Changing the historical focus to a feminist perspective, however, suggests that indigenous women are likely the first designers of technology: “women were the main gatherers, processors and storers of plant food from earliest human times onward. It is therefore logical that they should be the ones to have invented the tools and methods involved in this work, such as the digging stick, the carrying sling, the reaping knife, and the sickle, pestles and pounders” (Wajcman 2004: 15).
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Recent technological developments have remarkably improved the lives of diverse groups of females by legitimizing their legal status, increasing education and employment opportunities, advancing healthcare options, enabling control over reproduction and family planning, offering more ways to communicate and socialize, and presenting new forms of recreation and entertainment (Sandberg 2013). The progressive view of technology as a positive agent of change for all females, however, only tells part of the story. For example, whilst household technologies (e.g., washing machines, vacuums, processed goods, and affordable clothing) have alleviated middle-class women from the burdens of labor-intensive housework, it has neither freed them from being primarily responsible for nor decreased the time spent doing domestic duties. Schwartz-Cowan’s lively and provocative research on The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave evidences how the industrialization of the home during the early 20th century ironically resulted in more work for mother as today’s busy moms spend as much time as their colonial grandmothers did on near-daily chores, in addition to working full or part-time outside the home (1995: 178). Modern labour saving technologies were first marketed to offer women increased quality of life, leisure, and comfort, however, these devices, goods, and services largely replaced tasks that were previously the responsibility of men, children, and servants. Moreover, standards of cleanliness intensified along with the ever-increasing ability to clean that technology enables, which resulted in an exhausted group of middle-class women who struggle to keep up with household work that is never done.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 Building upon Schwartz-Cowan’s (1995) work, the salient purpose of Leonard’s research on Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress is to investigate the inequitable use of technology and labour within the home. Leonard traces how women employed outside the home do 72% of the unpaid household labor, not including care of children, the sick, and the elderly (2003: 148). She finds that despite all of the significant advances of technology, persistent inequity still exists between males and females (and amongst females) in terms of education, income, lifestyle, occupation, power, and social position: “Although women’s status varies enormously from one country to another, women remain far from equal politically, economically, or socially, and nowhere in the world are women equal to men” (2003: 52). Furthermore, as Leonard’s research evidences, most of the benefits and opportunities that technology makes available are limited to the privileged females who can afford them: “The poverty of many woman in the Third World, as well as in industrialized societies is particularly noteworthy. Worldwide, a stunning 70% of women live in poverty” (2003: 52).
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 This necessitates a pause to bring forth vital questions regarding the underlying purposes of technological design and development: What shapes and who controls the ideation and production of household technologies (Schwartz-Cowan 1995)? Whose viewpoints are privileged? Whose voices are silenced or unheard? Who benefits from technological innovation and on what or whose terms do we judge it as valuable or progressive for girlhood and womanhood (Leonard 2003)? How do we get from Schwartz-Cowan’s (1995) “more work for mother” to a technology culture with “more mothers with paid work” or “more fun for mother”? How do we define and collect statistical data to measure the impact of technological change on women and men around the world, for “without data there is no visibility, without visibility there is no priority” (Hafkin 2006: 50)?
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 Drawing upon diverse perspectives in postmodernism, feminist theory, and science and technology studies, Wajcman’s research in Feminism Confronts Technology (1998) examines how technology is designed, developed, and used in particular ways that embody gendered meanings, hierarchies, and discrimination. She argues that technological innovation serves to liberate females and encourage equity, but also to maintain gendered power relations within a masculine technology structure: “the male orientation of most technological research has long obscured the significance of ‘women’s sphere’ inventions, and this in turn has served to reinforce the cultural stereotype of technology as an activity appropriate for men” (1998: 15). New technological developments, Wajcman warns, are powerful sites of political struggle with unanticipated results and consequences, and as history tells, desired outcomes for girlhood and womanhood can never be guaranteed. In TechnoFeminism, Wajcman (2004) is particularly critical of how some women (of their own volition) appropriate and reinforce patriarchal notions of technology that serve to justify, produce, and perpetuate stereotypes, and thereby restrict their opportunity to benefit from and contribute to technology culture. She analyzes how technology is constructed historically, politically, and socio-culturally, providing detailed examples of how women’s everyday lives are strongly influenced by the expanding technological society that we are in and part of.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Wajcman (1998) argues that the chronic under-representation of females is a key feature of a male dominated technology culture as few women are achieving in precisely the jobs that are key to creation and innovation of the world we inhabit: for many women, “the everyday experience of technological change tends to be one of constraint, surveillance, confusion, and lack of control” (101). Hence, as we enter into yet another era of technological innovation with unprecedented advancements in communication, education, and health, Wajcman warns that we must continue to be critical of technology, which has never been an autonomous agent of equitable change. She also theorizes how, “the correspondence between men and machines is thus neither essential nor immutable, and therefore the potential exists for its transformation” (159). To put it another way, because technology is in part socio-culturally constructed and not inherently male dominated, realistic potential exists for a post-patriarchal future— not only to avoid further marginalization of women— but also to generate and realize new possibilities for improving their lives (across age, class, ethnicity, nation, race, and sexuality). The involvement of more females in technological innovation, education, research, and policy may bring forth significant advances in redesigning technology culture and renegotiating gendered power relations; however, “an emancipatory politics of technology requires more than hardware and software; it needs wetware— bodies, fluids, human agency” (77).
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 Achieving gender parity in technology culture is a complex and immense challenge. Leonard (2003: 13) provokes pause: “Why hasn’t technology met expectations of profound social change? What prevents dramatic technological advances from resulting in equally astonishing social advances? And can it be otherwise?” As Honey et al. (1991) protested 25 years ago, “women’s desire for communication, collaboration, and integration is not central to the masculine technological world view, which is increasingly accepted as the only legitimate model for discussing, developing, and evaluating technology.” What if more girls are educated to understand the consequences of new technologies being designed and developed in particular ways that embody gendered power relations (Kearney 2006)? What if more girls are empowered to believe in themselves and their technological capabilities (Farmer 2008)? How would gender gaps in technological development and opportunity be impacted (Hafkin 2006)? What would it mean for the creation of more meaningful, equitable, and sustainable technology futures (Wajcman 1998, 2004)? I quote Ashcraft, Eger and Friend (2012: 2) to draw this section to a close: “Technology increasingly permeates every aspect of society and provides the foundation for most modern innovation” and yet “girls represent a valuable, mostly untapped talent pool.”
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 3 In Empowering Girls as Change Makers in Maker Culture, my doctoral study, I collaborated with a team of 30 youth co-researchers (girls ages 10–13) to study how girls develop new affinities towards and confidence in media and technology (MacDowell 2015). Together we created an equity-oriented makerspace called 101 Technology Fun, which supported girls to create and innovate technology on their own terms, in their own ways, and for their own purposes (thereby overturning gender and generational norms that have disenfranchised girls’ participation in technology culture). Previous studies identify the age range of 10–14 demographic as the optimal time for working with girls to support their media and technology-related interests and to encourage a positive disposition towards technology careers (Farmer 2008; Kearney 2006). Hence, the 101 Technology Fun philosophy is committed to affirming all of the wonderful things that girls of this age are, just the way they are, and the amazing things that they are capable of achieving when they are provided with equitable education in technology.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 2 A significant contribution of my doctoral work is the momME alternate reality game (ARG), a new kind of social media play that my co-researchers designed for females of all ages and cultures to commemorate Mother’s Day. momME weaves together a boldly adventurous plot, positive social energy, feminine power, and fun. Teams of mothers and daughters (and even grandmothers) must unite together to overcome The Infinite Evil’s wicked plot to make Mother’s Day the most depressing day ever (the evil network of Internet trolls resent the happiness, colour, and joy that females bring forth into the world). Whereas most traditional games are developed to help people escape from reality, the 101 Technology Fun co-researchers designed momME to make reality more engaging. For example, players are challenged to complete real-life game missions that involve community-building experiences and creating personalized media works of song, dance, photography, art, and story. With intelligence and passion, momME is characterized by powerful feminine energy that stands up to a games industry as-yet dominated by a masculine culture of play, in part due to the fact that the storyline and game content are designed, rated, and contributed by mother/daughter teams worldwide (MacDowell 2015).
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 4 Girls’ values and ingenuity can shape the design and use of new technologies (including the computer and video games of today and tomorrow) in ways that are currently nonexistent and undiscovered. What might become thinkable and doable if we heed Wajcman’s (2004) counsel and act upon Leonard’s advice: “For if we decide what a technological society ought to be and set out to make it that way, then we have reason to expect that we have a chance to succeed in putting technology to work to serve the values we believe in” (2003: 188). I believe that the advancement of a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable technology culture is possible. momME is one example of how this innovation may proceed, with the objective of not to figure the one right game for all girls (who are as diverse in their interests, abilities, and preferences as any other category of people), but to bring forth new gaming experiences that include diverse feminist perspectives and play preferences. I am not so naïve to view momME as an autonomous agent of pro-feminist and pro-social change, and it remains an open question as to whether or not this ARG generates unanticipated negative or unjust outcomes. However, it does represent a creative and meaningful attempt by a team of tween-aged girls to design and innovate a new kind of social media play for a new audience of players. momME is explicitly designed for female gamers (a group too often marginalized as tangential) who are gaming together for their own social, creative, and intellectual pleasures (MacDowell 2015).
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 As with all forms of technology, today’s computer and video games are cultural artifacts with remarkable potential to generate new ways of gender bending and human flourishing (Duggan 2015; Weststar and Andrei-Gedja 2015). Of critical relevance for a society in which games are ubiquitous and a more significant contributor to technology culture than ever before, we need to understand how making and playing games can influence players’ lives, impact familial relationships, and transform the worlds in and around us (both real and virtual). At stake is how the divergent gaming worlds we inhabit are designed: by whom, for whom, and for what purposes? I draw great satisfaction knowing that the momME game design experience increased the co-researchers’ confidence and capability to succeed at technologically complex and challenging activities. Within our safe, supportive, and girl-led learning environment, my team members were eager to take on new roles as technology producers, designers, and change makers, however, I worry that their little stories will be overshadowed by big stories, media stereotypes, and techno-cultural discourses that work to control young females and suppress their confidence, designs, and dreams. What happens when girls publicly advocate for gender equity to become the norm in media and technology cultures?
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 On September 21, 2014, Emma Watson (actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador) delivered a powerful speech explaining why feminism is good for everyone, openly inviting men to get involved in the new U.N. initiative called HeForShe: “I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too— and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves” (Duca 2014). In response to Watson’s feminist campaigning, anonymous members on the 4chan message boards (www.4chan.org) set up a website with the intent to pressure her out of public life by threatening to release private nude photos. The 4chan network of Internet trolls want to silence Emma Watson and prevent her from doing tremendous good in the world. Similarly, in the momME game, The Infinite Evil network of Internet trolls want to silence the tremendous joy that mothers and daughters bring into the world. Women critical of anti-feminist and patriarchal game content, gameplay, and game design, and development practices, including Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, have been forced into hiding due to death or rape threats. On October 20, 2014, Brianna wrote in fear: “Every woman I know in the industry is terrified she will be next” (Wu 2014).
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 McDonald (2014) comments on the darker side of advocacy: “It’s just the latest in a long history of online efforts to intimidate, belittle, threaten and cow women into hiding and shutting up— the message, of course, being, If you dare to do or say something we don’t like, we’ll expose you in return.” I am left to wonder about all of the untold stories, oppressions, silences, threats, bullying, and attacks against feminists who, like Emma Watson, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu, have the confidence to publicly critique patriarchy and fight for global gender equity. Without a doubt, we need strong and influential females (of all ages) who can turn disempowerment into a form of self-empowerment. Females who have the self-efficacy and self-determination to lead the way in innovating the media and technology that is transforming our world, such that one day girls’ opportunities to fully benefit from and participate in advancing technology culture will no longer be a cause to fight for, but rather the norm (Duca 2014; Wu 2014).
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 2 How do we create a technological world without misogyny? As Doyle (2013) implores in Human Family is Crying Out For World’s Women To Step Up And Lead, “no one is going to invite you or me to the leadership dance. It’s time to invite ourselves and invite other women.” From my standpoint as a media and technology studies specialist, mother, and educational researcher, I believe that if we want girls to become leaders, innovators, and change makers, then we need to educate and empower them to change their stories (e.g., stories that serve to produce and perpetuate gender hierarchy and oppressive stereotypes about females). The two key terms here are education and empowerment. Secondly, if we want to learn more about girls, then we need to listen to their stories. There is an act of generosity in listening, witnessing, and valuing their personal stories. Thirdly, girls need empowering experiences, opportunities, tools, and support to build their technical skills and confidence— on their own terms, in their own ways, and for their own purposes— not as consumers, child-users, or “surrogate boys or men” (Wajcman 1998, 2004).
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 2 Girls also need educational experiences and spaces (e.g., the momME game as a site of cultural production and transformation) where they can make and share new stories that offer a range of positions on gender, media, and technology, such that they are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones and start questioning the authoritative cultural scripts about girlhood and womanhood. Our female youth need learning places and makerspaces (at home, school, and online) that respect and value their diverse voices as much as possible, not only in a peripheral or token way, but actually giving them meaningful involvement in developing a broader vision of themselves and others, and of their technological futures. We all have the opportunity and power to create our own viewpoints and re-create a brighter world for everyone, with equity, inclusion, happiness, and prosperity for all. Great power necessitates an understanding of how our world is designed and that our cultural and technological systems are reformable. We do not have to accept these systems the way that they are offered to us. We all have power (and responsibility) to critique, question, reject, remake, and transform the taken-for-granted beliefs, norms, and value systems within well-established and hegemonic techno-cultural discourses.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 2 Engaging girls as leaders, makers, and inventors of the technologies that make our world serves as an emancipatory practice that allows them to resist stereotypical notions of girlhood and to transgress their doubly insubordinate status in the technology sphere— worldwide, both gender and generational dynamics have historically marginalized girls’ involvement (Misa 2010; Wajcman 2004). While my study evidences the creative and intellectual contributions that girls are capable of achieving when supported with equitable education (e.g., the 101 Technology Fun makerspace), it also finds that girls are not being challenged as makers, leaders, and innovators in technology culture. This is not acceptable, as Doyle (2013) criticizes: “Another year has now passed with the collective intelligence of the other half of the human race— female brainpower, perspective and life experience— barely tapped.”
I thank all of the change makers who are working to create more equitable and sustainable technology futures, especially those who do so at great personal risk. I am grateful to the Fembot Collective for their support and feedback on this paper.
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