New Internationalist

Of Mouse And Man

Issue 286

Of mouse and man
Dale Spender examines the macho environment of information technologies
and asks whether women can make a place in cyberspace.

Everybody has heard of Bill Gates, the 40-year-old American computer whiz who began selling software when he was still at school and now runs a $70-billion business with 80 per cent of the global market. The man has used his combination of technical and entrepreneurial skills to amass the biggest personal fortune the United States has ever known.

There are many men in the computer business who think Gates has an unfair monopoly. They claim he has sewn up the market. And that he has made it impossible for them to compete by using unfair and bullying tactics.

‘Because he controls your software, Bill Gates is going to control your life and your mind,’ one worried ‘wannabe’ warned on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation show Four Corners. ‘You may as well start filing your tax returns with him, because he’s going to control all the information of the future.’

Despite the hyperbole, the argument put forward by Gates’ critics is powerful. The fact that someone gets there first shouldn’t give them ruling rights to the territory. Everyone is entitled to a share. But it’s not just the principle of fairness. It’s because it is dangerous when any one person – or one group – has such total control and power.

That is the central idea of democracy: that the views and values of all members of society should be represented. Only then can you have an equitable and cohesive community – and that is why it’s not on for Bill Gates to control 80 per cent of the software industry.

I go along with this argument. It is one I use every day as a feminist. But what I do object to, vehemently, is the total gender (and race) blindness of Bill Gates’ critics.

While there are no definitive figures on the male monopoly of the new technologies, the consensus is that men dominate in every area. The only exception I’ve found is that sometimes there are more women on the help desks. Men own the cyberworld. And the reason they’re in charge is, like Bill Gates, they got there first. Whether the mogul is Mr Murdoch, Mr Packer, Mr Turner or Mr Berlusconi it’s clear that it is not women’s experience that is being used as the basis for prioritizing, planning and shaping the new information society.

And the much touted ‘information superhighway’ is one of the most male-dominated areas of all. Even if every man using the Internet were a creature of courtesy, a paragon of virtue, a sensitive soul with vision and warmth, the superhighway would still be extremely intimidating to women with all those men out there treating the space as their own. Setting the pace and the tone.

It’s the culture of it that is intimidating. Like the men’s change room at a football match. Even if the guys invited you in and promised you would have a good time you’d have to think twice (and locate the exit) before you even considered venturing into their den.

Young women in Malaysia coming to grips with computers: men dominate in every area of new technology.
CHRIS STOWERS / PANOS PICTURES

The evidence that males are hogging the information superhighway is overwhelming. Lynda Davies of Griffith University paints a disturbing picture of the male ‘techie heads’ who hang out in most university computer science labs and who engage in gross behaviour to intimidate women and prevent them from getting a share of the services and time on the net.1 And I have documented some of the serious sexual harassment that takes place in computer rooms, on-line and in schools. Boys who would never dream of showing off a Playboy magazine (or worse) in a classroom think it is ‘cool’ to put pornographic images on the computer screens of female students.

Researchers like Nola Alloway have shown how even three-year old boys will physically prevent three-year old girls from using the computer at pre-school – accompanied by taunts that ‘girls can’t do computers’.2 This is where the stand against male power should be made quite clear. It is not just that the men (like Bill Gates) are taking up most of the space. After all this is not surprising given the history of technology and gender. What is unfair, unjust and frankly offensive are the bullying tactics that are being employed to keep digital power in the hands of men. There is a pressing need for protocol and for codes of conduct on the Internet. We need strategies which ensure fair play and guarantee plurality and diversity within the new culture of cyberspace. And we need to provide women with anti-trust training and monopoly-breaking skills. I am a great advocate of self-defence skills for women in the digital community.

The time for challenging male power is now. Unless changes are made quickly women could be locked out of the digital medium in much the same way they were when the printing press was invented. The shift from hand-written manuscript to the printed book led to an information revolution no less in scale than the one we are experiencing now.

Women and the working class and other out-of-power groups were worse off after that revolution than they were before. And it has taken almost 500 years to remedy the situation. Within the last two decades we have seen the rise of women’s publishing houses, women’s bookshops, women’s university courses – and a veritable explosion in the number of books by women, about women and for women. And all that since women have been in charge of their own information, their own words.

The irony is that just as some women have made it in the print-based system, the rules of the game have been changed. So women will be sent to the back of the queue again – with an additional handicap. Our society believes that girls aren’t as ‘good’ as boys when it comes to machines. In a computer-based world it’s boys who have the edge. This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with women. Far from it. The ‘reticent’ relationship that women have with computers says more about the limitations of the technology (and the consciousness that gives rise to it) than it does about women’s abilities.3 But what is at stake here is more than the mere management of a machine.

From now on most learning in the arts and sciences will take place via computer. And those who have no access, no expertise in the area, will be as severely limited as those who are illiterate in a print-based culture. This is not to suggest that women cannot excel in information technology. There are many wonderful women in science and technology. And a number of talented, entrepreneurial, role-modelling women in the cyber-industry. Their achievement and presence should be held up, admired, emulated and celebrated. But this doesn’t alter the statistics on women and technology – or on women and computers.

In fact studies show the number of women in computer science has been falling since the 1970s.4 And the trend continues. Why? Because women are sensible and cautious. They don’t go where they are not wanted. It’s too dangerous. From childhood they have been taught that when there’s trouble between the sexes, they will get the blame for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – in the wrong dress.

Women are too well socialized and too sensible to move unthinkingly into territory where men have put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs and where they threaten to ‘flame’ (‘insult’ in cyberspeak) those who take no notice. This situation has its dangers.

That women should be ‘information poor’ and have to embark on yet another campaign for equal representation in an area appropriated by men is only part of the problem. The other part is that we have a medium in which only half of human experience and interest, half of all human values, are being drawn upon and given expression. With a mainly male input into new technologies we end up with an emphasis on ‘toys for the boys’ – at the expense of women’s contribution which is more about relationships and consequences.

This is how the entire community loses.

Cyberspace presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to plan and shape the future. But instead of learning from the past we are transferring old ways to the new frontiers. That means that once more women and other disadvantaged groups will have to take back some of the territory that men have appropriated. But there’s no doubt that they will achieve their ends.

After all look what happened with the telephone – another male invention initially monopolized by men. It was a machine that was widely regarded as ‘unsuitable’ for women who were only good at ‘face-to-face’ contact. It hasn’t taken all that long for women to make the telephone their own.

It’s my belief that once women recognize the communication potential of cyber-society they won’t have any problem learning how to talk on-line.

Dale Spender is an Australian feminist writer and scholar and the author of more than 30 books including Man-made Language and the recently published Nattering on the Net.

1 ‘The Gendered Language of Technology,’ Lynda Davies; paper given at the International Communication Association Conference, Sydney, July 1994
2 The Construction of Gender in Early Childhood, Nola Alloway, Curriculum Corporation, Carlton 1995
3 ‘Computational Reticence: Why women fear the intimate machine,’ Sherry Turkle in Technology and Women’s Voices, edited by Cheris Kramarae, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1988.
4 ‘Information Technology and Gender; problems and proposals’ in Gender and Education, Vol VI, No 1, Anne Cole, Tom Conlon, Sylvia Jackson, Dorothy Welch, 1994. And ‘Men, women and computers,’ Barbara Kantrowitz, Newsweek, May 1994.    

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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