issue 162 - August 1986
Few women are in positions of power when it comes
to technological change. Indeed women have not had a
say in the development of science and technology since the
Industrial Revolution. This NI summary shows some of
the factors that keep women away from the research
laboratories and the engineering drawing-boards.
Women are sometimes thought incapable of being scientific: they are not as logical as men, or they just don't have the capacity to think like scientists. Many girls are thus brought up to believe that they won't be able to do maths or that boys become doctors, girls become nurses'.
But the idea that women are incapable of scientific thought is a comparatively recent - and Western - invention. Until the seventeenth century there wasn't a rigid dividing line between science and art, so those women lucky enough to be educated were expected to perform equally well in both areas - just like their brothers. In other parts of the world women used tools to work the land and their technical expertise remained on a par with men's.
Modern Scientists have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to prove the female sex - or the female brain - are from birth 'naturally' incapable of scientific thought. One such argument has it that women can't think spatially - visualizing objects in three dimensions - whereas men can; and that because women's brains are inferior to men's they aren't capable of scientific work. While it is true that a random sample of women taken off a street in Toronto or Melbourne would probably have fewer spatial skills than a similar group of men, that doesn't prove that these differences are based on innate or biological differences. In fact this lack of ability is not universal but is culturally-specific. In Eskimo societies, for example, both sexes perform equally well on spatially-orientated tasks.
Because women stay at home and look after their babies, runs another argument; they can't be scientists and technicians. Women have a maternal instinct that means they can look after children (they're patient and gentle) but they're not suited to working with science and technology (they're emotional and get too involved with what they do). But women do work with science and technology - as VDU operators. micro-chip assemblers, users of word-processors and as operators of heart-monitoring machines. The problem is that in these jobs the machines boss the women: not the other way round. The real issue is that women don't have jobs controlling the future developments in science and technology.
Women haven't always been excluded from inventing and decision-taking in technical fields. In earliest history, as hunting and gathering peoples began to cultivate crops, women extended their activities to include the design of tools. In this way, they became the first technologists: inventing the hoe, spade, shovel and scratch-plough.1
Women continued to exercise as much control over technology as their menfolk until the Industrial Revolution. Until this time - about 200 years ago - work such as growing or cooking food, looking after children and spinning wool was done in the home. But as the factory system was introduced, men demanded better-paid and more highly skilled jobs, leaving the low-paid jobs (and the unpaid child-care) to women. As the factory owners could afford more and more complex machines, men took control of them. Eventually, the men were able to claim that they were 'naturally' suited to controlling machines and doing other types of technical work, and that women's maternal instincts made them incapable of doing the same work. This argument confuses history with biology: presenting labour history - men's struggle for the family wage' and women's diminished role as 'home-makers' - as if it was based on 'natural' instincts.
Mandy Root visits a training centre that gives women the Skill and the Confidence to enter the male-dominated world of electronics and Computing.
This area of Leeds in the north of England is a mixture of vast impersonal new buildings, run-down shacks, seedy-looking horses put out to graze, dumped bits of furniture and bundles of corrugated iron abandoned to rust and rot by past generations of entrepreneurs.
It is a relief to stumble into the Sweet Street Women's High Technology Training Centre and meet the receptionist whose conversation is of her forthcoming marriage and others' remarriages, the involvement of children and other happy events.
Some of the other members of Sweet Street staff are eagerly consuming hot buttered scones ('Plenty of E-numbers says one woman with a conspiratorial grin). Their talk is also of children and marriages and other household duties cum delights. But their deeper purpose can be gathered from the way these women are dressed: they aren't mincing about in high-heels, unladdered stockings or pencil skirts Here the uniform is sensible jeans and hand-knitted jumpers or lime green jumpsuits: it's fashionable and smart, not manicured.
Around 60 women a year are trained here to enter computing jobs or electronics: areas that are usually thought of as 'men's work'. And they do their jobs very well. Almost miraculously in an area of high unemployment over 80 per cent of 1984's trainees have got jobs or gone on to higher education.
It's not easy. After years of demoralization as housewives or low-paid waged workers the trainees can be their own worst enemies. They are often too fearful to succeed.
'The majority of the year's course is building confidence,' says Geraldine, a computing lecturer. The trainee's lack of confidence is apparent at the very beginning. And even towards the end they don't actually see themselves as professionals. They've been taught for nine months - and they go out on three months placement. Yet they still see themselves as cleaners or office helpers. If a man had gone on a course like this he'd reckon he was a professional.'
'The trainees' confidence isn't helped when they go out on placements and they're required be out on reception and look good. It doesn't enter the manager's head that they're going to produce anything in programming.'
How does Sweet Street deal with the women's inhibitions? 'We try and bring trainees in from past courses. Fortunately we have a number who have done really well. One of them is too far away to bring in, but she's a department manager. We tell them about her.'
The women come from a wide variety of backgrounds: the only requirement is that they be 18 or older. Many have, in Geraldine's words, been 'kept busy bringing up children but they've reached a point when they start feeling like a cabbage'. Positive discrimination is used to ensure that black women get places on the courses. Trainees usually don't have many educational qualifications. Sweet Street is, in the words of a former trainee 'Our last, and only, resort'.
'The trainees aren't frightened of making a fool of themselves.' says administrator, Maggi. 'That's what they'd feel if they were in a mixed group. Here they can learn about computers and not be frightened of them - because they are frightening to those who aren't used to them'.
Do many men support their wives or girlfriends going on the course? 'Because we give the trainees very good child-care and support many problems don't arise until they actually hit the big wide world,' says Lynda, a child-care organiser.
'Problems start when the male partner has to do more child-care, and his wife is coming home utterly exhausted - and full of herself with her own job,' adds Geraldine, 'although some lucky ones don't have that problem.'
'There's also the wage thing: because computing is pretty well paid. At the beginning it's not apparent that they'll earn more money than their men-folk, but they soon rise up and then that becomes a problem. If the husband isn't earning as much as the wife, no matter how right-on he tends to be it causes a problem because they like being the wage earner. That happened to me.'
Signing on for a course in computing can shake up your personal life too. 'All the staff are feminists - otherwise we wouldn't be doing this job,' says Geraldine. And that can rub off on the students. 'They'll start rebelling if something happens at home and that's when the boat starts rocking. Which is a shame because sometimes it upsets their course work. We support them as much as possible: but they shouldn't have to put up with it: but it really infuriates me because if it was the other way round a women would be expected to support her man.'
But perhaps the biggest benefit of such courses is the most subtle: it allows women to take up the challenges that science and technology offer. The sense of challenge - of future dangers as well as achievements - was alive in the atmosphere of Sweet Street. As one of the women said: 'A course like this makes us aware that there is a big wide world out there and we can be part of it. We don't have to be stuck at home feeling lonely.'
It's often said that boys and girls are given equal opportunities to do well in science at school: so the fact that only three percent of all US engineers are women goes to prove that boys and men make better scientists than women. But this argument fails to consider how - and why - girls fail at science. From an early age girls are not encouraged to 'tinker', take things apart, to use tools or see how things work In later life, they lack the confidence to approach technical tasks, like servicing a car.
Teachers of mixed science and maths classes have been shown to devote more time to boy students. When boys perform badly it is treated, by teacher and student alike, as a consequence of lack of motivation. When girls perform badly, both treat it as a lack of ability. Girls soon learn to fear scientific ideas2 Girls are also encouraged to opt out of science by peer-group pressures, especially those that suggest it is 'unfeminine' to do science.
But not all girls are pushed out of the scientific field - some jump. Some girls voluntarily opt out of careers as scientists or technologists, despite being in a position to choose them. These women often feel alienated from science because of the values it encourages and the ways in which it uses the facts and figures that are devoid of emotional significance. Many of these girls enter jobs or professions that are complementary to science: they might become Radical Midwives (midwives who discourage increasing technological intervention during the birth) or community health educators. Other girls or women, although feeling opposed to science on moral grounds, choose to fight it 'from within'. They become doctors or computer programmers and try to work to change some of the ways in which their profession operates from positions of power inside the scientific community.
Women have been excluded from decision-making jobs in science and technology for too long. It is important that they are given truly equal opportunities to enter these fields. This means that teachers, employers and work-mates need to make sure that girls and women are supported and encouraged to work within whatever branch of science they choose.
But we might see even greater changes; if women were to enter powerful positions within science in large numbers, or if many of them worked in areas that affected it, then science might begin to reflect women's values rather than be driven by masculinist preoccupations with progress at the expense of social usefulness.
If women are, collectively, allowed tot take responsibility for the future development of science and technology then there's no reason why it should not be altered to include environmental responsibility and a form of technology that is capable of replacing monotonous jobs, rather than merely just increasing corporate profits.
1 Cockburn, C. Machinery of Dominance, Pluto, 1986.
2 Arnold E (Ed.) Smothered by invention, Pluto, 1985.
The NI would like to thank Dot Griffiths for her help in the preparation of this article.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.