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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 49 November 26, 2022

Where are the women in tech? | Jisha Jacob

Saturday 26 November 2022


by Jisha Jacob *

Diversification is critical in technology. Today, technology constantly redefines what it means to be a woman in society. With the fast - evolving technology, it is important for everyone to be conversant with its usage. A Mckinsey report of 2020 found that diversity in the company contributes towards the overall growth of the company. Sadly, women face huge challenges in finding an equal footing in the technology sector and IT career.

Despite major advances, women continue to face what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “the double burden,” that is, taking up work to earn money along with significant unpaid domestic labour. As per a survey carried out by journalist Vamanaa Sethi in 2022, in the last two years, as high as 58 per cent of women in India quit their jobs due to growing family responsibilities. In addition to the adverse impact of COVID 19, the survey also pointed out that increasing domestic workload pushed women off from the corporate sector.

How can women be equally represented in the techno space? “We are all cyborgs,” says Donna Haraway in her book, A Cyborg Manifesto. All individuals are half human and half machine. With the changing time and development in cyberspace, all individuals must be trained and informed about it at an early stage in their lives.

Psychologist Janet Morahan-Martin has made a startling revelation that men are more comfortable using a computer since childhood than women. This exposure to technology in the early stage of their lives has led to the masculinization of the computer culture. Boys are earmarked as people who are excellent in the STEM field. Hence their ratios of enrolment in such fields are more than girls in India. This hitherto hidden masculine techno culture was exposed during the Covid pandemic. There is a correlation between computers/ Internet and masculinity. In her recent TEDx Talk, titled, “Designing the feminist internet”, Dr. Charlotte Webb, Co - founder of the Feminist Internet, maintains that the internet “does not represent women because it is created in a predominantly male tech sector."

Masculinity and power go hand in hand, as pointed out by political scientist Sheila Jeffreys. Masculinity cannot exist without femininity. On its own, masculinity is meaningless, because “it is but one half of a set of power relations." This idea of power hence places men on top of the pyramid of technology. In one of her recent interviews, Melinda French Gates, former computer scientist, asks, what is the one thing that we are lacking in society when it comes to gender equality? She herself replies, "We are lacking women having true power in the world, be it controlling resources, taking any decision they want, even setting policies for society."

To understand the percentage of the powerful positions held by men and women, a study by Entelo, “Quantifying the gender gap” indicates that women hold only 16% of senior positions in tech jobs and 10% of executive positions. A random Google check for the list of CEOs of the top tech companies reveals that 48 odd CEOs of tech companies like Microsoft, Adobe Inc, IBM and so on have only 4 women in the list. What explains this glaring gap?

Has this been the state of affairs all along? Women’s presence in the computer and IT sectors, historically, has been noteworthy. They have made a significant contribution when it comes to the advancement of technology. For instance, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the 1900s, was the first programmer of the Harvard Mark I Computer. Inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr is known for the development of her frequency–hopping technology in 1941.

Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, made it to the Forbes list of America’s Self-Made women (2022). She writes, “Tech is an incredible force that will change our world in ways we can’t anticipate. If that force is only 20 to 30% women, that is a problem.” Whitney Wolf, CEO of Bumble is another example of the CEO joining the list of Self–made billionaires after making the company public in 2021. These women have come forward to give a different meaning to the tech world through their participation.

With the emergence of the computing industry in the1950s and 60s in the UK, women were pushed out of the Tech industry. Their role was replaced by men not because women lacked the skills, in fact they provided training in the technical skills to these men. Stephanie Spencer, lecturer in the School of Education at the University College Winchester, noted in her book, ‘Gender, Work and Education in Britain in the 1950s’, this was the era where the role of gender had been narrowed down by the popular perception that a woman’s place was in the home and men were seen as breadwinners. This was not the case for all women. For instance, Dame Stephanie Shirley, a businesswoman, started her own freelance software company giving jobs to other women with a work-from-home model.

The disappearance of women from the tech field witnessed the sinking of the high- tech economies and labour market as pointed out by the historian of technology Marie Hicks. The constant ignorance of women’s role in the tech field will create a huge gap which will be difficult to fill in. The lost talents hurt society and the economy.

Social media have given a completely different meaning to socialising. These platforms have helped users to put across their opinion and create a public sphere. As Dr. G. Iosifidis, Assistant Professor at Delft University of Technology, rightly says, since this virtual space was universal in reach, it became a favourite space for discussions and debates, “it has the capacity for free speech and creating collective action”.

Creating such a public sphere is important for two main reasons. Firstly, it provides new perspectives on a given issue and secondly, it encourages a larger community to participate and to take a position on the issue. Social media users in general, prefer to express their opinion online as it allows them to take a stand without giving out much of their information on their identity.

According to Statista portal, as of January 2022, Snapchat had more female than male users. Whereas platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have more male users than female. According to another source, men use LinkedIn more often as compared to women which are 54% and 44% respectively. It is therefore seen widely that the number of females using social media for business purposes is less than that of males, females prefer to use such platforms to share their personal information.

The media don’t represent gender accurately and their gender representation is stereotypical. For example, we often imagine a female on a billboard or an advertisement for kitchen appliances or home appliances, but this is not the case for a cement or car advertisement.

We also see an overt elimination of women from technology, they are exposed to technologies that suit their roles in the society. For instance, women might not know how to use a laptop and phone but can effortlessly operate a machine grinder, washing machine and mixers. These technologies are designed to cater to the daily needs of women to perform their role as expected in the society.

In cases of beauty product ads women are showcased to look in a certain way. The media decide for women the product that suit their skin and colour, while making the woman aware of what is the popular demand. The 1920s saw multinationals like Ponds and Unilever coming up with the ideal beauty looks for women. Rightly pointed by Douglas E. Haynes, professor of history at Dartmouth College, beauty got refashioned into what could be “associated with an ideal of a married family.” Hence, representation plays an important role in creating a space for women in the media or cyberspace.

Cyberbullying is rampant in the digital space. Sometimes it also takes the form of “trolling” and has affected many lives. This also leads to public insult in most cases. As journalist Rana Ayyub says, “trolling isn’t uncommon." Some scholars also note that in cases of online violence, the marginalised are often targeted. This is one of the major reasons why women refrain from using cyberspace effectively.

The privacy violations impact both men and women, often ruining their lives. As Danielle Keats Citron, an expert on digital privacy, says, women’s privacy violations often silence them and chase them offline. They are forced to shut down all their profiles, cut themselves off from loved ones and “become silent both in their speech, in their expression online, and also in their relationships.”

The analysis of the 2020 U.S. congressional races found that female contenders were more likely to receive online abuse than their male counterparts. On Facebook, female Democrats receive more abuse than male Democratic candidates. This trend is not surprising in countries like India and the UK. With the constant fear of being under the lens of threats and criticism, women now find it difficult to use online platforms.

The need of the hour is to create a safe cyberspace for individuals. The digital violence that is prevalent today has not only given birth to gender-based discrimination but also violates a wide range of human rights. More efforts are needed to make the internet accommodative and tolerant for all as usage of the internet has become the new normal, where everybody resorts to making the best available online.

Change in cyberspace is inevitable. But the onus of the change for the better depends on the individuals. Women’s role must be vital for the sake of equity and efficiency. More importantly, it will go a long way in questioning the existing patriarchal practices in society and technology both. It is high time we addressed the apprehensions of women that “technology is not my cup of tea.” Instead, technology empowers and leads to self - discovery.

* (Author: Jisha Jocob holds a MA degree in Political Science from Delhi University)

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