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Women and the Information Society
Conference in Reykjavik April 14, 2000

Information Technology
and Gender
Challenges in a new Millenium

Christina Mörtberg
Divison of Gender & Technology,
Luleå university of technology, Sweden
e-mail: Chrisitna.Mortberg@arb.luth.se

In order to avoid the confusion that could arise among my loose ends, I will use the following structure. First, I will explain how I use and understand the concept information technology (IT). Secondly, I will give a brief overview of the research field – Gender and Information Technology, research that has been conducted in the Nordic countries. After that I will give some examples of what kind of images/myths that we are dealing with in spite of the multiple understandings that have been presented by gender researchers. Finally, I will address some issues that are important if we will accept the challenges that IT brings up.

Information Technology

10-15 years ago most of us used the concept computer technology but suddenly everyone started to use a new concept, information technology. Why do we need a new concept? And what does information technology mean?

One way to explain the introduction of IT is that the technology of the 1990s is signified by an integration of computer technology, communication technology and multimedia, so, integration is the main point of the new concept. Actually there is another concept that is used nowadays namely Information and Communication Technology (ICT). I have some difficulties with that concept depending on that for me IT had not existed without communication technology. But naturally communication can be interpreted in a different way namely to create dialogues. The latter opens up for other understandings of the technology.

Anyhow the integration of the technologies has changed our images of computers as well as how they are considered. Today, the interactions are no longer limited to one person and the machine since you have possibilities to enter into dialogues to create simulated worlds and virtual realities. Computers are connected to networks that give people opportunities to interact, to co-operate, to talk, to exchange ideas and feelings and to create transnational relationships – cyberspace becomes reality.

Gender research
– challenges of information technology

ITTDG - Nordic Research Network about IT and Gender: Christina Mörtberg from University of Luleå in Sweden, Sirje Virkus from Tallin Pedagogical University in Estonia and MarjaVehviläinen from University of Tampere in Finland pictured at a ITTDG research course and workshop in Tallinn in August 1999. ITTDG (Information technology, transnational democracy and gender) is a Nordic Network for research funded by NorFA.

Gender and IT or IT and Gender are a well-established research topic in Denmark, Norway and Sweden as well as in Finland of later years. How it is in Iceland – you know better than I do. Working life research such as the use of information technology, its effects and consequences on work environment (physically, psychologically and socially), on organization, skills, and qualifications, has been conducted of considerable proposition, since, the beginnings of the 1980s. Furthermore there has been and still are research project that are focusing:

  • the low numbers of women in education and as professionals
  • democratic aspects of IT
  • the limits of equal access

Other research positions are:

  • the social shaping of technology (Berg 1996, Berner 1997 )
  • participatory design (Bjerknes and Bratteteig 1995, Bødker and Greenbaum 1993)
  • culture studies (Håpnes and Sørensen 1995, Lie 1997)
  • teleworking (Gunnarsson 1997)
  • women’s voices of IT, gender, IT and expertise (Vehviläinen 1997)
  • citizenship (Vehviläinen 1999)
  • technopolitical (Mörtberg 1997) and epistemological issues (Bratteteig and Verne 1997)

The multidisciplinary project "Gender and Information Technology" based at the Centre for Technology and Culture, which was supported by the Research Council of Norway’s program "Information Technology and Society", is an additional example which shows that the research field is becoming valid. This was a very brief overview of a broad and well-established research field, but in any case you have catch a glimpse of the research field in the Nordic countries.

In spite of the extensive research that has been conducted there is images or simple understandings that travels around. The examples that I will present for my discussion of images/myths are:

  • equal access
  • women/girls are frightened of technology
  • women do not develop IT
  • the hacker sitting in front of a computer hacking on a keyboard

My examples are taken from a Swedish context.

Equal access

When the slogans are no longer "technology in a democratise society" but "democracy in a technological society or Information Society" equal access to the technology ought to be a basic principle. In a Swedish but also Nordic context this goal is obvious. But the limitations of equal access are made visible by a multiplicity of variables such as gender, class, age, race, regions and so on. There are no automatic links between the political goal of equal access and the opportunities that are opened up by information technology. Information technology is not a matter of fact but something that comes to existence through people who participate in the development and use of the technology. If we consider the fact that men dominate the development of IT, it cannot be all too wrong to assume those men, their interests and experiences have formed the dominating discourse of IT. So there is no straight line between challenges and realisations which sometimes seems to been taken for granted in the technological optimism that characterise the Swedish society.

The goal, equal access, has not been realised in spite of different projects and campaigns that have been conducted. In Sweden, trade unions, employers have offered their members or their staff to rent equipment. This has increased the numbers of users of Internet.

But if you are unemployed do you have access to the technology?

Do elderly people have access? Immigrants?

And so on.

Even if we are able to realise the goal, the access will not be equal since the development of IT is dominated by limited groups of men. The limitations of equal access need to be explored.

Women are frightened of Technology

An explanation that is not too unusual when the male dominance of information technology is scrutinised, is the one that states that women are frightened of technology (or IT). Depending on that, they do not use technology, prefer non-technical education programmes (at the upper secondary school, at the universities) and professions.

In an interview with a woman systems developer – I conducted the interviews for my thesis, the woman expressed that girls/young women prefer other study programmes than computer science / computer engineering because they are frightened of technology. Even a woman that develops telecommunication explains the low numbers of women in IT in that way!

The questions that arise are: Is she a woman? Is she frightened of technology? Why does this kind of understanding become so dominating so even a woman that develops high tech uses this kind of explanation.

We need to be careful of what kind of images, pictures and understandings that we use in order not to reinforce images that do not correspond with the reality, that is, with women that work with systems development. Another reason to be careful is that most of the Swedish women use some kind of technology particular in their homes but also in their work – as office workers, nurses, librarians etc. Why do we need to be careful? Since our stories produce our realities. I interpret the woman systems developers expression as a part of the stories that are told in different contexts in the Swedish society. The stories have intervened in the woman’s ways of understanding her world.

Women do not develop IT

Women do not develop IT or they are not interested of development since women prefer to use IT, are other images/myths that keeps going. Why does this images exist when other women work and I have worked as computer professionals. We are made invisible in different contexts and time for instance in newspapers, in different projects that have the aim to increase the numbers of women in computing IT.

Now and then I ask: Are we women? Or maybe we are not the right women? Men dominate systems development of IT but nevertheless there are breaks and fissures in the male dominance. But if the openings are made invisible in the public rooms how are we to succeed in modifying the male dominance in order to achieve more permanent changes?

Naturally there are a large number of ways to work for changes. Here I have pointed out one that is that gender researchers and other feminist ought to pay attention so we do not contribute in the processes where women systems developers are made invisible.

Finally to the fourth example:

"Sitting in front of the computer hacking on a keyboard"

This image has arisen partly from the data that I collected for my thesis and partly from interviews with women that has been/are students at a study programme only for women. The programme was established at Luleå University of Technology in 1995 and the programme turns to women with other backgrounds than science or technology. Therefore they need supplementary courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry. The aim of the single sex programme is to increase the numbers of women in computer engineering. The women study two years in an all-women group and on the third year they are integrated in the ordinary computer-engineering programme. The single-sex programme is evaluated and I have conducted interviews with some women that have followed the study programme.

In my analysis of the professional stories I found a pattern, namely, that they emphasise on the importance of co-operation since it is a part of the development process. The systems developers compare their experiences with student’s images of the profession, that is, the hacker that sits in front of a computer. In the interviews with the students, they express how basic courses are built on an unexpressed demand of previous skills/knowledge. If they do not have previous skills/qualifications, it means that they have to use many hours at the university in front of the computer to solve the laboratory experiments and to acquire the knowledge that is needed for the exams. It seems that the image of the hacker culture is reinforced during the studies. Why do the courses be structured in a way that they support the hacker culture?

Some of the women of the single sex programme emphasise that they have difficulties depending on that almost everyone among them do not have previous skills/knowledge of computers and computer science – they have to ask the teacher or spend much time in front of the computers. On the ordinary programme there are other students that are able to assist - the male students are those who mostly have skills before they start at the university.

The woman that follows the single sex-programme has a reputation that they ask questions, which is not in correspondence with the culture of the department of computer engineering – the problems ought to be solved without the involvement of the teachers. It seems that you ought to sit in the lab hacking on the computer. The hacker culture seems to be reinforced at the university. This contributes in the shaping of the student’s images of the profession. On the other hand the professionals emphasize co-operation as an important ability in systems development. How do we change this contradictory image of systems development? I think it will be necessary to change the image in order to get more women interested of education in information technology/computer science.


The research topic gender and information technology is and has been extensive in the Nordic countries in regard to working life research and to get more women to the information technology field. On the contrary issues concerning politics, democracy, citizenship and identities are not problematized explicit in the same way in contemporary research. This is of urgent interest also due to that not only the technology but also the realm of politics is dramatically changing. In information society, or, seen from another point of view, in the world society, our ways of thinking about, for example, co-operation, agency, politics, relationships, identities and citizenship are in the process of transformation. Accordingly, transformations and challenges are multiple, and in a context of democracy, IT can create an access point enabling citizens both to get information of their rights and to participate in decision-making processes through communications with national, regional, transnational and global institutions. The starting point of creating information society and IT strategies for future democratic practices must be in the civil society, in the everyday practices and situations. For example information technology could be a new channel for communication and activism for national and transnational grassroots networks, non-governmental organisations and campaigns. Important is, furthermore, to pay special attention to problems related to social inclusions and exclusions. Of special interest in the ongoing transition processes is therefore the "first" construction of a lively civil society, from the perspective of women, cultural minorities and people living in the peripheral areas.

Gender research has made visible the gendering of information technology, in a similar way, gender researchers have problematized the relations between gender and politics which has brought new dimensions, as well as, knowledge within the political field. On account of globalization, the Swedish membership in EU, changes in the welfare state, we have to take into consideration new issues, new agencies and new practices, that is, the political need to be reinvented. Consequently, changes in the political domain are taken place simultaneously with an increasing use of information technology. Technology and politics are shaped in mutual processes which means that they are, too, "important to be left to the enemy" (Haraway 1991). We ought to accept challenges in the transformations, as well as, the opportunities to use the technology in shaping the society from below. This presupposes a critical approach towards existing methodological and conceptual debates, from the perspectives of the civil society, gender and minorities. The relationships between the political and information technology open up new challenges. A necessary element for theories of the information society is to cross the "technology vs. culture" dichotomy in order to create other discourses than prevailing and thereby shape a democratic and sustainable technological society.


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