Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Jisha Jacob*
The Nobel Prize, says the 2022 literature laureate Annie Ernaux, is an institution “for men.” She further says that “speech has almost always been monopolised by men.” If even the hallowed Nobel Prize is still “bound to traditions” and “is perhaps more masculine,” as the French writer contends, what about the world of science and big tech?
The tech industry remains a male bastion. Citing the abysmally low percentage of female employees, the New York Times says, that the doors to the technology field “remain virtually closed to women.” The Los Angeles Times has similar observations about sexism in Silicon Valley. It says, the tech industry “lags decades behind other industries in its treatment of women.”
The big tech is far worse. Elon Musk, the new Twitter boss, often mocks advocates of the LGBT+ community. It is anybody’s guess where women will find themselves in his scheme of things. He would perhaps expect women to “follow the white rabbit.” (It is assumed if you follow the white rabbit, it will ultimately lead you to the truth). Or you may enter an alternate world. Musk isn’t playing “four-dimensional chess,” he is defending “the future of civilisation”!
Emily Chang in her book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, says that the big tech industry “has self-selected for men: first, anti-social nerds, then, self-confident and risk-taking bros.” No wonder therefore, “deep-rooted sexism prevails” in their universe and their meetings in hot tubs and at strip clubs are considered small ‘pecados’.
That women are under-represented and hold far fewer organisational positions in big tech companies like Meta, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft is an open secret. As Francine Bermen and Jeniffer Lundquist say, a large number of high-profile whistleblowers are women. “Frances Haugen exposed personal data exploitation at Meta, Timnit Gebru and Rebecca Rivers challenged Google on ethics and AI issues, and Janneke Parrish raised concerns about a discriminatory work culture at Apple, among others.” (Bermen, Francine and Jeniffer Lundquist, 2022)
“Why can’t a woman be like a man” has been a grumbling refrain in most walks of life. Literature, science, films, politics have all perpetuated such perceptions. In the footnote of his famous lecture, “The two cultures and the scientific revolution,” eminent British scientist C.P. Snow said that since childhood women are given training to be a “good wife” and a “good mother.” He further said that women lack training to become a good scientist or a physicist. But he ended up saying “whatever we say, we don’t regard women as suitable for scientific careers” for which he would have been heavily trolled today. (Snow 1959) Technology is widely considered a male- dominated industry. Psychologist Janet Morahan-Martin of Bryant University explains 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 computer culture.
Big tech and masculinity
What is masculinity? Does it really have to do anything with technology? In a larger sense, masculinity refers to how men perceive themselves. It is a manner of thinking and being that is socially formed. Victor J. Seidler of University of London offers an interesting explanation positing that men have assumed rationality as masculine based on a “rationality appropriated from and denied to others.” Men have made it a basis of male power “affecting what men see, hear and regard as important.” Brian Easlea, in his book Fathering the Unthinkable: Masculinity, Scientists, and the Nuclear Arms Race, argues that men’s propensity for science was mostly a “compensatory mechanism” for their inability to procreate and their vulnerability on the sexual level. (Easlea 1983)
Power and masculinity go hand in hand. The idea of masculinity is often associated with gaining increasingly greater power. Men now stand at the top of the technological pyramid thanks to this power. It appears that using power is fundamentally unbalanced. Men unquestionably make the important decisions. Whenever scientists are mentioned, “men” is always used as the pronoun. For instance, C.P. Snow referred to members of scientific communities as “men of science.” Men are thus at the top of the tech pyramid.
Lucie Greene, author of Silicon States: The Power of Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for our Future, cites the examples of Siri, Alexa, and all the verbal subservient assistants which normalize sexism. Twitter has an atrocious record of failing to address misogyny. Amnesty International has found women’s experience on Twitter as “toxic.” Women continue to be the victims of “digital violence.”
According to one source, women roughly represent about 25 % of technology workforce. When it comes to senior corporate leadership positions, the less said, the better. Only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
The Google UK: Gender Pay Report 2018 says that there are more males than women working at Google in top leadership positions and technical occupations, Due to the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership, technical and engineering roles, and roles with a lengthy tenure, the percentage gaps persist in the majority of the leading tech businesses. Men are more likely than women to fill senior positions. Only four women appear on a random Google search of the top 48 or so tech companies.
Stereotypically gendered technology
The masculinization has produced what is known as stereotypically gendered technology. It is crucial that women work in an industry that is predominately male. Who designs a product and who stands to gain from it should be taken into consideration when it is designed. Men may design a product that is primarily used by women, which could result in subpar design. It might not fit the specifications set forth for technology that women can use. An average-height woman, for instance, cannot reach the bottom of a washing machine tub to pull the items out. Another dated example is the fact that since the 1970s, the crash test dummies used to test car safety have been modelled on men for an average male weight and height. It has only now been rectified. This digital world needs more female designers because it is mostly created by men for men.
Ironically, the early programmers were not men, but women. The 1940s saw computer operation and programming as women’s space. By the 1960s when computing gained prominence, men displaced women who were experts and as Marie Hicks states in her book, Programmed Inequality, the space was altered from a “feminized field of endeavour” to a “distinctly masculine image”. (Hicks 2018)
As per the data provided by Planet Money: NPR, women’s presence in various fields clearly shows that, while medicine, law, and physical sciences saw a significant rise in the number of female students enrolling after 1984, science and technology have seen a sharp decline in the number of female students. There was a perceptible increase between 1975 and 1984, but the trend did not last long as women were ejected from cyberspace.
Women had to learn how to utilise the room-sized supercomputers that the US employed to decipher codes during World War II. A person who programmed the first general-purpose electronic computer during the Second World War was known as a “computer.” Women were portrayed as confident, attractive, and ready to do their part to win the war. They were encouraged to join the workforce by glorifying and glamorizing the role of the working women.
Women made up a significant portion of the tech workforce throughout the World War Two and up until the 1960s. They made important contributions to science and technology.
STEM education’s impact
Women make up approximately 43% of all STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in India, one of the highest percentages in the world, but just 14% of scientists, engineers, and technicians in universities and research-development organisations. (Economic Times 2022) The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is a problem around the world but India’s case is a curious one, despite an increase in the number of female STEM students each year, these higher education levels have not led to greater employment opportunities.
Lack of job opportunities has prompted them to turn to other avenues. Clinical psychologist Joy Harris describes such a phenomenon as “learned technological helplessness”. (Harris 2008)
Studies have shown that young girls would decide if they were good at math or science by the age of 8 – 10 years of age. It is critical to provide them the right opportunities at that young age.
The data further shows that disparity becomes acute at the undergraduate level. They prefer psychology, biological and social sciences over engineering (22%), computer science (20%), and physics (21%). Similarly in the STEM workforce, women show not much interest as compared to men. They have a very low share in the computer and mathematical sciences (26%), and engineering (16%).
Post- COVID era
Even in normal times, women bear what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “the double burden.” While they work for a living, they do significant amount of unpaid household work. According to a survey made in 2022, as many as 58% of Indian women lost their employment mostly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Women were driven away from the corporate sector thanks to the rise in home duties. (Sethi 2022) This was also the time where people showed a greater dependence on technology than ever. Most jobs demanded workers to be tech-savvy. The gender gap in the economy also worsened because of the pandemic.
Rising domestic violence further accentuated the disparity. According to one source, 1 in 3 women worldwide experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of an intimate relationship. As a result, women were experiencing assault and looking for employment options. (UN Women: Gender equality matters in COVID -19 response)
During the worst phase of Covid and after, some people began to use social media to share their daily emotions, which allowed them to connect with others who share their perspectives. According to Statista portal, as of January 2022, Snapchat had more female users, while platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter had more male users than female. According to another source, men use LinkedIn more often as compared to women which are 54% and 44% respectively.
The active presence of women on the social media platforms have made them vulnerable to abuses and threats of various kinds.
Online gender-based violence (OGBV) is perpetrated by using technology or a digital interface -specifically the internet or smart devices. Cyber stalking, zoom bombing, identity theft, online threats, blackmailing and cyber flashing are familiar forms of online gender-based violence. According to the toolkit, 85% of women globally face online gender – based violence. 88% of women in Asia and the Pacific have experienced OGBV. (Toolkit: 30 for 2030 UN Women 2022)
A survey on online violence against women by the Amnesty International suggests that 70% of the women who experienced some forms of online harassment have altered how they use social media, and a third of them claim they no longer express their thoughts on certain topics.
Nordic countries score higher than others on gender equality parameters. While Sweden gets top score in perceptions of gender equality, Norway tops all other nations in terms of income equality. This has been possible as the Nordic nations have established a higher degree of political consensus around issues like social equality and social solidarity. They pay women in technology more than others. As the 2018 OECD report, “Is the last mile the longest? Economic gains from gender equality in Nordic countries” notes, it is this region’s past improvements in gender equality in employment that have “contributed to economic growth.” The Nordic nations’ global reputation notwithstanding, they continue to have gender gaps in technology. Anneli Häyren, a researcher at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, points out that there exists an idea of being gender equal, but “we have a long way to go before we are gender equal.”
The Nordic Gender Effect at Work, a report from the Nordic Council of Ministers, an advisory group, further notes that there has been “a disturbing pattern” in businesses: “the higher up the hierarchy you look, the more men you notice.” This report raises serious concerns about the gender gap. It is thus apparent that even in societies where gender equality is the norm, women and other different gender groupings may not necessarily be equally represented in all sectors, specially technology.
Some academics contend that women are less likely to pursue degrees in STEM even in countries where there is already a culture of gender equality. This behavioural pattern involves teaching topics to girls when they are still very young. It has come to surprise many like University of Essex professor Gijsbert Stoet who says, “It is a paradox…. nobody would have expected this to be the reality of our time”.
Maddy Savage’s write-up for the BBCwebsite, “the paradox of working for the world’s most equal countries,” appears puzzling. Even in Denmark, the most inclusive country in the world, “mainly white males sit at the top of many of the best-known corporations.” One explanation is that women prefer to work in public sector which limits the pool available for top private sector roles.
Engineers and IT specialists are already in short supply in the Nordic labour market. According to a study, it will soon be necessary to solve the problem because new technology will be created practically entirely by men. In the Nordic labour market, women have established themselves in the service industry. According to a survey, women have benefited most from the region’s service industry, which accounts for 80% of all employment.
Women in the tech sector continue to face toxic and gendered environment. The so-called male technical prowess as an organising principle marks the work culture. As the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific points out, the existing under-representation of women in the technology industry is reinforcing social inequalities. “It is meaningless to talk about technological advancements if half of the population is being left behind.”
It is ironic that such gender inequalities should exist while the world embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Another worrying trend is that the Covid -19 pandemic impacted men and women differently “exacerbating current asymmetries and risking a reversal of progress made towards closing the gender gap.” Gender stereotypes have led to a gendered division of labour in the tech industry.
In 2021, the percentage of women in CEO positions globally was a mere 5.5 % and in STEM fields, it was only around 3 %. A way forward would be women’s larger presence in the STEM careers. That will not only lower the untenable existing disparities, it will embolden other women to follow suit.
Nalini Malani, a contemporary Indian artist whose creative works reflect pressing feminist issues, says that though science and technology have given us so much allowing us to talk to each other over oceans, “the human psyche hasn’t kept abreast.” However, Malani is confident that “the future is female’ and the world needs the instinctual knowledge of the female side of our brains, “otherwise we are doomed.”
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has announced that from February 2023 teenagers will only receive ads based on their age and location. It has also announced that it will be “removing gender as a targeting option.” It is perhaps too late, too little but it is a welcome move. If the big tech companies don’t mend their ways, they will be blamed for what Churchill chastised the Balkans: “they produce more history than they can consume.” They will be judged by the new generation for showing their own shame.
*Jisha Jacob has done Masters in Political Science from University of Delhi