Talibanism in Technology by Deepa Kandaswamy


The article examines the global phenomenon of “technological talibanism” and seven reasons why women in science and technology have remained invisible through out the ages.

Seven reasons why women in technology remain invisible…

Most of us have heard of the Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the
modern world. We also know it was built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal.
But how many of us know of her aunt, Nor Mahal? She invented the
device to perform attar distillation from flowers to make perfumes.
Despite 4,000 years of contribution, we do not know about most
pioneering women in technology—like Empress Shi Dun, who invented
paper, Penthesilea, who invented the battle axe, and Catherine Green,
who invented the cotton gin (though Eli Whitney holds the patent).
Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, was also a brilliant
mathematician, and her contribution as the inventor of the pie chart that
businesses, technologists, researchers and governments throughout the
world use today, is virtually unknown.

This continues even in this ‘Information Age’ where we boast of living in
knowledge-based societies. How many of us know of Helen Greiner, a
scientist and the only woman to run a robot company in the world or of
Vanitha Rangaraju who is the only Indian woman to win an Oscar for her
technical work for the movie Shrek?

A lot has been written about the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women,
which resulted in the worldwide outcry against women wearing full-
length burkhas, which rendered them invisible and the denial of their
fundamental rights. However, there’s not even a whimper about the
systematic Talibanism of women in technology, which has made them
invisible throughout the ages. Despite a large number of talented and
successful women in the field, why is it that society tends to associate
only men with technology? This appears to be a global phenomenon,
cutting across class, race, and the development of countries.
“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where a backbone ought to be…”
Clementine P’ford, journalist and editor
After elaborate research and having interviewed several women and men
in the fields of education, business and technology, I found there are
seven primary reasons why women in technology continue to remain
invisible—social myths, conditioning, media, networking, deterrence,
balance and marketing.

Social myths
Cutting across cultural differences, the patriarchal system has always
defined the place and role of a woman. This has led to perpetuation of
myths like:
Many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against—a
visible proof of the totality of their ‘conditioning’
Myth #1: Women are emotional while tech is strictly logical. As a result,
they don’t go together.
Myth #2: Men are good at math and machines while women have no clue
about these.
Myth #3: Men are the providers while women are nurturers.
Myth #4: Technical women are unattractive, arrogant, and abnormal.
Myth #5: Women can’t do it because they are made that way: the divine
or the evolution argument.
Myth #6: Women aren’t as good at visualizing as men, and hence, don’t
make good engineers.
A lot of research exploring these myths is collecting dust in various
organizations throughout the world. Anne Fausto-Sterling examines these
issues in “Myths of Gender”. In her book, she describes the research
studies conducted to analyze adult brain differences. The conclusion of
these various studies proves that verbal ability, visual spatial perception,
and math ability have nothing to do with the gender of a human being.
However, many males accept these myths readily. Njin-Tsoe Chen,
project leader, Schuitema, Netherlands, observes, “To some degree it’s
society, but evolution also plays a role. Men and women are different.” A
recent survey conducted by search engine AltaVista found that the myth
of men being better in technology, alive on the internet, as 80% of the
men claimed they are better surfers than their female partners.
…thus, most of the ‘knowledgeable’ sources are men. As for the audience,
I’m sure it’s mostly male too.

“I think that the number of women in science and technology is certainly
larger than zero but it is a small percentage—5% or less,” says Dr
Hemker, German Physicist at Credit Suisse. Aggressive women get
labeled as bitches. There is a program in California for ‘bossy broads,’
women whose assertiveness scares men and whose companies send them
to learn how to ‘temper’ their behavior. Implicit attitudes are difficult to
change. When a woman shatters these myths and succeeds in the
technical field, she is made out to be a honchess, arrogant feminist or said
to have slept her way through to the top. Instead of being accepted for
their accomplishments, successful women are questioned as to how they
became successful.

The social myths perpetuate stereotypes that lead to conditioning. There
is pressure on women to look and behave in certain ways, which is deeply
ingrained in their psyches. Perception is everything. Kate Millet, the
writer and educator said, “Many women do not recognize themselves as
discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of
their conditioning.” Stereotypes based on social myths exist because of
mass media. It starts at an early stage when parenting is done using
stereotypes—girls like dolls and boys like cars. “I think it does kids harm
not to see what they gravitate towards and make toy selections
appropriately. I was always jealous of my brother’s radio controlled cars
and electronics sets,” says Helen Greiner, president of iRobot.
According to Diana Bouchard, graphic artist, Quebec, Canada, “Looking
through thousands of photographs weekly, women are depicted 95% of
the time as ‘beginners’ with males standing behind them, pointing at the
computer screen as if to say ‘ok, now you click here.’ It’s indicative of
male mentality that women don’t get it.” When young girls see this, they
assume technology is not for them. While there’s much discussion about
the social impact of the media’s depiction of a woman’s body, there is
almost none about the impact it has on careers and educational
In an Internet survey where I polled over 2,557 women working in the
technical field, 56% of the women stated they have never been able to
wear a skirt to work in any tech industry job event, because they’re afraid
of being perceived as unprofessional. 70% said plain glasses, little or no
make up, and a tight hair bun helps them if they want their work to be
taken seriously. Finally, the conditioning is so absolute that women are
told they are automatically empowered by the design of the technological
environment known as the kitchen with all its fancy gadgets, which turns
out to be a way of luring women to occupy their assigned place in
society. This is better known as the “gendering of space” argument,
which was propounded by Dr Radhika Gajjala, Bowling Green State
University, Ohio.
If men and women were truly equal at work, both would hold roughly
identical expectations of what is possible and what isn’t.

By not covering successful women in technology, the media denies the
next generation role models. Today, if you flip through any popular
technical magazine, you would rarely find an article written by or about a
woman. Why?
David Ball, editor of Packet Magazine, answers, “Out of my top five
freelance writers, four of them are women. While our writers get bylines,
in many cases, the byline goes to the content expert that was interviewed
for the story. There appears to be more male engineers and technical
product managers than female.” Regarding dearth of articles about
women, Don Davis, editor, Card Technology magazine, says, “The
majority of the executives in the industry we primarily cover are men.
Thus, most of the knowledgeable sources are men. As for the audience,
I’m sure it’s mostly male.”
Thus, editors justify lack of coverage saying their readers (again assumed
to be male) wouldn’t be interested in knowing about women in
technology. It is up to the women’s magazines to cover these topics and
personalities. This becomes a vicious cycle as the typical woman’s
magazine covers what are considered “women” subjects like fashion,
beauty, and family and leave IT to tech magazines.
“There should be a proper regulatory framework to ensure that the
broadcasters’ air programmes on successful women in technology. The
regulators should ensure that broadcasters comply,” says Emily Khamula,
Broadcasting Officer in Malawi, Africa.
Prof Rodney Brooks, MIT, disagrees. “See the article in Forbes on
iRobot, featuring Helen Greiner and the movie Me & Isaac Newton,
featuring my former student Maja Mataric. Or see the press coverage for
my former student Cynthia Brezeal—Time magazine featured a story,
plus myriad TV appearances. None of my former male students have
done as well in the press as these three.”
A woman who swims with sharks has a better chance of being published
than a man who does the same thing. Why? Because she is considered a
maverick. Mass media coverage of Prof Brooks’ three former female
students who specialized in robotics can be explained as robotics is still
considered a maverick field for technical women. Despite the social myth
that women in technology are abnormal, why don’t they get the
limelight? This is because only ‘displayable’ aggressiveness results in
limelight. For women in technology, externally, one mightn’t seem
aggressive; internally, they have to be because of the job, which doesn’t
make good copy.

Lack of networking plays an enormous role in rendering women in
technology invisible. It is hard for women, however, to hang out with
their male colleagues after work. Two factors remain as major obstacles
to networking.
1. Old Boys’ network.
2. Male colleagues’ wives or girlfriends.
A female senior manager at Intel, says, “I find networking to be a major
problem. I cannot have the same informal ‘outside work’ relationship
with my peers and senior executives that my male ‘competitors’ could
have without spouses being concerned and some people’s tongues
Most of the time progress at work depends on being able to have the same
access to male co-workers after hours as the other male co-workers have.
This isolates women from the “old boys’ network” and trust building that
occurs at senior levels that leads to more opportunities.

Deterrence is done in two places—school and home. According to a
Unesco study, girls consistently match or surpass boys’ achievements in
science and mathematics in schools across the world. In developed
countries, young women are discouraged from pursuing engineering. In
developing countries, there is refusal to invest in a girl’s technical

A study by the National Science Foundation found gender-based
inequities in the USA. According to it, despite gains in girls’ participation
in advanced math in the 1990s, 34% of the girls report being advised not
to take math in their senior year of high school.
According to a NIME study, in Asia most families across cultures are
willing to invest in technical education for their girl child because it
improves marriage prospects but after marriage inevitably, over 50% of
these women do not pursue a full-time career.

Working hours required and the social set up for the jobs in the technical
field demand quite different commitments. This directly affects the
socially defined role of a woman as a nurturer. Therefore most women
feel there is a lack of balance in their lives and this leads to guilt. In
Californian Law, pregnancy itself is considered a disability with a note
from your doctor.

Shazia Harris, a clinical psychologist and researcher in education,
Pakistan says, “My research indicates that females will opt for fulltime
jobs if the option is available even after marriage and even after having
children which was one of the major factors for losing the professional
female workforce, i.e., home responsibilities before career.”

Generally, men market themselves better. In her book ‘What’s Holding
You Back?’ Linda Austin says men tend to over-represent their abilities
and qualifications by 30-40%, while women under-represent theirs by the
same amount. This works to a 60-80% gap between what a man and a
woman with similar qualifications claim. Accord-ing to Jennifer Pikes, an
engineer who worked for IBM, “Even in the ‘soft’ technical area
(technical writing department), men seemed far more eager to make a
name for themselves than the women did.”
Though social perceptions are slowly changing, women in the technical
workplace remain behind the scenes because they tend to play down their
contributions. This is because “feminism” has become a bad word in
today’s society. Many women in the technical field are scared of being
labeled “feminist” that they would rather ‘dumb down’ than take credit
for their work. Also, social conditioning tends to make women as
secondary, non-aggressive, non-risk-taking team players.

Dorothy Parker once said, “You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”
True, but why not create a new one? For starters, we could begin by
asking the same questions that members of the civil rights movement did.
This issue of invisibility of women in technology is currently hovering
between intent and execution, with industry leaders wishing the whole
issue would simply disappear instead of addressing the problem head-on.
This is where government advocacy and media can play an enormous
Technical workplaces founded on a male ‘norm’ need to be changed to
allow fair competition for jobs and advancement for women whose
strategies differ from the norm. If the norm involves weekend ‘beer
busts’, it’s not the female employee who needs to ‘loosen up’ but the
employer who needs to identify appropriate venues for company
meetings and encourage diversity.
Femininity as the culturally defined model of female behavior enforced
from the outside needs to be examined. One needs to strongly reject any
sort of artificial ‘femininity’ and teach our society to embrace diversity,
to allow girls to be ‘technically’ ambitious without labeling them
‘tomboys’ and to allow boys to be sensitive without branding them
‘sissies’. Generalizations based on myths should not be assumed of any
particular man, nor used to discriminate against any particular woman.
While ignoring the contributions of a single individual is really bad and
ignoring the contributions of a minority is appalling, ignoring the
potential contributions of half the population can be best explained in two
words—plain stupid.

Deepa Kandaswamy

1 thought on “Talibanism in Technology by Deepa Kandaswamy

  1. da. pentru mine una din cele mai mari probleme in afara chestiilor impamintenite si sexismului inerent in niste domenii atit de dominate de barbati dpdv istoric – deci inertia asta in general – este si atitudinea femeilor care sint “in”, dar care considera ca simplul fapt ca sint in minoritate – de multe ori singure printre colegi barbati – le face speciale si cumva superioare altor femei: ceea ce e in ochii lor un statut privilegiat, nu unul problematic. asta e unul din mai multele motive pentru care aspectul de gen e putin discutat in cercuri stiintifice. exista insa o gramada de cercetare si teorie despre lucrurile astea, si destule persoane interesate sa discute si sa schimbe ceva. am avut si eu un post despre femei “geeks”/femei in stiinta si tehnologie (tot in engleza, din pacate), care include propria mea perspectiva, de “femeie de stiinta”. :)

    (si in alta parte am enumerat si eu citeva inventatoare)

    plus merita citite urmatoarele bloguri:
    feminism and technology
    thus spake zuska

    si cosmic variance care-i f. f. misto, e total pro-feminist

Leave a Reply