Towards a history of sexism in STEM fields

Recently, I read a paper by Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, entitled ‘Feminist Theories of Technology’ (Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2010, pp. 143-152). The paper gives a good overview of the exchange of ideas spanning centuries with regards to the gender relations facilitated and manifested by technologies through time.

Upon evaluating a more theoretical background to feminist critiques of the women in STEM ‘problem’, I see the necessity in framing the associated questions in much different light.

To clarify, I think contemporary critiques, such as the most recent ‘What women don’t want‘ by Khadijah M. Britton, are imbued with cogent rhetoric which helps raise awareness of the damage done to both women and the industry at large when discrimination occurs. Nonetheless, I think everyone who cares about sexism in tech can benefit from understanding how things came to be as they are now. We need to go beyond the umbrella argument, that it simply is the nature of patriarchy manifested as it permeated into tech cultures, as the paramount explanation for how things are.

What do we mean when say ‘technology’? The word today most saliently evokes images of civil and mechanical engineering industries as well as information technology. Wajcman argues that these representations of technology illustrate the typical late 19th century, post-Industrial Revolution views of technology, while erasing all innovation undertaken by women in the domestic realm – their contributions to the sciences and technologies in cooking, childcare and communication. When the latter is completely eradicated from the popular imagination of what technology constitutes, it is no wonder women continue to experience erasure and feelings of incompetence when their own input to the improved quality of life that we all capitalize on has been obfuscated.

Perhaps we should aim to acknowledge the technological prowess, critical thinking skills and analytical skills of women of all ages and generations, regardless of whether or not that conforms to our concurrent view of what tech looks like. This broadening of the paradigm will not only ease the anxieties women feel about their abilities but also enable technology-oriented cultures to see themselves more intuitively as part of a greater social fabric, bridging the untenable gap between the low- and the high-tech diasporas.

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