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last updated: june 1

The Last Page
by Rachel Singer Gordon

By now, you're probably sick of reading articles about men, women, and technology. You know, the ones that pontificate on such weighty issues as whether Purple Moon or Barbie dream designer are better for girls, whether there is or isn't truly an online gender gap, how to get women to buy more stuff online, why women aren't majoring in computer science, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Let me clue you in. Here's the thing: Women, in general, don't look at computers and their related paraphanelia as really exciting, must-have toys (in the same way as they don't get overly excited about car stereo woofers and tweeters and amps). Computers are tools. They are machines. They are important in a pragmatic sense, for what they allow a person to accomplish.

(Please, I do understand this is an overgeneralization, and if you do happen to be a female engineer with a kick-ass stereo and extensive hot rod collection, then more power to you.)

This feeds into the following dilemma: Using computers to do one's job is not perceived as sexy, exciting, or important in the same way that administering, programming, or installing computers is. Don't believe me? Consider this for a second: Who gets the greater praise, respect, and salary -- one of the two thirds of on-the-job computer users who are female, say, your office's administrative assistant who never gets lost in the bowels of Microsoft Access, or the guy who came in to lay network cable and load Office onto your PC?

The dismissal of the importance of computers as tools as opposed to their allure as high-tech candy creates a certain arrogance on the part of technology companies toward the passive "end-user," i.e., the poor schlub who will actually be stuck working with their products. So we suffer through bloatware that needlessly uses more and more space and processing power to incorporate features we don't really need and "help" files of endless complexity. Why produce a program that meets the needs of the user, is fast, and simple to use -- where's the fun in that? Why stop and consider whether the user requires an Internet-capable microwave oven -- instead, it's built because it can be.

Given such an attitude, why wouldn't women see computer technology as toys for boys? This outlook also combines with cultural perceptions of powerful computer programmers/administrators vs. passive computer users to make current attempts to redefine existing professions through identification with information technology so awfully tricky. For example, my own field, librarianship, is embroiled in a misguided battle to remake itself as "information science," attempting to replace the cultural image of a spinster in a bun blowing dust off of an old book with that of a (male) computer geek sitting in front of the ultimate database converting data to knowledge with one click of his mouse.

Nice effort! But here's the catch: Not only are there a few too many years of cultural baggage to overcome, replacing the old stereotype with that of a computer user avails us nothing. Users are passive, users are powerless, and just possessing a roomful of computers is irrelevant.

The two books reviewed this month address the problem of women, power, and technology in quite different ways.

wired women One of the few sources to address various aspects of the women and technology issue in a fresh and interesting way is wired_women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, edited by Lynn Cherney and Elizabeth Reba Weise. Although this 1996 collection is somewhat dated by Internet standards, its contributors address ongoing issues with which we continue to struggle. Especially interesting is Karen Coyle's essay, "How Hard Can It Be?" which contains the following straightforward passage:

We're supposed to use computers, not worship them. There will be those fascinated with the machine qua machine, but we have no reason to assume that to be a superior approach. Except, of course, that it's the masculine approach by computer culture standards and, therefore, has the air of superiority.

The other contributors to this collection of course each take their own approach to the subject, and the overall effect is a more reflective compilation than many other writers' stabs at the subject.

cybergrrl! If you prefer a more facile approach, pick up Aliza Sherman's cybergrrl! A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web. Sherman has made herself into an Internet personality by exploiting the perception that women are both underrepresented and underprivileged online, and her book feeds into the stereotype that modern technology is just too darn complicated for women to handle without Sherman's help. She does provide a fairly basic introduction for the newer Internet user, but other guides manage that much without the faint air of condescension that emanates from cybergrrl's pages.

These two titles barely scratch the surface of the available material on women and technology. So whether you prefer cybergrrls or cybercosmo, the online field is wide open.

b i o
Rachel Singer Gordon is a reference/computer services librarian with an affinity for both books and technology.



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