Willinsky, J. (In press). Tempering the masculinities of technology. In N. Lesko (Ed.), Masculinities at school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Tempering the Masculinities of Technology

John Willinsky

University of British Columbia


Men and their machines (boys and their toys) forms an underlying theme for the history of the West and many of our childhoods. Those constant images of young boys earnestly playing with their trucks, microscopes, and guns tells its own history of a technology engaged in building, exploring, and otherwise wreaking havoc with the world. Whether the machines are used to discover or conquer, with the two often inextricably mixed, technology was to become for the West the very measure of man (Adas, 1991). During its Age of Empire, spanning from the Renaissance to our own day, the West mounted what was, in effect, a political science that cast reason and its machinations as a masculine dynamo against a feminine nature that was seen to be embodied in women, children, and natives (Seidler, 1994). And so today it is tempting to imagine that the phallotechnologies, as Jane Caputo (1988) identifies them, of instrumental reason are now approaching some sort of culminating moment with the thinking machines that aptly manage our words, work, and worth. It is all vastly more complicated than that, of course, but gross characterizations have a way, sometimes, of capturing rough truths.

            The development of technology is often cast in the form of a creation myth in which a given race of men have come to produce the world through a technology that others are meant to consume and man.[1] Certainly, women are are more often the bar-code readers, the word and data processors, the human extensions of the machines that constitute and regulate their work. And to show for it, they bear more than their share of repetitive strain injuries or RSI (the black-lung disease of the info-age), as well as a greater part in the polarization of the economy brought about by automation and downsizing, and the off-shore globalization of manufacturing (Hayes, 1995).[2] Women suffer this technology because it is part of a fiercely competitive economic system and, in the argument this chapter pursues through the high schools, because technology has come to define a masculine space.

Technology, in the sense that I am using it here, is something more than the application of device and technique. Technology represents a mobilization of resources and reason; it creates a place in the world of privilege and exploitation. That space, at this point, has been made thoroughly masculine, beginning in childhood, in ways that are being challenged. This chapter describes an exploration and challenging of that masculine space in a high school computer studies program.


Shaping Technology

The approach I am taking to technology emphasizes what people have made of machines, rather than asking what the machines have made of us. I say this because there is no shortage of prophets pointing to the profound changes the technology has wrought. Educator Neil Postman warns that “it is not always clear, at least in the early stages of a technology’s intrusion into a culture who will gain most by it and who will lose most” (1992, p. 12). I think it is clear. Physicist Ursula Franklin finds herself “overawed by the way in technology has acted to reorder and restructure social relations” (1990, p. 13). I think that changes to the order and structure of social relations are not the result of an overawing technology but of the uses to which the machinery has been put. This technological determinism recalls Marshall McLuhan’s the medium is the massage, and while I wouldn’t deny technology’s impact on the feel and tone of our lives, I fear that we are losing sight of the ends to which the medium is massaged.[3]

So I am left to wonder when Sherry Turkle wants us to believe that Multiple-User Domains (MUDs), which are network games based on the role-playing model of Dungeons and Dragons, offers a new forms of identity (1995). She holds that in these computer-mediated worlds, the thinking of the postmodernist giants, Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari comes to life, or as she captures it: “The self is multiple, fluid, and constituted in interaction with machine connections; it is made and transformed by language; sexual congress is an exchange of signifiers; and understanding follows from navigation and tinkering rather than analysis” (1995, p. 15). The MUDs may well feature men constructing female characters posing as men and so on, but this really does little to alter the masculine tenor to the “navigation and tinkering” of the human-machine-human interface, despite the free flow of virtual fluids. Real life, or RL as MUD-sters name it, goes on. Technologies do not so much create new spaces, I think it can be argued, as render them quicker, brighter, bigger, and noisier. It takes a far more deliberate and focused effort to turn the machines away from reproducing the world of those who direct them.

But if changes in the technologies are not the answer what about changes in the men? As Mary Bryson and Suzanne de Castell perceptively warn, “re-tooling” an old-style masculinity in favor of a men’s movement version of a New Age technology only risks a further entrenching of a masculine monopoly over these resources in the West (1993). What we need, rather, are ways of speaking to how the devices that govern our lives have been constructed as the reasonable domain of men and how that could be otherwise. This is to distinguish between the masculinity ascriptions of technology and what men and, for that matter, women really do with machines. It has been Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seemingly obvious point that not everything that men do counts as masculine and vice versa (1995). It is better to think of masculinity as a particular performance of gender, which is what Judith Butler does in making sense of sexual identity (1991). In the case of technology, the machine is read as a natural and powerful extension of the male body, whatever the order of the body that happens to be driving the car or laptop. Mastery of the machines has been made to define masculine space. This paper considers how schools give students lessons in occupying that space, even as one might hope that the schools hold, in the name of education, the possibility of reclaiming that space for other sorts of performances.


Terhnology and Gender

Not so long ago, the controversy over the gendered divisions of technology in the schools was about who hammered together a step-stool in industrial arts or who sewed an apron in home economics. That great gender frontier has since been bridged with co-ed classes in both areas, while the educational focus on technology has grown to encompass the far more academically respectable areas of computer studies and information technology. While technology has yet to achieve the academic status of physics or mathematics, it does seem clear that where, during the 1950s and 1960s, the sciences were seen as key to the West’s cold war triumph, technology has now become the great white hope of the New World Order. As I write, President Clinton is helping volunteers lay an Internet link to a California high school. “We are putting the future at the fingertips of your children,” he solemnly declared to the gathered crowd, “and we are doing it in the best American tradition” (Purdum, 1996). Where once President Kennedy pledged to place a man on the moon in the ideological space-race against the Soviet Union, this President has committed himself to connecting every school in the nation to the Internet by the turn of the century through a partnership of volunteers and corporate sponsors that is intended to place America at the forefront of the age of information.

The post-Sputnik Cold War funding of science education three decades ago drew attention to the gendered nature of this society’s most valued form of knowledge. Women were largely staying away from math and science, and this meant, given the urgency of this national agenda, an alarming loss of human resources for the Free World. The federal government responded by holding conferences on women in science and taking other measures.[4] Gains in female participation were made through the mentoring of women scientists, the implementation of all-girl science classes, and the active recruiting of young women. In what is again becoming a familiar refrain, as we shall see, these programs often ended up blaming the girls who were not otherwise inclined to pursue these difficult but beneficial subjects (McLaren & Gaskell, 1995).

Now that Information Technology is paving the highway to the future, a similar concern has arisen over how few young women are drawn to this field of study and work, a concern shared by education and business, by those committed to equity issues and those bent on tapping human resources and retail markets. The news today on this year’s Take Our Daughter to Work Day (April 25th) was that 50 homeless girls in New York City were given the opportunity to surf the World Wide Web. One can’t help feeling that something more has still to be done, and whether one puts it down to expediency or opportunism, one way of affecting change in education is to play on existing energies. It seems only fair to expose this great educational interest in technology to alternatives concerned with making a difference in the ordering and structuring of gender relations in the schools.

The first step would seem to be to identify the qualities of technology readily associated with masculinity, and to do so within the scope of this paper I work from close analogy, exact instances, interpreted data, and risky practices. The close analogies come from the masculine tendencies of athletics, the military, and the sciences. The exact instances are to be found in the computers and gender research, along with gendered innovations in electronic games and the Net. The interpreted data is based on interviews with high school boys and girls who are participating in the risky practices. They are risky practices, at least from my perspective, because the interviewed students are taking part in an Information Technology Management (ITM) program which Vivian Forssman and I are in the midst of developing for the schools in a business-academic partnership. Vivian Forssman is a glass-ceiling refugee from the IT industry, who now heads Knowledge Architecture, a start-up educational company which is not waiting for new technologies to change the classroom but seeks to change the classroom as a new way of working the technologies. This review of where gender sits with technology, then, has as its final measure the promise and shortcomings of our program in trying to reorder and restructure social relations.

The ITM program, designed for grades 10-12, has grown out of work with teachers over the last two years and is currently being piloted in 17 high schools. With ITM, the class runs on the model of a high-tech consulting company which provides technical design, planning, implementation, support, and ongoing services that help people realize the value (and reduce the frustrations) of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Students in the ITM program work in teams developing their skills with people, projects, and technology, in offering a similar array of services to the teachers and students in their school and community. This often involves shifting power structures around learning and teaching in the school, often reversing the institutional roles of student and teacher. It draws the school’s hackers away from a life on the screen to some greater contribution to the school community, while offering some reason and pleasure to take computers for some of those students who otherwise tend to say no to the machines. Yet it is equally cautious about the masculine temperament that haunts the information technology sector from which we have taken our model.[5] This partnership is about technology in both business and education, and what we have learned after this first round of development is that restructuring the school program is insufficient in and of itself in altering the governing ethos. The nature of this masculinity, as reviewed below, has to become an object of study in the program. The critique has still to become the curriculum.


Masculine Domains: Athletic and Military

In trying to understand the masculinity of technology in the high school, especially in its more heroic aspects, extra-curricular sports provides a valuable point of comparison. While the football players are out on the field during the fading light of afternoon, the computer nerds are gathering round their monitors, each dedicating himself to going farther than anyone has gone before, to mastering the exhilarating moves that define their place on the field or screen. Both athlete and hacker operate within a specialized work ethic, devoting long hours to improving specific skills, focusing on self-improvement, on staying competitive (without letting other school subjects totally collapse). They key is focus, being able to enter the zone, as this space of total concentration is known in athletics. In his novel on the lives of Microsoft employees, Microserfs, Doug Coupland has his narrator reflect on how “nerds overfocus. . . But I guess its that ability to narrow-focus that makes so good at [computer] code writing: One line at a time, one line in a strand of millions” (1995, p. 2). The body becomes a tool, in a merging of flesh and apparatus, in what is now being identified as a cyborg.[6] There is that masculine form of bonding that comes of sharing these concentrated moments of lone achievement and daring, of personal bests and private failures, marked by the taboo language of bravado. Athletics and technology are decidedly different routes to masculinity, that envision the male body in different ways, and yet athlete and hacker share a way of being in the school that distinguishes these students. Of course, girls take to the fields and the screens, too. In my experience, however, the young women are still fighting for equity in the schools often focused on the school gym, and there is little sense that these are no longer masculine spaces, if under siege. On the other hand, this is clearly not about how well women or men can do any of these activities.

At this level, the masculine bent of athletics and technology is largely extra-curricular – leaving behind physical education and computer literacy classes – which is where the real life of the school exists. It is a space in which athletes and hackers are learning a masculine hold on power that both enforces, and plays against, established forms of order. They have found a sanctuary in the school, whether in the gym or computer lab, where they reign, however much they may flounder in calculus or French class.

            Yet who am I kidding? Hackers and crackers are also known as nerds and geeks. The best of these keyboard artists cannot hold a candle to the head-turning that follows the school’s top athletes. To go deep with computers is to join a sub-culture, running underground and behind the scenes, at best in close conjunction with the teacher in charge of the school’s systems. Pulling cable into wiring closets and establishing password access does not generate the glamour or sense of presence afforded the public athlete; it does not solicit the often personal commitment of the school coach who believes that he can make men out of boys (and out of girls too) (Sherlock, 1987). At best, the revenge-of-the-nerds will lie in the world beyond schooling, where athletic and computer stars hold a similar hope for greatness. Michael Jordan has his match in the towering figure of Bill Gates, the boy-inventor and a household-name of legendary, self-made financial worth. In looking to heroics of athletics and technology, I also wouldn’t want to discount the race-and-aspiration issue that falls between Jordan and Gates. They represent a particular masculine take on the world (with the computer far more the great white hope for America at this point of global struggle for economic domination). Although the posters of dynamic Michael leaping heavenward abound, the image of rumpled Bill lording over his cyber-empire recalls the Boy’s Own Adventure series of the last century, in which imperial adventurers explored the world of their own true manhood and race.

            A further link between athletics and technology is their shared military genealogy that defines warrior forms of masculinity. Student athletes tend to speak in metaphors of war (Lesko, 1996). Working from sport’s military sensibility, Michael Messner has described how “in many of our most popular sports, the achievement of goals (scoring and winning) is predicated on the successful utilization of violence – that is, the human body is routinely turned into a weapon to be used against other bodies.” (1990, p. 203) By the same token, the most popular of the computer games Doom, Marathon, Heretic are largely track’em/blast’em games in which the machine is a virtual body/weapon. In these games, the computer monitor becomes one’s eyes; the joy stick one’s deadly handle on the world (Coyle, 1996).

Apart from all of the shared metaphors and images, however, it is well to remember that the military has been a primary sponsor of the computer revolution. One of the earliest full-scale computers, the ENIAC, was developed at the Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory in the final years of WWII (after being initially programmed by women), while the Internet was first established to link research universities and the military-industrial complex. Donna Haraway goes a step further in capturing the connections by using the Terminator, the movie hero who stands as the athletic and technological tool (“the beast on the face of postmodern culture”) of the New World Order: “The Terminator can be the transfused blood fraternity of information machine and human warrior in the cyber-enhanced airforce cockpit, those pilot projects for the equally – maybe more – profitable commercial cyborg theme parks and virtual reality arcades to follow in the great technology transfer game from military practices to the civilian economy that has characterized cyborg worlds.” (Haraway, 1995) The sci-fi transfer between military and civilian economies appears, however, to go both ways. So Eliot Cohen, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, waxes enthusiastic over the coming military-technical revolution in which “‘information warriors,’ for example, might supplant tankers and fighter pilots as groups from which the military establishment draws its bulk of its leaders” (Cohen, 1996)

            In the context of the high school, both athlete and hacker line up as more or less celebrated warriors on the side of the school’s power structure that formalizes the competition and violence necessary to sort and cool out the young. While women participate in this play of significance at the school, the space is still largely defined by the relationship between the male body and machine (as opposed to the female body and nature). This defines the particular site of power shared by athlete and hacker in the high school, while contributing to a larger lesson about the masculine claim on the technologies of the West.


A Manly Science and Technology


A second approach to this dynamics of a masculine technology, and one more closely related academically to computer studies, is through the example of science education. Theories have abounded about the masculine bent of science, not least of which has been Brian Easlea’s idea of womb envy which postulates that men have compensated for their inability to give birth by making bigger and ever-more powerful things that took life and death back into their manly hands (Easlea, 1983). If Cold-War psychoanalysis seems a little passÈ, Nancy Chodorow’s object relations theory also has much to say about this masculine association with scientific order, as the young boy looks for a detached ordering of his difference from his mother, which the young girl does not need to find in her identification (1978).

            Science has been presented to generations of students as a man’s world of mental gymnastics (Whyte, 1986; Bryne, 1992). The post-Sputnik research on why girls have said no to a science that said no to them indicates that something more fundamental than a greater display of women in science is needed. In an effort to establish what set science and “feminine roles” apart, Herbert Walberg established at the time that “girls value people and religious unity more than boys while boys value practicality, power, and theoretical ideas more” (1969, p. 52). He adds that “the girls are less dogmatic and have higher needs for affiliation and to be outgoing, and they regard the universe as more friendly” (ibid.). While Walberg was ready to accept “the apparent trait discontinuities in feminine and scientific roles,” there was something pedagogically interesting in women’s rejection of science, in favor of something more engaged with the world and people. In surveying young women through the 1970s, Ormerod found that those could perceive science’s social relevance were more likely to take the subject (1971; 1979). Young women were more likely to be interested the therapeutic use of lasers, for example, rather than its military functions. Young women had, it seems apparent, something to add to the tone and substance of the science program.

In the mid-1960s, the Project Physics Course, out of Harvard University, was aimed at turning around the declining number of students taking the discipline in high school. It used this very point of relevance, with science portrayed as “a cultural force,” to increase the subject’s reach to a more “diverse” audience. It involved team work and performance contracts, and the “instructor was available as ëconsultant’ to each of these groups” (Holton, 1978, pp. 293-294). A similar concern with the social place of science was present in the science-technology-society (STS) approach which arose in the early 1970s in various English-speaking countries. As a result, it, too, has appealed to young women through its pursuit of issues that “relate to people and their predicaments,” as well as its collaborative approach in examining the moral implications of scientific activity, although these topics interested the young men equally well once they were introduced (Solomon, 1994, p. 144).

Despite the success of these curricular developments, the trend through the 1980s, at least, has been that fewer women entered the sciences and engineering than a decade earlier (Haraway, 1991b, pp. 14-15). A gender balance in textbook illustrations has been achieved, while more demanding modifications to the teaching of science have not been as extensive. A good instance of what might be required is found in Jane Butler Kahle and LÈonie Rennie’s research on how, as Australian and American girls get older, they increasingly think science less relevant or useful than boys.[7] Their research in the United States shows that the teachers who attended gender equity workshops were able to overcome this gap and provide nine-year-olds with “classes where girls generally enjoyed the activity as much as boys” (1993, p. 333). They also worked with changing the style of teaching to a more activity-based approach, pointing to the importance of addressing the style of the subject as well as its masculine definition, at least among the teachers.

It is not hard to see the parallels between the sciences and technology, with young women finding themselves put off, for example, by the abstract and unforgivable logic of writing tiny perfect computer programs. The interest which young women expressed at the social relevance of science might well find equal application, we are hoping with the ITM program, in keeping the school’s networks running or bringing a senior generation of teachers on-line and on-board with new learning technologies that assist them in their work, or developing Internet access policies for students in staff, to take three instances that have occurred within the ITM program.


Computers, Gender, and Education


While the literature on gender and computers makes it plain that males predominate in the use and study of computers on a global scale, one is still left feeling cautious about the significance of this fact.[8] A key measures in this literature is student attitude toward computers, and Leslie Francis reports how the studies she has reviewed are divided between those showing boys possessing a more positive attitude and those that found no difference, whether she looked at the elementary, high school, and teacher trainee, undergraduate and teacher levels (1994, p. 283). Her own study found little difference at the undergraduate level in either student attitudes towards computers or their gender stereotyping in association with the machines. To take another point of caution, Janice Woodrow has found that boys’ greater experience and more positive attitude toward computers did not translate into superior performance in computer courses (1993). In Woodrow’s judgment, “students will master various uses of computers for a purpose – one that is immediate and obvious, and one which much more closely resembles the acquisition of computer skills in the workplace” (Woodrow, 1986, p. 334, original emphasis).[9]

The greater confidence of the boys on the machines is certainly related, as Lily Shashaani (1994) has found, to the greater amount of time and the number of courses taken. But given that, young women may well tend to benefit more from specific learning experiences with computers, as Harriet Taylor and Luegina Mounfield (1994) found at the college level. There is nothing so profoundly at odds between gender and technology, this research suggests, other than how one chooses to spend one’s time. This is a small but important point, as women attempt to overcome a long history of ascribed aptitudes and assigned spheres of activity. Bente ElkjÊr’s work among eighth-grade Danish schoolchildren has led her focus on how girls become “guests’ in a sphere of content that is dominated by symbolic masculinity,” while “boys are regarded as ‘hosts’ in the sense that they feel compelled to try to maintain their dominating position in a sphere defined by masculinity” (1992, p. 38). ElkjÊr suggests that gender is best understood as it is produced by the relationship struck between male and female (the opposite sex) and what she calls “the subject content of the concrete sphere” (ibid.). Unsettling those domestic relationships, of guest and host, of gender-specific spheres, seems a fair aim of any equity program that goes beyond seeking a balance in enrollment numbers between the sexes.

One measure of the public concern in the United States on this issue has been the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 which has led to a series of Women in Technology projects that have included mentoring, summer camps, speaker bureaus, and job shadowing (Cunanan & Maddy-Bernstein, 1993). This was to follow the earlier example of science and, without denigrating these efforts, it seems clear that getting more women to spend more time in front of a computer will not necessarily temper the masculinity of technology. At least one study reveals that that women who show a positive attitude toward computers score higher on the masculinity scales used in the psychological literature, which I take to confirm the assumption that an interest in machines is a masculine trait (Colley, Gale & Harris, 1994). Are we to increase participation with computers on that basis? I see the far more promising direction to be, as it was with the sciences, changing the way the subject is taught. Thus, I am encouraged by Geoffrey Underwood and Nishschint Jindal’s finding that organizing boys into cooperative relationships can lead to gains in their problem solving abilities (1994). Still, when computer teams consist of boys and girls, the research shows that girls tend to be heard from less often than the boys (Lee, 1993). It would see that the old patterns tend to repeat themselves in new settings.

While there are signs of hope in this literature, it tends, as Bryson and de Castell point out, to locate the failure to enroll in the young women who are assumed to be oblivious to technology’s benefits (1995 p. 26). While much is made of changing girls' attitudes toward technology, Bryson and de Castell convincingly argue, in what has become a theme for this paper, that the “beliefs reported by female students appear, in fact, to be a close to accurate characterization of the culture of computers and their users in and out of schools” (p. 27). To take one example, the undergraduate female students whom Ann Beer interviewed about computers “often [saw] computers as isolating, even psychologically dangerous; they [spoke] critically of teenage boys who are ëhackers’ or, obsessed with computer games, seem in a world of their own” which she contrasts with one young man’s reference to the computers as “the perfect slave,” a metaphor which she had not heard in five years of working in this area (1994, pp. 22, 26). Girls have been to computer class and know what they offer. They are just saying no, thank you. And real-world relevance is very much at question, as it was with science. (One inspiration for Vivian Forssman’s involvement in the ITM project was her exasperation at the sight of computer labs filled with boys and a few girls spending hours learning programming languages that in her decade in the Information Technology business she had seen very few employees use.)

The young women’s rejection of computer courses, Bryson and de Castell hold, cannot be reduced to the vocational shortsightedness or to “cognitive / dispositional differences” commonly thought to distinguish women’s ways of knowing (p. 31). The gender differences, as they see them, are “constructed in the context of institutional schooling by the differential treatment of students according to their group membership” (ibid.). They call for more attention to be paid to “the ways in which differences are produced through social relations and institutional practices” (ibid.). Women’s ways of knowing have taken shape within these patriarchal practices, and simply catering to these assumed dispositions among the female students only strengthens the institutionalized differences, while doing little to change the balance of power or the ends to which technology is directed. The boys’-club atmosphere that surrounds technology in the school has to become the object of scrutiny, a piece of the curriculum. Placing the keyboards in the hands of those from whom it has been kept needs to be accompanied by a deliberate attempt to challenge and change what is aptly cast by Bryson and de Castell as a “thinking man’s tool” and its institutionalization.


Emasculating Computer Games and Femminizing the Net


Among those actively seeking to break the masculine hold on the computer among the young are the producers of computer games. Young women are turning away from the machine as a toy. As already noted, they will go on in great numbers to work with the technology, but the masculine take is still to find in the machines an absorbing daydream of power and adventure. (Microsoft is currently showing a video at computer conferences in which an eight-year-old boy says that girls should get more violent so that they can really play computer games.) The masculinity of the machines has been largely defined by the games that have been developed and fervently taken up by boys, games which tend to leave young women cold. The solution, as it is commonly cast, is to develop games that attract young women.

            From the corporate game-maker perspective, girls represent an untapped market that can be fostered under the banner of gender equity. To take one example, Her Interactive, a division of Laser Games Inc., has developed a game for young women aimed at capturing some part of the 43 billion dollars that “teen girls” have been identified as spending each year (Flannigan, 1996). Laser Games claims to be responding to “teachers [who] want software to keep girls enthusiastic about computers.” The company reports that young women want “emotional involvement with characters; advancing storyline through decision-making, creative outlet, and adventure without violence” as opposed to “victory through killing.” It also reports that the content preferences among young women are also for “fashion/shopping” and “make-up experimentations.”

To meet this market, Laser Games has produced McKenzie & Co., an adventure game which promises that “The Ultimate Prom Experience is yours with the hottest CD-ROM game ever.” The player reports are enthusiastic: “I found myself feeling like a computer nerd because I wanted to play so often.” The letters attest to how grateful that young women and their parents are that, finally, there is a game for them for the “the first and only girl type computer game we have found.” Where once, a young women might have said that “the whole technology thing just didn’t appeal to me,” she can now say, as one did in writing to Her Interactive, that “now I can actually get into this 20th century computer stuff... and like it.” Laser Games goes a step farther with its commitment to gender equity by letting the young women know why it donates part of its proceeds to breast cancer research. The larger question that remains, however, is how do we make computers something more than a game for the young, and are there content opportunities that provide real engagement without reinforcing the narrow range of gender peformances that Mackenize & Co. and Doom feed.

            Another corporation in this business is Br. . .derbund which reports that until the age of 10, girls are as likely to equal or surpasse boys in their devotion to playing computer games, with a falling away of interest at the onset of puberty when girls tend to invest their time in personal rather than prosthetic relationships (Strand, 1996). Br. . .derbund’s Laurie Strand reports that they come back to the use of the computer when they are pushed to do so in high school, favoring “productivity and reference products.” Again, we have the idea of computer as a tool to get a job done, but not quite as the powertool that boys have learned to leverage by this age. This focus on productivity might seem an encouraging point, if you are not in the business of computer games.[10] Still, games are where computers continue to hook into young lives. In looking at “traditional adventure games,” Strand reports that 82% of the players are males, with Br. . .derbund taking credit in raising the percentage of girls playing their adventure game, Myst, from the typical 18% to 30%. She cites Myst’s fantasy qualities and non-violent style as being gender-balanced. Apparently young women especially enjoy Myst when they play with a partner. Br. . .derbund, along with several other companies such as Electronic Arts, involve women in the game’s design, software development, its “playtesting,” and through what it describes as “licenses that leverage other female recognition factors.”

One research group devoted to bringing greater educational content to games is the Electronic Games for Education in Math and Science (E-GEMS) project at the University of British Columbia. It has conducted research on games and girls which confirm their preference for games which feature narratives with distinctive characters and social relationships, as well as collaboration among the players (Inkpen, Klawe, Lawry, Sedighian, Leroux, Upitis, Anderson, & Ndunda, 1994). E-GEMS has worked with Electronic Arts in creating games such as Counting on Frank which are intended to create a space for girls that has educational value, while increasing what might be thought of as their bonding time on the machines.

A second way forward is to look, as most everyone is, to the Web. While Laser Games has brought out a companion net-site, Her OnLine, for its girls’ game, Mackenzie & Co., a more radical guide to crashing the boy’s club comes in Carla Sinclair’s web-manifesto/whole-grrrl guidebook to the Internet, Net Chick: “So wait not, fair grrrlie,” insists Sinclair in the forward, “Hie thee to a modem connection and thine ass online! This ain’t a passing fad; this techno stuff is real, and, in case you haven’t heard from Madge, you’re soaking in it” (1996, p. x). While pointing to the 40% female membership in Prodigy and Online Internet access services, Sinclair allows that the web is still home to the patriarchal order, comparing it to the Wild West and quoting Rosie Cross on its domination by “boring conservative righteous sexist bloody men who really need to get a life” (p. xi). But against such bores, she stakes her claim to this wired world, declaring it nothing less than the natural domain of: “The root forces driving this medium – communication, community, and creativity – are inherently feminine. They are things women innately excel at. Plainly put, this means we were built to do this” (p. xi). This feminine essentialism – biology is (computing) destiny – is bound to alarm postmodernists, yet to reject stand-alone computing in favor of networking and community challenges the masculine individualism of technology. The point is that we do not need to find women’s (true) ways of computing to move it out of the boy’s club, we just need other ways of working with machines and that, too, is what Net Chicks is about.[11]

Electronic games and Web sites that speak to and for women do create alterantive spaces within these new technological realms. They claim a place for women within the playing field of this technology, sometimes under the same ethos, sometimes with what are taken as female variations. In commercial hands, this may seem nothing more than a grab at the missing 51% of the potential edutainment market, or they can be seen as a female refusal of the isolated and violent struggles of rugged individualism, in favor of building sites where relationships and collaboration matter. This is still about making incursions into masculine space, creating a gender safe-zone for the other sex. These other-gendered games and web sites have their educational applications, some directly others as sources of information not otherwise available to young women. Yet they only begin to speak to other ways of working with the technology, as variations on masculine themes.[12] I am obviously inclined, given this work on the ITM program, to argue for something more that creating a safe-house for girls to work comfortably with computers or of drawing girls into the computing marketplace. Vivian Forssman and I are seeking to build a program that goes further in students’ use of technology to contribute to the learning environment of school and community.


The ITM Students Speak


The Information Technology Management (ITM) program is being piloted in 17 high schools in the province of British Columbia, whether as a full-year Grade 12 course or an extra-curricular club. Two of the schools are in the second year of the program, while the rest are in their first year of implementation. Thus far ITM has not attracted anything close to an equal number of girls to the program. There are a number of schools with no girls in the ITM class, with most having two to three girls, and one with 10 girls in a grade 10/11 class of 26. The interviews with the ITM students, conducted by Diane Hodges and Blane DesprÈs, included three girls and four boys at a school situated in the outskirts of a large urban center, in its second year of the program. The school offers a wide array of courses in computers, from graphics to advanced programming. The boys were in a grade 10/11 ITM class, taught by a woman with a Master’s degree in Computer Science. There were two girls and twenty boys in the class. The girls interviewed had been in the class the previous year. Sarah and Natasha were interviewed together, as were David and Aaron, and Frank and Paul, while Candice was interviewed by herself. The interviews were loosely structured around the involvement of girls and boys in the school’s technology courses, and gave the students a chance to demonstrate an awareness that reflected in larger measure the same understanding achieved by the research literature in computers and gender.

            The interviewed boys spoke readily of the masculine bond with machines. David drew an analogy with auto mechanics – “you know how there is never any girls in mechanics classes” – and Frank based it on the use of the machines to play such manly games as Doom:


I think that just in general nature guys get on computers more because they like to play Doom more and you see a lot more guys playing video games, and I think computers is just, you know, just another way of playing video games and they just get hooked.


This element of addiction, which forms an apt characterization of gaming culture, at least allows that there could well be other, more salutary, ways of working with machines. Other sorts of games and activities, David might permit, could create different patterns of use. Paul also referred to boys and games, while his suggestion that computers had other uses introduced a rather vocationally limited vision of women’s computing:


Like, at work, if girls need to use it, they will use it for word processing and everything. But I don’t think they go out of their way to use it, to, like, go and play games because. . . most games, for one, were made with a male attitude behind [them]. But quite a few of the secretaries use computers to do word processing and . . . all sorts of programs for businesses, accounting and stuff like that.


The boys were not phased by the questions on gender. They understand that it is an issue. Frank did note an element of change in the school that year, which he put into daunting perspective:


One of the things I found interesting, this year for the first time, I heard a girl say that she wanted to go into computers, and I’ve never, I mean its just not something that girls generally want to do. I don't know why that is, but they just generally don’t really want that you know.


            Among the girls interviewed, Sarah also pointed to the mechanical aptitude of boys in explaining their greater interest in computers: “They like to break them down, see what like how they function and everything like they go way more in-depth with computers than girls do.” Natasha, on the other hand, felt that there was an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to it all: “They are stereotyped knowing more and more, so they. . . try and fulfill it, I think, something like that.” Both Sarah and Natasha identified how girls tend to take an instrumental approach to computers: “Girls will like just do like a project or something on a computer and that’s it,” was how Sarah put it, “They don’t really like care.” For Natasha, the issue was also one of girls seeking relevant applications for computing: I think girls would be more interested in it if there was. . .computer programs and stuff that dealt with. . . everyday things, not just programming. Like, if it has to do with our lives. . . to help run them or something, I think we’d probably use them.” There is not the same investment in the machines as an end and pleasure in themselves, or as a means of taking control over part of the world.

Yet Natasha and Sarah recognized that, despite this difference in interest, there persists a pressure to get with the technology:I think its important that more kids should [take computers] because the whole future is based on technology,” Sarah put it, “and if they don’t know it, then they are not going to get anywhere.” Natasha, however, countered that, “I don’t think they need to be encouraged that much because they know what’s out there, and if they need it or not. So, it’s up to them.” Sarah certainly felt pressured to become more involved with technology: “I think it would be in my best interest to [take further technology courses], but I don’t know if I will or not.” There is just that sense of not getting excited about the machines: “I don’t really like computers,” Sarah told the interviewer, “I have a computer at home and I just do homework on it and stuff. That’s it. That’s my computer (laughs).”

When Candice was asked why she decided to take ITM rather than one of the other computer courses, she made reference to “that independent thing. . . where you learn on your own.” This was key to the program for her: “Learning about how to develop your own type of program . . . instead of just learning about one thing one day and then changing to another one, so that was the most positive thing for me.” Candice also commented on the increased number of girls in the class, again pointing to the self-directed nature of learning in ITM as a contributing factor:


As I got into Information Technology Management, it seemed to be more girls, actually, and I think it is, I don’t know why, but it seems to be that the boys seemed to be more attracted to it for some reason, and that’s why I was surprised that it seemed to be more girls, maybe because of the independence thing. But I think that over the next few years its going to get more equal between, that’s for sure.


Sarah also addressed the importance of self-paced learning to her interest in the class: “We learned at our own pace sort of thing, so it was a change.” Yet in terms of why she signed up, Natasha spoke of how she had been actively recruited into the program: “Miss Jones came and talked to me she wanted me to take it cause she wanted girls in the class to take it. So that’s why I took it.” To which Sarah responded in the interview: “I actually took it to be with Natasha in a class.”

When asked about girls’ participation in the ITM program, Frank allowed that the program had advantages which expanded the possibilities for participation for girls in the program:


The fact that ITM doesn’t have to be in one specific area of computing could be something to encourage them, I think that are some, the two girls that are in our class, they are, they don’t have to be programmers or whatever, which I find is most often guys, or something like that, but they can pursue their own areas like, one of the people really likes graphics and she can draw well on the computer so she has been able to pursue that as opposed to having to fit the norm of computing class.


In accounting for why he thought that ITM might appeal to young women, Paul pointed to how ITM “doesn’t even have to be a computer class; it’s a management class more than anything else; you don’t even have to know computers to be in it.” It follows that the girls in the program will need to rattle the type-casting by taking on different roles within the ITM teams, from project manager to systems architect. Paul’s own interest in having young women study Information Technology was based on the contribution which they felt women could make to the industry:


I think that there should be [more girls taking technology courses] because if you look at our computer industry right now. . . almost everyone is male, and women give a different outlook. And I feel that the more people, the more that come into the field, then the more it diversifies.


David agreed that women had much to contribute – “There is a need for women in the computer world too, just because the different sexes, different opinions” – but he also made it clear that the girls’ problem was still that “the interest isn’t there” for computers. For these two boys, women’s participation appears to be a human resource issue. Candice also identified a lack of interest among the young women, but she was clearly less concerned with the state of computer world: “Even though they might not want to go into the computer field, I think it’s good if they still keep up with what’s going on with computers.”

David was unsure of how to make the classes more interesting for girls, but he “definitely” supported the idea, when it was posed to him, of running an all-girl computer class. He pointed, in defense of the idea, to the lack of respect which young women receive in such manly subjects, as computer studies. This is an important point that counters the focus on girls’ lack of interest. Aaron expanded on the negative reception: “Right now it’s a pretty hostile environment. It’s not like the best place for girls to be. Some of the people in there are just crude when it comes to girls.” While that is troubling enough, the hostile boys he is referring to are, presumably, in the girls’ other classes, leaving us to imagine that they feel a particular license for crudity in the presence of machines as demarcating a man’s world and as no place for a lady. A note of regret entered Aaron’s comments about this harassment, and he spoke of taking “one graphics course [which] was like half girls; it was the best year of my life.”

The increased range of activities in the ITM program did have an impact on the boys. David explained how he had been thrown into teaching a graphics software package to adults, which then proved to be the highlight of the program for him:


David: It was about November. Miss Jones just handed me this Corel Draw booklet and said learn the program. I’d never used it before, never touched it. So, “learn it because in 2 months you’ve got to teach a seminar on it to teachers,” and I was just like, “I can’t do this,” you know. And then when I came out of it, I taught the whole thing, and . . . no negative comments came back.

Interviewer: Really, so you did teach the seminar.

David: I taught the whole thing and taught, there was about 17 adults that I taught. Everybody was really happy when I left.

Interviewer: That must have felt good too?

David: Oh, it was a total, a total great achievement.


This sense of achievement in teaching others provides an excellent instance of how the ITM program at least begins to temper the masculinities of technology, not because teaching is emasculating, but because of how working in this way with teachers and students runs against the man-machine identification of programming, hacking, and gaming. In a similar vein, Aaron adds, in a mixed review, the element of learning that can come through teaching:


I took, you know, the computer program they have upstairs, Three-D Studio. I ended up teaching other people in the room. . . It gets kind of boring because you are showing them everything you know. In a way, you start learning more. While you are teaching you find more stuff.


Aaron also spoke of how this approach to teaching could shift the power relation between student and teacher:


I think my most positive experience. . . through ITM. . .was helping out . . . one of the teachers in the school, he was so sure of himself, felt that no student could ever be better than him. And I felt that when I went in there and showed him that actually we knew not more than him but different things, that could really help him, and how it more or less humbled him into thinking that students can do this. That would be the most positive thing. I like just seeing him like, in the end, like, just going, “Yes, you can help me. Maybe I’ll come to you next time.”


This theme of helping others carried through David and Aaron’s discussion of the emphasis on deadlines in the program: “It makes it like a job. You have to meet the deadline,” Aaron said, putting it in terms of his grades: “Last year, you just had to show up, and this year you have to make the deadline, like I said.” David added, “If you don’t meet the deadlines, basically, you let everybody down in the class.” He went on to explain, “What it is is like a bunch of different groups and everybody knows what everybody is doing and all the different groups are doing different things. There is usually about five or six people in each group.” The considerable coordination of the teams is handled through a special project management software used in industry: “It’s all done through MS-Project,” David pointed out , “You know exactly what you plan is, how long its going to go on for, when you plan on having it done.”

ITM’s focus on team work and management also figured in Frank’s discussion of his role in the class: “I find that the ITM course is good because I get to pursue what I want and I am, right now I’m more in a managerial role than in learning the technical stuff or doing anything like that. I feel that it’s beneficial.” Frank went on draw its relation to the world of work: “It teaches you how to take initiative or lets you learn how to take initiative and how to take things into your own hands and its more realistic for the world as opposed to just sitting down and listening.” There is that subtle shift in his position, between “it teaches you,” to “lets you learn how,” which captures the element of independent learning in the program. What the ITM program provided and called for was a coordinated effort among the people providing services to the school and community: “Organization has been one that has been emphasized quite a bit,” Frank explained, “I guess more of, for me, due to my style.” For his part in this team process, Paul has been learning to step back, as a way of giving help:


Helping others is the big one for me. Most of my classes, I’m one of the top students in computers, and [it’s] emphasized to help others. . . in ITM . . . When I was project leader of a group earlier this year, I. . . looked at the other people and said, “I’m better than them and I should be able to take this on myself and they could just rattle my coat-tails,” but I found out, no, I can’t do that. I’ve got to help others by giving them responsibility, and they’ll come through if you give it to them.


For Paul to learn how to delegate responsibility to others, or for Frank to improve his managerial skills, hardly presents a serious blow to the male order. Yet this focus on teams, organization, and service represents a change in how students work with technology, a change that wears as well for the young women as the men.

            In explaining the sort of work that she did in ITM, Candice referred to a conference presentation that her group made at the university in which “we had to present what our year-long project was and how it helped the school.” She also served as a “computer helper” in which she “used to teach some of the kids up in the Mac lab how to use different programs.” The highlight of the program for her, however, combined service and technical expertise as she designed and built a career database for the school’s Counseling Centre:


I think learning more about how to develop your own type of program which you’re interested in . . . like, I did for the Counseling Centre that was the most positive thing, because I had to do the whole thing all together, instead of just learning about one thing one day and then changing to another one. So that was the most positive thing for me.


Candice worked alone on this project, and I am struck by how team-work did not figure in the girls’ comments, while two of them mentioned the importance of independent learning. This, in conjunction with the boy’s comments about the sometimes hostile atmosphere for girls, suggests that much still has to be done to create a more cooperative atmosphere.

Given the students’ experiences in the ITM program, we can see that much more needs to done if it is to have a significant impact on the gendered ethos that surrounds technology in the schools. The program has begun to alter the ways, I think it fair to say, in which the students see learning and the ways in which they relate to computers, their classmates, and the school at large. These students’ comments do speak to the pedagogical possibilities of putting the question of gender on the table, beginning with their own observations which are not far removed from the findings of the research that, for example relate extent-of-use, largely tied to gaming, with positive attitude or interest. Yet placing the focus on providing services to the school and community is not going to be enough, this preliminary inquiry suggests, to present a serious challenge to the gender stereotyping long associated with technology. We shouldn’t be surprised. We will need to work with ITM teachers and students to make sure that gender ascriptions form part of what gets openly discussed and explored in ITM classes in this process of changing the way students work in the school and workplace.



The research literature on gender in science and technology education makes it clear that creating the conditions for greater collaboration and service challenges the patterns commonly identified with technology’s masculine bent. The ITM program offers students a chance to experience the social relevance of working with Information Technology; it calls for teamwork and collaboration in the noncompetitive provision of support for others. Whether one envisions women’s interest in relational and narrative forms of knowing, in collaboration and support, as inherent or learned, these approaches to technology do appear to challenge its otherwise masculine tendencies in schools and across history.

ITM may alter the way students work with people and technology, but that is proving to be only the half of the story. The structural changes to computer studies introduced by the ITM program are not sufficient in themselves to change the ideas which students in the program have about gender and technology, let alone the thinking of their “clients” and other members of the school community who are also intended to benefit by the program (which is proposed as a further step in this research process). Based on this school’s second year with the program, ITM has yet to build a fully inclusive setting for students working together in supporting the learning environment of the school. It has yet to deal explicitly with the gender question in the classroom and through the history of technology. It has yet to eliminate the misogyny that besets technology classes.[13] These changes to the structures by which students work and learn in the school will lead to other changes in the school, and those human-technological consequences will need their own forms of attention as part of the ITM program. When John Dewey addressed the value of introducing forms of work (and play) into the curriculum in Democracy and Education,, he was careful to warn “that while manual skill and technical efficiency are gained and immediate satisfaction found in their work, together with preparation for later usefulness, these things shall be subordinated to education –that is, to intellectual results and the forming of a socialized disposition” (1916, pp. 196-197). We need to increase that intellectual and educational focus on the implications of those socialized dispositions.

            Further to this critical reflection on the nature of this work, the ITM program clearly has a responsibility to make the impact of information technology, as the principal work process of the future, a component of the curriculum. Students need to see how Information Technology has led to the deskilling of certain jobs, affecting the large numbers of women working at the low end of the payscale, while adding in some cases to the greater regulation and intensification of work processes. Attention also needs to be paid to related areas of work, such as the struggle for professional standing among women in the helping professions. Otherwise, ITM may seem to build false expectations around what lies ahead, even as it offers students something more during their class-time than the routines of data-entry work, which appears to be the direction some schools are taking, according to the valuable critique of technology in the schools mounted by Monty Neill (1995).[14]

            This inquiry into technology’s impact could well form an aspect of what students bring to the school community, creating a space for the cultural critiques of technology offered by Haraway, Bryson and de Castell, and others. It needs to begin with the teachers becoming aware of this work (through this paper, perhaps, in the first instance) in the professional development workshops in which they are introduced to ITM, and it needs to find its way into the service ethos of the students’ programs. Think of it. Students who can not only fix the machines but offer students a critique of their use, considering not only the negative implications but the utopian visions and science fictions of technology’s application that dare to imagine and thus, perhaps, guide change. The students will need to see examples of how undermining the masculine hold on technology will require explicitly feminist perspectives such as those of Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Melissa Kesler-Gilbert, who have designed a classroom in which computers are used cooperatively in non-hierarchical ways for studying topics that are grounded in personal experience and deal with inequities, such as the gender gap in earnings or the impact of sexual harassment (Hesse-Biber & Kesler-Gilbert, 1994).

It is all too obvious that we need new kinds of programs for the schools, when the world can still seem young to the young, that begin remaking how they should expect to live with technology, how they should expect to share in the power of teaching and learning. This is an experiment in seeing through theories of gender (with the pun intended). It is based on understanding how gender is about the way that machines and space are defined. It is based on the belief that machines and space can be redefined in ways challenge what has been made historically of gender and difference. We have a responsibility to press against this history by finding new ways of working together in schools, by drawing on new models that seem to break with the past.

The ITM program is itself no technological panacea, but its value lies in how we are learning to make something different out of an amalgam of practices in the IT industry and research on computers in education. As we explore how to reorder and restructure social relations and socialized dispositions and partial identities, we are holding to education’s utopian and ameliorative aspect. This program attends selectively to corporate models and tools, in an effort to prepare students for the world after school, while giving them a taste of what it means to support and contribute to their community. Rather than waiting for an analysis of the impact of new technologies, we are working with teachers and students to reflect on and change how they are already being used in educational settings. It is a matter of trying to make something (else) of a difference that has for too long been taken to define the nature of technology.


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This work is carried out with the support of TeleLearning Research Network Centres of Excellence, and in collaboration with GenTech directed by Mary Bryson and Suzanne de Castell. We express our thanks to Chris Denholm, Blane Després and Diane Hodges, as well as the anonymous students who were interviewed for this project.

[1] For creation versus consumption in technology, see Jansen (1989), and for the grand historical vision of mechanical man, see Mumford (1963).

[2] Kyle Pope (1994) reports that women make up two-thirds of computer users on the job.

[3] See David Noble for a history of industrial technology that has been developed to ensure the dominance of capital over worker skills and crafts (1984).

[4] See Alice Rossi for an example of a conference presentation of that period (1965). Donna Haraway writes that “a PhD in biology for an Irish Catholic girl was made possible by Sputnik’s impact on US national science-education policy. I have a body and mind as much constructed by the post-Second World War arms race and cold war as by the women’s movement” (1991a, p. 173).

[5] Doreen Massey has described how high-tech industries contribute not only to a de-skilling of the workplace through automation but to a super-skilling among high-level workers, consisting of a “competitive workaholism” of perpetual boyhood: “We have toys which they can’t afford,” one company representive explained, “You know engineers, big kids really; buy them a computer, you know you’ve got them” (1995, pp. 490, 496). See also Ullman (1995), Hacker (1990).

[6] See Haraway (1995) for the origins of cyborg (cybernetic organism) in laboratory forms of machine-regulated life form.

[7] In McLaren and Gaskell’s research on science education, a female physics student, when asked how the class could better reflect her interests, conveys the sense of the subject as fixed: “I guess there is no way. It’s the same subject; you can’t change it. Movies or something, I don’t know, there is nothing you can really change about it” (McLaren & Gaskell, 1995, p. 152).

[8] On gender and computers in education, see Ingeborg Janssen Reinen and Tjeed Plomp, 1993; Kay, 1992; Collis, 1987; Makrakis, 1993.

[9] Schubert also found that young women are more likely “to value the computer as a means toward an end” (1986, p. 271).

[10] The research review of Carole Nelson and Allen Watson (1990-91) contradicts this assumption of early equality of use, as they found that preschool boys significantly spend more time with computers than girls.

[11] Net Chicks is complemented by its own “Net Chick Clubhouse” website (http://www.cyborganic.com /People/carla/).The Association for the Promotion and Advancement of Science Education runs a number of websites that which offer access to female role models drawn from science and gender equity activities in science (http://www.etc.bc.ca /apase/apasehome.html).

[12] See Susan Clerc (1995) for women’s online participation in media fandom forums that center on television programs, while Constance Penley (1991) treats the female resistance to male domination of technology and sex in the underground circulation of erotic Star Trek fan-zines written by women.

[13] Bryson and de Castell point out that special policies, curricular modifications and pedagogical approaches for women often avoid dealing with the more immediate problem of misogyny (1993, p. 352).

[14] See Neill (1995, pp. 183, 187) on the savage inequalities in school access to technology.