Panel explores gender roles in technology


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Photo by Wendy Chiapaikeo |

Assistant Dean for the Douglass Project Elaine Zundl moderates a panel of women in the science and technology field last night at the Douglass Campus Center.


There are many successful women in the fields of science and technology — but they are rarely seen or heard.

This was one theme of last night’s “Gender and Social Media Panel: Being Female in a Virtual World” discussion, which looked at the stereotypes many women face when working in technology fields. The talk, sponsored by Douglass Residential College and the Department of Library and Information Sciences, featured three women panelists with research interests in gender constructs in technology and science.

Assistant Dean for the Douglass Project Elaine Zundl, who organized and moderated the discussion held in the Douglass Campus Center, said though there are many successful women in science and technology, women are still not represented as equally as men.

Panelist Alice Marwick, a postdoctoral researcher in social media at Microsoft Research New England who researches online identity and consumer culture, said this is not because women are less interested in these topics or that they are less able to study them. Rather, a lot of it comes down to culture.

Jessa Lingel, another panelist who is a Ph.D. candidate in the University’s Department of Library and Information Science, said stereotypes in society reinforce masculine associations with technology and computer science.

One stereotype is Bill Gates-esque, where there are one or two men in jeans and sweats tinkering on computers in their free time in their garages, Lingel said.

And there is also one for the librarian profession — it is gendered around a female image, even though librarians, too, use a lot of technology but in different ways, she said.

“These are two very different images that we have that are popular culture images of technology and gender,” said Lingel, who studies how gender constructs can affect how marginalized groups and subcultures interact with technology. “They really tell us about what we expect people to be doing in terms of gender and technology.”

Lingel said she also notices a difference when teaching. While instructing an undergraduate course in the School of Communication and Information’s Department of Information Technology and Informatics — which is in the same vein as computer science — her students are 80 percent men. But when she teaches a master-level course for library sciences, it is 80 percent women, though both subject areas are technology-intensive.

“The myth that women aren’t good with computers is eroded. … We have these [stereotypes that are] really hard to break down because they are so common in our popular culture,” Lingel said.

Janet Vertesi, a third panelist who is a Cotsen postdoctoral fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and a lecturer in sociology at Princeton University, said in the past, women were at the forefront of technological and computer developments. Before computers, many women held jobs that involved computing data. When the modern-day computer started to evolve, women transitioned to the programming side.

“And then over time, those women continued to recede into the background again,” said Vertesi, who researches the progression of gender and technology historically.

She said the work in computer science and technology that women do is comparable to the work men do, but it is often degraded.

“Along a historical view, you consistently see women who take on technological work that gets devalued,” Vertesi said.

For this reason, Vertesi said feminism’s role in technology should be to make women’s work in these fields visible and reward them for it.

Julianne Davis, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student who was at the panel discussion, said the information presented — that women can succeed in male-dominated fields — could be applied to any career path.

“Some jobs are more male-oriented but in reality anyone can do them,” said Davis, who is interested in entering biotechnology.

Rosheen Chaudhry, also a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences first-year student who was at the discussion, found the talk interesting because she wants to major in either math, engineering or computer science.

Sometimes, being in classes with mostly males who have been around these fields for a while can get discouraging, she said.

“Technology and all these engineering fields are portrayed as male-dominated, but there are women behind the scenes,” Chaudhry said.

Zundl, whose department supports people interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, said there are a lot of stereotypes around these fields, so her hope with his discussion was to create a place where technology and gender issues could be discussed in a broader sense.

At the University, she said there are other support resources for women interested in STEM, such as the Woodbury Bunting-Cobb Residence Hall on Douglass campus, which is a community for undergraduate women interested in STEM to live among other women graduate researchers.

There is also the SUPER-Science for Undergraduates: A Program for Excellence in Research mentoring program for women interested in research.

Zundl said she hopes there can be more similar programming in the future to help dispel stereotypes about both women and men in technological fields.


By Mary Diduch

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