Thursday, May 27, 2010

Women in the Tubes

The almost total absence of women from the infrastructure of the internet is striking. Both the management and manufacture of the wires, pipes, and cables of the internet infrastructure is gendered by absence. Even Malaysia, where women constitute half of all computer scientists, has the lowest numbers of women in the area of external cabling or outdoors infrastructure construction. In Malaysia, ICT is seen as a respectable career for women, as opposed to medicine which is considered too physical, combining quiet private office work with good remuneration. (11)

US and Australia have had declining female participation in the internet infrastructure over the last 30 years, aside from in companies like IBM and CISCO who have been consistently incorporating positive discrimination strategies to remedy a shortage of skilled workers and gain a competitive edge. Billions of dollars globally are currently being invested in infrastructure and all the G30 nations are presenting reports on mantaining standard of living in the information economy through innovation and increasing the skills of the population.

Yochai Benkler says that “communications technologies have ‘biases’ that affect the patterns in which societies that utilize those technologies interact with and around information and knowledge.”
Technological biases interact with social patterns of use. Through a reflexive relationship with existent institutional frameworks and incumbent social relations, there is ‘institutional and adapative lock-in’ which limits new technological possibilities and causes a ‘network effect’. This contributes to perceptions of desirable innovations and practises, creating a ‘feedback effect on the path of technological development’. Organisations invest most heavily in technologies that fit their values and needs. Those technologies reinforce the continuation of existing practises. (12)

According to Judy Wajcman, “SST studies show that technology does not develop according to an inner technical logic but is instead a social product, patterned by the conditions of its creation and use.” (13)

On the one hand, women are excluded from the business side of decisions about technology. The number of women on boards, in CEO, CFO or CTO positions or in government through out the Western world remains minimal, less than 15% is a generous interpretation of available figures. On the other hand, following the design concepts of ‘lock-in’ and reflexive reinforcement described by Benkler, then gender discrimination is likely to be occurring by design. From the bottom up.

The smallest decisions made at the lowest level of the internet’s layers, the infrastructure, can ‘lock-in’ everything above. Elizabeth Churchill describes how the lack of women in powerful technology design positions maintains the dominance of ‘gender neutral’ design practises that don’t consider women. She gives several examples, including car airbags, which have been so dangerous to people shorter than ‘average’ height (mainly women), that cars with airbags now have to have ‘turn off’ mechanisms and there are legislations against small statured people travelling in seats with airbags. (14)

The high numbers of women in Malaysian ICT education and industry described by Lagesen suggests strongly that the lack of women in western ICT is a cultural construction. Lagesen makes the point that all of the women she interviewed not only enjoyed working with computers but did computer science because their families and friends encouraged them. It was a sensible and supported career choice. (15)

This occurred in a particular socio-economic climate. In Malaysia, ICT is a government priority area, on the back of a previous governmental push to redress women’s disadvantaged education position. So young Malaysian women had a larger pool of female role models in ICT professions and at university than available in the ‘Western’ worlds, as well as strong encouragement across the board to learn computing for themselves and Malaysia’s future.

Malaysian women in computing is a modern story. The story of the internet was written much earlier on the wires and pipes of older communications technologies, where there are very few women in the tubes. If our freedoms are architected in the code layer, then they are built on a gendered base.

(The Internet Architecture of Gender / to be continued....)

11. Lagesen, Vivian A. “A Cyberfeminist Utopia? Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty”. (2008) Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp1.  Sage Publications Available at

12. Benkler, Yochai. “Communications Infrastructure Regulation and the Distribution of Control over Content” (1998) Telecommunications Policy. Vol. 22. No. 3. Pp 183-196. Great Britain: Elsevier Science Ltd. Available at 

13. Mackenzie, Donald & Wajcman, Judy “The Social Shaping of Tehcnology - Second Edition” (1998) Open University Press - Buckingham

14. Churchill, Elizabeth. “Sugared Puppy Dogs Tails: Gender and Design” (2010) interactions XVII.2 - March/April 2010 Available at

15. Lagesen, Vivian A. “A Cyberfeminist Utopia? Perceptions of Gender and Computer Science among Malaysian Women Computer Science Students and Faculty”. (2008) Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp10.  Sage Publications Available at

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