Gendered Social Norms and Access to New Technologies

On Behalf of | July 22, 2014 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Google’s 2013 public release of the wearable technology Google Glass has added another dimension to the way we, as humans, use and integrate technology into our everyday lives.  “The Glass” is part of a new line of immersive technologies that seamlessly integrates with its wearers’ experiences of the world.  For example, instead of having to open up a computer to access the functions and elements of the world we know as cyberspace, the wearers of the Glass can now physically see and interact with cyberspace as if it were being projected from their own body.  Basically, the Glass gives its users a kind of added power— and, because of this, it’s important that both women and men become interested in it.

However, a TechCrunch analysis of posts made by male versus female enthusiasts of the Glass shows that for 7,358 Google+ postings of #ifihadglass, 86% were posted by users with male first names and 14% by users with female first names; for 10,524 Twitter tweets 80% were from authors with male first names and 20% from authors with female first names.  Shortly after Google released Glass in 2013, a new Tumblr popped up called “White Men Wearing Google Glass,” which was widely shared on social networks and media feeds.  While the website served to mock, the reality is that it was largely white men who were the first adopters.  The question is, why?

Despite the fact that women comprise one of the fastest growing demographics of internet and technology users, a majority of companies have yet to change their ages eighteen to thirty-five male-focused marketing efforts. This marketing gap is a reflection of the practices we endorse at home, where boys tend to get their video games and consoles at an earlier age than girls.  Sheryl Sandberg’s simple solution to this is, “[e]ncourage your daughters to play video games!”  But is it really that easy? Although change is certainly possible, it is important that this change occur outside the home as well.  When I was in grade school, I remember our teacher pointing to his new wearable calculator watch that combined basic numerical computing and time telling functions, saying “boys, this new gadget should be interesting to you.” My immediate reaction to this statement was, “what about the girls? Why shouldn’t this new gadget interest us, too?”

Positioning technology as of interest to boys only has consequences down the line, as evidenced by the fact that even though women comprise forty-eight percent of the total workforce in the United States, they only account for twenty-four percent of jobs related to science, technology, math and engineering (“STEM” jobs). The underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs has been a problem for decades. Those who argue that women just naturally gravitate towards the “arts,” choosing majors that inevitably lead to non-STEM careers overlook the fact that such choices are, themselves, products of the daily gender stereotyping girls experience and internalize from an early age. We may be losing some of our best and brightest scientists, engineers and mathematicians because we are actively discouraging young women from developing their interests in these fields.

Gendered advertising is especially important in the context of the Glass, because the Glass represents a ‘gadget’ that gives new dimension to the concept of power.  If, because of marketing and social norms, men tend to be more likely to adopt the Glass and use it, then the knowledge and ‘power’ which is so unique to the Glass is an added bonus that mostly men get to experience.

This is why websites like “Women with Glass”, which began circulating on the web shortly after “White Men Wearing Glass” was released, are important. The more women see women using a particular technology the more likely they are to adopt it, or at least become curious about it.  Encouraging women to adopt innovative technology might also encourage more girls to pursue those STEM fields that lead to the invention of things like Google Glass in the first place.