Gender and technology in a cross-cultural perspective - Computer Science in Sweden and Malaysia (GLIT) is one of our projects, aiming to investigate why computer science is a gender authentic choice for women in Malaysia.
Technology in general and IT in particular holds notably positive connotations in Malaysian society and is therefore a source of individual and national empowerment. Technology and modernity are therefore important factors when understanding contemporary Malaysian society.
There is and has been a longstanding concern about the absence of women in science and engineering in western as well as non-western countries. In spite of the fact that women are becoming the majority of the student population in most academic settings around the world, the relative absence of women from science and engineering is puzzling (Quinn 2003, Lagesen 2005). This is not least so concerning Information Technology (hereafter IT). The so called ‘woman problem’ within gender and technology studies has been thoroughly investigated. Lagesen (2005:14) has categorised explanations under four headlines in regard to computer science
- Women deficits
- Discriminatory practices and other minority problems
- Flaws in the educational practices of computer science and the student culture
- Computer science’s masculine image
The categories overlap and are all concerned with the exclusion of women and possible inclusion strategies of women into computer science. Although far from being a universal pattern similar explanations describe the ‘woman problem’. Women’s non-use is seen as deviant and men regarded as the norm (Kramer and Lehman 1990). Learning environments are non-friendly to women (Siann 1997, Henwood 2000). Computer science technology grew out of the military complex and it’s aura of combat and war has never attracted women (Mörtberg 1987, Edwards 1990) and so forth. In reviewing the literature Lagesen concludes that the ‘woman problem’ in computer science mainly has been understood as an issue of exclusion and little is known about the women who actually decide to study computer science (Sørensen 2002, Lagesen 2005).
Thus, the history of gender and computer science as well as IT in general seems to follow a well-known theme in western history of technology. Throughout this history, men have centred themselves in central positions and technology has been associated with masculine values and at the core of masculinity in a number of ways whether it concerns machinery or digital technologies. As indicated earlier, in feminist studies of technology men’s dominating position within technology have been documented in a number of scholarly publications (cf. Cockburn 1983, 1985, Hacker 1989, 1990, Mellström 1995, Salminen-Karlsson 1999, Faulkner 2000, 2001, Lie ed. 2003, Wajcman 2004). All in all (with the limited space given here), it is a rather gloomy pITure that summarises earlier decades of research concerning gender and technology. In regard to a contemporary observation one can notice that despite the fact that Internet use among young people show fairly gender balanced patterns the proportion of female students in computer science has decreased in most western countries.
Therefore, the Malaysian case makes out an interesting and contrastive example in a number of different ways. It is a country in the developing world that has integrated IT into its grand narrative of modernity (Vision 2020) and sees IT as a key to poverty eradication. In this primary example of social engineering in the early 21th century, the national development plan Vision 2020 is aimed at giving all Malaysians a fully developed and modernized society by the year of 2020. Furthermore, what make the Malaysian case interesting in regard to IT and development are the gender ratios observed in IT-related higher education and in the IT-related sector of Malaysian industry. For instance, for the 2001/2002 academic year at the School of Computer Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia, the ratio of female students was 65 percent. There are likewise a very high percentage of women in the professional IT-sector. This is noteworthy and very encouraging in terms of gender equality and something that can be regarded as a possible catalyst of change in a developing country where a substantial part of the population is currently reworking their social and ethnic identities (cf. Goh 2002, Gomes 1994, Kahn and Loh 1992).
In the vein of Malaysian Feminism and more broadly in the research field of Gender, Technology and Development Studies, the relationship between gender and technology in Malaysia has been investigated from different perspectives (cf. Ong 1987, (ed.) Ng and Munro-Kua 1994, Ng and Yong 1995, Ng and Mohamad 1997, Ng and Thambiah 1997, Mellström 2003, Lagesen 2005). Rapid industrialisation and world-wide globalisation are, in the Malaysian context, among other things, "…leading to class polarisation within the female labour force itself. " (Ng and Yong 1995:178). For instance, within the electronic components industry (semiconductors, disk drives, etc.) low-skilled technology employment is predominantly female and will probably remain so. But at the same time, leading female professionals within IT-related businesses are occupying executive positions to an impressively high degree (Ibid.).
An important conclusion that can be drawn from the work of Cecilia Ng and others in a Malaysian context is that theories of gender identity have to consider that ethnic and class differentials often are as important as gender differentials. This means that we cannot focus on gender per se, but must also investigate the complex interrelationship of gender, class, age and ethnicity in a multi-ethnic society such as Malaysia. These intersectional understandings of the relationship between gender and technological development are something that has been of crucial importance to me in my work (cf. Mellström 2002, 2003, 2004). Moreover, this is something that I intend to carry further by applying it to studies of different ethnic and class-bound masculinities and femininities in relation to IT, development and processes of modernisation. In this proposal, in particular to computer science, and the formation of a technical profession that makes out a gender authentic choice for women. What are the cultural and social parameters behind this and what can be learned from the Malaysian case and what is transferable to a Scandinavian learning context?
Technology in general and IT in particular holds notably positive connotations in Malaysian society and is therefore a source of individual and national empowerment. Technology and modernity are therefore important factors when understanding contemporary Malaysian society. Moreover, it is notably interesting from a gender point of view because of the high numbers of females within the most strategically important industrial and technological sector, IT. To have a focus on IT and modernity in relation to gender is therefore, a new way of looking at Malaysian society. Likewise, it touches upon unexplored academic territory in feminist technology studies, opening up for cross-cultural comparison. A study like this also opens up important intersectional dimensions of class, age and ethnicity in gender and technology studies. In this regard, it answers a long-standing call for adding intersectional readings of gender and technology relations (cf. Wajcman &camp; MacKensie 1985, Wajcman 1991, 2004, Faulkner 2000, 2001).
The aim of the project is to investigate why computer science is a gender authentic choice for women in Malaysia. Two groups are identified for in-depth studies:
- Students and staff within Computer Science
- Engineers within IT-industry
The first group are students and staff at the School of Computer Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Penang. In contrast to Computer Science in Western countries, students and staff at USM and many other technical universities in Malaysia are overwhelmingly women. They are young and belong to the first or second generation of modernity and where few of their parents ever had any possibility for higher education. They are a generation of globalism and consumerism in a country where the rapid industrialisation has created huge age gaps in terms of life experiences between different generations. What are the implications of new gender configurations in this group?
The second group are engineers within IT-industry. In other words, many of them are former computer science students. This is a professional group of men and women that in many ways embodies the new era and are thus in the midst of embracing a specific Malaysian version of modernity built upon material welfare and professionalism. Ethnically, they are Malay, Chinese and occasionally Indian. They are supposed to share a belief in the world of IT and in a new urban middle-class breed of ethnicity and gender which goes beyond the traditional dividing lines of ethnicity, religion and gender in Malaysian society (Bangsa Melayu). As it has been pronounced earlier, concerning gender equality these professionals have a high percentage of women in their workforce (Ng and Thambiah 1997). However, it remains to be seen if this group can rework the patriarchal fundamentals of Malaysian society? Is gender equality an important issue for this new generation? How is domestic responsibility handled among engineers of both sexes?
The aim of the proposed project is thus to compare different forms of masculinity and femininity among IT-professionals. I am here drawing on the insight of Sørensen 2002, Lagesen 2005, that little is known about the women and men who actually decide to study computer science. In contrast to previous studies of computer science staff and students as well as IT-professionals (cf. Ng and Mohamad 1997, Ng and Thambiah 1997, Lagesen 2005), this study aims at interviewing both women and men.
Methodologically, the project is a continuation of methods I have been working with formerly (Mellström 1995, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003), a combination of participant observation and interviews. However, the project will have an emphasis on interviews and will also use questionnaires. The interviews are conducted in English, Hokkien and Malay and will later be transcribed.
The first case study, computer science students and staff, will be conducted with interviews and questionnaires in three different classes (first, second, and third year students) as well as with lecturers and professors at the School of Computer Science at USM. Together with Professor Rosni Abdullah and PhD-student Rosnah Idrus at the School of Computer Science, we will use short questionnaires followed up by interviews to document the students’ backgrounds, interest and career plans. We are here planning on interviewing altogether forty students. Naturally, we aim at gender mixed groups as well as an ethnic mix of students.
The second case study, among IT-engineers, will rely on interviews since many of the high-tech milieus are, according to my experience, not readily accessible for participant observation. I have access to one such milieu in Penang. Contact is established with the personnel officer of Human Relations at Intel Inc., Lim Ban Ho. Ten interviews are planned.
Interviews and questionnaires with students and staff at the School of Computer Science at USM. To be conducted in February-March. One article to be written, addressing the lack of cross-cultural studies within feminist technology studies and opening up for intersectional readings.
During the autumn of 2006, I intend to (September-November) interview engineers at Intel. I also intend to complement the work among the Computer Science students. One joint article to be written with Professor Rosni Abdullah and Rosnah Idrus at USM documenting motifs and career plans among computer science students.
January -September 2007
Writing one article based on the comparisons of staff, student and professionals and the consequences for gender equality within the sector of technical work in Malaysia. This article is intended for the journal Gender, Technology and Development. Organising a workshop with the Women Studies Unit of USM (KANITA) and the School of Computer Science at USM gathering Malaysian scholars on Gender and Technology (September 2007).
Gomes, A (1994) "Modernity and Identity: Asian Illustrations." Bundoora, VIToria: La Trobe University Press.
Kahn, J and Loh, F eds. (1992) "Fragmented Vision. Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia." Sydney: Allen &camp; Unwin.
Lagesen, V (2005) “Extreme make-over? The making of gender and computer science”, Doctoral thesis, NTNU, Trondheim.
Lan, Goh Beng (2002) "Modern Dreams: An enquiry into power, Cultural Production and the Cityscape in Contemporary Urban Penang, Malaysia." New York : Cornell University Press.
Mellström, U (1995) "Engineering Lives: Technology, Time and Space in a Male-Centred World" Linköping, Linköping Studies in Arts and Science, nr 128. 1995.
Mellström, U (1999) "Män och deras maskiner" Nora: Nya Doxa, .
Mellström, U (2002) ”Patriarchal machines and masculine embodiment”,Science, Technology &camp; Human Values, Vol. 27 No. 4, autumn 2002, 460-478.
Mellström, U (2003) ”Masculinity, Power and Technology: A Malaysian Ethnography” Ashgate Publ. Ltd., Aldershot, U.K.
Mellström, Ulf (2004) ”Machines and masculine subjectivity, technology as an integral part of men’s life experiences”, (eds.) Faulkner, W &camp; Lohan M, Special Issue: Masculinities and Technology, volume 6, Number 4, April 2004, 368-383.
Ng Choon Sim, C &camp; Munro-Kua, A eds. (1994) "Keying into the Future. The Impact of Computerization on Office Workers." Vinlin Press: Kuala Lumpur.
Ng Choon Sim, C &camp; Yong, C (1995) "Information technology, gender and employment. A case study of the telecommunications industry in Malaysia." in Mitter, S and Rowbotham, S (eds.) "Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World.", London: Routledge.
Ng Choon Sim, C &camp; Thambiah, S (1997) "Women and Work in the Information Era: Levelling the Playing Field?" Paper presented at the Regional Conference on Women and Work: Challenges in Industrializing Nations. Putrajaya, Sepang 5-6 March 1997.
Ng Choon Sim, C and Mohamad, M (1997) "The Management of Technology and Women in Two Electronic Firms in Malaysia", Gender, Technology and Development 1(2), 1997.
Ong, A (1987) "Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline. Factory women in Malaysia." New York: State University of New York Press.
Wajcman, J (1991) "Feminism Confronts Technology." Cambridge: Polity Press.
Wajcamn, J (2004) “Technofeminism” Cambridge: Polity Press.
+46-920-49 30 39