Gender and Technology

Cynthia Cockburn

At the first two events in this series you’ve been looking at technology in relation to militarism, nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Tonight I’m inviting us to focus more on technology in relation to capital, capitalists, companies, what technology means to employers, and to people as workers (women and men) and people in other contexts than work, who need and obtain technological skills, or lack and fail to get them.

I should explain maybe that my fulltime work for around fifty years now has been research and writing. And a guiding principle for me in designing and carrying out research has been that I should have what I think of as a “constituency” for the work I do – by which I mean a group of people for whom my research findings may be of practical and political use, peopl who I’ve identified, and communicate with, and am active among. 

My first two books on this theme were about men, and the relationship between masculinity and technical knowhow. I set out to understand men in their identity as skilled technical workers and what was happening to them as their jobs were transformed by the computer. At the time there was a growing panic on about the de-skilling effects of computerization on men.

It may seem a bit odd, to have been a feminist, at the height of second wave feminism, and be researching men. You might wonder, shouldn’t we stop paying this everlasting attention to men and look at women instead? But the point was, for me, that to understanding men and their relation to technology could serve us well, as women. And my “constituency” in this research, was in fact women – even if the research wasn’t about them.  Because in our feminist movement of those days were women who wanted access to technical skills which can give you a grip in life, and better paid jobs. Some of you will remember just how hard it was back then for a woman to train and work as a carpenter, a motor mechanic, or an engineer.

In industry these jobs were cornered by men, men supported by male-dominated trade unions. But outside the work context too, men prevailed in technology – so what was going on?

For me – to understand technology you have to think about both class and gender. Well you always have to do that whole-istic thinking – because these big structures or meta-systems of power – economic power, gender power, racial power – are all intersected, they all work together to oppress and exploit, in and through each other.

Technology makes the connection between class and gender, in particular, very clear. The way I came to understand it, during these fifteen years of research, was pretty much like this. Technology is a medium of power. Think about it – at the simplest level a lever or a pulley adds power to the arm. A battering ram, or a nuclear weapon, amplifies the physical capacity of an army or a state. Owning tools, equipment and machinery and putting other people to work on them, bringing together the two great forces of production, has been, throughout history, the main source of economic power. The person who possesses special knowledge and competence with technology has always had a valuable asset – something that can be put to use autonomously, or to sold to an employer.

Think about social production, in a factory. ‘Know-how’ about making or using tools or machines gives a whole lot of power both over matter, shifting it, working it. But power over people too. The authority of know-how over the instruments of labour, the machinery, means being able to hold an employer to ransom, so to speak, and is also extended to authority over other workers. The engineer who knows about the mechanisms of the assembly line governs the movements not only of materials but of human beings.

Those categories of people who don’t possess the power of technical knowhow are obliged to depend on those who do to achieve their ends, whether it’s to win a war, keep a factory running or the plumbing and electrics of a house in good repair.


Technology has an inescapable bond with wealth. Even simple tools are no earthly use if you dont have the resources to acquire land or materials on which to use them. The huge technologies of irrigation or construction depend on massive economic surpluses to be effective. The engineer has always needed a patron. Once capitalist industrial production developed, the skilled technoloogist was obliged to turn to the manufacturer if he wanted a chance to exchange his skill for a living. Since the advent of 20th century corporate capitalism, the ‘technological innovator’ has often been a team in the employ of a giant firm – it takes a multinational to launch a tomography scanner or an i-pad onto the market.

As technologies change and displace each other, it creates a lot of disturbance among the technically-skilled strata of the workforce. Some gain position and some lose it. Some help push others down. The relationship of the person who has the relatively powerful attribute of technical competence to the person or organization with the absolutely powerful attribute of wealth has always been a negotiated one, highly ambiguous. The technologist at one level or moment is a mere employee, at another very close to the boss. Economic and class history has been a history of struggle over technology..


Among the haves and have-nots of technological competence, women and men are unevenly represented. The technical competences that men as a sex have and women as a sex lack is an extension of the physical domination of women by men. It also costs women very dear in earnings and social authority.

There is a prior problem to face though…it’s not so simple that women can just ‘decide’ to become technologically skilled.  Back in 1984 when I was three or four years into this work, the government funded an initiative called Women into Science and Engineering Year, W..I..S..E. It was organized by the Engineering Council working with the Equal Opportunities Commission. The approach they took was simply to explain to women that this kind of work, even in its traditional form, wasnt necessarily dirty, greasy and heavy…that anyway computerization was making things cleaner and lighter. Women just had to open their eyes and get into it.

It wasn’t very successful – and for good reason. It was naive. The sponsors of WISE year were overlooking the fact that technical know-how is a gender attribute, it’s deeply associated with masculinity. Its lack feminizes men, and possessing it unfeminizes women. It’s not so easy just to flout gender rules. It costs both men and women a lot to do so.

You have to remember I was doing this study in the very early 1980s, and it was only in the 1970s that we’d really clarified and gripped the concept of gender. Ann Oakley’s important book “Sex, gender and society” was published in 1972. She’d helped us to understand that the lived difference between masculinity and femininity isn’t born in us, it’s not given by our biology and therefore inevitable. Rather, it’s socially constituted, and the particular forms it takes vary from one society to another.

This idea of gender as social and variable, obvious as it seems today, was fresh then and it opened the way for me, like loads of other feminist researchers and writers of those years, to observe and describe gender in the making. I finished by understanding my study of compositors caught up in a technological crisis as one of the making and remaking of men. ‘Ideal men’ as pre-eminently technically competent and in control of technological production processes.  ‘Ideal women’ as technically inept…or rather defining women’s stereotypical abilities and values (caring, supporting) as ‘natural’ to them, and their actual skills (cooking, cleaning, sewing) as non-skills.

I want to close by saying a bit about what this kind of analysis of technology relations suggests about our feminism, the feminist movement we need and might be building. It’s pretty much commonsense to suppose that technology, as a medium of power is going to be developed and used in any system of domination to further the interests of the ones who are on top, the owning class as a class and men as a sex. So, yes, as women we have to think carefully about technology from the perspectives of both class and sex…two systems of power that bear heavily on us.

And, it’s interesting…if we’re honest with ourselves we have to face some worrying political contradictions…Women undeniably have a right to technical skills. But if these competences are historically an aspect of class power and male power, can we share in them without becoming honorary capitalists or honorary men. Can we engage in technological work without lending a hand to the employer’s control of other workers? If it’s an aspect of male power, can we share in technical knowhow without contributing to the oppression of other women?

The implication here is that we need a whole-istic kind of feminist consciousness and movement, one that involves a socialist opposition to capitalism, and a feminist opposition to patriarchy. There was quite a strong socialist feminist current in the 1970s and 1980s. It faded away in the 90s, with Marxism and socialism generally, both of which have also been pushed further into retreat by economic recession.

The new young feminist movement in London is strong on body politics. It’s a radical feminism, clearly identifying and resisting male dominance and exploitation of women, especially cultural, sexualized commodification of women and our images and bodies.  To some extent it is anticapitalist, in the sense that it understands the exploitation to be by big businesses, to be consumerist. But to my understanding the resistance of women as workers to capitalism and the state is not very well developed, and is certainly not linked up with radical feminism and antiracist feminism, in the whole-istic movement we badly need. Analysing technology relations as both a matter of class and gender could perhaps be useful in inspiring

Posts on this blog represent the views of their authors, not of Breaking the Frame, unless otherwise noted.

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One Response to Gender and Technology

  1. Duncan Maosa says:


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