‘Technology will reflect society’s gender hierarchy’

03 March 2016


If you’ve read a newspaper or glanced at a news website recently, you’re likely to have heard that ‘the robots are coming’ – to take our jobs, to do our housework, to look after the elderly or sick. But who is designing this future, and are their desires representative of society as a whole?

In a lecture for the Oxford Martin School to mark International Women’s Day, Professor Judy Wajcman examined our obsession with our technological future, and looked at the impact that the gender imbalance within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions is having on how future technologies are imagined and developed.

“I must highlight how few women there are in computing, engineering and technology,” she began. “Only six per cent of working engineers in Britain are women, which I think is scandalous. Of students studying computing and engineering the number of women is around 13 per cent. We’ve had decades and decades of initiatives to get women into STEM and if anything the figures have been declining. Many reports are saying jobs are going to be lost but where there will be jobs is in STEM professions, so the issue of women within those is very urgent.”

Professor Wajcman, Anthony Giddens Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Visiting Professor in the Oxford Internet Institute, said the gender divide shapes how society thinks about technology, and “limits our capacity to imagine what alternative futures might look like”, adding: “We are blinkered by this imbalance and even by old-fashioned stereotypes.”

She said her field of social studies of science and technology had for many years challenged the mainstream view that technology is neutral, value-free and emerges independently of society, and can drive social changes on its own. “The recognition that technological change is profoundly shaped by social, economic and political circumstances is now well established, at least in theory,” she said. “Technological artefacts are conceptions of society and bear the imprints of the people and the social context from which they emerge.”

Professor Wajcman said society seemed to not be able even to begin to think about the future without imagining it in technological terms. “It’s very hard in our current context to step back and reflect on what sort of robotics we want and what purposes it might serve,” she said. “The powerful gurus of Silicon Valley define the future in primarily technological terms. To my mind these fantastic visions, whether it’s sociable robots or the internet of things, are incredibly conservative. They don’t even begin to think imaginatively about alternative social relationships or ways of living. It’s a vision of a world in which everything changes as long as everything stays the same.

“The question shouldn’t just be ‘How can we save time with robots?’ but what do we want to save time for? Perhaps the people designing our robots and making these decisions aren’t in the best position to do so. Among the engineers of the most powerful companies in the world today there are very few women, minorities and people over 40. This does inevitably influence the kind of technologies we will get.”