Gendered Labor: The Work of Feminist Digital Praxis

Estee N. Beck, Kristine L. Blair, Mariana C. Grohowski


Banner image of Lovelace, Lamarr, Hopper, Hawisher, Selfe

From left to right: Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper, Cynthia L. Selfe, Gail E. Hawisher


According to a 2008 National Science Foundation study of engineering and science degrees awarded to women between 1966 and 2006, the rise in computer science degrees for women increased by a not-so-impressive seven percent over forty years. As with many STEM fields, computer science remains male-dominated, and despite cyberfeminist scholars' interdisciplinary efforts to create spaces for digital exploration in both the academy and the community, there remain limited professional opportunities for women and girls to enhance both technological aptitude and attitude. In the larger culture, women continue to be targeted as digital consumers rather than producers, and often as passive objects rather than as active subjects. Both gendered rhetorics and economic realities reflect and reinforce this ideological bias.

Indeed, consider the case of feminist gaming activist Anita Sarkeesian, who has made national news, including an October 2014 appearance on the Colbert Report (Mcdonald, 2014), in part because of her various media critiques in video and blog form about the misogyny of gaming culture and the way in which women are depicted within a range of games. Sarkeesian is not alone. After the release of game designer Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend published a blog post alleging that Quinn received a favorable game review by a journalist who happened to be her new partner (Stuart, 2014). The accusation escalated into various forms of online and offline harassment against Quinn, notably the Twitter backlash known as #gamergate, which has targeted Sarkeesian and other feminist game activists. This includes the terrorist threats made against Utah State University when Sarkeesian was announced as a speaker (Alberty, 2014). She later declined to speak when it was clear the university could do nothing to protect her or the university community, particularly given Utah's open carry law (Alberty, 2014). Clearly, such biases restrict the abilities of women to participate freely, fully, and safely in the larger information technology cultures that comprise 21st-century literate practices.

As teacher-scholars who align with cyberfeminist theory, practice, and action, we contend that it is our responsibility to bridge gaps between these circulating rhetorics of computing culture, including technological labor, as male, and the material conditions of women that impact their relationships to technology, even within our own digital writing environments. As Cynthia Selfe (1999) has so powerfully argued, we must pay attention to the larger systems of power that mediate the digitally literate lives of students, teachers, and citizens for whom access to technology has been and continues to be inequitable. To this end, our review essay interrogates dominant cultural narratives inside and outside the academy through a review of three diverse texts that collectively provide historical, material, theoretical, and political snapshots of women's technologically mediated lives.

In her feminist work Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson (1989) claimed that each individual is an artist of a masterpiece: the composition of his/her life. But Bateson was aware that inherent to the circumstances of composing one's life is that such circumstances are constantly in flux. Bateson posited, "adjusting to discontinuity is the emerging problem of our era" (p. 14). According to Bateson, the study of women's lives help us better understand human nature and ourselves (p. 9). As she put it, "we need to look at multiple lives to test and shape our own [because] each such model, like an individual work of art, is a comment about the world outside the fame" (pp. 16-17). Thus the works we review here, Janet Abbate's (2012) Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing; Sheryl Sandberg's (2013) Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead; and Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh's (2012) edited collection Cyberfeminism 2.0, allow us to examine the ways in which women's experiences in information technology (IT) culture and in digital spaces have changed and are constantly changing. Such analysis is helpful for all readers of Kairos—teacher–scholars of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy—because it illuminates the changing circumstances within which we and our students labor and compose our own sense of selves.

To ground the historical and contemporary role of women in computing within the field of computers and writing, and to provide a sense of audience and community for our review webtext, we have also included representative images of women from our discipline who have been and are contributing to our collective understanding of the field's past, present, and future (with their permission). In this way, we make visible the field's ongoing concern with the gendered nature of technology and the importance of acknowledging the historical role of women in the discipline, similar to Abbate's own call within computer science.

Although this webtext is designed to orient Kairos readers to the cultural rhetorics as well as the popular and academic treatments of gender and technology within a cyberfeminist framework, such frameworks also privilege women's lived experiences with technology. Thus, we have also included brief audio narratives of our own digitally literate practices and negotiations as women and feminist teacher-scholars, fostering a sense of political action frequently called for by such cyberfeminists as Gajjala and Oh (2012).

Home ♦ Recoding Gender ♦ Lean In ♦ Cyberfeminism ♦ References ♦ About Us ♦