Are women turned off by technology?

Women lag far behind men when it comes to using new technology. Melanie McGrath warns that they must take an active role or be left out of the information revolution
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The Independent Culture
The future is female, or so we are told. The future is hi-tech. So here's the contradiction: when it comes to new technology, the future sex is already in danger of tuning out and turning off.

A recent survey by the Future Foundation showed that only 7 per cent of women are using e-mail at work, compared with 23 per cent of men. Less than half as many women as men are logging on to the Net. Computer use at home is also lower among women. And in a recent Mori poll, men rated CD-Roms, the Internet and PCs more highly than women. Only the mobile phone was seen as equally useful by both sexes.

The uncomfortable truth is that when it comes to new tech, sisters just aren't doing it for themselves. But why not? Cyberfeminists such as Sadie Plant have long argued that women are ideally suited to Info-Age technology. Many are already familiar with keyboards and, by and large, they make better team players. Traditionally, they are good at communication and multi-tasking. Certainly, they are less easily distracted by horny web sites, less prone to wasting hours slumped over the latest networked game. And new technology has obvious potential benefits for working women, in terms of increased productivity, flexibility, portability and time- saving.

Many of the most interesting commentators on the Info-Age are women - Esther Dyson, Sandy Stone, Sherry Turkle and Brenda Laurel - as well as Plant herself. We know that there are women interested in technology, and that they have much to gain from it. Why, then, are we still lagging behind?

Only part of this can be put down to the usual arguments about access. Sure, men are territorial. Most home computers are still kept in men's bedrooms, and it is men who tend to hold the family's account with an Internet provider, but the real issue is not access but attitude. Many women still feel uncomfortable with the idea of technology.

As Melanie Howard of the Future Foundation observes: "Women are comfortable with invisible technologies. They don't see the phone, for example, as being technological." Those women who are happy in a hi-tech environment tend to be utilitarian in their attitudes towards it. Whereas men want to know what a particular technology can do, women are more interested in asking, "what can it do for me?" Women tend to be slower to adopt a technology, and, as Howard points out: "A lot of the new technologies have been slow to deliver."

Anne Mitchard, group marketing manager at Microsoft, says: "It's not that women need technology to be easier, but they tend to think there are better things to do than tinkering under the hood." Helen Wilkinson, of Demos, agrees. "Women are interested in the specific, practical ways the technology is going to help them."

Since the issue is attitude, the solution lies not so much in giving women greater access to new technology, as in giving them greater access to information about it. As recent cultural shifts in the way women work and play have shown, we're quite capable of getting what we want once we know what's out there. But men still "own" the new technology debate, and women still aren't being addressed.

After the brief honeymoon of 1994, when the Internet was rarely out of the news, coverage of technology in the broadsheets has, in the main, been sidelined to supplements such as this one. Jim McClellan, whose cyberspace column in the Observer dealt with the wider issues surrounding it, believes that "editors, who mostly come from a literary/arts background, tend to confuse an interest in the culture of technology with an unblinking enthusiasm for it, then tend to dismiss that as too American and avoid it", dispatching it back to the geek gulag of the tech supplements. According to McClellan, many regular readers of these supplements "only want hard-core geek news and specialist stuff", which, for women at least, is about as compelling as a night in, surfing Ceefax.

Just as debates about women's role in the workplace are often perceived as women's issues rather than workplace issues, so women's contributions to the debate about the future of technology tend to disappear into the same "women's issues" ghetto. Esther Dyson's recent book, Release 2.0, was marketed first and foremost as a woman's view, with Dyson described variously on the cover as "the First Lady of the Internet",' "a prominent woman in an industry dominated by men", "the most powerful woman in the 'Net-erati'", and "the most influential woman in all the computer world". Never mind that Dyson's book isn't even about women per se. In fact, the "w" word doesn't even appear in the index. My own book on the digital scene suffered a similar diminution. This very paper's own rather positive review was trivialised by the sub-editor's headline referring to me as a "modem miss". Did anyone think to call John Seabrook or Bill Gates a "bandwidth boy"?

Women don't always help themselves to be taken seriously. A couple of years ago the US edition of Playboy ran a series of centrefolds featuring various well-known wired women clad in embarrassingly naff and predictably scanty "cybergear", under the ludicrous pretence of making a stand (well, a splay) for post-feminism. Would we have hung on the words of Nicholas Negroponte if he had gone and done a full Monty? Maybe not.

The responsibility for women's failure to take up technology must lie with us. If there's one thing that 30-odd years of the feminist movement has taught women, it's that we don't get anything without fighting for it. This hard-won truism appears to have bypassed much of the women's press, which persists in letting its readers down by refusing to take technology seriously. Says Catherine Wilding of Elle: "We don't think our readers are interested. It's not really an issue. We are a fashion magazine. We don't deal in financial matters or in anything technological." Asked whether Elle had ever consulted its readers about their interest in technology, Wilding said it was an "intuitive" understanding that they had no interest. Incidentally, this month's issue carries a feature on Robin Cook's love life and William Boyd's favourite coffee bars. Now is that fashion, would you say?

Marina Gask, editor of Sugar, which sells to nearly half a million teenage girls every month, believes that those among them who are keen on computers will "buy a computer magazine"' - but computer magazines don't address girls. It's a Catch-22. Gask does admit that Sugar may have "a partial responsibility" to keep its readers up to date with technological developments, and says it's partly a matter of angles. "It's difficult to discuss technology in a way that's appealing."

The assumption that talking to women about technology is inherently problematic isn't borne out by research. Says Helen Wilkinson: "Attitude studies show that women are positive about technology so long as it's made relevant. Women's magazines haven't experimented with technological content, so it's not surprising they haven't got it right."

Focus group research sponsored by Sony indicates that women want to see technological issues tackled in the women's press in ways that speak to them. "A lot of the failure of the women's media to cover technology goes back to gender stereotyping, based especially on a limitation of women's intellectual life," says Howard. "There is a way of dismissing subjects they don't want to handle."

Women are asking not to be left behind, but their media aren't listening. Wilkinson goes farther: "articles about sex still sell better. Look at Cosmo. It's still pretty traditional."

A few months ago, Sony sponsored a conference to discuss coverage of technological issues with the editors of women's magazines. Though the turnout was low, the conference did spark off an article on "21st-century IT girls" in last month's Cosmopolitan. In a dazzling apologia, Cosmo cut interviews with leading women in IT with displays of snakeskin mobile phone holders and an "ultimate techno wish list" which included a miniature handbag light and a high-tech spot-zapper.

"The Cosmo heartland is never going to feature how a hi-fi works; it wouldn't seem right for us," says Louise Atkinson, deputy editor. It is this kind of half-heartedness, coupled with an unimaginative fixation on IT as a geek enterprise, which continues to keep technology off the pages of women's magazines. And it's bitterly ironic, given how dependent those same magazines - and the women who staff them - are on computers, scanners, voice mail and mobile phones.

More ironic still is the part played by the women's movement itself in turning women off technology. "Feminism has been historically ill at ease with it," observes Wilkinson. It's a point also taken up by cyberfeminists such as Plant, though, as Wilkinson notes: "cyberfeminist voices are not connecting with traditional feminist forums."

Of course, the IT industry is also in part to blame. Male-dominated, it has traditionally seen itself as a technical industry and has tended to market its products in speccie-techie argot. Says Anne Mitchard of Microsoft: "We in the IT industry haven't done a good job of communicating to women. We're used to talking to the media in widget terms rather than in terms of the freedom to travel, work-enhancement and life-enhancement, which are the messages women want to hear." She points out that IT is a young industry, making a young industry's mistakes. But it is also one of the fastest moving, and as such neither the IT industry nor women have the luxury of time.

Still, there is evidence that the IT companies have finally woken up to girl power. This year, for the first time, Sony will target women in its advertising campaigns, though as Brenda Jones, head of Sony's European advertising, is keen to stress, the campaign will be about "user-friendliness, not making pink phones".

And technology is gradually finding its way into the twentysomething women's press. Last year Frank launched with a regular round-up of Web sites, and it has just commissioned a feature on mobile phones. Frank's editor, Tina Gaudoin, says: "We have a responsibility to tell our readers what's out there that's influential." She points to the Drudge Report, an e-zine which was the first to break the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Sam Baker, relaunch editor of the twentysomething mag Minx, agrees. "Technology is something the women's magazines do particularly badly, but it's an everyday part of women's lives." Refreshingly, Baker sees technologically oriented content as unproblematic. "We'll treat it the same way as lipstick or relationships."

But will that be enough? In spite of such government initiatives as "IT for All", and the women-centred training programmes being offered by enterprises such as Cyberia, women are still lagging behind men, both as technology users and as contributors to technological policy-making. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gender gap is less pronounced Stateside. 'They are about seven years ahead,' says Wilkinson. In the UK, though, it is possible that by the time women get on the technology bandwagon, the broad issues of the technological debate may already have been settled.

While older women are in danger of being excluded from developments in new technology, for many younger women those same technologies are already an invisible part of their daily lives. It falls to the generation in between - those aged 25 to 45 - and to the digital entrepreneurs such as Eva Pascoe, futurologists such as Melanie Howard and cyberfeminists such as Sadie Plant, to persuade all women to be more active in debates about where technology is taking us. We're used to listening to our biological clocks. It's time to listen to our technological clocks, too.

Melanie McGrath's book 'Hard, Soft and Wet' is published by HarperCollins, price pounds 7.99.