Gendered Representations of Computer Users

This week, we read four articles that discussed the way gender of computer users was represented in media images. In general, women are depicted as “shy, passive and gentle…in passive or nurturing roles” while men were “dominant and powerful…portrayed in active/nonnurtrant, productive or aggressive roles” [2].

This implies that technology is a male-dominated interest. If we go by statistics, this jives with real life. “Women account for only 15-20% of computer science majors and 25% of the U.S technology workforce” [1].

One of the articles described two “dominant viewpoints” about the relationship between sex and technology: essentialism and social construction. Essentialism basically holds that “biological differences” are the reason that men and women use and accept technology differently. (Cough Bullshit Cough) Social construction says that “social, education, and structural forces” are the cause for the differences [1].

Obviously, I don’t buy the essentialism point of view. I believe that this idea that technology is masculine is indeed socially constructed, and that these kinds of advertisements are the primary culprit. The Koernig & Granitz article backs me up on this by discussing six studies from the late 80s and 90s that “demonstrated that advertising can create and propagate cultural standards that shape the development of a person’s self-image, as well as how one is viewed within the culture” [1].

However, this doesn’t have to be the case. The advertising industry can use its influence to change this misconception…to socially reconstruct gendered representation of computer users. As Koernig & Granitz put it, “By presenting positive images of women and technology, advertising may create images that originally were not congruent for men, . . . but after repeated exposures become congruent and create greater identification and emulation.”

So, how is this relevant from an HCI design standpoint? I believe that it means designers must be diligent about not enforcing these negative stereotypes through their designs. By creating interactions and user experiences that appeal especially to women and therefore entice more women to begin to use and embrace technology, we can also help socially reconstruct the relationship between and acceptance of women and technology.

[1] Koernig, S. K., & Granitz, N. (2006). Progressive yet traditional: The portrayal of women compared to that of men in e-commerce magazine advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 35(2), 81-98.

[2] Milburn, S. S., Carney, D. R., & Martinez, A. M. (2001). Even in modern media, the picture is still the same: A content analysis of clipart images. Sex Roles, 44(5/6), 277-294.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Nitocris on January 26, 2009 at 10:54 am

    I agree with you about advertising. It’s been proven time and again how advertising shapes people’s identities. If advertising media were not so influential then it wouldn’t be the hugely profitable industry that it is.
    Advertising is cultural propaganda. Similar conclusions have been drawn about the effect of media images portraying underweight teenagers as role models and the prevalence of anorexia and bulimia in women.
    It’s a no-brainer and I bet any text positing the essentialism hypothesis as legitimate was probably written by a dude.


  2. […] an earlier post, I wrote that I believed that the idea that technology is more masculine is socially constructed. […]


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