Louna Hakkarainen is an advocate, writer, lecturer, researcher and a project manager. She has worked to tackle gender-based digital violence and online harassment and to help the survivors. Hakkarainen has written a guidebook about digital intimate partner violence and post-separation stalking. Her background is in science and technology studies, innovation studies and participatory design, and she defended her doctoral thesis at Aalto University in 2017.
Kaisa Karvinen is a Helsinki and Oulu-based architect and researcher interested in the intersections of performativity, public space, and collective unlearning. Her practice consists of different forms of constructing and writing, usually in multidisciplinary groups. In 2019, Karvinen co-edited the book Borrowing Positions – Role-playing design and architecture with Ott Kagovere and Tommi Vasko. Recently she has been working as a spatial designer, organiser of Trojan Horse events and curator of the (Re)configuring Territories research programme.
How do gender and technology shape each other? What kinds of emancipatory possibilities reside in technologies, be they medical, social, communicational or architectural technologies, or perhaps larger infrastructures or mundane everyday objects? Can we take hold of technologies to provoke a rupture in the cycle of gender production? What kinds of strategies do we need to thoroughly change the mechanisms and algorithms by which the binary heteronormative society is working?
We are feminists, researchers, teachers and activists from Helsinki, and we are inviting you to participate in the discussion on gender and technology. The starting point for this conversation is a Gender and Technology course that we organised at Aalto University in Helsinki in 2020 and 2021. The course was born out of a desire to introduce for discussion how feminism has contributed to social studies of technologies, science and design. We felt that there was a need for a university-level course, where students would learn to critically evaluate the consequences of technologies for diverse groups of people, especially those in marginalised and vulnerable positions. Through reading academic texts and discussing them in small groups, we sought to make visible that science and technology do not evolve according to an inherent technical or scientific logic but are shaped by diverse social factors like gender, race, and class. As the majority of the students were future makers of technology, we invited them to critically examine their own field and its practices as well as to observe different power structures and power dynamics related to science, technology and the constructed environment more broadly.
In this article, we want to explore the course itself as a technology and at the same time share our various ‘design’ choices and some of the challenges related to teaching a course on this topic in the university context.
The quotes in the article are from Jessica Eboreime’s learning diary. Jessica attended the course in 2022.
“A significant motivator in my study of design is based in the need for representation and inclusion of minorities in systems, products, and research. I believe we need to be conscious of the choices that are being made in our approach to find solutions; in other words, decisions should be proactive as opposed to an afterthought or reaction to failure. While I believe there are significant efforts being made to include minorities or marginalised individuals in the planning process in many companies and organisations, I am not satisfied with published statistics and what sometimes just seem more like marketing campaigns for the sake of optics. I would like to better understand the history of how things came to be the way they are, how the status has been maintained for so long, and why challenges of the status quo have been met with so much resistance.”
The Gender and Technology course relied on and was inspired by science and technology studies, especially work done in the field of feminist technology studies and the sociology of technology. There were already similar feminist technoscience courses at other universities, and we used those references when we started drafting the course.
The course lasted six weeks and it was open to all students at Aalto. It turned out to be very popular and managed to attract people from a variety of fields – e.g. design, engineering, computer science and business. Around 40 students were selected for the course in both years based on a motivation letter.
As neither of us was experts in this exact topic, we positioned ourselves more as facilitators and co-learners rather than teachers in a traditional sense. The structure, methods and content of the course were shaped by our own interests and backgrounds. Due to Covid-19, the first course had to be organised completely over Zoom. In the second year, the sessions were mostly face-to-face but partly online.
The learning sessions consisted of peer-to-peer learning, reading and discussing academic articles, different kinds of speculative exercises, artists’ visits and small lectures. Judy Wajcman's book TechnoFeminism and her other
The course was described as a facilitated reading circle. In practice, this meant that each student had to read one article per week, deliver a small exercise about the text before the class, and discuss thoughts that the text evoked in a small group. Each group was asked to create a poster, a memo or an Instagram post based on the discussion.
To pass the course, the students had to read the articles and deliver the small exercise related to each reading, participate in group work, and deliver questions for the visiting artists and researchers before each visit. The students were asked to keep a learning journal throughout the course.
READINGS AND TOPICS DISCUSSED
As mentioned previously, reading and discussing academic and other types of articles related to gender and technology formed the core of the course. The texts raised and analysed questions like why the workload of women has increased despite the development of domestic
What the syllabus of the course was trying to show, is that the topic of gender and technology is not new. Nevertheless, the popularity of works like Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, 12 Bytes by Jeannette Winterson, Glitchfeminism by Legacy Russell, Xenofeminism by Helen Hester, and Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin along with the popularity of the course shows that it might be more timely than ever, and that larger groups of people have begun to ask questions related to the politics of technology.
Even though the understanding of gender has evolved, expanded and diversified in society at large, it is less clear how and to what extent this development has taken place in the IT sector. The Tech industry’s discrimination problem has been discussed for some time already, and the rate of discrimination based on gender and other factors seems still worrying – 38% of women and 56% of people from ethnic minorities report experiencing discrimination in the past 12 months while working in European tech companies. The disparities related to gender and other intersecting forms of discrimination, still very much influence our technological landscape. Change does not happen in a linear fashion or at the same pace in different parts of society. We think it is important to deliberately create new spaces for discussing technology and actively bring marginalised or silenced voices into this discussion and in dialogue with the developers and designers of technology.
SAFER SPACE BUILDING
Already before the first course, we anticipated that the discussions on the intersection of gender and technology will be highly sensitive, personal and political, and that is one of the reasons why the course started by building the rules for a safer space. The use of a safer space has travelled from activist communities to academic circles, with the University of the Arts in Helsinki leading the way in Finland.
In the first year, we built the principles by becoming familiar with the existing UniArts safer space guidelines and discussing them in small groups using Zoom chat rooms. Based on the discussions, the groups wrote down the principles that were most important to them and these were shared with the whole class. We asked the students to return to the principles throughout the course and to contact us if they had any questions or concerns regarding them.
We decided to develop the process a little in the second year as we were afraid that the small group discussions ended up limiting the conversation too much as groups sought to form a consensus and many might not want to share their fears and limitations with their classmates. In the second year, we asked the students to write a short text in the form of a letter as homework about what a safer learning environment meant for them. We, teachers, read the assignments and curated a selection of principles for a shared anonymous document. The students were able to comment on the document, which they actively did, and all the comments were left visible for the rest of the course.
“I was happy to see that following the session, we addressed the rules for a safe space. However, I do believe this would have been an essential activity to hold in person at the beginning of the class. What might it have changed? Would there have been more solidarity among everyone in attendance? Maybe more empathy? And can this be addressed text-book style?”
Nevertheless, not everyone agreed with the writing-based approach, and we soon learned that navigating this topic requires time, sensitivity, and strategic facilitation, which is easier said than done within the limitations of a university course.
While we were building the starting points of the safer space, we also discussed whether it makes sense to read texts that are decades old when some discussions have changed alongside the mainstream understanding of gender as a concept. By building the safer space principles collectively we sought to cater for students with varying needs and wishes, but we also wanted to show how the course itself is a technology that we shape together, throughout the course.
LARP AND OTHER SPECULATIVE METHODS
“I cannot believe how much I enjoyed the LARP session. I think it is an excellent tool for discussion and approach to solution finding, I absolutely plan on using it in the future. This speculative approach really provides a new layer of depth to problem-solving. It feels as though I stepped into a problem. How does this differ from staged performance? Is it the improvisation of it? Not only did I learn from watching other groups play out their story, I realised that I was also exploring the character I was playing. You are truly placing yourself in the shoes of this individual, embracing their thought patterns, behaviours, insecurities and strengths. There are nuances that cannot be identified from a 3rd person perspective and the level of empathy is magnified for the circumstance, no matter how horrific.”
After reading and getting to know the topic and each other, we started drafting different futures and alternative histories for gender and technology. We tried to ask if it is even possible for us to think about gender and technology in an alternative way, is it even ethical to try? A key speculative tool was a live-action role-play (LARP) as it is defined in the book Borrowing
There was a lot of reading in the course and going through long theoretical texts felt laborious to many of the students. Speculative methods also brought a bodily counterweight and playfulness to the reading and the discussions that often touched quite complex and emotional topics.
“With regard to speculative approaches and futurisms, I personally am very drawn to Afrofuturism and the agency it provides those who engage with the genre/aesthetic. There is an opportunity for retrospective reflection and reimagination of pasts that stem into new futures. A chance to rewrite history. I also think Afrofuturism can provide escapism to many. Much in the way many escape into the fantasy worlds of superheroes and wizards, Afrofuturism includes that with a familiar culture. I think many of the female representations in Afrofuturism also have an emboldened narrative, one that is not born out of burden and struggle, rather worn as a crown. They don’t have to persevere and prove themselves, they step into their truths as women, as leaders, as innovators, as oracles, goddesses and warriors.”
ART AND VISITING PERSPECTIVES
Technology is often created by a very homogeneous group of people with a possibly limited imagination. To find new perspectives and unexpected views on the future, we invited a group of artists and researchers to talk about their work. Artists have always looked at the relationship between matter, body, and humanity in different ways and we wanted to invite art practitioners and visiting thinkers, whose work gender and technology play a central role, to share their practice with us. We will mention a few of the visitors here:
Sara Kaaman is a Stockholm-based graphic designer, who has studied the gendered nature of bookmaking presented in the work Natural Enemies of Books – A Messy History of Women in Printing and
“I was confused by [Artor’s] performance in the hotel. I couldn’t understand why I was watching this video of an average white male doing absolutely nothing in privacy. And as I started growing frustrated by the pretentiousness of it, Artor said, “I’m a very hyper generic white man and all the spaces I am occupying are also neutral”. They explained that someone might wonder what is so interesting about this or wonder whether he thinks there is something interesting about the environment. Or perhaps someone might find it extremely strange. That was a relief for me... Kind of beautiful to be honest.”
CONCLUSIONS AND CONTINUITY OF CONVERSATION
The course was organised as a part of the University-Wide Art Studies (UWAS) programme at Aalto University. Experts and practitioners also outside the university were able to propose and teach courses throughout the programme. The idea was that UWAS courses would provide “all Aalto students an opportunity to explore critical practices and processes beyond disciplinary boundaries.
During these two years, it has become clear that critical discussion about technology is needed as well as welcome – both among engineering students who are actually designing technologies in the future and among those looking at the topic more from a distance, but who are nevertheless users of technologies and affected by them. There are no passive bystanders in technological revolutions, and therefore everyone should have an equal say in this conversation. We need spaces where we can openly and critically discuss how technologies are designed and marketed and how their development is influenced by different social structures and the backgrounds and prejudices of the developers and what kinds of consequences they have in society and among different groups of people. We also learned that this discussion requires careful facilitation and orchestration so that everyone feels that their voice is heard.
“I think it’s also interesting that almost the entire class is female presenting or non-binary. I think this speaks to issues that are being addressed in the class. Yes, as a woman, I want to understand the topics surrounding gender and technology for my own interests and empowerment. It is crucial that I understand how gender is intertwined, presented, weaponised and discounted in everything we do, so that I may recognise problematic circumstances and call them out. HOWEVER, how fruitful can this be when we are in an echo chamber? When there is no allyship from white, hetero, cis, men...no interest...no discussion, we miss out on an opportunity to learn about their perspective as allies.”
We have been viewing this course as a technology. Its planning and implementation is an iterative and slowly evolving process, which is influenced by assumptions about the students' backgrounds, wishes and needs. A successful course develops as cooperation between students and teachers. It is also important to talk openly about the resources and power structures that determine the boundary conditions of the course. When the course is viewed as a technology and is planned and implemented openly and carefully, the agency of everyone involved becomes visible. We can together take responsibility for the shape of the course without the teachers pushing their teaching responsibility onto the students' shoulders.
We want to invite you to this conversation, where technology is allowed to be talked about differently, softly, inquiringly, and with curiosity. Together, we can change how technologies are discussed and the practices in which technology is designed. We also want to expand the group of people who feel included in the conversation about technology, who feel that their experiences and viewpoints are relevant to this discussion and who feel courageous enough to imagine alternative technological futures. You are warmly welcome.
Louna and Kaisa
“When people ask me how I get along in Finland, I always tell them that once I found my tribe, everything fell into place. I very much feel this applies to all of the spaces and places we encounter whether at work, school or on outings. It is not enough to exist; we should be able to thrive. And we cannot do so in spaces where we feel oppressed. I feel this is the importance of exploring the complexities of gender and technology. The speed at which the technologies (in every applicable form) are evolving is beyond what most can measure. We are setting motions into play that we can only measure years later, so intervention is long overdue. We cannot continue to celebrate advancements in science and technology when the contributions and actors come from homogenous pools that lack inclusivity in all forms. We cannot simply accept that technologies are working, they must add value and work for EVERYONE.”
- Judy Wajcman, ‘From Women and Technology to Gendered Technoscience’, Information, Community and Society, 10, 3, (2007), pp. 287–298; Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology. (Penn State Press, 1991); Judy Wajcman, Technofeminism, (Polity Press, 2004); Judy Wajcman, ‘Feminist Theories of Technology’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34, (2009/2010), pp. 143–152.
- Ruth Schwartz Cowan, ‘The “Industrial Revolution” in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century’, Technology and Culture, 17, 1, (1976), pp. 1–23.
- Maria Mies, ‘Why Do We Need All This? A Call Against Genetic Engineering and Reproductive Technology’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 8, 6, (1985), pp. 553–560.
- Ruth Oldenziel, ‘Boys and Their Toys: The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild, 1930–1968, and the Making of a Male Technical Domain’, Technology and Culture, 38, 1, Special Issue: Gender Analysis and the History of Technology, (1997), pp. 60–96.
- Cynthia Cockburn, ‘The Material of Male Power’, Feminist Review 9, (1981), pp. 41–58.
- Cynthia Cockburn and Susan Ormrod, Gender and Technology in the Making, (SAGE Publications Ltd., 1993).
- Monica Casper and Adele Clarke, ‘Making the Pap Smear into the “Right Tool” for the Job: Cervical Cancer Screening in the USA, circa 1940–95’, Social Studies of Science, 28, 2, (1998), pp. 255–290.
- Nelly Oudshoorn, ‘On the Making of Sex Hormones: Research Materials and the Production of Knowledge’, Social Studies of Science, 20, 1, (1990), pp. 5–33.
- Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, Socialist Review, 80, (1985), pp. 65–108; Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14, 3, (1988), pp. 575–599; Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81.
- Sadie Plant, ‘The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics’, Body & Society, 1, 3–4, (1995), pp. 45–64; Sadie Plant, Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, (Doubleday, 1997).
- Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism. (Cornell University Press, 1986).
- Donna Haraway (1988).
- Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. (Verso Books, 2020).
- Ott Kagovere, Kaisa Karvinen and Tommi Vasko, Borrowing Positions, (Lugemik, 2019).
- Maryam Fanni, Matilda Flodmark and Sara Kaaman, The Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography, (Occasional Papers, 2020).