How Hard Can it Be?

By Karen Coyle

(Draft, Jan. 1996)(Published in Wired_Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace from Seal Press, 1996)

I Love the Smell of Silicon in the Morning

A woman says to me: "My daughters love science, and they use computers, but they just aren't interested in technology."

Try this one: "My daughter is an excellent driver, but she has no interest in internal combustion."

We're supposed to use computers, not worship them. There will be those fascinated with the machine qua machine, but we have no reason to assume this to be a superior approach. Except, of course, that it's the masculine approach by computer culture standards, and therefore has the air of superiority. It's the difference between those of us who just want to get to where we're going, and those of us who read Car and Driver magazine. Behind the wheel, we're all called "drivers."

In 8.3 million households in America a woman is the primary home computer user. Two out of every three on-the-job computer users is a woman.

But we still see computers as being a "guy thing." Stereotypes outweigh reality, like when Rosie the Riveter did a "man's job." How could it be a man's job while a woman is doing it? How can computers be masculine when women and girls use them every day?

But this masculine image is constantly reinforced in the computer culture and in the images presented in the consumer computing market. Rather than feminizing the computer field, women must adopt and maintain some degree of macho to become part of it. To question the masculinity of computers is tantamount to questioning our image of masculinity itself: computers are power, and power, in our world, must be the realm of men.

The Hero with 1024 Faces

PowerPC	Pentium Power.  Powerful Savings.  	...powerful portable...
To understand the power of working together...
Project management software that so powerful... Powerful, but personal
Symantec sells its Norton Utilities with a Superman figure sporting the nerdish head of Peter Norton. Stacker's upgrade notices came emblazoned with "Stackerman," a hip, muscled super- hero. Current cultural heroes, generally sports figures, are used in many advertisements, though some hero figures from the past are also employed: Davy Crockett, explorer, stands high on a promontory looking out over the virgin territory before him. Even the anti-hero comes into play, and a lone figure in a Sam Spade raincoat advertises virus-detection software.

Words used to describe the computer often have to do with power and with maleness. Computing clearly requires great heroics and derring-do. Without heroes there would be no computers. Steven Levy's book on the early adopters of the culture of computer hacking is entitled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

The key word here is "heroes," a decidedly male role with a great deal of power.

Levy researched his book in great detail, especially the section relating to the early computer activities at MIT that begin in the mid-50's. He has a large cast of characters, all male, and even knows where they ate dinner and what their favorite dish was. In only one paragraph does he approach the question: why were there no female hackers, and answers:

"Even the substantial cultural bias... does not explain...genetic, or 'hardware' differences." With little review of the facts, Levy concludes that women are genetically unable to hack. He never considers relevant the fact that this hacking took place in a campus building from midnight until dawn in a world where women who are mugged at 2 a.m. returning from a friend's house are told: 'what did you expect, being out at that hour?' Nor does he consider that this hacking began in the early 1960's when MIT had few women students. And though he describes his male hackers as socially inept, he doesn't inquire into their attitudes toward women, and how those attitudes would shape the composition of the hacking "club."

But most of all, he never considers the possibility that among the bright women attending MIT at that time, none was truly interested in hacking. What if the thousands of hours of graveyard shift amateur hacking wasn't really the best way to get the job done? That would be unthinkable.

Levy's own adherence to the hero myth virtually excludes women from the field of study. When one starts out looking for heroes, it is harder to imagine that those heroes will be female. Like those he studies, Levy finds women uninteresting. Roberta Williams, the woman who authored the first computer adventure games while her husband, Ken, ran the computing shop, is referred to only obliquely in the one-third of the book dedicated to the computer game company that she and her husband ran. In Levy's account, Roberta is portrayed as a housewife and mother whose authorship of the popular games was the least important part of the process.

How far have we really come in the 150 years since Augusta Ada Lovelace, a brilliant mathematician, toiled almost anonymously in a world where only men were welcome? To provide her access to the library of the Royal Society in London so that she could continue her studies in mathematics, Ada's husband became a member. But as only men could enter the library, at one point Ada wrote to one of her male friends in the society:

Cultural bias is that strong. Both the bias to view what men do as inherently important, and the bias to discount the activities of women as being only auxiliary. There are still those who claim that Ada did not write the mathematical pieces that appeared under her name, even though her own letters and notes prove otherwise. And there are the more subtle types of bias, those that tell us when and where women can go out into the world and that determine whether she will be accepted once she arrives there.

While these shouldn't be seen as excusing women from heroic activity, it does mean that we can't look for women's contributions in male-defined institutions. It takes different eyes to see where women have been and what they have done. The role of women, like Ada Lovelace or Admiral Grace Hopper, who was instrumental in the early development of assembler language, will not appear on the pages of books that look to glorify male heroes. If we accept the standard view of a male-dominated computer industry, we will never see the women who are making a contribution.

"Friendly to your hand. Deadly to your enemy."

They're called "joy sticks." That should be the first clue. At the computer store, they are lined up along a shelf, each black, erect, 6" to 8" tall. An improvement on nature's original design, they have neat grooves that fit your hand so you can hold them for hours. But I just can't bring myself to reach up and grasp one in public. It seems so... well, penile.

Each has a button on top that can be fired, again and again. One carries the logo "Use it or Die." How biblical! Here we have the high-tech version of Norman Mailer's "killer penis," which was a shockingly macho fantasy even for Mailer. Maybe we should name one of these joy sticks after Mailer, though I suppose he secretly wishes that he were named after one of them: The Thrustmaster.

Penis as weapon; weapon as penis. Do we fight back with a virtual "vagina dentata?" My local sex shop has quite an array of flexible, woman-friendly silicone dildos in cheery purple and pink swirl designs. So similar in shape, but such a different message.


The "machismo" of computing survives even though most computers are now "user-friendly" and no longer require a degree in engineering or an explicit interest in science or math. In a column in which he lauds the DOS operating system over the newer Windows OS, columnist John Dvorak says:

"Girlish," not "feminine." The conflict here is between men and women, not masculine and feminine, since those are qualities that any of us can prefer, regardless of our sex. Or perhaps the conflict is between men and not-men; between the hacker types and all of the other people, both men and women, who prefer ease-of-use over control. If the machine itself is an instrument of power, then conquering it, controlling it, is like moving another step up in the evolutionary food chain.

Levy attributes some of the early resistance to the Macintosh as being related to the computer culture's concept of "macho" computing:

Ten years later, the "girlish GUI" is still seen as an emasculating interface. After a lengthy round of posts on one Usenet group debating the command line versus the GUI, one participant replied:

It's a Guy Thing

The man sitting at the desk in the HP printer ad holds a basketball in one hand. Another ad has a basketball with "Intel Inside" embossed on it. Under the words "Internet Made Easy" an arm poises to slam dunk a basketball-sized world.

All these basketballs, and not one Nike shoe ad in the whole magazine. This isn't about sports. If you want sports, you read Sports Illustrated or the sports section in the newspaper. This is about being "guys." It's about balls. Big balls. These ads have little to do with computing or sports, and everything to do with the image of maleness.

On their Technology & Media page, the New York Times ran an article by John Markoff on the "state of the art" in computing that was entirely written in hot rod metaphor. The article was a clever use of a typical male bonding activity, car talk, to present computing as its successor. When the author was approached (via e-mail) by a group of women, he was surprised to hear that his hot rod theme was viewed as "masculinizing" the computer. His reply was that as far as he was concerned, women and men are equally interested in cars and speed.

But it takes only a brief glance at magazines targeting men and those targeting women to discern how different the themes are in these publications. If one were to believe Sports Illustrated and Women's Day, men drink and drive (though on different pages), and women cook and diet. Neither seems to be a fully representative nor healthy view of the sexes, but it is striking that there is virtually no overlap in content nor in advertising.

Undoubtedly the New York Times believes that its content is gender-neutral. But as is so often the case, neutrality is much more masculine than it is feminine, especially in discussions of technology.


Computer games are notorious for their exhibition of macho. Most games are of the "if it moves, shoot it" variety. Like male-oriented pornography, the games get right into the action with little need for plot, motivation or character building. The character that represents the gamer is often a hulking male figure. There are few female characters, unless they need to be rescued from trolls or other such monsters (including other men who look much like the gamer character). The common wisdom is that these games appeal overwhelmingly to men and boys, while women and girls are attracted to games like Tetris or Solitaire.

One game advertisement gives away the secret:

The computer game is a form of virtual virility. The themes are hyper-macho and often revolve around the activities of sports and war. They come with names like "Hardball 4," "Front Lines," "Body Count." The ads for Doom , this year's most popular game, read: "Now there's a place more violent than earth."

I get a mental picture of paunchy nerds or pimply-faced teenaged boys, able to convince themselves that they really are the muscle-bound hero of a game called "Mortal Kombat." It angers me that we encourage this self-glorification in men, while at the same time the message that we give to girls is that they don't measure up. Measure up to what? The kind of violent insanity that we expect of men?

What would games be like if we designed them with a female audience in mind? Would they be like the Barbie computer game where Barbie gets new outfits and learns to be a fashion model? Or could we conceive of a game where a clever woman saves the world for all humankind? Unfortunately, even our fantasies for women are based on lowered expectations.

Then again, we women reach our sexual peak much later in life and maintain it longer. Mentioning this in public is taboo; mentioning it in private gets women beaten up. Part of our society's "male superiority" is that we all agree to enter the fantasy of male superiority. Computers are ideal partners in this vision. They are the soul-less companions that we women are unable to be - obedient and unquestioning.

The Vision of Women

It's no wonder that women have a hard time seeing themselves in the computer culture. Advertisements that talk to "you" almost invariably feature men, making it clear that women are not the audience for computer wares. Review copy talks about "pictures of your wife and kids" as if it were inconceivable that the reader be anything but male (and heterosexual.)

The exclusion of women and femininity is as obvious as the inclusion of male imagery. And when women do appear, they are often there as objects of desire. As if the more subtle ways that computer culture excludes women is not enough, the high presence of pornography in the computer culture is an alienating factor for many women. Computer trade shows are one of the few professional situations today where women will be confronted with pornography being displayed and sold openly. At a recent MacWorld exhibit, two different booths sold CD ROMS with such titles as "Anal ROM," with the actresses present to sign copies. And this at the same time that construction sites, military bases and firehouses throughout the country are forbidding such materials because they might constitute sexual harrassment.


The image of the nerd is male, socially awkward and sexually frustrated. And as a matter of fact, the computer industry is an active purveyor of porn. The back pages of many consumer computer magazines are taken up with ads for a variety of "sexy" offerings most likely to appeal to men:

It's hard for me to imagine the appeal of looking at dirty pictures on a grainy, 14-inch screen when I can take a full-color magazine to bed with me for my enjoyment. And it's pretty hard to think of sitting at my desk in my straight-backed office chair getting sexually excited. Maybe this is an area where biology really does determine a difference between male and female behavior, because essentially I'm, well, I'm sitting on it, so this position just doesn't work for me.

Finally, a woman he can relate to, and who even remembers his name. (And I bet he wishes that it did GROW the more he used it.) This is the "artificial intelligence" version of the plastic blow-up doll. A full relationship without having to involve another human being.

It's pretty clear what the market will be for virtual reality. The first virtual sex is already on the market.

Well, at least she can play the piano. I mean, that shows she's had some proper upbringing. Not like some of the girls, whose backgrounds are quite questionable. And she's clean, so you can even introduce her to the kids without any embarrassment.

I can imagine Maria. Maybe she hasn't been here for very long. She's just trying to make a better life for herself on this side of the border. And if that means keeping some guy happy, well hey, as long as she doesn't have to do anything... you know.

And she learns, she learns really fast. Next thing he knows, she's popping up with little suggestions: "Move this out to three decimal places then round off - you'll find it gives you better results," or "A slightly bolder font, perhaps Garamond, will give this document a more forceful look." He turns to her with more and more questions, then finally just turns the computer over to her. She's much better at it all. Only, one day he notices something funny about his credit card bill... and his hard disk is missing a lot of files...and Maria's gone without a trace, except for the mysterious message that appears at random intervals on his screen: "Hasta la vista, baby."

The "Other"

Remember when we were eight years old and the boys all decided that girls were "icky?" In the computer field, we're still the example of "what not to be." Like Dvorak's "girlish GUI," femaleness often has a negative connotation in the computer world (unless, of course, it's in the form of a virtual girlfriend.)

The "high girlie voice" got this guy "decked." The speaker is featured as a big, hairy biker type. Not the image of your typical male computer user, but clearly heavy on the desired testosterone scale. In this case, the negative image of femaleness also translates to a more than plausible homophobia.

Women as Roadkill On the SuperHighway

Women are a minority on the Internet today, at least as active participants. No one knows exactly how many people use the Internet, much less their sex, but estimates put female participation at somewhere from 10-25 percent. It's obvious to women who make their first forays into Cyberspace that it's mainly men out there.

The highway metaphor lends itself well to masculine images. The same New York Times article that talked of computers in hot rod lingo showed a cool dude with a souped-up computer leaving tire tracks over his slower rivals. To the side, the only woman in the picture (dressed in 50's bobby-soxer style) looked on admiringly with the caption "Ooh, what MIPS!" It's not that long ago that in many activities women merely stood along the sidelines and cheered men on, but it's hard to accept that image applied to the technology of the future. That's not the future we've fought for.

An advertisement for software that allows a direct Internet hookup from a PC shows a man on a motorcycle and the caption "Pop a wheelie on the Information Highway." On closer inspection you see a pair of high heels flying off the back of the bike: his wheelie has just dumped a woman on the road. Not a friendly image for women, but the guy is portrayed as having the time of his life. If the company saw women as potential customers, it would not - could not - have chosen that image: woman as roadkill.

Another illustration shows a more subtle type of masculine appeal. The cover of a local weekly highlighted an article entitled: "Plugging In: An idiot's guide to the Internet." The background is a circuit board with heavily made-up, sexy female eyes. In the center (about where her nose would have been) is the screen of a laptop. Into the empty space of the screen an enlarged phone cord is "plugging in." You have to wonder if the creators of these pieces are aware of the sexual message of their imagery. In this case, I'm not sure. But the appeal of the Internet is presented as sexual, or at least sexy, and the intended audience is a man - even if this particular man is also an "idiot."

There's the assumption in our society that men's activities are difficult, and that is why women can't or don't engage in them. Women's activities are, of course, inferior, which is why men don't engage in them. So when we look at a man fishing and a woman quilting, we make some assumptions about the skill or strength required for the task. We need to start looking at this in a different way. If men choose to spend their time playing golf or waxing their cars and women choose to spend that same time making dessert or cleaning closets, does this really tell us that anything about the amount of skill required or the kind of respect we should give to those who perform these activities?

The difference isn't in skill but in the social status already assigned to the activity. And we all support this status with our assumptions of the superiority of male activities. What needs to change is not the activities of women and men, but our attitudes toward them.

Men are unlikely to be supporters of such a change in consciousness. For women to become full participants in the computer field and in the use of computers, we are going to have to make a lot of revisions in our concept of machines and power. One possibility is that computers will eventually be seen as simple appliances, like the refridgerator. Stripped of the image of power it will become acceptable for women to be computer users.

But it is doubtful that we will be able to demote the computer to appliance status in the near future. The inevitable march toward the development of the "information superhighway" means that we are depending on the power and mystique of computers to provide new markets for our economy for the foreseeable future. And a machine with all of the fascination of a toaster won't motivate the consumer market.

No, what we will need is a conspiracy of sisters that begins with the recognition that there is nothing inherently masculine about computers. We must learn to read the computer culture for the social myth that is. And we have to teach our younger generation of women that they are free to explore computers in their own way and to draw their own conclusions about the usefulness of these machines. There is so much that we haven't yet done with computers, so many programs that haven't been written, because they were serving only a minority of our society.

And we start it all with a simple thought that could be the beginning of a revolution: how hard can it be?

©Karen Coyle, 1996
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