8. From "Anybody" Via "Male Experts" to "Everybody"
Cultural Perceptions of Computers in Norway 1980-2007
Hilde G. Corneliussen
In Norway, much like the U.S., the number of women in computer education and computing professions has never been very high, and this chapter will explore the cultural appropriation of the computer in Norway since the 1980s, through the public perceptions of gender and computers as represented through Aftenposten, a mainstream newspaper of note in Norway similar to the New York Times for the U.S. A keyword in this understanding is discourse, or socially constructed meanings surrounding a limited area, such as computers, which provides a useful tool to understand and analyze how meanings are constructed, preserved, passed along to others, and changed.
Cheap personal computers entered the Norwegian market in the late 1970s, with use steadily increasing through the 80s and 90s, bolstered by the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s. By 2007, access to computers had increased from 9% in 1985 to 87%, and access to the internet was at 83%. Computing and information technology had tremendous cultural importance before they had even diffused into society, with many media reports throughout the early 1980s describing all of society as being impacted by computers, and notably explicitly including women in their futuristic depictions of the world using computers for household work, though this would quickly change.
"The most common focus of girls and women in Aftenposten concerned their lack of interest, experience, and skills, while by contrast the dominant focus on boys and men was their fascination and extraordinary computer skills. This trend contributes to making computer skills both visible and invisible in a certain gendered discursive pattern."
Since most reporting on women and computer technology focused on women as nonusers and measured their participation against the "norm" of men and boys, it ignored the women who did use the computer as well as making no mention of male nonusers, serving to homogenize the masculine nature of computer discourse. Women were not only excessively depicted as nonusers, they were closely associated with technophobia, and were typically only mentioned in comparison with men. By contrast, boys and men were mentioned firstly in relation to their skills with computers, described as self-educated wizards and praised for their tinkering ability and hard work, and secondly in relation to the negative aspects of computing such as illegal copying of computer programs, violence and sex in computer games and the negative effects of those games, though none of this changed the image of men as highly skilled.
The discourse of computers rendered visible masculine computer users and feminine nonusers, and made their inverse invisible, homogenizing gender as a suitable factor to explain differences in regards to technology, and made other factors like class and education background unsuitable. The dominant assumptions surrounding computers fostered a distinctive "intersection rhetoric," or use of one context such as home or work, to "explain" a completely different context. For example, a report on computer phobia in working life tried to explain the differences between men' and women's computer use in the workplace by citing women's resistance to using the computer in the home due to their husband's intense and time-consuming use of it.
The presence of a hegemonic discourse on computers left two groups out, and these form what can be called the nonhegemonic discourse. Several reports portrayed women, rather than indifferent, as "superusers" or the main user group of office computers in the public and private sectors, yet because the work these women did on the computer was mainly clerical, the machines could be dismissed as merely "word processing" computers and not the "general" computers that men used. By conrast, men who were nonusers, while also counter to the dominant discourse, were portrayed as not using the computer out of a deliberate choice, leaving that work to a secretary or someone similar because they themselves were too busy. The men nonusers portrayed were typically business leaders or men with a lot of status, and their gender was never brought into the few reports on them, nor did they affect the overall image of men as being computer competent.
Despite the seemingly stable nature of this dominant discourse, it is important to note that discourses do indeed change over time, and there were attempts to rewrite the discourse before 2000. The trends of computer education in Norway closely follow those of other Western countries, with low numbers of women students growing slowly through the 1980s but then decreasing towards the mid-1990s and even lower today than in the late 80s. Initiatives to recruit women into the field and retain them had local and temporary effects, but have not produced lasting results. The discourse employed in these initiatives can be broken up into three categories; "gender-blind," "masculine," and "feminized."
Gender-blind discourse tended to blame women for making wrong choices, and masculine discourse told women to "think in new ways" or to abandon stereotypically feminine work (the examples used were a milk shop and pedicure) for the computer business. Feminized discourse, on the other hand, attempted to change the ways we talk about computing to include women more and to make computing seem less technical and more social (relying on the supposedly higher social abilities of women than men). Yet this line of discourse still painted an image of women as not being interested in technology for its own sake, uninquisitive and uninterested unless there was something they could gain from it, still separate from the "technological genius" of their men counterparts and valued for their ability to be social rather than their expertise with the machines. After 2000, the reporting on computers and their users can be divided into four broad categories.
The first of these is articles concerning criminal use of computers by men, in some ways echoing the earlier reports of the computer-hacking wizards of the 1990s, though the work of hacking was now seen as less impressive, something anyone could find online, and the hacker thus no longer held a high-status but was a childish prankster. All of these articles were very brief, as though the crimes they described were barely worth mentioning. The second category is stories that emphasize that computers could be used everywhere, by everyone, for everything, echoing the 1980s praise of computers as scientific marvels but now backing these claims up with real-life examples of what computers were actively being used for. These stories also actively present the "most unlikely" of computer users (such as your aunt, your mummy, and women over 60) in order to counteract the image of "nerdy men" as the sole computer users. The third category of reports are those which claim that the gender gap in computer access and use is closing or closed, but which still highlight gender as an important factor in explaining different uses for computers and the internet. Some of these articles paint pictures of women's computer use as relying on old stereotypes of women being more social and men wanting action and results, though the reports of these preferences are inconsistent and would seem to indicate that they are based less on actual activity and more on gender expectations.
"While old gender gaps might be closing, new ones appear and reinstall gender as a main differentiating feature."
The final category is an ongoing focus on the low levels of women's participation in computer education and the computer workforce. These still relied on the image of the nerdy man as the norm in computing and echoed earlier appeals to women by painting their participation in computing as more social than technical, and state that women are needed to secure the needs of the users, not for their technical ability. These articles also present an interesting departure from the past though, with men rallying against the image of the nerd, which has been seen to be one of the main issues for women in the industry. Thus it is men being reconstructed in this article, since the invitation into computing is still not being readily extended to women, who are wanted because they "bring something special" based on their gender not because they as individuals are exceptionally talented with computers. Women are simultaneously told they are valued for something inherent to their gender and told that they must divorce their femininity to fit the masculine norm of the field.
The cultural appropriation of the computer in Norway can be seen in three distinct phases; first the gender-ambivalent phase of the 1980s that could at times be open and hospitable to women because the dominant discourse had not yet taken hold; secondly the dominant discourse seen in popular culture of the late 1990s that depict computers as strictly masculine and women as technophobic nonusers; and thirdly the period since 2000 which has seen discursive challenges to the hegemonic view of computers and expanded the image of the computer user to many new groups. What this shows us is that computers did not enter into popular culture as a masculine symbol, since they were so new on the scene, they were flexible enough to be associated with feminine office work or masculine managerial work.
The dominant discourse of men as the typical computer user that emerged in the 1990s suggests that gender is a fundamental category we use in structuring society, as the reports of male computer users and female nonusers paint an inaccurate picture of the actual patterns of use that selectively exclude those who do not fit the narrative being constructed around this new technology. The persistent focus on gender differences, even in attempts to explain that gender gaps are closing, additionally makes it difficult to see commonalities in computing experiences between men and women. The expansion of discourse to include new groups of people and new uses for computers since 2000 reveals that as access has rapidly increased and the technology becomes pervasive, the gender anxiety shifts from low access and use for women to low participation of women in computer science and education.