What has gender got to do with it? Negotiating agency and resistance from within

As results are beginning to trickle in from ongoing research on women’s tec-driven career trajectories in peripheral regions, so are interesting insights into the driving forces and impediments that women face on their professional life journeys.

A thread from the data has to do with agency and self-inflicted resistance, which I find quite interesting. Agency in the sense that: yes, although other factors (especially socio-cultural factors) may influence one’s decision-making, to a large extent, one indeed has some autonomy to make life-changing decisions for oneself.

So, while our informants have encountered hurdles, they still made it – that is, they are women, they have higher education and most of them have ‘good’ jobs as scientists, academics, researchers or work with innovation and so on. And these work fields are traditionally male dominated. Whether inspired by their parents, job genres, technological advancements, diverse role models or just by the drive to achieve, one cannot say these women lacked agency. But, are there limits to agency when it comes to career journeys? Who or what within one’s power decides on these limits? How aware are women about the explicit but mostly implicit and subliminal impact of ‘gender discrimination’ woven within the fabrics of our modern societies? Food for thought.

I want to illustrate this with experiences from 4 informants (pseudonyms used throughout) on gender equality, agency and resistance:

Pamela says that yes, she has faced gender discrimination and several hurdles in her career, and she proceeds to give examples and agrees our project focus on «Solving the gender paradox in Nordic countries» is timely and relevant because there is need for change.

A second woman, Kari starts the interview by saying, «Well, I do not see any form of gender marginalization at my work place» which is highly technology-driven. But at the end of the systematic, structural and reflective conversation about her work place, routines, employment, etc, she comes to the realization «Wow, I didn’t know that gendered disparity exists!» The third, Torill, rejects the project point of departure that there are gendered differences in her field, academia, in Norway. She dismisses the «gender imbalance» narrative as rhetorical, senseless and unnecessary. But further delving indicates that she has for instance missed a career promotion opportunity because she ‘needs to be a mother’ and her husband took the opportunity in her stead. The final informant, Anna, blatantly rejects the existence of gendered marginalization in her technologized work arena, along with the need for any form of corrective measures. She thinks «positive discrimination», women’s networks and the like are «degrading» and bad for women. Women must claw their way to the top like anybody else – she did this. These are classic tales of perceptions of gender discrimination.

Now, while all these insights are enriching in their explanation of agency and how women perceive their individual and collective journeys and struggle, they beg a further exploration of ‘resistance’– the kind that emanates from the self. How do women’s individual discourses influence their outlook on «resistance» by the self? What are the turning points in their life’s journey that have led to this kind of «resistance»? What role does the ‘collective struggle’ play in these negotiations? Where does ‘gender’ start and stop playing a role in this «resistance from the self» or rather, what has gender got to do with it?!

Carol Azungi Dralega

Caption: the beautiful sculptures are two of several scattered around the FOSS building at the Western Norway University of Applied Social Sciences campus in Sogndal.


Why do people participate in our research projects?

willian-justen-de-vasconcellos-550613-unsplashInterviews, listening to and talking with people are the best thing in my work as an anthropologist. This morning I met a woman who kindly and openly talked to me about her career as a researcher. Like before every interview, I was a bit nervous. It is always exciting to meet new people but in research encounters, I always wonder what will people who give us their time, get from the interviews. Why should they share their experiences and stories with us?

In this project, our interviewees are mainly women with academic background. Many of them work at the university, and like the woman I met today, they might feel that it is their duty to participate in an academic research project. On the other hand, when I contacted one interview candidate, she replied that she was confused about the request. She wanted to know more about the interview, the questions of anonymity, and how many people we would interview, i.e. could readers recognize her in our publications. After I had explained the ethics of our data management, she wrote to me: “I dare to participate.”

I have met many interviewees who have their own agenda for the interview: they feel that their stories need to be made public, and they might even want to influence the politics. But what about the rest, sometimes reluctant participants? Once I met a retired lumberjack to hear his work life story. When I arrived, he said that he had almost cancelled our meeting. However, he agreed to give it a go, and when we finished he was happy with the interview, and said that he told me things he hadn’t told anyone else before.

After that interview, like after most interviews, I was overwhelmed by the trust people have in me, in us researchers. In the productivity competition of the academia today, we must do everything to be worthy of this trust, to keep on having fruitful and respectful encounters in the future, too.

Tiina Suopajärvi

What sources? Which ones ‘count’ and which ones don’t?

At our Nordwit meeting in Tampere Åsa Cajander (from Computer Science) and I talked about her reading group where they’ve been looking at Calestous Juma’s (2016) Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Resistance has been a big topic in our project, as has education, and in particular the paucity of professional educational development for staff around technologies. Institutions tend to imagine that having a technology (hard-/and or software) means that people will use it – which is, of course not the case. One is reminded of Sara Ahmed’s (2011) non-performative performative. Very little is done in many countries to induct staff into new technologies or to even see this as part of continuing professional development. Frequently reference is made to ‘online manuals’ or ‘guidelines’ that can, in fact, be hard to find and, more to the point, which staff have no time to work their way through in order to discover quite what they are supposed to do. I told Åsa about Richard Sennett’s (2008) The Craftsman in which Sennett talks of the ways in which learning happens (over time, honing of skills, repeating processes, etc.) and how this is effectively denied in the ways in which (education) institutions deal with technology and technology user-knowledge acquisition. Åsa said that in her discipline books cannot be cited – only articles. I was very surprised but also reminded of the issue of cross-disciplinary differences.
Oxford University Press – eat your heart out!

Gabriele Griffin

What has women and technology to do with programming for children?


[Zombie ideas in understanding gender, vol. 2]

I had the great pleasure of talking for the regional conference “Næringsdagane” – the Business Days – 2018 for Sogn & Fjordane, at beautiful Kviknes hotel in Balestrand in beginning of May. One of the main topics of the conference was digitalisation across all sectors in society, and I was asked to talk about “women and technology” and to provide some answers to why there are so few women in IT education and occupations. The widespread digitalisation, after all, requires us to recruit from the entire population.

With my presentation titled “Programming and IT – who would have thought that would become a field for men?” I wanted to show that if we look back in time, there is an alternative story about women and technology, of “forgotten” female role models, including Ada Lovelace, Human Computers, the “ENIAC women”, and Grace Murray Hopper. Many women worked as programmers in the software business during the 1950s and 60s, and they did not think of programming as a field for men, as these quotes from Janet Abbate’s book Recoding Gender. Women’s Changing Participation in Computing from 2012 illustrate:

I was hired a programmer … It was something that women were believed to be good at

It really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work!

It never occurred to any of us that computer programming would eventually become something that was thought of as a men’s field

These images of women as suitable programmers, and programming as a suitable occupation for women, have since disappeared. The result is that we lack the vital images and good role models for girls and women to associate with in the field of IT.

In our work with Pillar 1 in NORDWIT we have interviewed women in technology related careers, and they illustrate how the lack of role models is still a challenge. When we asked about role models, one of the young women coming straight out of her master’s study said:

There were several IT companies visiting our class, but they were mostly men. It would have been more appealing and recognisable with a woman.

Another women told us:

I haven’t had any role models that… Because often there haven’t been anyone before us, in a way.

The low proportion of women is reflected in schools, with a low percentage of girls participating in the national pilot for programming in secondary school. “It’s hard to be what you cannot see”, Robin Hauser Reynolds has pointed out in an interview in USA Today. The campaign “#I-look-like-an-engineer” started after Isis Anchalee, featuring on an ad as an engineer, received a lot of attention in social media with comments doubting that she was a real engineer, suggesting she was rather a model hired to make the ad look good. History repeats itself, as the ENIAC women were also once interpreted that way – as “just refrigerator ladies posed in front of the machine to make it look good”.

How can we expect girls to choose programming at school facing a culture where even women who have chosen to work with IT can’t point at female role models, and where women who could have been role models are being distrusted as professionals?

Things obviously need to change!

It is possible to change this?

Because history shows that today’s male dominance is not a given necessity, but a cultural construction.

How can we change it?
There is no quick fix, but still plenty of room for improvement:

  • Don’t accept that “girls just aren’t interested”. Culture shapes interest!
  • Be aware how you contribute to the image of IT. You are part of culture – make space for girls in IT.
  • Be willing to change and always ask questions: What did we do to include girls? How can we change things to include more girls?

Zombie ideas in understanding gender, vol. 1


Gender conceptions that disrupt our best efforts to effect change are slow to move and unbelievably persistent. Yes, you might have guessed it – they are like zombies.

They just won’t stay dead.

It seems impossible to kill all of them, at least when you are alone. Sometimes you have to go around them. You survive but somebody else has to face them.

Zombie ideas[1] can be risen from an apparently shallow grave when ideals and lived circumstances are confused with one another. I’ve come across workplace situations where the belief that women and men should be equal (or that gender neutrality really can exist) means that they are. If any inequalities are noticed, they are purely coincidental or anomalies in an otherwise fair system. This has led to some eye bulging moments, such as when reading the Strategic Programme of the current Finnish Government where it is claimed that women and men are equal, in the English version: “Finland is also a land of gender equality”. These past few years we have seen political decision-making, as gender blind as it seems to be, tearing down some of the requirements for making this statement true now or in the near future such as making it harder for young people to get a permanent job (women are more commonly in temporary positions than men) and restricting the possibilities of day care for children.

Another zombie idea is that there is a natural order of things that pertains both to (work) organizations and to gender. These orders cannot be touched or chaos will prevail. This kind of thinking makes it especially hard to grasp and try to affect structural problems.

Here I’ve listed only some of the persistent beliefs around gender. What kinds of zombies have you encountered?

Minna Leinonen


[1] Zombie ideas are a metaphor that has been used for example by economists Paul Krugman, John Quiggin in his book Zombie Economics (2010) and ecologist Jeremy Fox .