Metaphor and Materiality

Judy Wajcman, ‘Metaphor and Materiality’, pp.102-130, in:
Wajcman, J., 2004. TechnoFeminism. Polity, Cambridge ; Malden, MA.


Technology is an intimate presence in our lives and increasingly defines who we are and how we live. Just as the typewriter and the automobile were icons of freedom for women in the discourse of modernity that presaged first-wave feminism, so cyberspace and cyborgs have become ubiquitous postmodern symbols for feminism today.

Women’s lives have changed irrevocably during the twentieth century, rendering traditional sex roles increasingly untenable.


Feminist theorists have asked whether mass digitalization will finally sever the link between technology and male privilege – indeed whether new technologies have undergone a sex change. Yet, even as this question is contemplated, there is a suspicion that existing societal patterns of inequality are being reproduced in a new technological guise.


The same technological innovations have been categorically rejected as oppressive to women and uncritically embraced as inherently liberating. At the heart of these deliberations lies a concern with the connection between gender and technology.

What has been lacking is a coherent theoretical framework that allows us to engage with the process of technical change as integral to the renegotiation of gender power relations.

The technofeminist approach I outline in this final chapter fuses the insights of cyborg feminism with those of a constructivist theory of technology. This position eschews both the lingering tendency to view technology as necessarily patriarchal and the temptation to essentialize gender.

The theory of technofeminism builds on the insights of cyborg feminism, but grounds it firmly in a thoroughgoing materialist approach to the social studies of technology, including its own role in those studies.

I want to reiterate that […] for example, actor-network analyses – have often been blind to gender, race, religion, class, sexuality and other axes of social difference.


As researchers, many fail to recognize that women’s absence from the sociotechnical network does not mean that it is a gender-free zone. The network cer- tainly has a gender politics. For this to become visible, the concept of the sociotechnical network needs to be extended.

I shall show that beneath a discourse of a gender-neutral sociotechnical network there is frequently to be found the hidden agency of new social movements, many of which are feminist in character, or have been inspired by feminism.


The optimistic register of such [cyber]feminisms, stressing women’s agency and capacity for empowerment, resonates with a new generation of women who live in a world of much greater sex equality.

The possibilities of reinventing the self and the body, like cyborgs in cyberspace, and the prosthetic potential of biotechnologies, have reinvigorated our thinking. But the sometimes tenuous link between visceral, lived gender relations and the experience of virtual’ voyages has led many to desire a more materialist analysis of gender and technology.

[…] technology is always a socio-material product – a seamless web or network combining artefacts, people, organizations, cultural meanings and knowledge. It follows that technological change is a contingent and heterogeneous process in which technology and society are mutually constituted.

Indeed, the linear model of innovation, diffusion and use has given way to the idea that technology is never a finished product.


Long after artefacts leave the research laboratory, they continue to evolve in everyday practices of use.


The interpretative flexibility of technology means that the possibility always exists for a technology and its effects to be otherwise.

If society is co-produced with technology, it is imperative to explore the effects of gender power relations on design and innovation, as well as the impact of techno- logical change on the sexes.

[…] gender relations can be thought of as materialized in technology, and masculinity and femininity in turn acquire their meaning and character through their enrolment and embeddedness in working machines.

Such an approach shares the constructivist conception of technology as a sociotechnical network, and recognizes the need to integrate the material, discursive and social elements of technoscientific practice.

Feminist scholarship has been critical in exposing the gender-blindness of mainstream technoscience studies.


[…] we will be less inclined to identify technology itself as the source of positive or negative change, and will concentrate instead upon the changing social relationships within which technologies are embedded and how technologies may facilitate or con- strain those relationships.

Technological advances do open up new possibilities because some women are better placed to occupy the new spaces, and are less likely to regard machinery as a male domain.


[…] imbalance in women’s and girl’s educational choices has major repercussions because employment in the information technology, electronics and communications sector is graduate-intensive.


Where women are relatively well represented is in the lower-status occupations, such as telephone operators, data processing equipment installers and repairers, and communications equipment operators.

Such relatively stubborn sex-stereotyping is particularly intriguing given the feminization of higher education and work which has seen, for example, women entering law, medicine and business schools in unprecedented numbers. Moreover, it is highly irrational in a post-industrial society, whose economy is reputedly based on investment in human rather than physical capital.

Whereas the key technologies of the industrial era were largely muscle-enhancing, information technologies are considered to be brain-enhancing.

So, the traditional basis for men’s domination of scientific, engineering and technical institutions has been well and truly undermined. Yet women still face considerable barriers when they attempt to pursue a professional or managerial career in technoscience.

It is necessary therefore to revisit the liberal feminist agenda of equal opportunities, and not to regard it simply as superseded.

While the labour market remains so strongly sex-segregated and marked by a gender pay gap, social justice in employment will continue to elude us.


What has been missing from much of the debate about getting women into technoscience is that their under-representation profoundly affects how the world is made. Every aspect of our lives is touched by sociotechnical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the levers of power.

Understanding the alliance between technoscience and male power involves seeing technology as a culture that expresses and consolidates relations amongst men.


Sexual ideologies are remarkably diverse and fluid, and for some men technical expertise may be as much about their lack of power as a realization of it. It is indubitably the case however that in contemporary Western society, the hegemonic form of masculinity is still strongly associated with technical prowess and power.

Feminine identity, on the other hand, has involved being ill-suited to technological pursuits. Entering technical domains has therefore required women to sacrifice major aspects of their gender identity.

These technoscientific spheres will become more attractive to women when entry does not entail co-option into a world of patriarchal values and behaviour. As the proportion of women engineers grows, for example, the strong relationship between the culture of engineering and hegemonic masculinity will eventually be dismantled.

Contemporary feminist criticism has sought to recover the feminine subject by challenging notions of women’s passivity and identifying the different ways in which women actively resist and subvert conventional constructions of femininity.


Ultimately this depends on transforming gender power relations, which in turn requires changing the nature of work itself. Information and communication technologies offer the possibility of transforming the organization of work, making it more flexible and potentially enabling an easier blend of work and caring responsibilities.

A reintegration of work and personal life, involving more sharing of paid work and housework, puts pressure on the traditional institutions of work that are themselves founded on gender inequality. Any move towards more egalitarian domestic arrangements will, in turn, enable women to take their full place in technoscientific work.

However, it is somewhat ironic that the ‘imaginary’ of new technologies emphasizes how they might liberate time, while the cutting-edge industries associated with them frequently exhibit the long hours associated with particular male work cultures.


Taking the contraceptive Pill, followed by Hormone Replacement Therapy, women are able to avoid the biological characteristics of femininity – namely, menstruation, pregnancy, breast-feeding and menopause. These corporeal processes signal women’s difference, and mark them as unsuitable for the global, mobile, elite levels of corporate careers.

Cyborg feminism sees these technologies as potentially dissolving the sex/gender nexus in the hybridization of the lived sexed body and machines. Less attention has been given to work organizations as crucial sites in which the doing of gender is routinely accomplished.


However, while escaping the corporeal body may be an appealing emancipatory strategy, it leaves untouched the gendered distribution of materials and resources that typically afford women less scope for initiatives in the workplace. It also misses the extent to which it is female corporeality that is being socially constructed as the problem, thereby reinforcing the power of masculine norms.

[on early feminist writing on technology]

Rereading this literature now, it is strikingly resonant with current developments in feminist philosophy and socio- logical theory that stress the embodied character of social identity. Actor-network theory, for example, sees the embodied self as a relational and material phenomenon, an assemblage acquiring its substance through its connec­tions and embeddedness in networks.


If the gendered self is ‘an assemblage of materials’, then women’s emancipation requires changing the woman- machine relationship to enhance women’s capacity for initiatives over machines.

In other words, all these streams of argument strengthen the need for women’s greater appropriation of tools and technical expertise.


When studying the use of technical artefacts, one necessarily shifts back and forth between the designer’s projected user and the real user, in order to describe this dynamically negotiated process of design. The interpretative flexibility of objects does provide entry points for women to renegotiate sociotechnical networks.

One of the great paradoxes about domestic technologies is that, despite being universally promoted as saving time, these technologies have been singularly unsuccessful in lessening women’s domestic load.

[on the design of the technological home]

The target consumer is implicitly the technically interested and entertainment-oriented male, someone in the designer’s own image. The smart house is a deeply masculine vision of a house, rather than a home, somewhat like Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’. The routine neglect of women’s knowledge, experience and skills as a resource for technical innovation in the home is symptomatic of the gendered character of the process.

[…] even the most visionary futurists have us living in households that, in social rather than technological terms, resemble the households of today. The space-age design effort is directed to a technological fix rather than to envisioning social changes that would see a less gendered allocation of housework and a better balance between working time and family time.


Once we look beyond the house itself as the site of domestic labour, we immediately see that working women are using their new-found economic independence to buy their way out of housework.


[…] it may be that these unsung sociotechnical networks [ready-meals, takeaway food, microwave] have played a key role in transforming gender relations in the home and opening up the public sphere to women.

The telephone is another classic case of how women can actively subvert the original inscription of a technology. Designed by telegraph men for business purposes, the telephone was taken up by women for social functions.

[…] early concerns about women being left out of the communications revolution now seem misplaced. A proliferation of mobile phones, the Internet and cyber-cafes are providing new opportunities and outlets for women.

This is particularly the case for middle-class women in highly industrialized countries, who are better placed than other groups of women to take advantage of these technologies.


However, the Internet and the mobile phone may ultimately have even greater significance for women in low-income households and communities in the global South.

Pay-as-you-go mobiles have enabled hundreds of millions in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union to bypass the financial and bureaucratic obstacles of land-line phones and get connected.


Fear that the globalization of communications leads to homogenization, and reduces sociability and engagement with one’s community, is a recurring theme in the literature. But all the signs are that new electronic media can help to build local communities and project them globally.

Just as the car increased women’s mobility and capacity to participate in public space, so the new media have expanded women’s horizons and capacity to connect with networks and campaigns to improve their conditions. To this extent, women are reinterpreting the technologies as tools for political organizing and the means for creation of new feminist communities.

Recognition of these opportunities is not to endorse utopian ideas of cyberspace being gender-free and the key to women’s liberation.

I remain sceptical of exaggerated claims by cyber-gurus and cyberfeminists about the Internet being the technological basis for a new form of society. Rather, it is to stress that the Internet, like other technologies, is flexible and contains contradictory possibilities.


[…] a technofeminist perspective points beyond the discourse of the digital divide to the connections between gender inequality and other forms of inequality, which come into view if we examine the broader political and economic basis of the networks that shape and deploy technical systems.

[…] there are trends towards increasing privatization of the Internet, with multiple classes of service and access to information depending upon the ability of users to pay. Network power is not then inherently distributive, as cyberfeminists among others would have us believe. In the hands of multi- national corporations and capital markets, it can concentrate power.

Much low-skilled, assembly-line work has moved offshore to the Third World, and is performed predominantly by women rather than men. The quintessential product and symbol of the new age, the computer, is often manufac- tured in precisely this fashion.


A mobile phone […] is a very different artefact, depending upon a person’s place within the socio-technical network. In tying together these relations of production and consumption, technofeminism not only scrutinizes the emancipatory metaphors, but also seeks to balance this analysis with an equal emphasis on the material realities of a technology’s production and use.


Today much is made of innovative biomedical techniques bringing about new family forms and disrupting traditional blood-based kinship. But developments such as the increased incidence of lesbian mothers are a product of women’s economic independence and feminist/gay/queer politics, rather than in vitro fertilization.


While there are enormous differences between women, especially in the developed and developing countries, educating girls may in the end be the universal key to transforming female embodied subjectivities.

For technofeminism, politics is an ‘always- already’ feature of a network, and a feminist politics is a necessary extension of network analysis. Science and technology embody values, and have the potential to embody different values.


A technofeminist conception of sociotechnical networks enables such connections to be made, from the micro-politics of local activism to the macro-politics of global movements.

Technofeminism is grounded in the understanding that only we can free ourselves. This makes a feminist politics both possible and necessary.


Perhaps our ideas about identity and agency remain too close to the model of solidarity and collective action proposed for the transformation of class-based industrial society, a model in which gender was conspicuous by its absence.

The promise of technofeminism, then, is twofold. It offers a different way of understanding the nature of agency and change in a post-industrial world, as well as the means of making a difference.