Women Lead in Adopting New TechnologiesFor 150 years women have been the early adopters and custodians of electric technology in the home.
Conventional wisdom holds that women lag men in technology, but that’s not the case. While most the innovation in electronic technology is by men, according to Intel’s Dr. Genevieve Bell, women are the early adopters who bring the gadgetry into use.
Bell is co-author of Divining the Digital Divide: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011, with Paul Dourish). She spoke at the University of Wisconsin Madison in October 2011 as part of the Denice D. Denton Distinguished Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI).
Bell grew up in Australia with an anthropologist mother and an engineer father, spending much of her childhood in Aboriginal communities running barefoot in the desert. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College PA and a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University CA, where she taught before she joined Intel—an unusual choice to lead a research lab at a major technology firm.
But her lab at Intel has an unusual charge. By the early 1990s, computers were moving beyond the workplace into the home. A middle class of potential customers was growing in other parts of the globe. The company didn’t quite know what this would mean.
Intel was looking for new users and new uses. To make successful products for ordinary people, it wasn’t enough to understand chips. They also needed to understand people.
When Bell came to Intel in 1998 as a researcher in the Corporate Technology Group’s People and Practices Research Team, her new boss said he needed her help in two areas: (1) women and (2) the rest of the world.
She studied middle-class households in urban Asia and their relationships with technology. She focused on healthcare providers, classrooms, teens and families with small children.
Today she’s Intel’s director of Interaction & Experience Research, leading an R&D team of social scientists, interaction designers and human factors engineers. She has observed technology use in more than 500 homes in 35 countries.
“I see my job as to tell stories of real people around the world,” Bell said. She also had to teach engineers about life outside the lab. A user interface isn’t just a technical challenge. What do people want? What do they love?
She showed a slide of idealized users: a smiling family of grandparents, parents and children clustered on and around a pristine white couch, mom holding the remote control while all of them gaze at the screen.
What family with young children has spotless white furniture? In what universe does the woman have uncontested control of the remote? “Where can you find three generations of white people happily sharing content? Canada?” she asked.
Instead of this blissful fantasy, she looks for the real people who form Intel’s potential market. Her next slide showed a slob slouched alone on his sofa with 2 VCRs, 7 remotes and all his devices plugged into one outlet.
Light bulbs were new in the 1880s and not many people wanted to buy them. They already had gas lights, oil lamps and candles in their homes. An electric company at Niagara threw parties in a mansion to market the new technology. They lined women up along a wire track with a light bulb in each hand—“electric fairies.”
As electricity became more widespread in homes, some lawmakers feared it would make women more vulnerable. Women, on the other hand, saw that electric technology could set them free. They welcomed it.
As new appliances became available, women were the managers of electricity in the home. They eagerly adopted electricity to cook, iron and vacuum. Electric refrigerators freed them from the icebox. Electric sewing machines relieved them from treadle power or stitching by hand.
Typewriters. The Sholes & Glidden Type Writer came on the American market in 1874. It typed in only capital letters and introduced the QWERTY keyboard still used today. It was marketed as being so easy even a woman could use it.
Decorated with painted flowers and decals, the machine looked something like a sewing machine, for good reason: The sewing machine department of the Remington gunmaker manufactured it. The first model sold poorly, but Remington’s next model took off. Quick to adopt the new technology, women went from being 18% to 80% of the nation’s secretaries.
Bush radio. Australians in the outback in the 1920s hoped the “wireless” would reduce their isolation, but they were too remote to pick up urban broadcasts. Alfred Traeger invented a pedal generator that powered two-way radios in the most far-flung living rooms or kitchens.
Women acquired Traeger radios to be able to summon help in an emergency. They made possible Australia’s Flying Doctor Service and its School of the Air, initiated and largely taught by women to educate children in the bush.
Telephones. Party lines had everybody talking at once. Women became the regulators of phone communication and gossip.
In 1959 Bell Labs introduced the Princess Phone with the slogan “It’s little. It’s lovely. It lights.” Marketed to women, it came in pastel colors instead of just the traditional black. Touchtone dialing followed a few years later.
The Princess changed the dynamics of the home. Middle- class households went from having one phone to two. Women were and are the custodians of phones in the home; American women know their phone bill within 10%.
21st century technology
Modern interactive electronic gadgetry initially targeted men. With the price of technology coming down so that many cost less than $50, women have taken them over in the last three to four years.
Countering another stereotype, the users aren’t mostly young. Globally, 55% to 70% of Internet participation is by women in their 50s and 60s.
Women around the world do the bulk of the work to keep their families running. Today they use 21st century electronics to do it. Taking primary responsibility for family members’ health, women are two or three times as likely as men to use the Internet to learn about treatments for disease.
Women are the keepers of family history, calendars and schedules. They’re the users, regulators and gatekeepers who facilitate other women’s access in their villages. In India, where the Internet is used in arranging marriages, a nationwide TV campaign promotes women in technology.
Communication. Half of America’s cell phone owners are women, who use them mainly to locate services and send text messages. Women are 60% to 70% of those who use photo-sharing sites and 60% of those on Skype; the Skype users are younger and more educated, with incomes around $70,000 a year. “There’s very little data on iPhone usage yet,” Bell said.
Social networking. Women go online more frequently than men and spend 30% more time on social networking sites. They’re 60% of Facebook users. Both genders lie on online dating services; men add 3 to 5 inches to their height, while women shave five pounds off their weight.
Privacy. Women are the security zealots. Seeing physical threats, 80% of women and 55% of men say they worry about who they see and date after meeting online. Bell said she’s been stalked and threatened. Women make aggressive use of pseudonyms for protection against stalkers.
Social games. Ten years ago women were 30% to 40% of social gamers. Men still dominate war games, but new games like Angry Birds and Farmville have drawn women as casual social gamers. Today the average social gamer is a woman in her late 40s or early 50s.
Engineers tend to develop technologies and then find ways to use them. Dr. Bell is helping Intel switch to the opposite approach: identify users’ problems and then invent technologies to solve them. What a concept!
In 2006 Intel introduced Viiv, a platform or set of technologies to deliver computer content to the TV screen in the living room. Expected to become the ultimate electronic home entertainment center, it was an utter flop.
The engineers had been focused on how to get televisions to interact with PCs, instead of asking what people love about TV, she said. What makes TV so compelling that people organize their lives and furniture around it, and watch it 20% more than they did ten years ago? People love TV because it’s simple: one click to their favorite program. It doesn’t make you log in or reinstall a driver. It won’t run short of memory, stop to defrag itself, do a physical memory dump or show a blue screen of death.
Our PCs and electronic gadgets make constant demands on us—plug me in, tell me your password, fix this, choose that. They’re needy and we let them push us around. Do we really want such codependence in every part of our lives?
Considering how demanding a PC can be, few families wanted to turn their TV into a computer. They already had a screen in their living room that worked better than their computer. TVs, phones and cars play different parts in real people’s lives; they aren’t just variations on a computer.
It’s all about relationships between people and the different kinds of technology in their lives. Those relationships can feel very personal, especially with cars (think how many drivers give their car a name) and mobile devices like laptops and smartphones.
What women want
Sigmund Freud famously asked, “What does a woman want?” Intel asked Dr. Bell to research the answer. “Which women? All women?” she asked.
In the late 1900s as personal computers were coming into the home, women were enlarging their presence in the workplace. Companies that had been marketing electronics to men began to realize that women were significant potential customers at home and at work.
Many lost money trying to sell to stereotypical women instead of to real ones. Marketing to women is not about making gadgets pink. It is not about being condescending: “It’s so easy that a housewife can do it.”
Nor is it mostly about technical data. Specs and physical assembly may fascinate men, but women want devices that will improve and simplify their lives.
“Technology is helpful for women with multiple demands on their time,” Bell said. They use it in their odd hours to balance their books and juggle their schedules. In Singapore, information technology is women’s work. Middle-class families send their maid to school to become a geek and the troubleshooter for the household.
Women seek life balance that goes beyond work and family. In recent years many American women have gone to religious Web sites and gotten monastic blessings online. They read whole books (not just romances!) on electronic readers; 65% of electronic reader users are women.
“Early adopters are hiding in plain sight,” she said. For 150 years women have been the early adopters and custodians of electric technology in the home. Yet the myth persists that women lag in using technology. The fact that women buy, use and dominate technology seems to be a closely held secret.
Gender stereotypes contribute to the assumption that women dislike technology and avoid it when they can. A study in 2010 found that most women would rather have their dream electronic gadget than jewelry or a luxury vacation.
Another reason for the myth relates to women’s interest in technology for its practical use rather than its gadgetry. “It’s not a sphere of bragging for women,” she said.
It’s time to change the story to match the facts. Women use electronic technology early and bring it into the mainstream. Let’s tell our stories and let the world know.
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, February). Women Lead in Adopting New Technologies. Women in Higher Education, 21(2), 24-25.