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The relationship between gender and technology


									The pink side and the darker side of
      women and the Internet:
   The case of breast cancer patients’ online

         A lecture in the CRI Scholar Program Series
                    Gender and Technology

                 Dr. Shani Orgad
  London School of Economics and Political Science
         The relationship between
          gender and technology
Troubled and problematic Empowering and liberating
• Technology as reproducing   • Technology as liberating
  traditional gender power      women from their
  relations; exclusion of       constraints, endowing them
  women                         with powers they did not
• Masculine cultural            have before
  dominance of technology     • Subverting the intended
• Women as incapable of         purposes of technology
  using technology            • The potential of technology
                                to challenge gender power
• Women as passive users of     relations
  technology                  • Reconstructing technology
• Technology as constructed     around women’s interests
     around men’s interests   • Women and interpersonal
                                communication technologies

Commodore 1981
                                                      VisiSchedule 1982
                                       IBM 1981-2
Verbatim 1982   Source:
    France, 2001
             Women and the Internet
Reproduction of masculine                    Empowerment and
Political economy:
the embeddedness of the Internet         Cyberfeminism, “women weaving the
and CMC within wider public              web”: the capacity of the
discourses, societal and economic        networked organisation of the
power relations                          World Wide Web to erode or
                                         subvert the culture of masculine
Flaming, trolling and online practices   dominance.
of sexual harassment:
the persistence of traditional           Online spaces as “safe” spaces,
gender power relations and               enabling women to evade
domination in CMC                        unpleasant practices

Women in developmental contexts:         Post-modern approaches:
what are the consequences of             CMC as enabling the
their online activity for the material   experimenting with a new sense
conditions of their lives? Have          of self, gender-free and fluid;
   these conditions changed or m         reconfiguration of gender
     remained disregarded?               categories.
           The online
 communication of women who
   suffer from breast cancer
                            Centrality of the
High prevalence
                            disease in public
 of the disease
                              discourse and

          Proliferation of online
         resources, particularly
            patients’ forums
The pink side and the darker side
      of the “online ribbon”
The pink side of the “online ribbon”

                         The ways in
                         which breast
                         patients’ online
                         shapes and
                         gender power
     Translating silence into
Women should “translate the silence
surrounding breast cancer into language and
action against this scourge” (Audre Lorde, The
Cancer Journals, 1980).

                My Story
    Critical debate
by “lay-expert” women
 The possibility of the marginal
 (women patients) to enter into a
 dialogue with the dominant
 (medical authority,
 predominantly male).
       Control of representation
• Control over time and space (when their story will be
  published and where)
• Control over the content of the representation of their

  “After absorbing all the information garnered from the net and from
  anecdotal information provided by the ‘people genre’ I’ve arrived at
  several personal conclusions…The most important conclusion for me
  is that each person’s breast cancer is uniquely their own. No two
  people reach the same medical treatment, nor do any two people with
  the same diagnosis and survival stats have identical chances of
     survival” (online interview 24).
 Personalisation and specificity
• The availability of hundreds of patients’
  disclosures on numerous forums reflects the
  variable and unpredictable nature of the illness
• The recognition that there is no “one-size-fits-
  all” treatment
• The capacity to perform highly specific
• Example:
       Bonding and sisterhood
• Camaraderie, collaboration and support

             A women’s thing?
• Realisation that one is not alone:

  “I found the web sites for cancer, because I was
  searching to see if I was the only one who experienced
  this type of tumor. Your sometimes feel all alone when
  its happening to you and I was greatly impressed at the
  wealth of information out there. And the letters I have
  received because of it.”

  “I'm hoping that by sharing this with people, maybe I
  won't feel so alone and perhaps we can get either a
       glimmer of hope, some insight, or, if this the
       beginning of the end, some courage.”
     (posted on Shared Experience message board).
 Anonymity and disembodiment
• The capacity to remain anonymous and
  disembodied while communicating the most
  private, intimate, and highly embodied
  experiences publicly
• lurking as a central communicative practice:
  controlling the degree of one’s visibility
• A very different kind of transformation from that
  described by post-modern views.
Publicity, privacy and safety
   The darker side of the “online
Do patients’ ribbon”
proliferating online
voices necessarily
exist outside
gender power
To what extent is
this CMC context
transformative and
empowering for
     Anonymity and invisibility
• Anonymity as a double-edged sword:
  “I’m very loud within the online breast cancer
  community, but not in the general public” (Barbara,
  interview 2).
    Can women patients’
     online anonymous
         and private
  experiences translate into
meaningfully visible, and thus
 publicly recognised terms?
     Privatisation of experience
• Patients’ discussions focus predominantly on the
  individual and the personal:

  “There is awful sentimentality about it. I just felt I couldn’t
  relate to [it]... I didn’t ever post ever any messages…it just
  seemed like these women were…[silence] involved in a form
  that was about mutual support, it wasn’t about having
  (Kate, interview 11).

• The connections and relationships that emerge
  between women online remain private affairs rather
   than translating into some kind of a collective form of
   political action
The bias of self-responsibility
… I guess I would look at it this way. Ask yourself why
you took Tamoxifen in the first place (I’m sure the
percentages were about the same back then). Then ask
yourself about the side effects and your tolerance to
(Source: “Breast Cancer Online: In Our Own Words”).

The     ones      who  stick  around  are   the
fighters…those that come on and are
passive and feel it’s just too hard to
fight it, give up and give in to their
disease         and     don’t   stick    around
(Online interview 15).

      See also:
  Information is power ?

               Educate yourself

Empower yourself

              Inform yourself
       Limited reach

Online resources and patients’
 disclosures are proliferating,
   but can CMC create the
awareness and political action
 facilitated by mass media?
“Self-sufficient” closed spaces

              ALL WALKS OF LIFE?
 Participants in breast cancer online forums are
 mainly educated, English-speaking women
While CMC contributes to the
widening of the communicative
infrastructure of the illness, and to its
“coming out” into the public arena, at
the same time it seems to reinforce
the opposite.
The combination of a disembodied,
anonymous, patients-only and highly
personalised space and discourse on
breast cancer sites seems to
separate, rather than integrate the
illness experiences and the public
political realm.
• How can online spaces such as breast cancer
  patients’ forums transcend their “invisible”
  “private” boundaries?
• Can they constitute more than anonymous
  confessional spaces, providing resources for
  therapy, interiority and self-elaboration?
• Can CMC truly help women recognise
  themselves as publics?

   So long as the material reality of breast
  cancer does not change, and its dominant
  representation remain unchanged, the so-
  called “empowerment” of patients by CMC
            remains highly limited.
   Implications for website design:
Transforming private exclusive issues
  into an inclusive political agenda
• Creating more inclusive forums:
  - Stop treating issues such as breast cancer as
  exclusively women’s personal issues;
 - Open forums for non-patients, men, from
  varied educational and multi-lingual
  backgrounds (at the same time maintain
• Providing patients with communicative spaces
  and tools to talk outside their private realm,
  creating a dialogue with others.
Contribution of this kind of study for a
 critical understanding of gender and
 Exploring what’s “behind the screen”:
• Attending to users’ voices and experiences
• At the same time, taking a a critical distance
• Thinking about gender as a source of technology,
  and at the same time a consequence of
  technology (Wajcman, Technofeminism,2004).
• Examining the relationship between technology
  and gender in its complexity, rather than in utopian
  or dystopian terms

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