A Brief Introduction to
Feminist Engineering

Copyright (c) 1990 by David Durlach

To begin, I think it makes sense to define feminism: The feminist movement includes, it seems to me, an attempt to shed light on some very deep seated biases in our culture - specifically, those biases associated with and correlated to gender. It is also a movement which, at times, gives serious thought to the consequences of such biases. The resulting insight and clarity of vision is then used to highlight and to change inequalities and general lopsidedness in the relationship between the individual and all elements in the individual's environment. [2]

It is not too uncommon to hear discussions considering the effects of such biases on the individual's internal experience of themselves and of the surrounding world. What is uncommon, is to hear discussions considering the effects of such biases on the actual designs and implementations of the (generally man-made) technological devices which surround us.

And finally, what is even more uncommon, is to encounter individuals who have chosen to devote a significant fraction of their lifetime to engineering new high-tech creations of a flavor consistent with and resulting from the unique perspective feminism brings to bear. It is this that for me defines the activities of a Feminist Engineer.

I have up to this point been extremely abstract. My Affectionate Technology paper includes many discussions, along with concrete technical examples, of the above perspective. I strongly suggest reading it in conjunction with reading this essay. That said, I will be somewhat more concrete below.

The women's movement has written extensively about the difficulty women have had being promoted into upper level executive positions. One of the reasons cited for this difficulty was that women (as compared to men) tended to be quite personal and emotionally expressive, and to value being personal and emotionally expressive, in their dealings with individuals in their organization and in others. This was frequently considered inappropriate behavior by the in-place upper level executives doing the promoting. [3]

The generally recognized consequence of this is that persons (male and female) who are very personal in their interactions and who put a high priority on emotionally expressiveness are less likely to be promoted.

 However, it follows just as immediately from the above that upper level executives must devalue emotional expressiveness in the work place - and what is not generally recognized is that this implies that the chance of these selfsame executives choosing to initiate a long term, expensive, and labor intensive high-tech research and development project, whose primary purpose is to develop tools to facilitate intimacy and devices to emotionally enrich the lives of the user, is virtually zero... Again, it is this type of R&D project that would interest a feminist engineer.

 I leave you with a (rhetorical) question: How many engineering classes have you taken (or even heard of) where the professor begins the lecture with a sentence like "Today, we are going to discuss technologies well suited for conveying sadness?"

[1] Others may have their own definition - what you read here is an introduction to mine. (I will note at the outset that I consider myself a feminist engineer.) And no, the phrase doesn't refer to engineering feminists!

[2] Elements in this environment typically discussed include: the spouse, the employer, the legal system, the educational system, etc.

[3] This response tends to be particularly acute in engineering environments, where emotional reaction is explicitly relegated to second place behind technical analysis.