Will Women Change Technology or Will Technology Change Women?


21 pages
ISBN 0-919653-09-X




Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a history professor at Simon Fraser University.


In her paper, Ursula Franklin contributes to the on-going discussion of the problems that a technological society poses for women. Franklin, Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto, states that one of the reasons she became interested in this problem was concern she felt for the fate of her women students. And, indeed, the most engaging part of her paper contains comments on what happens to young women who enter the engineering profession. She draws a convincing analogy between such women and immigrants to a new country. Women students try “so hard to become part of the tribe that they...lose...their own identity, their common sense and their judgement.” They are, for example, blind to the wrongs of sexist and racist remarks traditionally found in engineering student rags — it’s only fun after all, just joking. Young women who have worked extremely hard to become part of this privileged milieu often adjust to it by denying their female instincts and experiences. Some, who cannot make a complete adjustment, feel isolation in this “foreign” place, experience “vague feelings of malaise” and feelings of inadequacy.

Franklin agrees that to succeed in the engineer’s world, women have had to adopt its values and to deny others, often traditional female ones. Determined feminists will find it hard to get to the top of a male-dominated profession. Women who do succeed likely adopt the male values of their colleagues. Franklin’s observations are convincing, but her conclusion is an overpessimistic and, I hope (not with great confidence), a short-sighted one. Carrying the immigrant analogy further, one might argue that immigrants do, in the end, make their presence felt. They contribute to and color the societies they join, and perhaps women engineers and technologists will do the same. Maybe what we need is a critical mass — enough women to enter the profession so that female values will become more openly expressed and better integrated. We can legitimately hope for movement in this direction and for results: from machines designed to fit the female body to an entire system that meets the everyday and emotional needs of both sexes — a truly human system.

Much of Franklin’s paper deals with the philosophical problems of trying to describe what technology is, the nature of our technological society, what it ought to be like, and how its present values contrast with traditional women’s values. Her paper is very useful in that it brings a female perspective to these problems.

Franklin adopts the approach to technology of Jacques Ellul, who, like many contemporary analysts, sees technology as part of a larger system — a complex interaction of machine, practice, and social organisation. Indeed, in his book The Technological Society, Ellul claims that technology is no longer something in the world but is in fact the world. He argues that people are from birth integrated into the system and think in conformity with it. While there is some historical evidence to support a view of this kind, politically it seems a dangerous position to adopt. A more traditional, dialectical model might prove more useful if one is to find the means to criticise the status quo.

Franklin’s paper is ambiguous on this point. On the one hand, like Ellul, she sees the technological system as all-encompassing but, on the other, she is able to stand outside the system and to recognise and list the separate needs and priorities of women. Similarly, on the one hand, she claims that the technological system generates its own values (efficiency for efficiency’s sake, for example) and on the other she claims the system has historically inherited and integrated traditional values, albeit male ones to date. Surely there is no logical reason to prevent the integration of more balanced human values in the future.

Franklin’s ideas are stimulating, yet some of her points could do with more illustration. For example, her claim that machines are mere tools of the processes of organisation and control is a little vague. Perhaps the following is a plausible illustration: television is a tool developed by an urban society as a means of communication and control. It is not simply the end result of a logical train of succeeding discoveries in electricity, photoelectric cells, cathode ray tubes, etc. Similarly, the claim that the women’s world is “horizontally structured and full of the unexpected” could also do with illustration. Altogether, more examples would help the reader better understand Franklin’s position.

Finally, let’s return to the immigrant analogy. Just as the woman engineer should resist the uncritical adoption of the values of her new milieu and should not abandon old values, so too, the woman intellectual, who deals with the social problems of technology, should resist the male tradition of over intellectualizing things. Anyone who has read Ellul’s books will recognise that, despite his many original ideas, he is unquestionably guilty here. Intellectual values should be cherished, but still we must be careful not to overload the discussion of technology and human problems with a technical language and terminology accessible only to the initiate. Points can often, though admittedly not always, be made without recourse to specialist jargon. Franklin’s paper unintentionally illustrates this. It comes to life when she reflects sympathetically on the fate of her young women students and when she describes those female values she wishes to see integrated into the technological system. It bogs down when she describes the universal features of that system, and it is here that she, just like an immigrant, has uncritically adopted male patterns of analysis. Let’s hope that this is not the price one has to pay for acceptance into the intellectual community.

Yet Franklin is no dry theorist; she is an activist with obvious concern for the community, and indeed her paper ends with several sensible and practical suggestions. She wants to see new and imaginative research — for example, the development of techniques to record value judgments as good as those that record quantifiable variables. She wants to see a machine census. People should read what she has to say, perhaps follow through on her suggestions, so that our knowledge of technology increases in such a way as to serve the common good.


Franklin, Ursula Martius, “Will Women Change Technology or Will Technology Change Women?,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/36452.