Gender, Technology, and Empowerment: The Case of Visual Simulation Models
The classic feminist research on gender and technology (e.g., Cockburn 1983, 1985; Hacker 1981, 1989) is pessimistic about the ability of technological change to challenge gender hierarchy in the workplace. In case after case, the research in this tradition documents the persistence of gendered beliefs about competence and performance and the ways in which such beliefs are re-inscribed in new arenas. In a recent essay on gender theory, Ridgeway and Correll emphasize the key role played by social interaction for understanding this phenomenon: “As gender beliefs write gender hierarchy into the interpersonal relations through which people create new social forms, the people in effect rewrite gender hierarchy into the new social practices that develop to define the new occupation or industry” (2004, 523).
In this essay, we re-examine this contention using the case of visual simulation models used in a Chinese hospital to teach medical professionals new approaches to organizational processes. Contrary to expectations based on the gender literature, individuals of lower occupational and gender status (female nurses) were empowered by the visual models to speak and to challenge the models’ representations of their job processes. As Ridgeway and Correll note, in interactional, mixed-status situations, it is the behavior of the lower-status groups that is more variable and the research question is how to move them from passivity to assertiveness. Though the case is suggestive rather than determinative, the visual models’ dramatic empowerment of lower-status workers speaks to the positive promise of technology, a promise that should be reconsidered in the era of globalization
Keywords: gender, technology, visual simulation modeling
Dr. Peregrine Schwartz-Shea
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Utah
Dr. Robert E. Bateman
Assistant Professor, School of Business and Management, American University of Sharjah