There is a very annoying perception in society that women don’t “do” technology. Look at a picture of an app designer, a welder, an aircraft engineer or a rocket scientist, and you are probably looking at a man. That is irritating, but I think it is only half the problem. The other half is that we do not ever think of women’s activities as technology, even when that is exactly what they are.
“Technology,” as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area, and a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods or knowledge. Men do not have a monopoly on working out how to use the available tools to do something practical, either in current society or historically.
Ada Lovelace, whose work in the 19th century inspired the first modern computer, and whose life is celebrated every year on Ada Lovelace Day, which takes place next week, is a worthy role model. Yet there are so many more closer to home.
My Polish grandmother had a Singer treadle-powered machine, built into a small wooden table with decorative legs. I loved it because it was mechanical and you could see how it worked. I have it now and I like it for the same reasons that I like massive steam engines. It is ingenious. I know how to sew and I like making things out of fabric. That is ingenious, too.
It was years before I realized that most of society put loving the mechanics and loving the sewing in different categories. Mechanics involves levers and wheels and gears, and everyone knows that is technical. However, sewing is associated with women, and so it mysteriously and quietly slides out from under the umbrella of technology and slinks off into obscurity.
Next time you are doing your laundry or tidying your coat rack, have a proper look at how your clothes are made. This is technology in action. The cloth must be cut in the right orientation relative to its threads, so that it hangs and stretches correctly. Flat pieces of cloth must be fitted together to make an object that fits a three-dimensional moving person. Fabric can be joined together with different stitches that do different jobs. And then all that construction work is hidden away, so that it is never the first thing you notice.
Labeling these practical activities as “male” or “female” is purely cultural. It has got nothing to do with the skills necessary to do the job. As I saw the technical skills involved and not the cultural implications, I never worried about whether something was for “boys” or “girls.”
WELDING MADE EASY
The women in history who made an impact in all-male fields were also typically in a position where they did not have to worry much about what other people thought. Lovelace, the daughter of a famous poet and clever mother who went on to marry an earl, came from a privileged background that exposed her to the new mathematical ideas of the day. She could do what she liked, so she did. My grandmother could sew and so can I, but I have also been free to pursue a career as a physicist, an opportunity she did not have as a woman in the 1940s.
If you look back through history, you will see that many of the tasks traditionally done by women are technological. Earlier this year, I had to learn how to arc weld while filming a BBC program about the sun. The old-school professional welder in Arizona who taught me was astonished that I learned so quickly and even more astonished when I explained that this was because it was almost exactly like icing a cake. The pose you adopt is the same (left hand closer to the nozzle, right elbow high up in the air), the method of controlling the speed of either icing or welding metal is the same (squeezing) and the overall aim is the same: depositing a thin stream of liquid in a controlled manner. One might involve slightly more molten metal at 3,000C° and slightly less sugar, but they are essentially indistinguishable.