Gender, technology and inequality: what my research is all about


As I write up my research the stories in the data and what’s motivating me to do this work becomes clearer.  Here’s a brief extract:

This research is concerned with the unequal position in society of poorer young women in the UK and how we might understand this inequality in relation to their use of mobile devices. It responds to Green and Livingstone’s call to ‘gender’ the digital age in the face of what they see as an absence of gender in mainstream digital age theorising (2013). Feminist approaches underpin this research: a commitment described by Standing to “…translate between the private world of women and the public world of academia, politics and policy” but to do this “…without reinforcing the stereotypes and cultural constructions we are challenging” (1998)

This research asks questions about how these devices are helping poorer young women overcome the inequality they are experiencing in some aspects of their lives or indeed how these devices might be making this inequality worse.

It also looks how the use of these devices might be helping to produce and manage their gender identity (Yates & Lockley 2008). The research is driven by gaps in the data that have been identified in both the literature and data on the use of technology – and in particular mobile devices – by socially excluded young women.

Green, Eileen & Singleton, Carrie 2013. ‘Gendering the Digital’: The Impact of Gender and Technology Perspectives on the Sociological Imagination. Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives, 34.

Standing, Kay 1998. Writing the voices of the less powerful: research on lone mothers. Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research: Public Knowledge and Private Lives. London: Sage Publications.

Yates, Simeon J. & Lockley., Eleanor 2008. IV Moments of Separation: Gender,(Not So Remote) Relationships, and the Cell Phone. In: Holland, S. (ed.) Remote relationships in a small world. Peter Lang.

Mobile HCI 2014: Mobiles and work-home boundaries


I  recently attended the  Mobile HCI 2014 conference for a workshop on Socio-technical systems and work-home boundaries. I presented a paper on Work-Home Boundaries and Mobile Technologies in the Lives of Socially Excluded Young Women in the UK which drew on some of the early findings from my research. The workshop bought together a great group of researchers looking at how mobile technologies have enabled more porous boundaries between work and life, and the positives and negatives of this development.

“Its my baby! I can’t live without it”


As academics we have a responsibility to communicate our ideas and findings to a broader audience. Posters are a great way to do this by making us capture key aspects of our research in a visually accessible format. I’ve just created one for the Postgraduate Conference for the Centre for Research in Computing at the Open University where I am based.

The quote “Its my baby! I can’t live without it” was a response from one young woman when I asked her how she felt about her phone. We both laughed when she said this – knowing that she was only half joking.

In my fieldwork I’m discovering a lot about our feelings of love, fear, resentment and addiction to our mobile devices and the central role they play in young women’s lives. For some women they are their sole means to access the internet: for homeless women they are invaluable for staying connected with friends, family and support agencies.

Whilst my research draws on ideas such as the capability approach, the ‘big question’ is  whether mobile devices are a good or a bad thing in the lives of socially excluded young women. I hope this graphic shows something of how I’m going about answering this question.


How mobile devices might be engineered for addiction


I’ve been wondering why the women I’ve been interviewing are still using Facebook so much. Research on 16-18 year olds in London found that it is basically dead to them. Yet most of the women I’m interviewing (who are between 18-24) are still looking at Facebook a lot: often the first app they’re looking at after they wake up. This doesn’t mean they’re enjoying it – on the contrary they talk a lot about how its become boring, a routine. They’re also using a lot of other platforms – WhatsApp, SMS, Instagram – so its not a question of being loyal to a particular platform.

Reading a brilliant article about Addictive Technologies illuminated this issue for me in that it talks about how the platform is engineered to get you addicted to the ‘serotonin’ it emulates.

“Facebook doesn’t just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings–the positive ones at least–that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is “serotonin,” the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness.”

There’s lots of theory to help us understand what’s going on here – the technical codes in the design of the software and devices that reflect the cultural horizon of our society, the network effects that pulled the women onto Facebook in the first place – but this is an opportunity for a reflexive moment. I need to look more deeply at what we’re doing when we choose to look at a particular app, fiddle about with something on our phones, check Twitter again for a little serotonin buzz. I want to understand how these urges and ‘addictions’ then impact on decisions we make about what else we are doing with our phones; how much we spend on them and why we choose particular devices over others.

Social exclusion and smartphone poverty


The women I’ve been interviewing for my fieldwork are between the ages of 16-24 and if they are in receipt of benefits they might get job seekers allowance of around £250 a month. Many of them are on smartphone contracts of anything up to £36 a month; approximately 15% of their income. Lots of factors can add to these costs: when a relationship ends women might find themselves paying off contracts for ex-partners in addition to their own contract.

Many women report unexpected debts related to smartphone use: going over their minutes limits on their contracts because they need to make a lot of calls to find work, or going over their data limits when they’re using a phone as a hotspot.  Smartphone contracts can be very complex and the way that information is provided by operators can feel opaque: women complain of not being able to access basic information on what they are paying per minute when they go over their talk allowance. Even the apps designed to help manage costs on a phone can be problematic; failing to update frequently enough for people who need to micromanage their call costs.

When I started my fieldwork I had no idea of how big a role money was going to play in the story of young women and mobile devices but it keeps on coming up as an important theme: broken contracts, smartphone related debt and expensive devices. Unlike our engagement with the energy companies, where public opinion and the work of consumer champions has made some impact, mobile operators don’t seem to be under the same sort of scrutiny. Although mobile phones (and in the case of 16-24 year olds this usually means a smartphone) are a necessary utility they seem to be placing an enormous financial burden on some of our most vulnerable young people.

I’m going to carry on talking to women about money and smartphones as I think this is an important issue, in the meantime it would be great to see more public debate and scrutiny about how some of the most vulnerable members of society are impacted by smartphone debt.

Code Red, Aunt Irma visiting and apps for women?


I’ve not been blogging recently as I’m deep in fieldwork but I couldn’t resist this.

It was international women’s day recently, so what better time to learn about an incredible new app. Yes. Code Red. “A survival guide to her monthly cycle. Period.” This app is designed not to empower women to take control of their fertility, but instead to provide men with a day by day indication of their partner’s likely mood based on their menstrual  cycle: “Code Red Alert – Warns you that the Her-ricane is coming”. Maybe there are some women out there would would be deeply touched by the consideration demonstrated by their partner installing this app. But you know, I just wouldn’t.  Even though it does offer “Links to local vendors for presents, groceries and goods (via Google Maps)”. (Worrying side thought: Are we now going to see Google harvesting our menstrual cycle data, offering us targeted ads at particular times of the month?)

Screenshot from Code Red app

The app creators say that ““Every month, women go through the same ups and downs, but the men in our lives never seem to catch on” and I can see that it might be helpful for some couples. I’m interviewing young women about what they are doing with their smartphones at the moment, and accessing health information in a confidential way is a very positive aspect of the role these devices are playing in their lives.

But getting their boyfriends to track their period? Not so much. Via the fascinating Menstruation Research blog  I was reminded of the hilarious IT crowd episode where Jen is forced to euphemise her PMT symptoms “I’ve fallen to the Communists”. I think I’d rather stick with the old crimson tide.

In light of International Women’s Day a lot of other issues are raised around gender and technology by this app: what does it mean when men are tracking women’s biology on their smartphones? How are these intimate relationships being mediated by technology? But I’ll leave those for another day.

Opening up to debates: capabilities, affordances and consequentialism


Last week I presented some thoughts on capability theory and digital inclusion at the Open University’s Society and Information Research Group.

There was a great discussion afterwards and I’d like to thank the individuals involved for their contribution. Some issues raised include the following:

  • What do we know about the way in which smartphones might be making young people vulnerable to crime?
  • Are ‘walled gardens’ like Facebook appealing environments to young people with limited ‘digital capabilities’?
  • In our gradations of digital inclusion, in future years will we be seeing more and more refuseniks who are sophisticated manipulators of their online persona’s – individuals who are politically opposed to the increasing encroachment of surveillance technologies into everyday life?
  • How might we use the theories of Foucault and Latour to understand the power dynamics experienced by marginalised young women in their interactions with the state?

All of these will feed into my research at a later date. A couple of issues were raised which I want to share some brief thoughts on here.

How do we understand the relationship between affordances and capabilities?
This last question feels very cogent for me right now as I feel that both terms provide a means to articulate the dynamics between a technology, individual agency and the state. It was suggested during the discussion that affordances (“functional and relational aspects which frame, while not determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object” (Hutchby 2001) 444) might be a means to directly interrogate a technology’s use, and that capabilities might complement this by enabling us to understand the socio-technical framework – the imbrications of society and technology, and the structures (network operators, software designers etc) which shape our uses of technology.

How does capability theory handle people’s ‘competing’ rights?
A further discussion looked at the ethical underpinnings of capability theory: the challenges of ‘ranking rights’. Alexander (2008) describes Sen’s theory as ‘broad consequentialism: a way of looking at the consequences of exercising rights. This ‘pluralistic consequentialism’ suggests that a a variety of fundamental principles can be taken into account when assessing a situation or a policy. This is set against the monistic model of utilitarian philosophy which suggests that only utility can be taken into account. Alexander shows how rights and capabilities are not equivalent – but are interdependent so without capabilities you cannot exercise rights.

All in all this discussion showed me the value of opening up work for debate and discussion at an early stage, and reminded me how lucky I am to be part of such a vibrant and challenging intellectual environment at the Open University.

Bibliography of works cited

Alexander, John M. 2008. Capabilities and social justice : the political philosophy of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, Aldershot, England ; Burlington, VT, Ashgate Pub. Ltd.

Equality and Human Rights Commission 2009. Equality Measurement Framework: 13. Participation, influence and voice, London, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Eynon, R. & Geniets, A. 2012. On the Periphery? Understanding Low and Discontinued Internet Use Amongst Young People in Britain, Nominet Trust

Hutchby, I. 2001. Technologies, texts and affordances. Sociology, 35, 441-456.

Kleine, D. 2011. The capability approach and the ‘medium of choice': steps towards conceptualising information and communication technologies for development. Ethics and Information Technology, 13, 119-130.

Johnstone, Justine 2007. Technology as empowerment: a capability approach to computer ethics. Ethics & Information Technology, 9, 73.

Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics, 9, 33-59.

Sen, A.K. 1999. Development as freedom, Oxford University Press.