The XX Factor

Despite What You’ve Heard, Tech is Not a Man’s World: Talking to Intel’s Genevieve Bell

A woman uses her smartphone while surfing the web and thinking about ordering coffee at the same time!

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages

Beyonce was right: Girls really do run the world, at least the electronic one. That’s the conclusion Intel researcher Genevieve Bell has gleaned from her studies of technology adoption and gender, which she presented last month at a “Big Ideas” conference at Australia’s Radio National. Despite the tech industry’s male-focus—advertisements directed at men, boardrooms run like locker rooms—and much recent press about women being shut out of the tech industry, Bell found that women are the heaviest users of today’s most widespread and vital technologies: the Internet, mobile phones (voice and text), Skype, e-readers, other e-devices, GPS, and all social networking sites except LinkedIn. (Finally, an answer to the “Who still uses LinkedIn?” question!)

Bell is Intel’s director of interaction and experience research, which means she examines how people think about technology and then uses those insights to help Intel develop better products. I recently caught up with the Australian-born anthropologist and tech-world star about a shift in gadget advertising, women in gaming, the Princess Phone, and what our cars tell us about ourselves.

Excerpts of our conversation, edited for clarity, are below.

Slate: What are you working on now?

Genevieve Bell: I got really excited about cars as a research object a few years ago, when I realized there are a billion of them on the road and that despite all our better intentions of cutting down on car use, they’re a fast-growing category.

Our team wanted to ask: What’s a new way to think about cars? How could we surprise people with them? I decided that the most ridiculous thing we could do was go back to one of my earlier interests: archeology. So we got people to unpack the entire contents of their cars: all 12 compartments, inside the seats, under the seats, the trunk. And then we photographed and catalogued all of it. It was amazing. We did it in about seven countries—it was the most extraordinary project, to get a sense of how people inhabit their vehicles, and what they’re doing with them and how they think about them.

Slate: What’s the strangest thing that turned up in a car?

Bell: The most compelling, for me, was the first car we excavated in Singapore. It was a brand new Volvo—the guy had had it for about three weeks—and in the glove compartment was a leather wallet, a long one, like the kinds we used to use for passports. In it were these red envelopes with koi and a Volvo brand on them. I said, “What are these?” And the owner said, “Oh, they’re Ang Pao,” which are the envelopes you give out on Chinese New Year. You put money in them and give them as gifts to people younger than you, for luck. I’d never seen branded Ang Pao and I asked, “Why do you have them in the glove compartment?” He said, “For emergency weddings.” And I thought: That’s not a category I know. We went to the next interview, another car, and found more Ang Pao in the glove compartment, for emergency weddings. And so it went for every Chinese-owned car we unpacked in Malaysia and Singapore. Finally I asked, “All right. What’s an emergency wedding? Is it like a shotgun wedding?” And the man said, “No, no. The emergency is if you get there and realize your gift isn’t good enough.”

I suddenly saw that here were all of these cars that had become something to protect you, not from physical danger, but from social danger. The Ang Pao were like emotional airbags. American cars frequently had blank greeting cards. Australian cars had scotch tape and scissors for wrapping presents. There were all these pieces of social safety lodged in the vehicles.

Slate: So why is the director of interaction and experience research at Intel studying cars?

Bell: Cars are a powerful proxy for other digital devices. Phones and laptops also protect us from social embarrassment. You store people’s birthdays and the names of their children. Faces pop up on the screen when your phone rings so you know how to answer.

Slate: You’ve done a lot of research into technology and gender. Could you say a little bit about what brought you to the subject, and what you’ve learned?

Bell: On my second day in the office at Intel, my very first boss sat me down and said she needed my help with two things. One of them was what the company in those days called “Rest of World.” It meant everything that wasn’t America. The other thing was “Women.” I remember asking her, well, which women did she mean? She said, “All of them. If you could work out what they want, that would be great.”

Since then, I’ve maintained an interest in looking at how “women” use technology. It’s been a scholarly and intellectual interest as well as a historical one. In the last 150 years, women were the ones who domesticated electricity, for better or worse. They worked out how to cook with it, how to iron with it, how to run their households with it. They were the ones who sorted out what it meant to drill holes in walls and turn on or off the lights.

And then the data from the telecom industry suggests that women were the early gatekeepers of telephones when they came into the household. They made the phone calls. To this day, they’re the ones who call their in-laws, talk to their own families, keep up with all the social stuff. In the 1980s, Telecom did these amazing studies that proved that women knew where cordless phones were in the house when no one else could find them.

All of which is to say: There’s been a long history of women as the tamers of the big technologies—electricity, telephony, television, and arguably, I think, the Internet. For them, it’s not the glossy new thing, but something that becomes part of daily life.

Slate: You recently found that, even though the young, male demo is supposed to be a sweet spot for technology, women are actually using the Internet more than men aged 18-34.

Bell: It’s very clear when you talk to people that women are spending more time on social networking sites. And I’m sure that echoes back to the fact that, 20 years ago, women were spending more time on the telephone, telling everyone what was going on. They did the social check-ins. So it didn’t surprise me, what we were hearing, but it was nice to see the data substantiate it.

You find the same thing with e-readers and downloads of e-books. It’s much more strongly oriented to women than men. That’s historically been true—women have always been bigger buyers of books.

Interestingly, the women users who are coming online are also slightly older than we’d imagine.

Slate: Yes, you said many of them were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. What’s that about?

Bell: Well, in some ways, these are technologies about sociality. They’re about family and communication. They’re also technologies, particularly in the e-reader space and in that whole category of gadgets and online services, that let women work around their other obligations. Women can say, “Oh, OK, I’ll do my online banking in the middle of the night, after everyone’s gone to sleep.”

For instance, we saw a big gender disparity when it came to downloading television shows. The downloaders were predominately women. And the times they were doing it were really sort of random, until you realized that they were fitting it around a schedule of feeding people and working and raising kids.

There’s an interesting argument about technology for women, particularly in the past 10 years. It says that a lot of new technology allows women to continue to multitask in the ways they’ve often had to. Women are time-poor: The U.S. Bureau of Labor reports they have less discretionary time than their male partners and peers. They tend to be balancing more activities—some sort of work, paid or unpaid; the bulk of responsibility for their kids; often the bulk of responsibility for their parents. Women still do most of the housework. (And actually, women spend more time doing domestic labor today than they did 50 years ago! We may have washing machines now, but standards of cleanliness have changed drastically over half a century—not to mention the elaborate ways meals are constituted: Everyone eats at different times.)

Enter technology. It can be absolutely liberating. It lets you juggle multiple commitments and not worry about certain things. You can watch the programs you care about without having to fiddle with the VCR. You don’t have to bother other people. For e-books, you suddenly don’t have to go to the bookstore. It will come to you.

Some women describe this as a kind of guilty pleasure, like beating the system.

Slate: Do women use digital tools differently than men do, or just more?

Bell: I think they use them differently. It doesn’t surprise me that women spend more time on Facebook, because they’ve historically borne the brunt of that kind of social work. They’ve always coordinated the calendar of social events. They’ve made sure everyone got presents. I remember interviewing people about how they were using telephones. The women would say, “First I call my parents. Then I call his parents.” You have to do a lot of activity to maintain a social network, and historically those jobs fall to women.

On the other hand, new technologies have liberated men to have a voice in ways they didn’t before. People talk about how, when their parents got on email, when their dads bought mobile phones, they suddenly discovered a new relationship with their fathers. But there are certain kinds of online services—financial, medical—women are far more likely to use. They’ll go look up medical information for someone else.

Slate: So it’s the Web’s focus on relationships and being connected that’s drawing women in more?

Bell: Yeah, except I hate to miss the fact that women are also huge gamers.

Slate: Do you think the tech industry favors men?

Bell: No. I certainly think it has a lot of men in it. One of the challenges with new technologies is that it takes a while for our imaginations to change, for our sense of what’s going on to catch up to what’s really happening. I think the world has changed and the industry is catching up. You see the same thing, these past 10 years, with the tech industry wrapping its head around the fact that some of its biggest innovations didn’t take place in Silicon Valley.

But who wrote the first algorithm in history? A woman. Who did the foundational cybernetics? Who were the first coders during World War II? Women, because the men were all fighting. Bletchley Park was full of really smart female mathematicians. Women have always been in the history and foundational places of technology.

Slate: There’s no gender gap? And in terms of culture, Alexis Madrigal is wrong—the industry is not a guy’s world?

Bell: Of course there is a gender gap. And we could absolutely do with more women in technology. We could also do with more diversity in other ways: greater age ranges, greater life experiences. But you know, people are getting better. There are more women in more senior places in the tech field than there have ever been before. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I also want to acknowledge the fact that we are making great strides.

Slate: You’ve written about moral panic and technology—the notion that technological norms change more swiftly than societal ones, and we experience anxiety as we struggle to adapt. You also mention that a trademark sign of moral panic is misplaced fear about the welfare of women and children. Do you think our resistance to the reality of women’s leadership in tech adoption has to do with moral panic?

Bell: I would never have put those things together. I suspect they’re not unrelated. What’s interesting to me is the kind of orientation we have to technology that celebrates the inventors, not the people who use it day to day. We talk about Tesla and Marconi, but we don’t necessarily talk about the people who were using radios all the time. We talk about the people who invented electricity but we don’t celebrate a generation’s worth of women who worked out how to cook on it, which was totally a nontrivial problem. Or learning to iron with an early electrical iron. The same is true now: We celebrate the people who invented the programs but we don’t always celebrate what happens when they become part of our everyday lives. And that’s historically one of the things women do—they make things into things that become part of our everyday lives.

Slate: How might more awareness about the demographics of tech adoption affect the way new technologies are marketed? And will we see a change in what kinds of products are developed?

Bell: One of the first pieces of technology I can think of that was explicitly marketed to women was the Princess Phone, from the ’50s and ’60s. The ad campaign resembled Apple’s in amazing ways. The tagline was something like, “It’s little. It’s lovely. It lights.” At no point did the commercial tell you what technology was in the phone, or that you were going to make calls on it. It celebrated the experience, the aesthetics.

When you look at how a lot of contemporary technology is marketed, it’s moving the same way. It’s not about the underlying bits and bytes of technology. It’s about a product that will develop a relationship with you and be important to you.

Slate: The Madrigal article basically took it for granted that today’s tech advertisements are geared to men. But you’re saying that these types of experiential ads were originally designed for women?

Bell: I’m saying there’s been a shift in the way technology is advertised over the past two or three years. It’s much more about the experience a product delivers, not what its features are. We’ve moving away from a focus on the individual attributes. And of course, that works better for everyone. Look at online dating ads. eHarmony’s ad campaign doesn’t say to you, “We use complex underlying algorithms and big data.” What it says to you is, “Use our site and you’ll be happy.”