organization people technology

Are Computers Sexy: Notes on Technology and Gender

Richard Veryard
October 1987

overview on this page on other pages links
Information Technology is now commonly abbreviated as I.T. "It" is not only the neuter pronoun, but is also used to denote sex appeal. Hi-tech is supposed to be sexy. So does I.T. have "it"?

This article delves into myth, and therefore analyses cliche and stereotype. If I were writing for a pedantic academic readership, I should be obliged to frame everything with quotation marks, to indicate my own superiority over such simplistic notions, and to distance myself (with an ironic sneer) from such facile opinions. I hope you will forgive me if I don't do this.

In particular, the terms "male" and "female" denote clusters of symbolic characteristics, cultural attitudes and psychological complexes, and are not intended to say anything directly about real men and women.

language and gender

technology and sexual symbolism

what gender is the computer?

why is metaphor important?

data and possession




technology and repression

technology and perception

psychoanalysis and technology

veryard projects home page

technology notions

contact us

organization people technology

Language and gender

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > language and gender

One of the first compromises for which the British have since become famous was to neuter the gods. Faced with a conflict between the Saxon language (in which the Sun was feminine and the Moon masculine, as in German) and the Norman language (in which the Sun was masculine and the Moon feminine, as in French), the founders of the English language classified nearly all nouns, both material and abstract, into the third, neuter gender.

Rupert Sheldrake argues that this linguistic feature of English encouraged British scientists (such as Newton) to view Nature as inanimate, as against the animistic view of Descartes and Leibniz. To this may be attributed the remarkable success of British science and technology, from the 17th century onwards.

"But matter itself is no longer the inert substance that physicists once imagined; modern atoms are vortices of vibratory energy, and an unpredictable spontaneity has reemerged throughout the natural world." Sheldrake goes on to argue that the feminist-inspired trend of linguistically neutering people (so chairman becomes chairperson or chair, etc) should "remind us that the lack of gender in our language does not necessarily imply a neutral state inferior to that of sexual organisms, but can also represent an androgenous condition that includes both masculine and feminine potentialities within it".

organization people technology

Technology and sexual symbolism

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > technology and sexual symbolism

A considerable degree of androgeny can be found in technology, regarded by some people as an entirely male domain. In his book, The Myth of the Machine (pp 139-140), Lewis Mumford argues that technology can bear both masculine and feminine characteristics. "The tool and the utensil, like the sexes themselves, perform complementary functions. One moves, manipulates, assaults; the other remains in place, to hold and protect and preserve." The palaeolithic [i.e hunting/nomadic] inventions were more masculine than feminine: fire, spears, arrows, etc. "The radical neolithic [i.e. farming] inventions were in the realm of containers.... The creation of moisture-proof, leak-proof, vermin-proof clay vessels to store grain, oil, wine, and beer was essential to the whole 'neolithic' economy."

We should not classify technology simply by the shape of the tool/utensil (pointed tools are phallic; rounded or concave utensils symbolize breast or womb) but by the processes they are intended for. "In general, the mobile, dynamic processes are of male origin: they overcome the resistance of matter, push, pull, tear, penetrate, chip, macerate, move, transport, destroy; while the static processes are female ... and they remain largely in place, undergoing qualitative changes, from raw meat to cooked meat, from fermenting grain to beer, from planted seed to seeding plant.... Cooking, milking, dyeing, tanning, brewing, gardening are, historically, female occupations.... All these functions necessarily enlarge the role of containers: indeed are inconceivable without baskets, pots, bins, vats, barns".

In her book The Religion of the Machine Age, Dora Russell develops Mumford's division of technology into masculine and feminine. She points out that most people, when asked to think about technology, mostly think about the masculine technologies and ignore the feminine ones.

What's going on here? I'm not trying to create new distinctions and divisions between male and female. I'm trying to surface distinctions that people seem to make unconsciously, distinctions which seem to result in the distorted and perhaps gender-biased way that people typically view and value different kinds of technology.

organization people technology

What gender is the computer?

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > what gender is the computer?

Once, the word "computer", like the word "typewriter", referred to the man or woman operating the machine; now it refers to the machine itself. According to the metaphors discussed above, a magnetic disk or database contains data and is therefore female; a program manipulates data and is therefore male. The traditional diagrams of these objects correspond to this: disks and databases are shown as rounded cylinders, while programs are shown as hard-cornered boxes with arrows for the input and output.

And does the hardware contain the software, or the software the hardware? This is where the metaphors begin to fail us. Different computer specialists take different approaches, according to which system they are interested in. A system is an abstract object, which takes a different shape according to the perspective from which it is viewed. Here we have true androgeny - which some engineers may prefer to call polymorphism.

organization people technology

The Importance of Metaphor

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > metaphor

How we deal with computers depends on how we perceive them. For people to control technology, the technology must be visible, open and not cryptic . If we want control of computer technology to be in the hands of the users, or the public, rather than in the hands of a technocratic elite, then we must insist that the workings be straightforward and easy-to-understand. But this is not enough: for the computer to be "user-friendly", it must embody familiar concepts. The way we approach something new is to relate it to our existing experience and knowledge, by analogy and metaphor. And we can explain people's often irrational attitudes towards aspects of computer technology, by analogy with real life.

organization people technology

The Psychology of Data Ownership

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > data and possession

The way we approach something new is to relate it to our existing experience and knowledge, by analogy and metaphor. And we can explain people's often irrational attitudes towards aspects of computer technology, by analogy with real life.

To illustrate this approach to explaining attitudes, let us consider the question of data ownership. Files and databases, being containers, are symbolically (psychologically, culturally) female. (See above.) But whereas a file is often possessed by one person or department, a database is often shared across an entire company. This causes psychological and cultural problems, as anyone who has tried to implement a corporate database information system will testify. People often resist such a change, reluctant to lose control of their data. Many resort to getting "support" from what has become known as a "personal" computer. (This glamorization of the humble microcomputer has been a brilliant piece of marketing.) An awareness of the sexual symbolism of technology allows us to see this reluctance in sexual terms. Sharing a database smacks of drinking from the same cup, or of polyandry. These irrational fears underlie many arguments about the relative merits of centralized or decentralized computing, albeit rationalized into talk of organizational efficiency.

But the corporate database is no common prostitute. "She" is surrounded by a professional priesthood of programmers, analysts, designers and administrators, to whom the would-be user must respectfully apply for access. Some companies have set up an Information Centre to by-pass this route, but even this is often decked out as a temple to Information Technology. Modern databases have such female names as ORACLE (an unreliable ancient Greek system of mysterious female prophets) or INGRES (a French painter of maternal nudes), thus it is becoming more common to recognize the symbolic sexuality of the database.

organization people technology

Stability and gender

veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > stability

Some system development methodologies contain the belief that data structure should be more stable than process structure. Thus the database design is more important to get right than the program design. If we regard the database as a container (of data), this can be related to Mumford's observation (in City in History) that "Containers can serve their function only if they change more slowly than their contents."

This is related to the sexual symbolism of computers: databases are symbolically (psychologically, culturally) female, and are expected to be more stable, less changeable than the programs, which are symbolically male.

Thus the methodological belief can be understood to have psychological or cultural support.

organization people technology


veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > conclusion

Although Information Technology is created and programmed by human beings, it seems to have the ability to act independently of them, at least for a limited time, like a wind-up toy, yet incredibly complex. Thus, although it is composed of inanimate material, silicon indeed being a form of sand, it is not valid to write it off as inanimate. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The computer, while not living, is a semi-autonomous being, and therefore is perceived anthropomorphically, as semi-human. Viewing machines thus is not something we can or should resist, for it is an insight for us, to see how sexy computers are. 

For Spirits, when they please
Can either sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is their essence pure,
Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose,
Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,
Can execute their airy purposes,
And works of love or emnity fulfil.
[Paradise Lost]
organization people technology


veryard projects > technology > technology and gender > references

Rupert Sheldrake, In the nature of language gender matters (Guardian, 23 Sept 1987)

Lewis Mumford, City In History (New York, 1961)

Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (London, Secker & Warburg, 1967)

Dora Russell, The Religion of the Machine Age (1983)out of print

Richard Veryard, The Role of Visibility in Systems (Human Systems Management, 6, 1986) pp 167-175 pdf version available

Author details

Richard Veryard is a technology consultant, based in London.
organization people technology

veryard projects
home page

This page last updated on November 7th, 2001
Copyright © 1987, 1999, 2001 Veryard Projects Ltd