Girls and Design: Exploring the Question of Technological Imagination

August 1, 1991

The research presented here began several years ago when a group of us set out to investigate a range of issues around gender and technology. As part of that research, we speculated that the activity of design was a promising way to support alternative pathways for girls into the world of technology.

To test this theory and unpack issues that surround how technology is perceived and used by gender, we devised a paper- and-pencil projective task in which men and women and boys and girls were asked to imagine futuristic technological devices. Our purpose was to explore the symbolic aspects of technology by asking individuals to elaborate on their less-than-conscious associations to technology. Specifically, the adults were asked to write a reply to the following scenario: If you were writing a science fiction story in which the perfect instrument (a future version of your own) is described, what would it be like? The task was modified slightly for the adolescents, and read as follows: If you were writing a science fiction story about the perfect school computer (a fabulous machine), what would it be like?

The sample for these studies consisted of 24 adult technology experts (13 women and 11 men) and 80 early adolescents (41 girls and 39 boys) who were not particularly sophisticated about technology. While we found evidence suggesting an overlap between the genders, there was a definite and characteristic difference in the way adult men and women in our sample fantasized about the relationship between humans and machines (Brunner et al., 1990).

Women commonly saw technological instruments as people connectors, communication, and collaboration devices. control, tremendous speed, and unlimited knowledge. Their technological fantasies were often embedded in human relationships, and they served to integrate their public and private lives. The men, in contrast, tended to envision technology as extensions of their power over the physical universe. Their fantasies were often about absolute control, tremendous speed, and unlimited knowledge.

The results of our studies with adolescents were congruent with the results of the adult subjects (Brunner et al., 1990). The difference in technological imagination points in the same direction as the adult fantasy material. Girls' technological fantasies tended to be more about household helpers, contact bringers, machines that offer companionship, or devices with which they could broaden their social and personal networks. On the other hand, boys fantasized about extensions of instrumental power, often thinking up tools that could make other technological objects overpower natural constraints.


Margaret Honey
Dorothy Bennett
Peggy Clements
Jan Hawkins
Cornelia Brunner