"Tool Without a Handle: Metaphors of Gender"

Tool Without A Handle:  Metaphors of Gender

It’s difficult to recall an internal memo gone viral that has sparked as much commentary as James Damore’s statement on gender and engineering at Google.[1]  This post is not about that memo, although the volume of commentary on it did prompt the thoughts that follow.  Nor is this post about workplace diversity, at least not directly.[2]  Instead, like many other “Tool Without a Handle” posts, it is about metaphor. 

In particular, I wanted to test if, in preferring the metaphor of “a tool you use” as distinct from “a place you go,” I’d taken an “androcentric” view of networked information technologies.  In other words, is “tool” a masculine metaphor, implying a gendered orientation towards my preferred approach to thinking about technology? 

I conclude the answer is “no,” in part because metaphor differs from gender, and in part because metaphor is a feature of language, while gender is a feature of persons.[3]  Moreover, I identify a general objection to dichotomizing and to gender metaphors.  Metaphors that utilize comparisons to physical objects – places and tools - have consistent reference points, while metaphors that utilize comparisons to gender refer, instead, to concepts that are fluid and debated, and thus less useful as reference points.

To arrive at that conclusion, I start with some observations about gender and science, and the criticism that science (including technology or tools) is “androcentric.”

The Science Question in Feminism

The term “androcentric” dates back (at least) to 1911,[4] but I start this discussion with where I first started thinking about these questions:  Dickinson College, and Professor Susan Feldman’s assigned reading:  Sandra Harding’s 1986 work The Science Question in Feminism,[5] one of my first readings in feminist philosophy.[6]  Harding uses the term “androcentric” to describe a science which, she believes, has been created by, and for, what she calls “Western, masculine, bourgeois endeavors.”[7]  She doesn’t list examples, but one can hypothesize that such include military conquest, economic conquest, colonialism and eugenics. 

The “feminist question in science” is the question of how women fit in to science, given what she posits as its androcentric origins and principles.  The “science question in feminism” is whether science can be applied towards positive, liberalizing ends valued by feminist thought, such as expanding concepts of reliability, quality and virtue to persons of either gender (or transitioning genders).[8]

In this context, Harding discusses whether metaphors – including gender metaphors – have an impact on science (and by implication to our topic, information technologies).[9]  She points out that it is worth first asking if rhetorical devices have any role in science at all.  Science is largely quantitative rather than poetic, and metaphor is difficult to see when looking at data sets. 

Generalizing, Harding concludes the question of metaphor is worth considering – which is important as it points out that there is more to technology and engineering than simply quantitative analysis.  This is a first nose under the tent at establishing science may not be as inherently “androcentric” as some suppose. 

Gender Metaphors

Having established value for the role of metaphor, we can then consider the value of gender metaphors (e.g., “tools are masculine”), as informed by gender (something held by human persons).  I say “informed by” to observe that a gender metaphor includes a suggestion that the qualities of a thing are defined by (or at least informed by) the gender of those responsible for its creation, and by qualities associated with that gender.

This, as noted above, is a basis for her hypothesis that the principles, endeavors, and systems of science are (or were, at the time of her writing) androcentric or, put differently, “masculine.”

This hypothesis uses a gender metaphor to attempt to communicate meaning about, and set the stage for a critique of, the “masculine” orientation of science.  But the ultimate import of such critique is, I believe, that even if science is historically “masculine,” it is not inherently so.  That is, there is nothing about science that excludes the “feminine” or – more accurately, that excludes the “feminist,” in the sense of the values Harding seeks to advance. 

So the answer to the “science question in feminism” is, to be concise, “yes.”  Science (and technology) have the capacity to take on feminist objectives - that is science (as carried out by persons of any gender) can be supportive of political, economic, personal, and social opportunities for women.   

In turn, this also tells us that referring to science, technology, or tools with gendered metaphors (masculine or feminine) can lead to unhelpful associations and assumptions.  For example, Harding observes critically a tradition where important concepts in science, such as objectivity v. subjectivity, reason v. emotion, and mind v. body, were considered to have a gendered quality; with the former being masculine and the latter being feminine.[10]

Similarly, I ask critically here if the distinction I’ve drawn between “tools” and “cyberspace” is susceptible to the same assumptions.  That is, in stating a preference for “tools” as a metaphor for networked information technologies, did I (possibly unconsciously) also prefer a masculine metaphor over a feminine one? 

Following some commonly understood applications of gender metaphors,[11] it would not be unsurprising for persons to associate “tools” with masculinity and “space” with femininity.  Leaving aside some obvious sexual connotations,[12] we can start with Harding’s observations above about associations of masculinity with endeavors of exploration and conquest and, indeed, with science itself as an “analytic tool.”[13]

In other words, if science is masculine and science is an analytic tool, then the logical gender metaphor for tools is a masculine one. Further, if one considers a dichotomy between "tools" and "cyberspace," where “cyberspace” is a “community” or “environment” then possible associations with qualities traditionally associated with women appear. 

These are inadequate analyses, though, at least for purposes of describing networked information technologies and the policies that should govern them.  Among other things, tools are often also traditionally associated with the historical roles and activities of women, in terms of domestic labor.  Archeology may well show that it was in fact females who invented certain commonplace tools, not only for food preparation but for hunting as well.[14]  If one uses the word “utensil” rather than “tool,’ different associations with gender may arise.  A fully explanatory metaphor of tools - technology that extends or enhances human capabilities – cannot be gendered.

Not only do gender metaphors have limited value in this context,[15] but associating information technologies with gender can aid and abet harmful gender stereotypes which, in turn, can yield environments that are less conducive to full professional flourishing, including that of women.[16]  Such metaphors may also suggest innate qualities in gendered individuals, a question on which science has negative or inconclusive results.[17] Preferable, then, to consider neither “tools” nor “cyberspace” within the frame of gender metaphors.

A More General Objection to Dichotomizing

Harding’s analysis points to an additional objection to the use of gender metaphors:  the dichotomizing between masculine and feminine.  For example, Harding objects to a dichotomy that says there are objective, empirical, indifferent facts on one hand and subjective, theoretical, emotional beliefs on the other.  Part of her objections is to assumptions that correlate “feminine” with the latter set, but her objection is also to dichotomizing at all.[18]

Certainly, men can raise children and women can be effective in combat, but the point goes deeper still.  As a society that is, thankfully but slowly, coming to grips with the transgendered perspective, recognition should be given to the fact that persons can be born with a biological gender but develop with a different gender identity.  This spectrum of valid possibilities for gender identity upends the utility of an either/or gender metaphor dichotomy. 

Diversity is, in many ways, the opposite of dichotomy, and gender metaphors appear to be fraught with dichotomy.  Accordingly, it’s also preferable not to consider “tools” along a masculine/feminine axis and, indeed, neither to consider a dichotomy where information technologies are fundamentally “tools” or “spaces." My intention, from the beginning of this blog, was to ask which metaphor provides the most insight in various contexts.[19]  Any preference for “tools” as a metaphor is not intended to indicate preference for a “masculine” (or a “feminine” approach) to policy and regulation of Internet technologies, nor to suggest "tool" is exclusively preferred.


[1] Most of this commentary was thoughtful, e.g., Debbie Sterling, “An Open Letter to James Damore,”  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/open-letter-james-damore-debra-sterling-1?published=t though as noted in The Atlantic, some commentary confused the issues. “The Most Common Error in Media Coverage of the Google Memo,”  http://theatln.tc/2hKgI8H

[2]As my employer has noted, workplace diversity is accurately considered a competitive advantage: https://www.t-mobile.com/company/company-info/diversity.html; I concur with that observation and leave it there.

[3]The concept of gender can refer to either a biological sex identity, to socially constructed roles, or to a personal identity.  For simplicity, I use the term here to refer to all possible definitions, while bearing in mind important differences between biological gender and socially constructed gender.

[4]The Man-Made World; Or, Our Androcentric Culture by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3015?

[5]Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Cornell University Press (1986); http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100841900  Her work is useful because it is a survey of varying positions in feminist thought on sciences (including technology), identifying differences and contradictions among them.

[6]For an overview of feminist thought on science and technology, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-science/

[7]Whether Harding understates the role of women, or of the feminine perspective, in endeavors such as military conquest, economic conquest, colonialism, or even the creation of scientific method in general is worth asking but a question for elsewhere.

[8]Classical literature, terrifically influential on Western culture, is famous for associations of virtue with masculinity (i.e. Latin virtus -from vir, meaning male).  While the Classical concepts of virtus (or the Greek ἀρετή) are often linked to masculinity or valor by men in battle, those are not the exclusive uses.  Cicero uses virtus to refer to his patient and brave wife and daughter (Cicero, Fam: 14:1 http://bit.ly/2wVpeVa), and Homer uses ἀρετή to refer to Penelope’s heroism in The Odyssey (Homer, Odyssey, 24.192-202).

[9]Harding, p.223

[10]And, importantly for Harding, with the associated premise that scientific progress requires the former, masculine qualities to subjugate the latter.

[11]Some may feel these are not simply metaphors, but stereotypes.  Of course, a stereotype is a form of metaphor; it is a metaphor with negative implications in which a generalization is falsely ascribed to both a group and individuals within that group.  Here, the metaphor “tools are masculine” is not a generalization about individuals, only about objects of language – no stereotype of persons is intended.

[12]In addition to the distraction that might arise from discussion of sexuality, the identification of “tool” with “masculinity” is subject to criticism that it is hetero-normative in its association with sexuality. 

[13]Harding observes that, by adding a feminist perspective and appreciation to science, both the feminist critiques (p. 10) and scientific assumptions themselves such as the subject-object distinction (p.151) become more effective analytic tools.

[14]See J. D. Pruetz, P. Bertolani, K. Boyer Ontl, S. Lindshield, M. Shelley, E. G. Wessling, “New evidence on the tool-assisted hunting exhibited by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) in a savannah habitat at Fongoli, Sénégal,http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/4/140507

[15]Such metaphors may have more utility in the context of intimate relationships.  See, e.g., David Deida, The Way of the Superior Man (1997), p.2-10.

[16]This is not to say that women themselves have no agency in responding to such stereotypes.  “Lean In” -  a (deservedly) best-selling book about “women, work and the will to lead” observed that “there are many reasons for this winnowing out [of women in leadership roles] but one important contribution is a leadership ambition gap” – and then went on to identify ways in which both stereotypes, institutional obstacles, and personal choices play a role in this gap.  See, e.g., Sheryl Sandberg (with Nell Scovell), Lean In (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), p.15-22.

[17]See, e.g., “Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic,”  http://www.pnas.org/content/112/50/15468.full (“Our results demonstrate that regardless of the cause of observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain”).

[18]See also Raia Prokhovnik, Rational Woman: A Feminist Critique of Dichotomy (Manchester University Press, 1999) (critiquing the use of dichotomies such as reason/emotion and man/women, and exploring the potential of non-dichotomous avenues for feminist theory).

[19]See my original blog post: “A Tool Without a Handle,” October 4, 2012 (“The “cyberspace” metaphor, in all its shortcomings, still plays a fundamental role in thinking about technology.  In part this is because, as embodied beings, we orient ourselves with spatial concepts”).  https://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2012/10/tool-without-handle



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