Durack: “Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication”

Durack, Katherine T. “Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 35-43. Print.

Original publication

Durack, Katherine T. "Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication" Technical Communication Quarterly 6.3 (1997). 19 Sep. 2010. < http://www.informaworld.com/10.1207/s15427625tcq0603_2 >
This article considers why women have been absent from the history of technical communication. It discusses research from the history of technology suggesting that notions of technology, work, and workplace may be gendered terms. The piece concludes with several suggestions for defining technical communication so the significant works of women will not be excluded from the discipline''s history.





Wanted to include texts that supported the work women did at home (e.g., sewing technologies). Calls publications an "ideational performance" (35)--a way to test and prove theories-in-process.




Problem: "women largely absent from our recorded disciplinary past" (36).


Possible reasons: rare contributions (possibly due to domestic responsibilities), or (as she will claim) that it has to do with "cultural blinders" that prevented historians from recognizing/acknowledging the contributions made by women. (36)


A "Peculiar Set of Cultural Blinders"


Popular characteristics of technical writing: "a close relationship (in subject matter or function) to technology; and second, an understanding that technical writing is associated with work and the workplace" (36). Three perceptions of key terms may contribute to the blinders: technology, work, and the workplace.


Points out that these are not necessarily gender-neutral terms, because perceptions of where work is done (does your wife work? no, she stays home and takes care of the kids).


History and Women''s Work


his-story. Great men (focus on agency, those who have contributed significantly to tech, sci, med fields) or great works (products). Significance allocated to public sphere (men world) rather than private sphere (woman''s world). [suggests Kerber''s writing on rhetoric of "separate spheres"] Argues we must "contest two assumptions that lead to their [women''s] exclusion from our disciplinary story: First, (the assumption of agency) that women are not significant originators of technical, scientific, or medical achievement; and second (the assumption of technological significance) that women''s tools are not sufficiently technical, nor their work sufficiently important, to warrant study of their supporting texts" (37).


Women as Significant Contributors to Science and Technology


Identifies women''s contributions. Cites Stanley, who "determined that many women''s inventive accomplishments are obscured by having been misclassified, trivialized, or attributed to men" (37).  Stanley contends this happens at least in part due to stereotypes that assume women confined to art, music, dance, etc. and "real" invention = weapons, machines (38). "Women inventors" not a classification for librarians (was Afri-American, Hispanic, Italian, Homosexual, etc. classifications? Is it a valid claim?). Stanley argues absence due to following:


  • patents require disposable income and time (women historically have less)
  • married women in the US and UK could not own inventions/ patents until late 1800s
  • technical and mathmatical training necessary to build models of inventions and patent them not available to women because of gender-segregated education
  • cultural stereotypes discourage women from claiming credit
  • same stereotypes also encourage women to be generous and giving, thereby sharing ideas rather than protecting and profiting


Wacjman also points out that think about tech in terms of industry, not domestic/everyday life. 


Durack also notes that tech that pertains specifically to women''s biological functions and social roles has been essentially ignored (38). (Horticulture, cooking, childcare in technology indices?)


Women as Significant Users of Technology


Women''s and men''s experiences of tech are not identical. With industrial rev, separation of work places from home places, which also divided men''s and women''s spaces. Work places= work for financial gain, thereby privileged. Women taught to run the machinery, not to understand what goes on inside it. Women using sewing machines not considered competence with technology, rather some innate sewing skill.


Cites Stanley again: technology is "what men do" rather than "what people do" (5, cited in Durack 39). Basis of this assertion is cultural views:


  • denies women''s identities as inventors and women''s work aids as "tools"
  • denies women access to knowledge necessary for inventing and protecting tools and ideas
  • diminishes significance of women''s tech skills in areas they are expected to have expertise
  • defines women''s unpaid labor as "not work"
  • defines traditional women''s work as "not technological"


Cites periodic submittal and rejection of cookbooks to STC''s annual publications competition as example.Cites John Harris''s recognition that he would have identified his mother''s root beer making as "industrial production" (40).


The Household as a Setting of Consequence


Workplace perceived exclusive of household. Grants that writers in organizations more easily studied with similar types of textual tasks (e.g., memos, reports). But Durack maintains that much tech documentation used within household-- everything from computer manuals, vacuum cleaners, etc.-- plus those tech documents "consumed" in household (billing statements, insurance documents) (40).


Also, the "workplace" is disappearing. A construct developing after 1850s, again fading with the "home office" (41).


Toward Inclusive Definitions


"we must challenge the dualistic thinking that severs public and private, household and industry, and masculine and feminine labor. I do not know if it is possible to construct a single definition for technical communication that can flexibly accommodate past and future changes in the meaning of work, workplace,  and technology, but toward this end I offer the following observations" (41).


  • Technical writing exists within government and industry, as well as in the intersection between private and public spheres:TC is a form of social action. Although is an organizationa/industriall use, also within households.
  • Technical writing has a close relationship to technology: Defines tech as referring equally to "knowledge, actions, and tools: it is (for example) a network of constructed waterways, the knowledge of when and how to irrigate fields, and the entire set of human actions that comprise this method for farming" (41).
  • Technical writing often seeks to make tacit knowledge explicit: to teach a new tech, tech writing must use text and graphics to appeal to different learning styles. Rutter argues are signs of oral culture/transmission of knowledge. Texts must provide contextual clues and info for user, detail in text and grafx.