Intel’s Genevieve Bell Talks About Women and Technology

A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in the IntelUpgrade event at Intel’s headquarters, which brought together a group of women bloggers from around the country for a day of learning about Intel and some of its projects – including their education initiatives, their research projects, and I got to get a hands on with some of the latest mobile products powered by Intel processors.

Initially when I took a look at the itinerary, I noticed that there was a session entitled Ethnography Update “Women & Technology” with Genevieve Bell. I overlooked the word “Ethnography” and right away imagined that this would be one of those discussions about women’s roles in technology – perhaps it was about how important women are in the purchase process, or that women are just as intelligent as men when it comes to understanding/grasping technology. Because I’ve heard these topics discussed in so many forms over the passed few years, I automatically assumed that the session would be focused on something along those lines. Instead I was introduced to a different side of Intel. Having covered the Intel International Engineering & Science Fair, I was aware of some of their education initiatives, but up until this visit to Intel’s headquarters, I had thought of Intel just as a company obsessed, albeit in a good way, with making the best and fastest processors. And while that still holds is true in many ways, I did get the opportunity to find out about Intel’s passionate interest to observe how people interact with technology. Intel is on a mission to understand what needs to be improved with technology in different communities, and thus how technology can better peoples lives. There is a human side to technology that we often don’t take in to consideration, but Intel does because they understand that at some point having the fastest processor just isn’t enough.

Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist, and also the Director of User Experience within Intel’s Digital Home Group, has worked for over a decade at Intel being involved with research and development – specifically in the area of ethnographic research. She has traveled the world to study local practices, the culture, daily life, small rituals and patterns of people in different communities, in order to understand what are the barriers to technology adoption and in turn how technology can work best in different places and homes. Consequentially, she has spent much of the past 10 years visiting real families’ homes around the globe, getting to know them, their challenges, aspirations, and hopes – and the real reasons for as to why people want technology in their life.

Her research has come up with both some startling and fascinating observations, particularly in the way women use technology in different places, and we were fortunate to hear about some of them. She presented us with many examples of women that she had gotten to know around the world, but there were a few that particularly stood out for me. For example, in Korea where avatars are extremely popular, Genevieve observed a woman who woke up every morning and dressed herself first, and then would dress her avatar the same way as she dressed herself. She even noticed that sometimes the woman would purchase clothing for her avatar, and then she would go out and look for a matching real world outfit for herself. When Genevieve asked her why she did this, the woman responded by saying, “why wouldn’t she do this?” The Korean woman explained that the internet is an extension of the real world where you network yourself, so why wouldn’t your avatar look like yourself? Here in the U.S., where most of us tend to make our online Avatars a fantasy character, and some thing as further away from our real selves as possible, this is a hard lifestyle to relate too. Yet at the same time, this woman’s reasoning makes sense.

Here are some other interesting facts that Genevieve brought to our attention:

– In India, 80% of cyber-cafes in rural India are run by women.
– In Singapore and Indonesia, maids who can clean and provide IT support are highly sought after.
– In Korea, 70% of gamers are female, in the U.S. that number drops to 40%, and in the U.K., it drops to 25%.
– 64% of Facebook users are female.

If you look back at history, 70% of the first automobile drivers with licenses in 1917 were women. Despite what many may assume, women are also very often the first to adopt new technologies. Today, women tend to access the internet from wireless devices more than men do. As a matter of fact, in the USA, more women were early adopters of wi-fi than men were. Ms. Bell concluded her presentation with this thought. She explained that there is no right answer to the question what do women want from technology. But probably the answer to that applies to everyone as well, including men. Overall, it’s not just about gender, but also about age, culture and other influences.

It is fascinating to comprehend, that even though we are living in a global village where our own social and economic actions can effect others on the other side of the planet, and international communication between individuals is so common,  that different communities in different places could use technology so differently, and manage to have such different desires for their use of technology. I admittedly had never given much thought in to the cultural impact on technology until after this experience. Overall, I am grateful for Intel for putting together the Intel Upgrade Event. Aside from having the opportunity to get together and interact with a group of awesome women bloggers, the experience gave me a fresh new perspective on technology and where it’s headed.

Update 07/08/09: Intel has put up a video of Genevieve’s presentation

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