Difference Feminism (Re: online help usability)

Subject: Difference Feminism (Re: online help usability)
From: Steve Owens <uso01 -at- EAGLE -dot- UNIDATA -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 1994 14:06:41 +0700

Andreas Ramos said:
> Computers are inherently very male, in that computers are task-oriented,
> unforgiving, and challenging in their poverty of information. [...]

I'm not certain, but I think that the underlying thesis of
your post is that we need to design different communication strategies
for two different audiences, men and women, in our documentation. I
don't agree with this; we need to design the communication strategies
that will be the most effective for the audience our document is
targeted, period.

If we _know_ that our document is targeted at women, as
opposed to men, (e.g., "Early Warning Signs of Breast Cancer") then
certainly we write it one way, whereas a document targeted at men
(e.g., "Early Warning Signs of Prostate Cancer") is written another

On the other hand, far more often we don't know if our
document is aimed at men or women, but we do know what kind of topic
we're discussing - programming vs. interior decorating, etc. The
topic often has traits (that society labels as "masculine" or
"feminine", but which in reality are genderless) that shape how we
write the document. Based on those traits, in the topic or in our
documents, you may choose to say we're aiming at masculine or feminine
readers. But in reality, we're aiming at the topic, not at the

> [...] There is a lot of hidden complexity, simply for its
> own charm to programmers and engineers. The very shape of a computer: a
> dull grey box, was obviously designed by men: unimaginative, functiional,
> impersonal.

The very shape of a computer was obviously designed by engineers
who couldn't really give a damn if it was pretty or not. Now, if that
field happens to be dominated overwhelmingly by men...

> I look forward to wooden keyboards, veneered monitors, etc, with
> something that doesn't look like it fell out of a starship. It is no
> coincidence that computering is heavily, if not entirely, dominated by
> men: computer science, electronic engineering.

So? What's your point here? Obviously the heavy tech fields
have long been dominated by men and are only now beginning to see a
rise in the number of women. Is this coincidence? No, women have
long been discouraged from entering those fields (both deliberately,
in the reaction of men to women trying to enter male-dominated fields,
and culturally, in the acculturation women receive when growing up in
our society, which tells them that such pursuits as math and science
aren't appropriate for them). That said, what's the relevance to the
topic at hand?

> Deborah Tannen (Ph.D. Linguistics, author of "You Just Don't Understand")
> and Carol Gilligan (Ph.D. psychology, author of "In a Different Voice")
> present very plausible arguments for the difference in the communicative
> strategies of men and women. They argue that men and women start from
> different moral assumtions about the world and people, and, while using
> the same language and even sometimes the same words, mean very different
> things.

Anybody who studies rhetoric would be able to tell you that -
in communication, everything is relative to the sender and receiver.
I think Dr.Tannen and Dr.Gilligan's works are more important in that
they try to analyze *how* the communicative strategies are different
(based on a discussion of the first book with Jim Venis - Dr. Tannen's
book is on my list of things to read).

> There is also reader response theory, which is mostly German (Wolfgang
> Iser), and talks about the reader's understanding and perception of the
> text. It may surprise most people that there is very little actual
> research in this area, despite a 1/2 trillion dollar communications
> industry.

Nothing surprising about it. There's very little research done
in any area of the communications industry.

> [...] for the average user, ie. the non-techie. While it is helpful
> to disrempt humans into men vs. women, it seems more that some men are
> very masculine (in the American sense) and some women are very feminine,
> while most are somewhere in between, depending on circumstances, etc.

I agree, but I don't see much relevance to technical writing.

> In an concrete example, I'm writing a text for new users; i'm
> deliberately trying to write it differently. First, I'm going to test
> the manual (yes, beta-test a manual) by teaching it to classes of
> women. [...]

I'd appreciate it if you'd post the results of your experiment
here. I think it could be very interesting, and might lead to some very
interesting discussions.

> On a last point, I find it important that many technical writers are
> women. It would seem that women are more interested in understanding the
> other person's point of view, and then trying to communicate with them.
> Men would rather simply dictate instructions (think about your
> interactions with male managers!)

You demonstrate, here, an extreme example of stereotyping.
More to the point, while I agree that some people (male AND female)
may use communication tasks as way of establishing dominance, I
suspect (I certainly hope) that most are more professional and more
interested in achieving consensus and exchange of information and

Certainly many, if not not most, of the computer programmers I
know will discuss and debate alternative approaches to a particular
problem, more to establish what they think is the best approach than
to establish their own dominance. I'm sure dominance establishing
does happen, but programmers are typically more fascinated with the
technology than the people :-) (to do a little stereotyping of my

> As Caryn writes, this is a very touchy area. I am very interested in
> other people's constructive opinions. I find that everyone who writes
> will write for a specific audience; often, it is secretely a

I write for a general audience, by writing for a specific
audience that consists of an idealized "average user" who represents
the group of people I think will be using that document. Depending on
the user's level of familiarity and knowledge with the topic (which
translates to competence, but that has too much of an emotive load on
it these days) I may use specialized terms or not. I may gloss over
some logical steps or not. I generally go through the topic, putting
myself in the reader's shoes, and ask myself what questions occur to

Given that the topics I'm dealing with are heavily computer
and programming oriented, in your eyes I'm probably writing for a
more masculine reader. I, on the other hand, feel I'm writing about
a more procedural, process-oriented, logical topic, which happens to
suite the traits this culture has defined as masculine.

Steven J. Owens
uso01 -at- unidata -dot- com

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