Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Plucking a Chicken: Technology and Gender Bias

Charlotte, b. 1854 d. 1923
She would be very surprised to be in a
21st-century blog post.
My great-grandfather’s family raised chickens, and whenever they had the hankering for a roast chicken, poor old great-grandmother Charlotte would be off to the coop to do the slaughtering and plucking.  

The story goes that one day Charlotte was away from home and husband Karl decided he wanted chicken for dinner.  So the men of the house took it upon themselves to do the slaughtering and plucking.  That’s when they discovered something that Charlotte had known for years: It’s difficult and time-consuming to pluck a chicken.

Needless to say, when Charlotte arrived home from her travels she was greeted by some kind of brand new, automatic chicken-plucker.  

I remembered this old family story as I was reading the essays in Carroll Pursell’s American Technology and chanced upon Christine Keinegger’s "Out of the Barn and Into the Kitchen."  It’s a piece about how women’s farm work changed in the first half of the 20th century, a story my great-grandmother would have known all too well.  It’s also a reminder, Keinegger says, that the Industrial Revolution sweeping through factories and cities beginning in the 19th century touched the farmland last—and women’s work dead last. 

“Over and over again farm women complained that they put up with antiquated equipment while their husbands enjoyed the latest in agricultural machinery,” Keinegger wrote.  Here are some of her other interesting observations:
1. A USDA survey of farm households in 1919 found that 42% of farms had power-driven farm machinery while only 15% of the homes had power-driven appliances. 
2. In 1923 a group of Nebraska farm women put forth the following manifesto: 
  • A power washing machine for the house for every tractor bought for the farm. 
  • A bath but in the house for every binder on the farm. 
  • Running water in the kitchen for every riding plow in the fields. 
  • A kerosene cook-stove for every auto truck. 
  • A fireless cooker for ever new mowing machine.

And, important, their share of farm income. 
 3. A bit of 19th-century folk wisdom said that when a farm's home was more impressive than its barn, “the woman is the boss.”  
4. When rural sociologists asked farm women in the 1930s which modern convenience they would choose first, they were unanimous in choosing running water and a kitchen sink.  However, only 17.8% of farm households had running water in 1940.  By 1960 the number was still just 74.8%.  (Consider that a farm household of five people required about 175 gallons of water a day for household use alone.) 
Not infrequently farm women reported that all it took to have their husbands pipe in water was to have the men tote water for a few days.  
The “best letter” to the Farm Journal women’s section in 1948 was from a Kansas farm woman who noted that the chickens and turkeys had running water but her kitchen sink did not. 
5. Similarly, in 1930 only 10.6% of farm households had electricity and by 1940 just 32.6%. 
 6. In 1948 a feature in Farmer’s Wife highlighted a woman who saved seven hours a week by trading in her old wood stove for an electric range.  With her newly acquired time did she rest?  No; she took back all the family sewing, which had been previously hired out.
This endless and often unnecessary drudgery led to a mass exodus from rural areas in the early 20th century--led by women.  In 1920 in New York State the gender ratio on farms was 120 men to every hundred women, and rising fast.

In 1917 Susan Keating Glaspell wrote a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers.”  In it, a farmer is strangled and the men search the barn and yard for clues while the women are left in the kitchen.  It turns out, of course, that the kitchen is where all the clues lie, and the women’s horror quickly turns to sympathy as they realize the farmer’s wife was being worked to death by her husband, and inadequate technology.  The “thought of Minnie Foster trying to bake in that oven” caused them to dispose of the clues pointing to her guilt.

When we think about how quickly a new technology will spread, we usually focus on how much better it is than the technology it’s replacing.  But social factors, such as who controls the family income, often have as much or more to do with the speed and pattern of technology diffusion then the merits of the invention.


I am also reading Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work.  It’s a book featuring 32 interviews with technology founders (of companies like Adobe, Apple and Microsoft)—only one of which is female. One out of 32.

So, I headed over to Livingston’s blog and found this, dated July 2008:
Today's San Jose Mercury News has an article reporting that there are now zero female CEOs at top Silicon Valley tech firms.  I spoke with the reporter for this piece and shared a few Y Combinator statistics. Between the 102 startups we've funded-- about 250 people total-- only 7 of the founders have been female. 
This ratio is reflective of our applicant pool. There just don't seem to be a lot of women founding tech startups. This is not new news to me-- I struggled to find women to interview for Founders at Work. . . 
Of course, the gender-based adoption of technology and the gender-based leadership of technology companies are not exactly the same thing, but they may spring from the same weird sentiment--that somehow technology is male, or macho, or not of interest or meaning to females.

The day my great-grandfather invested in a chicken plucker, he knew he could have done better.  The same is true today: we can do better.