Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship


How technology can reinforce - and challenge - gender norms

Friday 31 March, 2023

by Tala Ross

Tala Ross

On International Transgender Day of Visibility Tala Ross (South Africa-at-Large & Keble 2020) talks about their research into technology and its role in reinforcing and challenging binary gender norms in society.

Hi! I’m trans non-binary, which to me means that I’m kind of like a boy who’s never going to become a man. Imagine the boyish endearing awkwardness of Mae Martin embodied in someone who aspires to dress like Harry Styles, and is unreasonably attached to their middle-part curtain soft-boy haircut – that’s me. When I’m not finding elaborate ways to describe my gender, I spend my time working on human-centred computing research, focusing on (re)designing technology for and with trans communities. So, what does that mean, and why and how am I researching this?

In the modern Western world, gender is viewed and enforced as binary, following directly from biological sex and linked to specific appearances, actions, and language – what we might call a gender/sex binary ideology. This binary gender ideology is deeply engrained in pretty much all aspects of society, and structures even the most mundane daily activities, whether you are trying to go to the bathroom – pick the triangle or triangle-less door – or order coffee – “here we go, ma’am/sir” – or fill out state-mandated legal forms – bind yourself to F or M.

However, we also find ourselves in a burgeoning trans movement – a bubbling over and amassing of gender variance, fluidity, and boundlessness – with (slowly) growing visibility and support for trans and non-binary people. Indeed, trans experiences – the moving across or beyond the boundaries of binary, imposed gender – question the structuring of society around gender binaries, with trans interactions with even the everyday (such as ordering coffee, going to the bathroom or filling out forms) rendering the binary structuring of society illegible.

In many ways, digital platforms and spaces – social media, search engines, and so on – have become a stage upon which social interactions take place, and thus a stage for both the perpetuation and disruption of the gender/sex binary. However, it is important to pay attention to how these digital stages afford and foreground binary gender performance and reinforce this binary.

For example: gender recognition software used by biometric surveillance systems fundamentally fails by presuming gender is linked to appearance and thus presuming that gender is recognizable; search engines and other large-scale artificial intelligence systems have been shown time and time again to reproduce and reinforce racial, gendered and cultural biases; and from buying cat food to booking flight tickets, online interfaces will unnecessarily require people to disclose their gender and far too often force them to pick from binary options.

Beyond their normative design and implementation, digital platforms, particularly social media platforms, have become the primary means for anti-trans mobilisation, hate, and bullying, with recent studies highlighting that these platforms fail to adequately prevent the spread of misinformation and hate speech.

However, on the flipside, I know that I for sure do not want to wake up without all the trans people in my phone. Various social media platforms play important roles in many trans people’s identity discovery and formation, and they provide spaces for trans folk to form their own kinship structures and share trans knowledge. Indeed, trans communities – often formed and maintained online in private Facebook groups, Instagram “close friends” lists, or Reddit forums - provide important sites of mutual and interdependent care that responds to the gaps between legal and medical institutions and conventional familial structures in which trans lives far too often fall.

In response to the many compounding ways in which dominant digital platforms too regularly fail trans people and proliferate the binary gender/sex structuring of society, while simultaneously forming an important site for trans identity formation and community building, in my research I focus on the design of trans-centred technologies with and for trans people.

I aim to not only engage with the trans community throughout the design process but in fact to build community through this process by engaging with a group of trans people on what it is we collectively feel we need (or want), what considerations should be involved in the process, and how it should be designed.

Today, 31 March, marks Trans Day of Visibility. If you have read up the “news” lately, or watched a “comedy” special, or experienced the proliferating hate and misinformation on social media, it becomes apparent that in many ways trans people, especially trans women, have never been more visible, but that visibility is starting to seem like a trap door.

Maybe that is because there is a difference between being visible and being seen; between being lied about, being spoken about and being listened to; between villainization, voyeurism, and care. By centring trans community and trans voices in my research I hope to circumvent these all-too common ways in which trans people are subject to spectacle in the public and even voyeurism in academic work, and instead treat trans experience as knowledge and thus trans people as experts.

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