Smart Homes & Women in STEM

by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

When it comes to smart homes I really wanted to write a book that was going to increase in technical jargon with every chapter but start from the very beginning. The home is a space that is also too easily pointed as ‘female’ while the technology sector remains predominantly 'male'. For me, the ‘male gaze’ is transformed, in the area of smart homes, into the male brush: how a man paints a mental image of what happens to women at home and therefore how he designs solutions for her. 

This is very clear in the repetitive nature of the solutions designed for women in the home: from the First Home Computer, the ECHO IV designed in 1966 by a Westinghouse employee Jim Sutherland, to the MIT micro-apartment that is now being commercialised. 

Women were not always so clearly associated with home making or even home economics/management in the way we think of it now. Reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, you can immerse yourself in the robotic nature of home life in the 1930s where the only decision you made as the lady of the house was to approve the menu choices for the day. Everything else was done by maids, butlers, cooks, the housekeeper, the ‘agent’, the gardener.

Every technology that developed thereafter was done to replace these different people and what they offered the rich 100 years ago. A middle class family, not able to afford the same level of help, invested instead in electric appliances. 

A woman in the home today is trying to manage her own career, her children’s upbringing, her partner’s needs, get some food on the table, get some washing done, and make sure the right things are bought. No other woman has ever had as much to do throughout history. 

What does this mean for STEM then? Well, it certainly means we have to try to fit the up-skilling of women into this complex array of responsibilities. 

What is often described as ‘edtech’ is often just another toy for parents to pick from while they struggle to sync up their Bluetooth speaker system to their Android phones. Education technology should be about training women of all backgrounds to understand the privacy and security aspect of the objects they surround themselves with, and helping them build either careers in cybersecurity or design better solutions themselves. 

In London, the University of the Arts London has a course called the ‘Feminist Internet’ in which created in-home solutions with a feminist slant.

I’d want to see more mothers creating smart objects for their own experience of home life. I’d want to see the type of training that used to be offered by the Electrical Association for Women (EAW) who in the 1920s trained women to understand home wiring, plugs, fuse box systems and gave them literacy skills that would make them independent and not reliant on a ‘man with a van’. 

Fixing things is only the beginning of a career in technology. It is the key to building up knowledge and independence, especially when many connected home objects are used for coercive control in an increasing amount of domestic abuse, which researchers at the University of Oxford’s Ethics Lab are studying. 

The home space is becoming ‘weaponised’, being filled with an increasing amount of technologies that we don’t understand anymore. It’s time we revisit the source of these ideas and questioned the solutions we’re presented with.

About the Author

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is an interaction designer, product designer, consultant and entrepreneur. She was named 1st in a list of 100 Internet of Things Influencers (Postscapes, 2016), 2nd in Top 100 Internet of Things Thought Leaders (Onalytica, 2014) and in the Top 100 Influencial Tech Women on Twitter (Business Insider, 2014). She is the founder of the Good Night Lamp, connected lamps for your global friends and family. She was co-founder and CEO of Tinker London, a smart product design studio. Tinker was the first distributor of the Arduino platform in the UK. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the London Design Museum and galleries around the world.

This article was contributed by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, author of Smarter Homes.