Minority women perceive IT as way to promised land

April 16, 2003

Minority women in low-income communities perceive information technology (IT) as a means of escaping poverty -- their first step on the road to upward mobility, says a Penn State researcher.

In contrast, highly educated, middle-class and professional women view IT as offering fewer opportunities for advancement, suggesting that IT and gender studies shouldn't focus on women as a homogenous group, said Dr. Lynette Kvasny, assistant professor of information sciences and technology.

"If you're talking about developing programs in technology training, it's important to understand the history and culture of the people you are working with and not just implement a standardized curriculum," Kvasny said. "Populations of women have different and competing perceptions about technology's potential impact on their life experiences."

Many IT and gender studies have looked at women as a collective and generalized from the experiences of middle-class women in the IT profession or studying at universities, Kvasny said.

These primarily White women feel marginalized in the White male-dominated IT workplace. In their perspective, technology skills and IT training may not lead to advancement or greater opportunities.

The women Kvasny interviewed, many of whom were single parents and had incomes below the poverty line, believed that IT skills would empower them. They noted how their training would lead to higher paying jobs.

But the faculty member in Penn State's School of Informational Sciences and Technology sees potential for IT skills to produce a different kind of empowerment for minority women. IT can improve minority women's lives by giving them the skill set to organize to get a bus stop in their neighborhood, discover how to take a bad landlord to court or learn how to file for child support.

"IT skills can be taken beyond the workplace to transform and shape inner-city communities," she added. "Technology can build people's capacity to learn and to discover their communities' assets."

Kvasny based her findings on interviews with African American women participating in a 14-week computer-training program in 2001 in a southern city. The research is detailed in a paper, titled "Triple Jeopardy: Race, Gender and Class Politics of Women in Technology," presented April 12 at the Association for Computing Machinery's "Freedom in Philadelphia: Leveraging Differences and Diversity in the IT Workforce" conference.

Minority women also saw their technology training as helping them better connect with their children, who were being exposed to computers in day care centers and schools. Drawn to Biblical imagery and the Exodus metaphor, minority women consider Cyberspace as a promised land of economic betterment and societal inclusion, Kvasny said. In that worldview, IT access and skills will enable the overcoming of the barriers of poverty and social alienation that have shaped many minority women's existence.

"Technology is like a beacon to these women who live in turmoil, uncertainty and danger; It offers a different vision for them," Kvasny said. "However, their enthusiasm masks the reality of the IT workplace. Unlike middle-class women whose job opportunities include positions as programmers and systems analysts, these minority women in my study will work in the service sector. But the new IT skills will keep them from being left further behind and help them progress."
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The IST Web site is http://ist.psu.edu.

Penn State

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