Digital divide encompasses more than technology

December 13, 2002

Access to information technology and training in IT skills are supposed to level the economic playing field for women and low-income minorities, but two Penn State researchers say acquiring that expertise alone doesn't automatically lead to upward mobility.

In fact, the information society may be perpetuating social and economic inequalities by race and gender, say Lynette Kvasny, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, and Eileen Trauth, professor of information sciences and technology. By themselves, technology and IT skills will not bring more minorities and women into the workplace. Essential in bridging the digital divide is dismantling the social and cultural barriers that exclude underrepresented groups from equal participation in the information society.

Those barriers are explored in the paper, "The Digital Divide at Work and Home: The Discourse about Power and Underrepresented Groups in the Information Society," presented today (Dec. 13) at the International Federation of Information Processing Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

"The assumption is if underserved groups get IT skills, they can compete effectively," Kvasny said. "But there are broader issues and a need to look at the institutions - be they the workplace, home, schools or communities - where people are still marginalized."

Kvasny's conclusions were drawn from interviews with African-American participants in a community technology center in Atlanta, Ga., that offered free use of and training on computers. The center was a city initiative aimed at enabling low-income residents to become IT literate.

Trauth studied women in IT positions in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

Common to the two seemingly disparate groups were the coping strategies they devised for dealing with the economic and social inequalities found at home and in the workplace. For many of the African-American program participations, the newly acquired IT skills weren't the passport they had been told would guarantee their admittance to the information society.

While they may have entered the gate, many of the professional women in IT in those industrialized countries also had limited career opportunities.

Kvasny and Trauth characterize those shared responses as conceding to, conforming to and challenging the IT power structure that separates the insiders from the outsiders.

Kvasny noted how some inner-city residents characterized IT as "not for people like us" with some African-American males even saying that IT is "acting White" or "doing women's work." Others, mostly women, saw the acquisition of IT skills as opening employment doors, but primarily to the service industry rather than professional positions.

Few challenged the status quo with the exception of senior citizens who, unlike the stereotype of the intimidated older user, embraced IT for shopping online for medications, emailing distant family members and composing music, Kvasny said.

While the women in Trauth's study were IT professionals, many still were excluded from the information society. Some study participants indicated they felt "forced out" of the IT workplace because of prevailing cultural attitudes limiting women's work opportunities in those particular countries. Others said the IT industry forced women to choose between their careers and their families.

Still others told compelling stories about the time and energy they had to devote to challenging the IT power structure - efforts that were met with varying degrees of success, Trauth said.

Interventions aimed at spanning the digital divide will open the IT sector to more women and minorities only if education about technology skills is conducted in tandem with dismantling existing social and cultural barriers. Without that, IT will become "the latest mechanism for stratifying society," Kvasny said.

"A measure of the success of our research will be the extent to which people understand that the digital divide isn't simply a technology issue but a social issue as well," Trauth said.

Penn State

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