Caring for diversity in IT
Solange Martinez Demarco, University of Tübingen
It is June and therefore Pride Month in many parts of the world. A time to celebrate difference and a month when flags identifying diverse sexual and gender minorities are adopted by public and academic institutions, big and small companies, and many civil society organisations to show their commitment to diversity and inclusion in their workplace practices, actions and words. Thus, it seems only appropriate that at this moment I introduce my work about care for diversity in IT.
Although much has been said about the lack of diversity in the field of technology and more in general in STEM disciplines, the focus has mainly been on the low percentage of women in the IT academia and professional world. A common question that can be heard or read in relation to this is, “Why if women make up half of the world’s population, are there only a small number of them in IT?” Furthermore, there is abundant research and policy guided by a similar concern under the headings of ‘digital gender divide’, ‘business case for diversity’ and ‘leaky pipeline’. In what follows I shortly introduce and define these interpretative frameworks and explain how they create the background against which my research on groups of volunteers that work towards making IT more diverse emerges.
The digital gender gap can be defined as inequality in the access, use, and benefits of digital technologies. The concept associated with the idea of closing social and economic disparities through the internet and computers has evolved through the years. While early research on the topic centred around the access to devices and (broadband) internet, it later included a distinction between basic access and the meaningful use of devices and the internet in terms of digital competencies and types of usage. More recent work focuses on a third aspect related to tangible social, economic, and political offline outcomes (positive and negative ones or benefits and harms) of using devices and internet (Sey & Hafkin, 2019). Yet, some researchers are moving beyond this level claiming that current emergent technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and algorithms should also be considered when studying inequalities (Lutz, 2019). Thus, the abundance of research and policies implemented do not correlate with a closing of the gap. On the contrary, new levels of inequality are identified. Moreover, an important limiting factor is the lack of agreement in terms of conceptualisations and indicators. Currently, available figures at national and international level only pertain to the first and second level of the digital divide, which are reported and accessible on the database of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (Sey & Hafkin, 2019). It is important to note, such statistics are only disaggregated by sex, which explains the simplistic association that public discourses make between diversity and girls and women in IT.
In terms of the business case for diversity, the work comes from research in management and organisation studies and connected areas, and in particular concerning the IT field, supported by consultancy reports, magazines and newspapers articles and international organisations’ policy papers, many times sponsored by big technological companies. In this context, the argument is that due to the chronic shortage of skilled labour in the IT sector, fostering female and other marginalised groups’ participation in the IT workforce is expected to provide a series of economic benefits. On the one hand, new and different voices into the businesses’ decision-making process and development will lead to matching and extending the customer base due to an improvement in connecting companies’ products and services and their customers’ expectations. On the other hand, women’s and minorities’ income will improve, and thereby their purchasing power will increase (WEF, 2016). Even though this perspective considers other sexual and gender identities, racial and ethnic differences and might even refer to intersectional inequalities, there is a paradoxical effect. Critical organisation studies’ scholarship stresses that diversity is conceived in an instrumental and reductive way (Bendl, Fleischmann & Walenta, 2008). Diversity assumes that some characteristics of the individual are intrinsic and essential, which means they are fixed and monolithic, and they do not intersect, for even if they do, it would only place the person further down the hierarchy. The postmodern understanding that identity is incoherent, fluid, and multiple is not acknowledged. Managing requires controlling or rendering controllable those that are different, the ‘Others’. By identifying those differences, rendering them visible and reducing them to fixed categories, it establishes a boundary that generates binary oppositions and sets the norm: boys and men in IT vs. the ‘diversity’ (Metcalf, 2010). This understanding of difference is used to move the focus from unequal structural power distribution to the individual’s attributes, giving those considered different a symbolic role or denying their existence if their subjectivity is not adjusted to the newly created categories (Bendl, Fleischmann & Walenta, 2008). In this sense, normative ideas about what diversity is, who belongs to it and for which reason IT needs diversity are established. Those that find themselves outside of the norm are either expelled from the IT labour force or technologies are designed without considering them (e.g. bias in algorithms).
Finally, the STEM pipeline model is a metaphor used to explain the path followed to careers in those fields. This model proposes a linear educational trajectory that seems to happen in a social vacuum: a toddler comes into the tube slide that begins with early education and comes out when they earn a PhD to either start an academic or a professional career (Garbee, 2017). The leaks along the pipeline would indicate the social and cultural forces that keep away individuals, mostly understood and young girls and women, from making it. To patch these pipes, a research strand has focused on understanding the reasons for the low interest in entering, advancing, and remaining in IT. A set of interrelated psychological, social and structural factors have been identified as the main exclusionary grounds. In terms of psychological explanations, the emphasis is on stereotypes of people in IT as awkward, nerdy males, lacking interpersonal skills and obsessed with technology; the image of the IT field as a male-dominated arena with a bro-culture; the perception that computers are boring and ‘mere’ tools which bring no fun; and, the lack of awareness about IT as a valid career path (Vitores & Gil-Juárez, 2016). Social factors that reinforce the previous ones are among others, families and peer pressure motivating or influencing other career choices and transmitting the stereotype that IT is not for girls, and media representation and advertisement that reinforce gendered representations about computing that disassociate female gender identity from IT, as well as the absence of role models to emulate (Vitores & Gil-Juárez, 2016). Lastly, structural factors such as access and use of computers (the previously mentioned digital gender divide) as well as formal education also count towards explaining the choice. In particular, work in formal education highlights deterring factors such as inadequate curricula and teaching practices as well as teachers’ training, interests, and perceptions about computing (and mathematics) that discourage supporting girls interested in choosing computing as a career path (Vitores & Gil-Juárez, 2016).
This last narrative is problematic due to an overemphasis on young girls and women (and other marginalised groups) as the problem. The metaphor is constructed from a distinctive position, that of the white middle/high-class abled-bodied cis-hetero male, which portrays that women and minorities have a deficit, they lack the attitudes, interests, skills, and other practices that generate a ‘normal’ relationship with technologies. This view omits to mention that a ‘male’ perspective and relation with computers sets the standard to which other groups have to conform to reach equality (Vitores & Gil-Juárez, 2016, Metcalf, 2010). Nevertheless, neither the digital gender gap nor the business case for diversity are exempt from shortcomings, as previously explained. If diversity in IT is to be fostered, a different perspective is needed. A possible option is to look at how diversity is done on the ground, and to avoid the same pitfalls, through the lenses of feminist technoscience studies of care. This approach is not without problems, but following Puig de la Bellacasa (2011, 2017), to care is an ethico-political perspective that is selective in its mode of attention, regarding some things and lives as well as social and/or political issues as deserving of its attachment and commitment at the same time that others are dismissed (Martin, Myer & Viseu, 2015). It also encourages an ethic of response-ability (Barad, 2007), articulating a researcher’s willingness to be moved by an object as much as to be answerable for the world-making effects that certain ways of studying and producing knowledge have. In other words, by applying this perspective I strive to bring to the foreground the work that groups of volunteers (communities, collectives, associations, projects, and others) are doing because they care for a more diverse IT. I do it because I am committed to change the masculinist image of computing and because diversity is not and cannot be reduced to essentialist categories and normative identities.
But I do research on these collectives because their existence and practices are either taken for granted or neglected. And this takes me to the second aspect of care that underpins my work: what, how, and where I study these groups that I care for. The question ‘what’ refers to things such as values, ideals, and motivations as much as their practices. They care for diversity, and it is not in an abstract way but they perform specific activities, they have their own routines and habits, and they include but also exclude certain individuals, technologies, and worldviews. I carefully observe these practices by following their social media accounts, reading their newsletters, participating in some of the activities they organise, joining their private communication channels and also interviewing some of their members. Furthermore, I have applied a selective mode of attention to produce situated knowledge. I have selected some groups in Argentina and Germany and by attending to their differences and similarities I aim to reveal tensions, conflicts, and ambiguities as much as love and appreciation to acknowledge their practices and the modes they make IT more liveable and diverse.
In sum, there is another side to diversity in IT, one that cares for those that are marginalised and does it in particular ways. It is embodied in the increasing number of communities of volunteers who neither define diversity as an essentialist characteristic, nor associate computing with masculine attributes. They are there, one online search away. Be proud of your difference! Find them, join them. Help them, help me, make diversity in IT possible.
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Bendl, R., Fleischmann, A., & Walenta, C. (2008). Diversity management discourse meets queer theory. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 23(6), 382-394. https://doi.org/10.1108/17542410810897517
Garbee, E. (2017). The Problem with the “Pipeline”. A pervasive metaphor in STEM education has some serious flaws. https://slate.com/technology/2017/10/the-problem-with-the-pipeline-metaphor-in-stem-education.html
Lutz, C. (2019). Digital inequalities in the age of artificial intelligence and big data. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 1, 141–148. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbe2.140
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Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. University of Minnesota Press.
Sey, A. & Hafkin, N. (Eds.). (2019). Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership. Report of Equals Research Group, led by the United Nations University, Macau. https://www.equalsintech.org/taking-stock
Vitores, A., & Gil-Juárez, A. (2016). The trouble with ‘women in computing’: a critical examination of the deployment of research on the gender gap in computer science. Journal of Gender Studies, 25(6), 666-680, https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2015.1087309
World Economic Forum (WEF). (2016). The Future of Jobs. Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. https://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/