Andreas Baur and Solange Martinez Demarco, IZEW
Participation is the act of taking part or becoming involved in something (event, activity, discussion, decision, or similar). As such, this abstract definition requires an adjective that modifies the noun to specify the setting in which participation is expected, encouraged, studied, etc., i.e., ‘social’, ‘economic’, ‘political’ participation. In the past twenty years, the term has been mainly in use due to a crisis of legitimacy in traditional forms of expertise and authority and the corresponding turn to more pluralistic and democratic decision-making processes in a variety of fields (Newman & Clarke 2018; Barnes, Newman & Sullivan 2007). In this sense, the main idea of the concept is to achieve a more balanced distribution of power that is reflected in the outcome of a process (Pateman 1970). Likewise, the prerequisites for 'owning' the problem and having a substantive influence on the result are access to information to better identify, understand, and support participants' interests, opportunities to be part of the process, as well as active and meaningful engagement.
In modern societies, social interaction and also participation is often mediated by information technologies (IT). Fostering participation in personal and public decisions is essential for a diverse democratic society, and it has to be possible and available for all individuals. Of course, participation is no guarantee for a good and democratic society, but without participation, there is no democracy. In this short spotlight text, we will approach the positive aspects of the concept of participation from two perspectives inspired by our research projects. Namely, we will discuss participation in and through infrastructure and participation on a collective level: Firstly, we are looking at the foundations of participation in the design of and via technological infrastructures. Secondly, we present some of the barriers to the meaningful participation of women and minority groups in technology.
By discussing these perspectives, we show that participation is relevant and needed in almost any work that is concerned with the design and use of technologies in democratic societies.
Participation in and through infrastructures
Not only the design of software, services, and surfaces is relevant for enabling participation, but also the underlying technological infrastructures. This also includes the setup of the internet as a whole and its networks, forms of cloud computing, the setup of data centres, and much more. Thus, the relation and impact between participation and infrastructures are relevant in at least two ways.
Firstly, IT infrastructures and their design, availability, and accessibility influence who can use them and in what ways. The simplest example would be households without high-speed internet access, separating them from social contacts, education, businesses, healthcare, and cultural activities. But it is not always that obvious how infrastructures are influencing possibilities to participate. Often, these connections are much subtler but still effective. Take, for example, the challenges to the idea of net neutrality, i.e., attempts to treat distinct types of internet traffic differently, privileging one type of traffic over another. Therefore, IT infrastructures can have an enabling but also hindering effect on the possibility of participation, be it in society, politics, the economy, or other fields.
Secondly, we should look at participation not only as being enabled through using IT infrastructures but also as important when developing them. Since IT infrastructures play such a crucial and fundamental role for our societies, inclusive design, non-discrimination, and accessibility are key also from a normative standpoint. 'Participatory design' is an idea and a research strand aiming at including all stakeholders in the design and development of technologies (for an overview: Simonsen/Robertson 2013). It follows the conviction that including users and especially also minorities in the process of its design helps to make the technology under development more inclusive. Unfortunately, most infrastructure designs and developments are undertaken without enough elements of participatory design. One example that can be named is the recently launched project GAIA-X, which aims at developing a European cloud ecosystem. It strongly claims that the project fosters a translation of European values (such as openness, fair competition, and human rights) into modern IT infrastructures. However, unfortunately, it is primarily companies that are designing and defining its setup. Thereby, companies that will use GAIA-X in the future are included in the design. Still, it falls short of including civil society actors or the public in a project that claims to be fundamental for the future of European IT infrastructures.
Infrastructures are the ‘backbone’ of societies. Since modern and democratic societies are not thinkable without inclusive infrastructures that allow and empower participation, we need to advance and strengthen forms of participatory design also when developing basic IT infrastructures.
Participation of women and minorities in developing and using digital technologies
Besides the technical foundations, another aspect of participation tackles which groups and collectives are underrepresented in developing and using digital technologies. Participation of women and minorities (i.e., LGBTQI+, Black people, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities) in IT is a well-known field of research that acknowledges the economic, moral, and political value of diversity in IT. The disparity in the access, use, and benefits of digital technologies has been called the digital (gender) gap. This divide is understood as the economic, social, and cultural obstacles preventing or limiting women's and minorities' access to, use of and benefits from IT.
Although digital technologies are presented as beneficial for minorities in social, cultural, political, and economic terms, the emphasis is on the economic understanding of empowerment and equality. The 'business case for diversity' argues that fostering female and other marginalised groups' participation in the IT labour force is expected to provide a series of economic benefits, including a better understanding of customer needs, attracting and retaining talent ― particularly in the IT sector, acknowledged as having a chronic shortage of skilled labour it is claimed that this group can offer a supplementary source of labour ― all of which increases productivity and enhances profits.
Nevertheless, females and other marginalised groups are still a minority in the IT labour market. According to the recently published report Women in Tech Across the Globe: A Good Practice Guide for Companies (2020) by eco, the German internet industry association, only 16.5 % of the European Union IT specialists are women. Several possible arguments help to explain this scenario, including the following ones: (1) the leaky pipeline model used to explain their low numbers, (2) the absence of consideration for alternative pathways, (3) how gender and minorities are defined, and (4) the lack of appreciation for the history of computing. These reasons will be expanded in the following paragraphs.
Firstly, the metaphor used to describe these groups' absence or low participation in the IT academic and professional world is the 'leaky pipeline'. This metaphor is based on a model that proposes a linear educational trajectory that seems to happen in a social vacuum, just like water flowing through a tube. Therefore, any early exit of individuals belonging to these groups from the pipe or the education system is a leak. In other words, the pipeline model is problematic because it does not contemplate alternative or non-traditional paths that are characteristic of women's and minorities' career development. In addition, a common understanding of computing and IT narrows them down to programming and discards other environments where a higher number of women and marginalised groups are found learning, researching, or working with computers. Examples of these are art and design, biology, information and library sciences, or in business areas such as commercialisation or translation. Most official statistics reinforce this marginalisation and devaluation of other disciplines and women's and minorities' contributions, making invisible alternative understanding of computing and alternative ways to participate in it (Vitores & Gil-Juárez 2016; Metcalf 2010).
Furthermore, countries providing national figures on the topic tend to present categories in biological and binary ways, and lack the possibility for intersectional identities (Sey & Hafkin 2019). Comparisons are usually between the aggregate number of males and the aggregate number of females, or the white population against the rest of racial groups. At most, these studies can go as far as to consider the intersection between gender and race, focusing on women of color. The result of such coupling is the association between technology and maleness and the marginalization of those who are not reflected in the figures (Metcalf 2010).
Finally, research on women and minorities in the history of computing has adopted a critical lens problematising the biological explanation about their underrepresentation and rescuing the names and key roles of women and minorities in the very definition of the field. Scholars have also adopted a feminist perspective that highlights gendering processes of configuring computing as a male activity: a non-natural gendered development caused to associate technology to particular characteristics, skills, attitudes, and images attributed to masculinity, pushing females and minorities out of the field (Vitores & Gil-Juárez 2016).
In sum, the lack of meaningful participation of women and minority groups in digital technology is a multi-causal phenomenon. Fostering their inclusion and involvement in IT and, more generally, in a democratic society, will require a comprehensive approach that addresses all the reasons for their low numbers, particularly the association between digital technologies and masculinity. In that sense, one among the many necessary interventions can be promoting ‘safe spaces’ such as communities, collectives, associations, and similar projects, where openness, security, privacy, and trust prevail, any type of question can be asked, sharing knowledge, experience, and support is common, and most importantly, technology is separated from masculine traits.
Participation on different levels (we presented perspectives regarding infrastructure and collectives) is crucial in shaping public developments and decision-making to achieve better, inclusive, and more democratic outcomes. Therefore, it is essential to look at several levels of participation to develop comprehensive and tailor-made approaches to target barriers adequately. We have shown why it is desirable to include civil society actors in the development of (especially public) IT infrastructures and to foster safe spaces where women and minorities can establish a different relationship with technology.
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