Latinas cross the IT border: Understanding gender as a boundary object between information worlds
First Monday

Latinas cross the IT border: Understanding gender as a boundary object between information worlds



Abstract
How do successful Latina IT professionals construct and reconstruct their conceptions of gender before, during, and after contact with the information world of the IT industry? We conducted semi–structured phone interviews with five Latinas who held senior management positions in IT firms in 2008 to explore their reasons for choosing and persisting in the workforce. Using the theory of information worlds as a framework for analysis of gender as a boundary object, this article reports four trends in the perceptions of these women dealing with the relationship between gender and success in IT.

Contents

Introduction
Discussion
Results
Analysis and interpretation
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Decades of educational initiatives have had little measurable effect on increasing the participation of women and minorities in information technology (IT) education and employment (Barker and Aspray, 2006; Cohoon and Aspray, 2006). In 2008, women comprised 57 percent of the professional workforce of the United States (U.S.), but only 24 percent of the professional workforce in IT. Women comprise 16 percent of corporate officers‘ positions at the Fortune 500 technology companies (National Center for Women in Information Technology [NCWIT], 2009). Recent statistics show that only 27 percent of computer scientists in 2008 were female. The more startling news is in 2008, only three percent of computer scientists were female and African–American, three percent were female and Asian and only one percent were female and Hispanic (inclusive of Latinas) (NCWIT, 2009). “The number of African American, Asian and Hispanic women in IT careers is disproportionately low, even considering their presence in the U.S. population and workforce in general.” (NCWIT, 2007). IT careers are “highly skewed by race, gender, and income.” [1]

These alarming statistics encouraged us to study this problem from a distinctive yet imperative perspective. We investigated the roots of the predicament by scrutinizing the information worlds of a group of underrepresented minority women, Latinas [2], focusing on their conceptions of boundary objects (Star and Griesemer, 1989; Bowker and Star, 1999) such as gender, ethnicity, social networks, family and IT. In this article, we report results related to gender from this qualitative study. Semi–structured phone interviews were conducted with five women who held senior management positions in IT firms in 2008 to explore their reasons for choosing and persisting in a workforce that is often described as hostile by women in general (e.g., Klawe and Leveson, 1995; Klawe, et al., 2009; Margolis and Fisher, 2002) and by Latinas in particular (Leggon, 2006). Specifically, this exploratory study seeks to answer the question: How do successful Latina IT professionals construct and reconstruct their conceptions of gender before, during, and after contact with the information world of the IT industry?

 

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Discussion

Background

Equity in IT education and employment is of the utmost importance to the economic and moral future of the nation, yet a scant and conceptually narrow research base has made it difficult to address the precipitous decline in women’s participation (Barker and Aspray, 2006; Cohoon and Aspray, 2006). Socio–cultural norms interact in complex ways that perpetuate barriers to representative participation by marginalized groups across all walks of life. Cohoon and Aspray [3] suggest that a possible explanation for the continual decline in women’s participation in IT over the past 25 years despite multiple interventions “is that the issue is complex, making it difficult to know how to go about reaching gender balance in information technology (IT).”

IT is by no means the only science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discipline facing workforce shortage concerns. The Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers program, which superseded the Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education program, was established by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2001 to encourage institutional solutions to empower women’s participation in science and technology.

The U.S. must continue to improve the quality and diversity of its workforce to remain competitive globally. Growth in technology and research and development have proven especially important, and, as innovation has become increasingly critical to economic success, the loss of human capital in the STEM fields has placed the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage (National Academy of Sciences, 2005). One of the NSF’s key strategic goals is to “develop a diverse, internationally competitive, and globally engaged workforce of scientists, engineers, and well–prepared citizens.” (NSF, 2001) As Castells (1997; 2000a; 2000b) convincingly demonstrates in his important studies of economy, society, and culture in the information age, the U.S. will endanger its position in the global economy if it becomes complacent about the development of the IT workforce. While the U.S. initially dominated this sector, other nations, especially in East Asia, have begun to demonstrate rates of growth that far surpass those of the U.S. (Subramaniam and Burnett, 2006).

There are indications that women in developing countries are not affected in the same way as those in the U.S. (Klawe, et al., 2009). More than 50 percent of students enrolled in natural sciences (including IT) in Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, the Philippines, and Singapore are women. Women represent at least 50 percent of the students in IT at public universities in Malaysia (Hafkin and Taggart, 2001). In the Middle East, women earned 43 percent of first–time math and computer science degrees (National Science Board, 2008). Women have made significant contributions in highly skilled IT work in Brazil, India, and Malaysia, taking up the roles of software programmers and computer analysts (Hafkin and Taggart, 2001).

However, in the U.S., a continuous decline in women’s participation in IT is unmistakably evident in the statistics presented in the beginning of this paper. Substantive recent studies have been conducted to examine the underrepresentation of women in IT in the U.S. (see book edited by Cohoon and Aspray, 2006). Barriers for women in IT vary but may be categorized into four main groupings: difficulties balancing career and family; problems based on stereotypes; magnification of problems affecting all members of the workforce; and, overt discrimination and harassment. However, as Cohoon and Aspray (2006) lament: “We have to face the fact that 25 years of interventions have not worked.” [4] We believe that it is timely to scrutinize these problems through the lens of the information worlds that these women inhabit. Understanding the differences in conceptualizations of gender between Latinas’ information worlds and that of IT may lead to understanding the underrepresentation of women in IT, and suggest new interventions that may reverse the trend.

We decided to focus only on gender in this article, although we are aware that boundary objects such as ethnicity, social networks, family and technology are in complex mutually constitutive relationships with gender and are perhaps in some ways almost indistinguishable. However, we assert that by examining the findings one boundary object at a time, we will be better able to comprehend the negotiation and translation processes that were recounted by these Latinas in detail in intensive semi–structured interviews. This study seeks to understand how Latinas’ “situatedness” in information worlds affects their negotiation of gender at the borders between their information worlds and the information world of the IT industry. Specifically, this paper examines the construction and reconstruction of Latinas’ conceptualization of gender before, during, and after contact with the information world of the IT industry, in order to better understand how this construction influences the decisions of successful Latinas to pursue education and employment in IT related fields.

Gender as a boundary object

Technology, gender, ethnicity, social networks and family are objects (among many) that occupy the boundaries between information worlds. The concept of the boundary object was originally formulated by Star and Griesemer in 1989, and revised by Bowker and Star in 1999.

“Boundary objects are those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them. Boundary objects are thus both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use and become strongly structured in individual–site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete … . Such objects have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities.” [5]

Boundary objects may be utilized to assist in the discovery of theoretical similarities and differences in how boundaries are represented across contexts and types of groups, and at the social, psychological, cultural and structural levels (Lamont and Molnar, 2002). This concept of boundary objects is imperative because it emphasizes that “boundaries are conditions not only for separation and exclusion, but also for communication, exchange, bridging and inclusion.” [6] Examining the literature on gender reveals a vivid and comprehensive treatment of boundaries defined as “the complex structures — physical, social, ideological, and psychological — which establish the differences and commonalities between women and men, among women, and among men, shaping and constraining the behavior and attitudes of each gender group.” [7]

In the operationalization of gender, previous research has assumed that this boundary object carries enough common meaning across information worlds to provide a basis for communication and cooperation (Lamont and Molnar, 2002). Unfortunately, this assumption has proven false due to changes in the information infrastructures, which have had a substantial influence in the communication process (see an interesting discussion by Star, 2002). This is further complicated by the concept of ambivalence at boundary crossings where women generally have to confront two options: to move through the boundary, or to resist such action (Valsiner, 2007).

Gender roles — defined in this study as heterogeneous constructs developed through life experience of the normative behaviors of communities — function as boundary objects. Most studies have posited a relationship between what women believe/learn/know about IT and their motivation to participate in the workforce responsible for designing, developing, using and maintaining IT. However, the operationalization of gender roles in the majority of these studies has been homogeneous — all women’s views are assumed to be filtered through a single lens labeled “female gender,” similar to how a layperson intuitively labels gender as a male versus female dichotomy (Lawley, 1993; Pawley, 2007; Valsiner, 2007). This dichotomy “overlooks the myriad of everyday life settings where the gender boundaries become indeterminate through gender role neutralization in the case of various social role enactments.” [8] Many studies acknowledge that gender roles are influenced by experiences at home, in the classroom, and information obtained through the media, and feminist scholarship has long since established that gender roles are by definition socially constructed, and therefore culturally differentiated (e.g., Howe, 1997; Pawley, 2007; Tracy, 2002).

Sociologists have comprehensively analyzed gender as a boundary object in professions such as law and medicine, and have generated insights on a whole range of general social processes such as boundary work, boundary crossing, and boundary shifting in regards to these professions (e.g., Epstein, 1993; Lorber, 1984; Williams; 1995). It is timely for similarly rigorous research on the IT workforce. Women — particularly Latinas — are not attracted in representative numbers to pursue careers in IT. Despite a quarter of a century of well–intentioned research and intervention, diversity of participation in IT has not improved. In fact, it has declined and is predicted to continue to do so (Barker and Aspray, 2006; Cohoon and Aspray, 2006, Stross, 2008). The research in gender and IT pursued so far (some recent studies funded by NSF are found in the book edited by Cohoon and Aspray, 2006) delineates definitional differences related to gender, but does not address gender as a boundary object per se, nor does it investigate the negotiation and translation of the borders between the information world of women and the information world of the IT industry (Lawley, 1993). In this study, we explore the construction, negotiation and translation of gender roles through the life experiences of women in the IT profession. This study brings new attention to gender as a boundary object and the gendered nature of IT, particularly as it affects Latina participation in the IT workforce.

Information worlds

The public sphere of the twenty–first century lifeworld (Habermas, 1984; 1989; 1992) is often described as global in span (Carnoy, 2000; Castells, 1997; 2000a; 2000b; Held and McGrew, 2007) and participatory in culture (Jenkins, 2006), but just as there are political borders that separate and segregate nations and states one from the other, so there are socio–cultural borders that separate and segregate information worlds one from the other. Gender, race, and ethnicity are concepts that interact in complex ways and often defy translation across the borders of information worlds.

The theory of information worlds (Burnett and Jaeger, 2008; Burnett and Jaeger, 2009) provided the analytical framework for this research. Four concepts from the theory — social norms, social types, information value, and information behavior — were utilized to examine the effects of gender as a boundary object on Latinas’ decisions to participate in IT education and employment. These concepts were drawn by Gary Burnett and Paul T. Jaeger from the work of information science scholar Elfreda Chatman and philosopher Jürgen Habermas who investigated issues related to social norms and information behavior at different cultural levels: Chatman at the local level of largely homogeneous groups (or “small worlds”) [9], and Habermas at the level of society as a whole (the “lifeworld”) [10]. The theory of information worlds melds these two approaches into a single multi–leveled conceptualization of the interactions between social norms and values, information, and community, particularly in situations in which multiple information worlds overlap, and therefore provides an ideal lens through which to examine the objects at the boundaries between Latinas’ lives and the world of IT.

The four concepts describe normative behaviors and are defined as follows. Social norms allow “for standards of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’” in observable social behaviors [11].

“Social norms provide a shared understanding of propriety and correctness of those visible aspects of social activities within the [information] world, including such quotidian things as styles of dress and what types of behavior are acceptable … . For instance, a simple activity such as hanging out on the street corner may be very much the norm within one world while simultaneously being a cause for concern in another.” (Burnett and Jaeger, 2008)

The concept of social types refers to the ways individuals are perceived and defined in the context of a specific information world. The roles played by individuals within such a context are thus, in large part, a function of the ways in which they are typed by other members of that world.

“A particular individual, for example, may be a trusted source of information while another, because of consistent behavior in violation of social norms, may be perceived as a disruptive influence… . For instance, a person, such as a librarian, tasked with providing information services to a community may well be perceived as an untrustworthy outsider by the very community he or she is attempting to assist.” (Burnett and Jaeger, 2008)

Information value is related to the concept of social norms, but instead of referring to the visible behaviors of people within an information world, the concept refers to a normative understanding shared by the world’s inhabitants concerning which aspects of their world (and the wider world outside of their localized context) are important enough to deserve attention and which are not.

Information behavior refers to the full range of normative behaviors regarding information that are available to members of an information world, ranging from active information seeking to informal social exchange of information and even active avoidance of information that is, for some reason, deemed inappropriate or dangerous.

“For example, in a given community, information about different cooking techniques may be actively and enthusiastically passed from person to person, while information about avoiding sexually transmitted diseases may be rejected outright or distributed only with great care, because it is considered to be socially unacceptable.” (Burnett and Jaeger, 2008)

The boundaries between information worlds are the points at which they come into contact with one another. Like national borders, these boundaries can take a number of forms: they may be permeable or carefully guarded, they may be sites of conflict or cooperation, or they may be mutually agreed–upon or contested. Boundary objects span multiple information worlds and are recognized across borders (Star and Griesemer, 1989), but the value and meaning of a boundary object may differ between worlds. When different worlds come into contact with one another, thus, their understanding of information value and norms may reinforce each other, or may lead to conflict between them.

The theory of information worlds was used in this research as framework for analysis of the gender conceptions of Latina senior IT managers during and after contact with the information worlds of the IT industry.

Research design

We operationalized the question presented in the introduction to this article as the following: Do Latina senior IT managers perceive a relationship between gender and success in IT? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008), 276,820 people were employed as Computer and Information Systems Managers in May 2008. Latinas were less than one percent of this total, or fewer than 2,768. Semi–structured telephone interviews were conducted with five women who currently hold senior management positions in IT firms to explore their reasons for choosing and persisting in the IT workforce. The representatives to the NCWIT Workforce Alliance [12] from ten IT companies were contacted and asked to identify Latinas in senior management positions who would be willing to participate in a one–hour telephone interview. Contacts with five Latinas were established. This is an acceptable number of interviews for an exploratory qualitative study, particularly since the population of Latina senior managers is small and, consistent with the nature of the study, there was no intention of generalizing the results to a larger population. Theoretical saturation was achieved in the themes discussed in the conclusion.

The interview questions were designed to elicit responses about first computer use, first Internet use, educational choice, educational experience, career choice, and career advancement. The questions were designed to explore these women’s perceptions of changes in their own social norms, social types, information value and information behavior, and to relate these perceptions to their decisions to participate in the IT workforce.

The interviews were analyzed using NVivo, a content analysis software. Nodes were established for each of the information worlds concepts, the boundary objects, and key terms from the interview questions. Each co–author coded one or more interviews, then we compared coding; following this the remainder of the interviews were coded. Memos were kept of coding decisions to establish an audit trail. The memos were consulted to ensure consistency had been maintained throughout the process, and the nodes were combined in queries to identify specific passages in the interviews for analysis and interpretation of the gender boundary object.

 

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Results

Table 1 presents demographic information about the participants, who ranged in age from 35 to 60. With one exception, all were born in Latin America. The one born in the continental U.S. moved to Latin America where her parents were citizens before she was three years old and completed her K–12 education there. With the exception of one who attended high school in the continental U.S., the rest completed at least high school in Latin America. One began her bachelor’s degree in Colombia and completed it in Australia. One completed her bachelor’s degree in the continental U.S., and three in Latin America.

One has worked in Puerto Rico throughout her career, two have worked first in Latin America and then in the continental U.S., and one has worked in the continental U.S. and Australia. Three are senior engineers, one is a human resources director, and one is a vice–president of engineering. All worked for IT companies headquartered in the U.S. at the time the interviews were conducted.

 

Table 1: Participant demographics.
NumberParticipantAge rangeCountry of originHigh school completion
(region)
Undergraduate majorDegree
(country)
Current position
1Adele46–50ArgentinaU.S.Mechanical engineeringU.S.Vice–President
2Celia41–45Colombia
(born U.S.)
Latin AmericaComputer scienceAustraliaSenior Engineer
3Gloria46–50ChileLatin AmericaComputer scienceChileSenior Engineer
4Lila36–40MexicoLatin AmericaElectronic systemsMexicoSenior Engineer
5Luisa55–60Puerto RicoLatin AmericaChemical engineeringPuerto RicoHuman Resources Director

 

To ensure consistency in reporting and to protect the identity of the five participants and the companies they work for, each has been assigned a fictitious name. The results are organized by each of the four normative behavior concepts.

Social norms

Social norms are the standards by which an information world measures “rightness” and “wrongness.” Social norms may affect educational and career choices, and are often associated in gender analyses with computer access and use.

All participants reported that their families were supportive and encouraged their interests in math and science throughout their early education and as they were developing their goals for higher education and careers. Their parents expected them to attend college and to pursue careers. None of the participants’ families owned computers, nor were they introduced to computing in their homes. Most used computers for the first time in high school or college and ranged in age from 17 to 25. As Adele explained:

“I used the computer at school. I was a senior. It’s sad. You know, my kids were like three when they [were already using computers].”

Several of the participants indirectly indicated that time and economics were the most important factors affecting this delay. Luisa completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees before personal computers were available:

“I think it was at University of Puerto Rico when … I started teaching … We used, when I went to school, there were, … large, large computer centers and … I remember using the paper cards … . And then I started teaching … I thought it was very liberating. It provided a tool, I think for exploring my creativity, and … gaining control of your documents and … not having to rely on a secretary to type your things. It gave you a freedom … doing things when you wanted, and how you wanted them … with formats and that sort of thing … .”

The computing environment in Chile during Gloria’s college years must have looked much the same as Luisa’s did 20 years earlier:

“At that time in Chile, it was not like here in the U.S., so we were far behind. The people who could afford … [a personal computer] would have invested a lot of money, so basically, only universities at that time would have mainframes, big computers, instead of personal computers.”

None of the participants mentioned gender as a factor contributing to the delay, although as discussed below, male friends appear to have been initiated to computing at an earlier age than these women.

Social types

Social types refers to the ways individuals are perceived and defined in the context of a specific information world, and were discussed by the participants in the context of their introduction to computers, education, and career choices.

Three of the participants were introduced to computers by male friends. Adele, remembered that a male peer introduced her to computing at school:

“A friend helped me … . He was one of these really smart, geeky guys … . He helped a bunch of us who were sort of technical … .”

Lila indicated that her first experience using a personal computer was at the university, but then remembered that her boyfriend in high school had one:

“I remember my boyfriend having one of those green–screen computers, I don’t even remember what the name [was], so actually that was 1988, 1989 when he had one and I don’t know what he was doing with it, games or something … .”

In college, several of the participants experienced stronger indications that their interests were atypical or unexpected of women. Lila explained that:

“In Mexico women study … marketing, business, even computer–related subjects, but not physics, or … all those engineering–related topics, you know it’s more men ….”

There were 80 students in her major cohort, of which only three were women:

“It was a male, you know, male–ish environment, but other than that, I was top of my class, so, I really liked it, I enjoyed it.”

Women were also in the minority in the cohort of students in Chile with whom Gloria entered college. Of 300, less than 50 were women.

“Most of the women went to another engineering field, like chemistry, mechanics, but nobody came so close to the computer science.”

Celia was also initially introduced to computing by a male friend:

“He thought it would be good if he taught a few of us girls. And introduced us, because he thought, I don’t know, he thought maybe it would be better for us to know this before we start doing it at the school the next semester.”

By contrast, female role models received scant mention. Adele was the only participant who discussed the influence of a female role model in the decision to major in a technical field (mechanical engineering):

“I did have a girlfriend in high school that went to Carnegie–Mellon and she went directly into the engineering program there, and that was the first time actually that I thought about engineering. I thought, why, you know is she going into engineering … that’s an odd choice. But then it made me think, well, maybe I could do engineering.”

Adele recounted examples of social typing by gender more frequently than the other participants, and appears to have been aware of it as an issue earlier in her development than the others. During her first employment experience with a telecommunications company in the U.S., she found that the older, male–dominated workforce questioned her abilities:

“The first position I had was putting information systems in manufacturing floors. So, I was 22 years old going into factories with no women there. And I was young, and the people working on the factory floor were like 30 years older than me. So, my first challenge was to sort of overcome the biases, you know, these guys looking at me thinking, what does she know about this stuff? Which is true, I didn’t really know much! I knew stuff, you know, technically from school, but what did I know about installing new systems?”

Her approach to the experience described above is indicative of the attitudes expressed by all of the participants in the study:

“I think ignorance is bliss. In some sense … when you’re young like that … . I didn’t censor myself any which way, right? So I thought I could do kind of anything. I think the opportunity was sort of the freedom to go with full confidence to the factory floor and believe that I could really make a difference … . I would recommend things and do things. And I don’t know, I wasn’t shy about what to do. And I wasn’t stopped.”

In discussing her move from her first position with a telecommunications company to her current position as a vice-president for engineering at a large IT company, she commented:

“I think that they just don’t think that women can be technical … . It’s very difficult, I think, for women in engineering at [this company] in my opinion.”

Other participants reflected indirectly on underlying social typing by gender in the IT industry. Several of the women mentioned that their employers had encouraged them to move from the technical to the management track. Celia remarked that she had elected to stay in the technical track so far, but that others encouraged her to make the move to the management track:

“I’ve been staying in the technical one, but people tell me that I’m good for both tracks. I tend to have a lot of managerial skills by default, that’s what they tell me, but I think it’s just because I’m a woman. I can organize things better … .”

Participants also emphasized balancing family and career in their discussions of gender–based social typing.

Information value

The concept of information value is critically important to the discussion of gender as a boundary object since information value is often the clearest indicator of the status or position of one information world vis–à–vis another. However, because information value is the normative understanding shared by the world’s inhabitants of aspects that are important enough to deserve attention, it is difficult to observe directly. The participants in this study talked indirectly about the conflict between the information value of gender in their personal information worlds and that of the companies they worked for in the context of career advancement and mentoring experiences.

Unlike Celia, Lila deliberately made the transition to the management track. She elected to move to the U.S. to pursue an MBA so that she would be prepared to take on a leadership role. In her discussion of how she came to this decision, she notes that she was not inclined in this direction at the beginning of her career:

“When I graduated I always thought, gee what am I, because I had some people saying I’m going do an MBA, and I’m like, why? You’re an engineer, why do you want to do an MBA? … . I should have started since the beginning … . But then I realized that if I wanted to be a successful business leader, I needed to have some more business education. That’s why I came and did my MBA.”

Completing the MBA did gain her entry into the management track in a U.S. company, but this gain entailed sacrificing her identity as an engineer, and therefore, her goal. Instead of fulfilling her desire to become a technical leader, a role that is clearly valued in her information world, she now describes herself as a generalist who is “sort of in the middle”:

“I’m not technical anymore, and I’m a business person, I’m sort of this generalist person that … needs to … prove that I can manage and be a successful operations leader … . I’m a generalist, I always need to have general management positions, … so I feel like I struggle … . I’m not a technical person anymore, or I’m not an expert anymore, and I’m just starting to become a business person … . The career path is not as defined as with the technical people or with the business people. Because I was sort of in the middle.”

All of the participants were actively engaged in mentoring relationships, though fewer experienced the benefits of having a mentor themselves. Several participants indirectly indicated that mentoring was valued differently in their information worlds than in that of the company. Gloria explains the difference in the information value of mentoring. First, she describes the formal mentoring program offered by her company, in which she currently participates as a mentor:

“We are paired with one person; with a mentee, and then we take it from there. At that point … the program would help you just to pair the people, mentors with mentees. And then after that it is up to you and up to the mentee. I was a mentee in my company originally. I was also a mentee, I got a mentor in my company. And then after that, I became a mentor of two people. And then, you take it from that. You are free to talk about business, or about career paths. This is what I’m doing right now.”

By contrast, she describes her work with an effort directed specifically at Latinas sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute [13] with far more passion and commitment:

“I’m one of the founders of a community sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute … . More than mentoring it’s helping people to get out, to look for opportunities, as my mentor in Chile did for me … . He gave me the opportunity to go to Europe … . I’m willing to talk with people that will need assistance on how to come to the U.S. for their studies, you know, how to do that … .I mean, I got help. It only works when you — once after you got the help — you help somebody else.”

Adele also spoke indirectly about this difference. In the past, she had a mentor, but in her current position as vice–president, there are no formal opportunities for mentoring by higher–level management:

“I don’t think that I have a mentor at this point, which is probably part of my issues. But I do have several people that I go for advice to … . I think, you just sort of reach the level, well, no not really, but yeah, you could reach the level of a company where … maybe you don’t formally, you’re not part of a formal … where it is easy … . I think what happens at this level is you generally build the relationships with a few people and then you go to them for advice. As opposed to having a single mentor, although many people do have … their sponsor or mentor even at this level. [My company does] … have a formal mentoring program, but I don’t know that they have it for VPs. In fact, I know they don’t.”

Like Gloria, Adele is clearly committed to mentoring women and Latinas:

“I do a lot of things around mentoring that have to do with both women and some Latinas. So, for example, about three months ago I participated in a … Working Mother Magazine panel. And then I did an internal panel about three weeks later at [my company] … that catered towards … diversity and I was representing Latinas.”

Participants also discussed the information value of family across the information worlds.

Information behaviors

Information behaviors, which refer to the full range of normative behaviors regarding information that are available to members of an information world, ranging from active information seeking to informal social exchange of information and even active avoidance of information, was an implicit theme throughout the interviews, but was explicitly discussed in relation to first Internet use. For all participants, this occurred as an adult. Today, all of the participants use the Internet to locate and share information for personal as well as professional purposes, although initially each limited their use to job– or education–related information acquisition and communication. All participants indicated that e–mail was the technology they tended to use most and emphasized communication and information sharing in their discussion, as opposed to information searching or acquisition. Web use was primarily focused on sharing information within the company, as described by Adele:

“Some of [my use] … had to do with posting stuff. You know, like building a Web site and actually … posting my own stuff on that Web site.”

Adele also described her early (pre–Web) information searching experiences:

“I think to be honest, initially I was searching for things that had to do with computer science. I was looking for … toolsets, … basically UNIX utilities, UNIX shell scripts … things like that. So I didn’t use it for … entertainment, or my own information, it was mostly related to work.”

Several participants discussed how limited access to the Internet affected their information behaviors. Celia indicated that the Internet was not available to her in Colombia. Her first use was tied to her undergraduate work in Australia. Gloria described the impact that the more extensive resource availability in Switzerland had on her development as a “regular user”:

“When I was in Chile, I had to go to a place to get access, but later when I was in Switzerland doing my Ph.D. it was everywhere. [Everyone] had access to the Internet. And then later, I got access at home around ’94 … maybe ’95. By 1995 I was more a regular user.”

Luisa’s first use of the Internet was associated with her previous career as an academic. Her university was involved in a cooperative program with two universities in the continental U.S. The members of this group were introduced to the Internet as a file–sharing system that might be useful in supporting their collaborative efforts at a distance. While the other participants described a reserved attitude toward Internet adoption, Luisa’s was self–directed:

“I remember coming back from that meeting and connecting my computer and, you know, turning it on and I said, well I would like to know how this is, how can I do it. I remember that, in particular.”

 

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Analysis and interpretation

Thematic saturation was achieved in four areas that have potential to contribute to understanding why Latinas are not participating in the U.S. IT workforce in equitable numbers.

All five women were cognizant of and had experienced negative gender social typing in relationship to IT participation. Each articulated the role that gender social typing had played in her educational, career and mentoring decisions. This perception clearly grew more negative and complicated as the women moved from the information worlds of their families and communities into the information worlds of the colleges and universities where they received their degrees, and again when they moved into employment. The participant who attended high school in the U.S. articulated earlier occurrences of negative gender social typing than the other women in the study. She was also more forceful and consistent in recounting such relationships throughout the interview. This would seem to indicate differences in the ways that IT and the social types associated with science and technology are valued between Latin America and the U.S. The information value placed on gender in relationship to IT, in other words, is not consistent across these national boundaries.

All five women chose to pursue technical degrees in college. The current literature indicates that in the U.S. girls tend to have less experience than boys with computers and the Internet, and that this lack of experience tends to discourage their pursuit of technical degrees, especially computer science (Goode, et al., 2006; Lupart and Cannon, 2002; Schumacher and Morahan–Martin, 2001). Several of the women mentioned being minority members of their educational communities, but interestingly, they do not appear to have perceived this experience as isolating. To the contrary, they attributed their success to the support of their peers. The social norms of their educational information worlds were clearly quite different than those described in U.S. studies where female students left computer science programs because they felt isolated from and by their male counterparts (e.g., Klawe and Leveson, 1995; Klawe, et al., 2009; Margolis and Fisher, 2002).

Four women had very minimal exposure to computers, the Internet and IT prior to entering college. The fifth had slightly more experience with computers, but no experience with the Internet. As mentioned above, current efforts to increase female participation in computing (Anderson, et al., 2008; Denner, et al., 2005; Klawe, et al., 2009) emphasize the need to involve girls prior to eighth grade. This study indicates that there may be some return on strategic investment post–eighth grade. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the average age of the women we interviewed was over 40, and that most did not receive their education in the U.S.

All five women described critical incidents in which they received positive support from peers, family, or other members of their social network that solidified their determination to continue their pursuit of a technical career despite a more general perception of negative gender social typing within the information world of IT. Each of the women has developed extensive support networks, primarily without the advantage of formal mentoring programs. All of the women are extending their existing social networks through active engagement in mentoring. Each is taking a proactive role in changing the gender value of the information world of the IT industry by redefining the social norms, social types and information behaviors of the members of that world. While mentoring is often described as a gender–linked information behavior (Cohoon and Aspray, 2006; Teague, 2002), the social networking approach that these women describe may be more closely associated with their early experiences in Latin America and with Latino information behaviors than gender per se.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

This study was designed to address the question: How do successful Latina IT professionals construct and reconstruct their conception of gender before, during, and after contact with the information world of the IT industry? In this article, we operationalized this question as: Do Latina senior IT managers perceive a relationship between gender and success in IT? The five participants in this study revealed their perceptions of the relationship between gender and success in IT in their discussions of their educational, career, and mentoring experiences, as well as in response to questions about their use of computers and the Internet. Four themes emerged in the analysis that pertain to the nature and development of these perceptions. These themes include: experience with negative gender stereotyping in relationship with IT participation; choice to pursue a technical degree in college; minimal computer experience prior to college; and, positive social network support related to critical incidents.

Future research

When we designed this study, we assumed that we would be interviewing Latinas born, or at least educated, in the U.S. This did not turn out to be the case. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a wider variety of gender social types may be evident in the less socio–culturally homogenous population we interviewed, which included participants raised in Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. While this limits the application of the study to the design of interventions to address recruitment of Latinas born and educated in the U.S., it is clear that IT companies continue to actively recruit Latinas from Latin America, particularly since two of the five participants had responsibilities related to recruitment from this region.

Additional reports from this data set on family and social networks, ethnicity and technology as boundary objects between the information worlds of Latinas and IT are planned for publication in 2010. Also planned for 2010 is the analysis and publication of interviews with five Latina high schools students in the U.S. A national survey of Latinas in IT degree programs in the U.S. will be conducted in fall 2009. These data sets and analysis from all of the above planned activities will provide a comprehensive explanation of how Latinas’ “situatedness” in information worlds affects their negotiation of boundary objects such as family and social networks, ethnicity and technology at the borders between their information worlds and the information world of the IT industry. We intend to track and describe changes in social norms, social types, information value, and information behavior held by Latinas as they progress through the workforce pipeline. We anticipate uncovering the reasons behind Latinas’ decisions to opt for or opt out of computing education and the IT workforce, with the prospect of providing interventions to encourage more representative participation in the IT workforce by this community. End of article

 

About the authors

Kathleen Burnett is an Associate Professor at the Florida State University College of Communication and Information where she teaches courses in information behavior, technology and use. She is currently conducting research on disciplinary identity of the information fields, diversity and gender in the information technology workforces, and technology and the life cycles of scientific research collaborations.
E–mail: kburnett [at] fsu [dot] edu

Manimegalai “Mega” M. Subramaniam is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies where she teaches courses in instructional design and school library media. She is currently conducting research on emergence of new areas of inquiry related to computing and information science education, diversity and gender in computing education, and instructional design.
E–mail: mmsubram [at] umd [dot] edu

Amelia Gibson is a third–year PhD student at the Florida State University College of Information. Her research interests include community informatics, e–government (including broadband access and digital divide issues) and community in cultural and human geography.
E–mail: and04g [at] fsu [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Zarrett, et al., 2006, p. 55.

2. The term “Latina” is used throughout this paper to include women of Latin American descent living in (or citizens of) the United States.

3. Cohoon and Aspray, 2006, p. ix.

4. Ibid.

5. Bowker and Star, 1999, p. 297.

6. Lamont and Molnar, 2002, p. 181.

7. Gerson and Peiss, 1985, p. 318.

8. Valsiner, 2007, p. 220.

9. See detailed description of the theory and concepts in Chatman (1996; 1999).

10. See detailed description of the theory and concepts in Habermas (1984; 1989; 1992).

11. Burnett, et al., 2001, p. 537.

12. Further information about the Alliance can be obtained from http://www.ncwit.org/alliance.workforce.html.

13. See Lic: Latinas in Computing at http://www.anitaborg.org/initiatives/systers/lic/.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 8 July 2009; revised 19 August 2009; accepted 22 August 2009.


Creative Commons License
“Latinas cross the IT border: Understanding gender as a boundary object between information worlds” by Kathleen Burnett, Manimegalai M. Subramaniam, Amelia Gibson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Latinas cross the IT border: Understanding gender as a boundary object between information worlds
by Kathleen Burnett, Manimegalai M. Subramaniam, and Amelia Gibson.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 9 - 7 September 2009
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2581/2286





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