Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Growing digitial divide in IT labor

Another article on tech employment, this time from the San Jose Mercury News (out of Silicon Valley itself) citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics data, reveals that the percentage of both women and African-Americans in IT jobs in the US has declined since 1996, with Latino-Americans making only slight gains:

Women held 32.4 percent of IT jobs in 2004, down from 41 percent eight years earlier, despite holding steady in the overall workforce. [...]

[T]he presence of African-Americans in IT slid from 9.1 percent in 1996 to 8.3 percent in 2004. They held steady in the overall workforce.

The Latino presence increased slightly in both IT and the workforce. But Latinos made up only 6.4 percent of IT workers, compared with 12.9 percent of the workforce. [...]

The percentage of whites has also dropped in IT from 85.1 percent in 1996 to 82.8 percent in 2004. Still, whites make up by far the majority of the workforce, both in IT and overall.

Asians stood out as the only overrepresented racial group in IT, making up 12.1 percent of IT jobs but 4.3 percent of the overall workforce.


As with all reports on IT labor, the question arises "how is IT labor being defined?" Are these high-wage, high-status "knowledge worker" jobs which women and (most) people and color are trailing in with respect to their overall workforce representation, or are they low-wage, low-status "data worker" jobs instead? The report says the data include "IT jobs in industries ranging from banking to retail," and suggests,

Among reasons for the decline, one in three women in information technology holds (or held) an administrative job, such as entering data or operating computers -- the kind of jobs that have taken the brunt of cutbacks in recent years. Women have made up 80 percent of data-entry keyers since 1996, suggesting they aren't climbing the IT ladder [...]

The report does suggest some possible reasons for the unrepresentative social division of labor in IT: "lack of mentors and role models in corporate management, negative perceptions of IT work as isolating and geeky, and [...] the lack of student enrollment in math and science classes." These are all "human factors" sorts of reasons, blaming any workplace injustice on the individual strategies of managers or the individual skill sets of workers. There are whole other sets of possible reasons, though, including outright individual and collective injustices: from individual discrimination in hiring and education -- conscious or unconscious on the part of employers and teachers -- to collective discrimination through still-separate and still-not-equal primary and secondary education for students in socially-, economically- and politically-disconnected (even abandoned) neighborhoods and towns, levels of voluntary "enrollment in math and science classes" by students in those places aside.

Given earlier business press warnings that simply acquiring "IT skills" will not be enough to keep the US IT labor force "competitive" (profitable? exploitable?) in the face of global telematic labor competition, I would hope that the ability to produce and sustain a diverse IT labor force -- both diverse in the social groups that the labor force represents, and diverse in the skills beyond the technical that the labor force holds -- would be a top priority for political and economic decision-makers wishing to invest in the future of the US economy.

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