The topic of gender and technology is personal for me. The readings for class this week provoked a lot of reflection on my earlier years and examination of the choices I made. In the late 1970s, when I was beginning to examine various careers, my parents divorced, leaving my mother with few skills to support a teenager and three toddlers. Although I was interested in technology, specifically electronic engineering and computer science, my mother encouraged me to enter the secretarial classes offered in my high school, rather than the college prep classes or the technical classes offered. She thought that it guaranteed the means for me to earn a living, but didn’t really realize the discrepancy in pay (that still exists today) between clerical and technical positions. In addition, during the 1970s, fewer than 10% of women attending college enrolled in engineering (US Dept. of Education, 2004). Thus, instead of chemistry, trigonometry, or drafting, I enrolled in typing, shorthand, and accounting. I did manage to take an introduction to data processing class and really enjoyed it. Computer languages fascinated me. Nevertheless, like so many other females, I succumbed to the pressure from those around me to take a more traditional path.
Due to financial constraints and lack of guidance, after high school I enrolled in a two-year college program to pursue a degree in secretarial practice. Not surprisingly, I flunked out after the first year. My job search led me to a temporary position at IBM, doing data entry of the downtime of microchip testing machines. The computer network system often went down, which resulted in extra time on the job with nothing to do. I began to hang around the technicians who fixed the test equipment and became fascinated with the schematics and troubleshooting process of the test machines. Attending technical school seemed like a great option. For me, exposure to some of the options of education open to me contributed to consideration of new directions.
Not long after my temporary position ended, a friend came back to town on recruiting duty for the Army. Although I had not previously considered the military as a means of attaining my education, he soon informed me that the Army would guarantee me both my training school and where I would serve my time. Within a year, I had enlisted in the Army as a 36H (Dial/Manual Central Office Repairer). My ten-month technical school included basic electronics, pc board troubleshooting, electro-mechanical switch repair, and telephony basics. Here is a link to the equipment I learned to repair: Strowger switch. Interestingly, today’s computer networks are still based on many of these principles! It has been fascinating to watch the changes from dial-pulse landline telephones to cellular technology.
During my time in the military (in the early 1980s), women were noticeably absent in my field. My technical school had about 300 students attending at any given time, of which only 25-30 were women. At least 5 of those did not complete the program. At my duty stations, although women worked other non-technical positions, repair and maintenance jobs were primarily held by men. I was the only female technician at the base telephone central offices in Germany and one of two women in my electronic maintenance shop in Georgia. Base telephone had 10 soldiers and my shop in Georgia had 25 soldiers, resulting in an 8-10% ratio of women in each place.
The gender and technology issue was apparent at each of my duty stations. Although most of the time I had friends that looked after me as a little sister, sexual harassment was very real. Innuendos, off-color jokes, and other verbal banter was commonplace. You either laughed along, ignored it, or were shunned and badmouthed. This was before many of the protective measures and laws for women in the military were put in place. During my school training, we were in class with other Army soldiers, Marines, and Navy seamen. We also had military personnel from other countries attend the school. The two Nigerians I was in class with stand out in my mind. They didn’t really speak much English, but stared at me constantly. I assumed that a woman in the military, especially in technology, was not a norm for them. It was quite uncomfortable to be around them.
At my first duty station, it was almost three months before most of the men I worked with acknowledged that I could do the job. I had to work harder than other new soldiers coming to the telephone central office in order to prove my capabilities. After a year, I was selected for a special team – we were assigned to document and prepare the phone system for the entire 5th Signal Command in Baden-Württemberg, West Germany for digital telephone conversion. We used to joke about being an “equal opportunity team.” Our Hispanic team leader (E-6 staff sergeant), two African-Americans (E-5 sergeant, E-4 specialist), and myself (E-4 specialist), a white female, worked for a white male (E-8 master sergeant). However, that was the best duty assignment I had during my four years. We all accepted each other and worked well together. When I left there to return to the United States, I became part of an electronic maintenance shop. At first, they tried to put me on paperwork exclusively. After I spoke up, we all took turns occasionally. They also assumed that I could make coffee….but they only asked me once. That was never a strength of mine. When we would go out to the field to practice maneuvers with the communication vans and equipment, many of the guys would not let me carry the heavier equipment (even though I was quite capable). They would also ask the other maintenance person to repair equipment, rather than me, even if I was available. It was a difficult duty station. Walking across the motor pool to get to my shop, catcalls were common. The culture was not conducive to women and I was glad to leave. It also influenced my decision not to re-enlist.
As many women do, I married and had children. This resulted in putting my own career on hold – I became primarily a stay-at-home mother and my skills were not put to use. I chose to stay home because I had not established a career and doing so would have taken more commitment than I was willing to give at that time. Much of the technical work I did required on-call time, which would have been difficult as the primary caregiver. In addition, as I did not have the formal technical education at that point (degree), I could not make enough money to justify paying for day care. Although my secretarial background provided part-time jobs over the years while I raised my children, I have maintained my interest in technology. As my children got older, I began to consider a return to my initial interests. I started college when my youngest child did and we graduated together from Maryville College, where I also worked full-time as an administrative assistant (so those skills have come in handy). Since I lack the solid math background, it would be difficult for me to pursue an engineering degree now. However, I am really excited that information science has become so technical. I am able to combine my love of libraries together with my technical skills.
Due to many of my experiences, I believe it is important to guide young students (before middle school) toward their interests, especially female ones. It is vital to identify lower income students and educate them about available career choices. I know in my case, if I had been fortunate enough to find a mentor in my early years, I would have chosen a different path. Although I value my experiences as they are, my earning power over the years would have been drastically higher.
All of the articles we read this week were great. I am fascinated by the impact of technology for women, especially in developing countries. However, I find it interesting that much documentation supports the fact that women are not as prevalent in technological job positions, yet the library profession remains populated primarily by females. Statistics from 2006 and 2007 gathered by Melissa Lamont (2009) showed women librarians published as often in men in most library journals except for JASIS&T, where only 30% of the authors were women. Thus, despite the growing technical expertise required of librarians, women are participating and excelling. Although higher administration in libraries still consists primarily of men, the next generation of information specialists may be able to generate change, since so many information specialists are female. Once women are able to access higher administration, perhaps the changes will trickle downward and we will see more women involved in information and communication technology.
Lamont, M. (2009, September). Gender, technology, and libraries. Information Technology and Libraries, 28(3), 137-142.
US Department of Education, completion survey. (2009) National Science Foundation.