Culture and Technology: An International Comparison of Attitudes and Access

Leslie Irwin

Arizona State University West

Technological innovations have generally not been readily available to females in traditional societies especially when these innovations challenge or imply changes to long held customary designations of professions along gender lines. The introduction of computers to traditional cultures has Ordinarily met with apprehension and reservation. When they have been accepted, computers have solely remained the domains of mates, a tradition rooted in the belief that anything mechanical is male, and also in the myths concerning the technological competence of females. An understanding of computer technology and its socio-cultural, political, and economic consequences in developing nations may shed some light on impediments for females as they venture into this traditional, cultural, gender-biased world of technology. Traditional modes of thinking often perpetuates the myths concerning the technological capability of females especially in developing nations with implied gender designated occupations. To address gender issues and computer technology in this environment, and to genuinely discuss the impact and ramifications for females, it is expedient to begin with investigations of general attitudes toward, and access to computers in the general population. It should be noted that as much as computers are desired tools for the 21st century, their acquisition and use have not come easily to developing nations. There are socio-cultural, political, and economic consequences with which these cultures need to grapple. Consequently, to meet the needs of users and specifically to address the Issue of gender equity and technology, it is necessary to understand that social, cultural, economic, and political factors define how computers are perceived, utilized, and dispersed, and experienced in traditional societies. Though computers generate changes in these cultures, how computers are perceived, learned, and utilized, are in turn influenced by the host cultures (Chisholm, 1996).

The computer culture

Computers broadly reflect an American culture, and narrowly reflect a predominantly male micro-culture. Computers can be described as artifacts that reflect the cultural, perceptual, and cognitive perspectives of their creators. The computer culture may generate social and cognitive structures that may be incompatible with the predominant patterns of cognition, logic, organization, and communication, among cultural groups and specifically among women in developing nations, thus creating a dissonance between cultures. This may invariably affect culturally prescribed norms of interacting, organizing, learning, working, and thinking. As with other cross-cultural contacts, the importation of technology into another society initially may create cognitive disharmony, disrupt established behavior patterns, and steadily introduce new interaction patterns. As developing nations embrace this remarkable invention, it should be understood that its importation would affect changes that include interpersonal behavior, communication, and education (Darr and Goodman, 1993). Developing countries face numerous difficulties compounded by the need for accessibility to computer technology. Computers have become the required tools for participation in global information exchange, international trade, economic growth and educational development. However, hardware and software, as well as the development of technical expertise, create an immense financial impediment for cash-strapped developing nations, further keeping them economically subservient (Dixon, 1995).

Computer technology requires significant amounts of capital and technical skills, both of which may be severely lacking in most developing nations. These capital and technical skill commitments can have dire consequences with regard to more disturbing, and probably more important factors within the context of cultural and economic development for these traditional societies, quite apart from the socio-cultural intrusion. For example, these commitments can diminish the economic capacity to respond to such grievous circumstances as high illiteracy rates, and high numbers of unskilled workers in a high unemployment society. For the vast majority of people in developing nations, computer ownership reflects national and personal economic realities. Because much of the hardware and software are produced and sold by more affluent nations, the expense of importation makes acquisition and maintenance of computers restrictive for many people. In these traditional societies, women are less likely to own computers or use a limited number of applications as compared to men. It is widely reported that many users in developing countries lag behind in the technological revolution as a result of "dire lack of funds and the competition for scarce resources..." (Useem, 1999}.

Perceptions, attitudes, and access

Preservation of cultural identity and economic survival may result in perceptions of, and altitudes towards computers that likely vary across cultural and gender lines. Given the economic struggle between social needs and the need for technological competitiveness, attitudes towards and perceptions of computers may be blurry at best. When the hardware is available, its presence unfortunately does not guarantee equitable access (Coley, Cradler & Engel, 1997) Sadly enough, the most needy, who happen to be females have the least access to computer use in schools and the work places, and are frequently exposed to a disproportionately limited use of software. For these females in developing nations, differential exposure to software eventually culminates in denial of access to higher-level, interactive, problem-solving software, and emphasis on lower-level thinking, drill-and-practice applications. This condition preserves inequality of skills among those who must display computer competence to compete in the "modern" job market. The computer then can be perceived as a de-facto tool that maintains inequality in the classroom, and work place. This reinforces and perpetuates the status quo social stratification that often relegates females in the work place to secretarial skills and to the use of typewrites.

The potential contributions of females to technology and its development have not been accorded appropriate support, recognition and respect. Under prevailing circumstances, computer websites are mostly produced by males, computer technicians are mostly males, and computer programs and games are predominantly male created and oriented. Given this inequitable access, gender differentiated computer training, and gender and cultural bias of the computer culture, how do these situations affect women and the economy of developing nations. This raises an intriguing and crucially disturbing multifaceted question: What are the gender equity outcomes or expectations, when computers are not culture or gender free, and gender differentiated training, gender differentiated access, and gender differentiated uses prevail? Who benefits and who is shortchanged under such conditions of inequitable access to computers? The denial of opportunities, privileges, roles, and rewards on the basis of any human differentiation constitutes discrimination. When denial is on the basis of gender, it is gender discrimination. Studies by Irwin et al. (1999) indicate that equal gender access to technological resources in traditional societies is more the exception than the norm. Not only are the problems exacerbated by a lack of national infrastructure, but furthermore by a lack of clear national computer technology policies, and by the lack of means for implementing them when they do exist (Useem, 1999) One wonders if there will be a paradigm shift in the purposes for which technology is made available to the female population in developing nations so as to permit access to other traditionally male dominated professions such as engineering and architecture. Or will computer preparedness for females largely be restricted in expertise to word processing skills to qualify them for a "reprogrammed" secretarial work similar to what the typewriter provided in earlier times? Or will women slowly gain greater competence to approximate male computer competency by becoming programmers, software developers, computer consultants, technicians, and repair people?

Culture and learning preferences

Culture influences how people prefer to learn, and cultural differences in gender expectations extend to learning preferences. {Dunn & Griggs, 1995). Cultural learning preferences suggest differences across various groups in their preferred ways of learning, interpreting, organizing, experiencing, and reasoning about the world. Hence there are cultural roots to cognition. How people prefer to learn and use computers may be directly influenced by individual and cultural learning preferences. Therefore awareness of cultural differences in attitudes and perceptions toward computers across or within cultures may provide insight into the challenges of increasing computer literacy especially of females. In addition, cultural socialization and gender role expectations may have a direct influence on how women perceive, interact with, and use computers. Negative attitudes and unfavorable perceptions of computers adversely affect computer literacy, and according to Volman (1997), females seem less positive about computers than males. While positive attitudes increase the likelihood of achievement, negative attitudes decrease the attainment of competence. If potentially productive females are discouraged from computers because of traditional cultural roles that may inhibit access, such trends may persist.


Implications for Education and Politics

Through education, changes can effectively be initiated in perceptions of, and attitudes toward computers on short and long-term basis. Permanent or mobile local mass computer literacy workshops could introduce computers to women with little or no familiarity to computers. Efforts could also be made to enhance computer competency among those with some, but not adequate knowledge to be confident and competent with computers. This could be initiated within specific cultural frames of references, and in ways that will make acceptance of technology compatible with cultural patterns of understanding among females in traditional societies. Friendly and culturally appropriate computer applications for women, and a genuine effort to encourage and educate women to become familiar with, and knowledgeable in using computers will eventually provide a varying perspective of technology, one evolving from a female viewpoint. This could encourage interest among women in traditional societies to pursue interests in such perceived male dominated professions and still maintain harmony in preferred norms of gender interaction in such cultures. In the male dominated workforce of most developing nations, female students could be counseled toward professions in technology at the early stages of their education. Introduction, exposure, and equal access to technology, precisely computers to young children in their early elementary education will assist in diminishing gender preferences and bias toward professions defined along gender lines. Technology-driven curricula that affirm equal education and participation from the formative stages will effectively make computers routine in the lives of both males and females Perceptions and attitudes would gradually change, allowing for gender equity in computers and computer technology. Realities of modem global interdependence in such areas as commerce and education, and a need for experts in technology may determine strategic directions for educational curricula in developing countries. The development of technological competency across gender in developing nations may be influenced by national policies. In most developing coontr1es with centralized governments, a clear national policy that will define equitable access to hardware and software, training, and utilization for all, with inherent verifiable evidence of effective implementation is imperative. Hence, new paradigm for equity in science and technology education emanating from differing gender perspectives are needed. The author therefore recommend5 that broad-based efforts to formulate and implement some sort of national standards be initiated to enforce conditions for competence in effective and equitable utilization of computer technology. Equity within this context denotes equal opportunity, equal access, and equal outcome given differing individual input and ability. For substantial changes to occur, considering current uncertain economic and sociopolitical climates in many developing user nations, there must exist a genuine desire and will to address and redress prevailing issues of gender inequity in technology by policy makers.



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