Technology and Inequality in the Workplace

Published Feb 10, 2011

Samantha WaxmanSamantha Waxman is from Lexington, MA and attended Bowdoin College. As a DC Corps member, she works as a Basic Education Coordinator and Volunteer Coordination at So Others Might Eat, which helps the poor and homeless of our nation’s capital by meeting their immediate daily needs, such as food, clothing and health care.

If you’re reading this blog post, I can tell certain things about you.

  1. You know how to turn on a computer.
  2. You know what the difference between right-click and left-click.
  3. You could copy-paste this blog post into a Word doc and edit it to your heart’s content. With formatting.
  4. You know how to utilize the Internet for both professional and non-professional networking, and you probably have a Facebook account, a LinkedIn account, or both. At the very least, you know how to create them.

Would it surprise you to learn that there are plenty of adults in this country for whom that is just not true? I am privileged to work with some of these. My AVODAH placement is at the Center for Employment Training, a program of an antipoverty organization in Washington, D.C. called SOME (So Others Might Eat). Our mission is to empower low-income and disadvantaged adults within the District and the DC metro area to attain living-wage employment. In this blog post, I will examine the nexus of technology and inequality as they relate to workforce development. It’s important because in this day and age, if you can’t work a computer, you probably can’t work the system and attain living wage employment. Period.

When I first came to CET, I was surprised at the level of computer- and technology-phobia I encountered. I have worked in a series of offices since high school and feel pretty comfortable with office technology. Jammed copier? Allow me. Need memos typed? No problem! I know I should have anticipated it. If I’d never seen a copier before, I might think it was a large refrigerator. Or something. I realized that I wanted to do some serious thinking about who has access to technology, who doesn’t, and why.

The first time I encountered the idea of access and exposure to computers and technology was during my sophomore year in college in Maine. (Bear with me, it’s relevant!) During an education course, I shadowed a public school student for a day. In the middle school I visited, I immediately noticed the prevalence of laptops. These students were beneficiaries of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which provides a laptop to all 7th and 8th-graders in the state. I have mixed feelings on whether laptops actually help students learn, but it’s undeniable that these students benefit from the exposure to computers at an early age in our increasingly computer-based culture. They will feel comfortable and intuitive about technology in a way that people born earlier, or without computers, won’t.

So, getting back to the present, how does this technology disadvantage rear its head at CET and in the workplace my students are aiming towards? Well, let me say that it’s hard to play computer catch-up when you’re competing with people who have used computers for the majority of their lives. Tasks we may consider “simple” are actually quite complex: figuring out the basic computer structure, how to format documents in MS Word, navigating the Internet. My students save their documents, and then cannot find them again. Is the file structure of a computer terribly transparent or intuitive? Not necessarily. And what if you can’t type very fast, or at all? That takes practice. No wonder computers are scary to beginners.

Of course, this technology gap is a symptom, and a perpetuator, of poverty. How can someone who lives on minimum wage afford to have a computer in his or her home, or pay for internet? Computer donation programs only go so far. One of my students got ahold of a computer that was so old he couldn’t install MS Word 2003 on it. Not helpful. Sure, he could go to the library instead, but that’s still no substitute for one in the home. The techno-haves versus the have-nots creates an interesting paradox. I have always heard that the purpose of technology is to better connect people. Right? We Skype so we can talk with loved ones overseas. We have news delivered instantaneously to a webpage we view. But imagine living entirely outside of that system. No Skype. No news. No Google-searching. Instead of connecting people, technology cuts off the people who don’t have access to it further than if we had no computers or Internet at all. And, of course, these people’s inability to access the Internet and computers effectively cuts them out of the labor market. Most jobs, at least living-wage ones, require online applications, or at the very least require professional communication via email. A large part of our Career Developer’s job is to make sure our students learn to format their resumes and cover letters in Word, and become proficient at online job-searching.

There are, of course, exceptions. A really interesting one is a homeless man named Eric Sheptock who has harnessed social media quite effectively to advocate for the homeless. You can read about him here. But by and large, Mr. Sheptock’s success in using the power of computers seems to me to be the exception rather than the rule. And we can offer all of the tutoring in the world to our students, but ultimately this technology access problem is larger than CET itself. It’s about inadequate school systems in high-poverty areas with inadequate technology, and a lack of technology infrastructure and computer instruction that supports low-income people.

The question remains of how to best address this problem. What we do at CET with our students makes a tiny bit of progress, and so do organizations like this one, Byte Back. These are baby steps, of course; systemic change is larger than that. You’re probably wondering if I have some mind-blowing new solution no one’s ever thought of to help connect low-income and at-risk people with computer skills and resources. I don’t. All I know is that for whatever solution to succeed, it must be by and for the people who will use it, and not imposed by people who mean well but have no idea how that particular community functions. And I am confident that if enough people throw brainpower at this problem for enough time, we could come up with a solution. Or rather, many. That’s how real change happens.

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