Trauth investigates experiences of lesbian and bisexual women in IT fields

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Most of the existing research on underrepresented groups in the information systems (IS) field has focused on the topic of the low numbers of women in the field, which doesn’t really address the distinguishing characteristics among those women. Eileen Trauth, a professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) has embarked on a new stream of research that investigates the experiences of lesbian and bisexual women in the IS field.

“Prior research looked at all women as one group,” she said. “Society is changing and people’s identity characteristics are increasingly recognized as being important.”

Trauth’s paper on the topic, “How do Gender Minorities Navigate the IS Workplace? Voices of Lesbian and Bisexual Women” was nominated for best paper at the Americas Conference on Information Systems, which was held Aug. 15 to 17 in Chicago. The conference theme of AMCIS 2013 was “Hyperconnected World: Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” More than 1,000 people attended the conference, which is recognized as one of the top four conferences sponsored by the Association for Information Systems. Three-hundred-and-thirty research papers were presented at the conference, of which 15 were nominated for best paper.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time a paper on this topic has received this distinction at one of the AIS conferences,” Trauth said. “And I interpret this recognition as an acknowledgement that the time has come to make visible all people who design and use information technology not just those who are in the majority.”

The study that is discussed in the paper was conducted by Trauth between 2002 and 2006. She interviewed 123 women who worked in the information technology (IT) field in the United States. Among the interviewees, the stories of nine lesbian and bisexual women varying in age and ethnicity were examined in the paper. During the interviews, participants recounted messages they received throughout their early lives regarding behaviors and attitudes that conveyed gender norms considered appropriate for women and girls. Interviewees most frequently recalled messages that posited IS careers as being antithetical to femininity. Those gendered messages accompanied the women into their male-dominated workplaces.

A number of women who were interviewed talked about the issue of “double jeopardy,” which refers to inhabiting more than one minority identity when one is both a gender minority as a woman in IT and a sexual minority.

“One of the themes that women in general talk about in IT is the feeling of isolation,” Trauth said. “A sexual minority can feel even more isolation.”

According to Kayla Booth, a doctoral candidate at the College of IST who assists Trauth in her research, a lot of women who were interviewed in the study talked about the dynamics of the coming-out process. Most of the women were not “totally out,” Trauth said, choosing to share information selectively with co-workers. A major factor that influenced a woman’s decision to come out was the culture of the company, which might be at odds with corporate policy.

“Just because there’s a policy that’s inclusive doesn’t mean that’s the culture and the atmosphere that (the women) experience,” Booth said.

The decision of lesbian and bisexual women in the IS field to come out at work, Trauth and Booth said, creates a catch-22 situation: by not coming out, people may feel they are not truly presenting themselves and by coming out they risk rejection and discrimination. In addition, gender and sexual minorities in IT professions deal with the issue of visible and invisible minority status—a response that derives from the duality of being a visible minority as a woman and an invisible minority by virtue of a non-normative sexual identity.

“I think sexuality is an interesting identity characteristic because it’s not visible,” Booth said. “There’s more of a decision to come out and make that part of your identity known.”

According to Trauth, however, the decision about coming out is now becoming more complicated. Following the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by the Supreme Court in June, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a ruling (Revenue Ruling 2013-17) confirming that any same-sex couple who marries in a jurisdiction that recognizes their marriage will be treated as married for federal tax purposes, regardless of whether or not the couple now lives in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage.

“What this means is the option of hiding oneself may become more difficult,” Trauth said, “It will make for some new dynamics in the workplace.”

The experiences that were recounted by the women in Trauth’s study were not entirely negative. Some participants talked about not being held to traditional standards of femininity because of their sexuality, with one woman saying that it’s easier for lesbian or bisexual women to work with married men without their wives becoming jealous. Other women thought that it’s more acceptable for lesbian women to exhibit typically masculine behavior such as assertiveness or ambition. However, Trauth said, that dynamic is also a double-edged sword. A professor who participated in the study said that while some negative female stereotypes may not be applied to lesbians, she didn’t want to come out to her students lest they get the impression that traditionally feminine women wouldn’t be qualified for IS careers.

The results of the study “add to our growing understanding of within-gender variation in factors that can explain the gender imbalance in the IS field,” Trauth wrote in the article. The topic is a natural extension of her research, which is concerned with societal, cultural and organizational influences on information technology and the IT professions with a special focus on the role of diversity and social inclusion. During 2008, she held the University of Klagenfurt (Austria) Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Gender Studies. She has lectured about and investigated gender underrepresentation in the information technology professions in Austria, Australia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“My whole research stream is directed at getting beneath the surface of stereotypes about particular groups in society,” Trauth said.

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Last Updated September 29, 2013