Levelling The Digital Playing Field
By Dr Angela Martinez, Digital Women UK
In a not-so-distant past, education was heralded as the ‘great equaliser’. Today, that label is readily given to the Internet.
In the current culture of entrepreneurialism, this idea has been translated into advocacy of digital entrepreneurship as a pathway to social mobility and economic independence: “Overworked and underpaid? Not being promoted? Can’t find a job? Need more money, flexibility, a better work-life balance? Start your own online business,” are the many calls being made.
On closer inspection, such calls are particularly directed at marginalised people: women, especially mothers, the unemployed, disabled people, youth, and seniors. They are all people who have been historically disadvantaged by traditional waged labour, perhaps now more than ever in this age of economic austerity and precarity.
As appealing as it may seem to encourage everyone to get online and start selling something, the fact is that the Internet cannot serve as a level playing field, simply because, like any technology, it is part of the social world.
It is, as cybersociologist scholar Saskia Sassen puts it, inscribed by the stratified hierarchies and power relationships of society, and as danah boyd argues, it tends to reproduce offline inequality instead of overcoming it.
Success in this space is therefore not simply a question of putting in the hard work, as the discourse of entrepreneurship would have us believe, but it is likely to still be constrained by concrete things like access to tangible and intangible resources, including human, financial, and social capital.
An intersectional perspective helps us to understand these connections. Intersectionality tells us that one’s social position, in terms of factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, socio-economic class, and other categories of difference, work together to influence our access to resources, and to shape the interplay of privilege and/or disadvantage that comprises our lived experiences.
In my study of UK women digital entrepreneurs, I found strong links between their past employment sectors and the self-employment sector they chose. Therefore, because of gendered occupational labour segregation, the majority of them entered feminised sectors, which, due to gender constraints, are often lower-tech, lower-margin and limited in terms of their potential for growth.
An intersectional approach revealed even more. In general, the more privileged they were in terms of socio-economic background, the higher the level of employment they had attained before leaving to start their businesses. Those with more management experience were, logically, better at delegation and more orientated towards business growth.
Lastly, whiteness was still a privilege and a political resource unattainable for entrepreneurs of colour, who struggled with how to represent themselves and their businesses online in a way that felt authentic, could minimise discrimination and racism, but not limit their business to a niche ‘ethnic’ market.
Technology has never been neutral, an argument long since made cogently by feminist scholars of science and technology, who pointed out that Western science and technology have historically been shaped by masculinist agendas. Yet the assumption that technological development is a simple process of predictable progression, which somehow runs parallel to, or separate from, society is still pervasive.
The culture of the Internet has changed a great deal since the days of the early web where anonymity was the norm. What has not changed enough, though, are the intersecting and simultaneous structural barriers which place marginalised people and groups at a significant disadvantage, not only in their digital pursuits, but across other social arenas and spaces as well. It is time for this to drastically change.