Latina Narratives of Information Technologies: Towards a Critical Latina Technology Studies

Melissa Villa-Nicholas

PhD Candidate, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Unknown Switchboard Operator, 1974, Benedictine University Archives, Benedictine University Library (CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed). https://www.flickr.com/photos/benedictineuniversity/6328897141/

Unknown Switchboard Operator, 1974, Benedictine University Archives, Benedictine University Library (CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed). https://www.flickr.com/photos/benedictineuniversity/6328897141/

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and numerous affirmative action settlements during the 1960s and 1970s, a new wave of Latina information workers entered the Telecommunications sector. One major breakthrough occurred in 1973, when the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) agreed to the consent decree with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). [1] The suit settled decades-long filings of employment discrimination towards white women and women and men of color from the largest private sector employer. Latinas entered the lower-level prongs of the telecommunications field, beginning life-long careers in telecommunication companies. These information workers are now approaching retirement, but their histories as the first generation of Latinas engaged in different levels of telecommunications has yet to be recorded. This paper outlines findings from a study designed to fill that gap, and in so doing to show how socio-technical practices [2] have been incorporated into, and sometimes resisted by, these women. To these ends, this paper analyzes a series of interviews I conducted with five women who have spent most of their adult lives working in technology industries in southern California.

Though I am concerned with the specific narratives of the women I interview, at the heart of my research is a desire to initiate a critical history of Latinas and information technologies more broadly, investigating the ways in which Latinas [3] have found themselves deeply enmeshed in today’s digital capitalism. Specifically, my research asks: How do Latinas in telecommunications experience the social construction of information technologies? What critical analyses and concepts arise in these narratives? And how are race and gender understood by Latina working in telecommunications? To answer these questions I take a grounded theoretical approach [4] in conjunction with Chela Sandoval’s concept of “oppositional consciousness.” [5] I suggest that already embedded in the everyday working lives of those Latinas employed in technology fields is a critique of precisely those fields, particularly in relation to the body.

Significance of research

Table 1 presents demographic information about the participants, who ranged in age from 50 to 75. All of the interviewees were born in California with the exception of one woman born in Costa Rica. The one woman born in Costa Rica came to California in 1964 after completing two years at the University of San Jose, Costa Rica.

All women worked in Southern California Telecommunications companies with various technologies, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. Out of the five women interviewed, the interviewee in the most senior position began as a temporary employee at an engineering company called Line Master, and was later hired full-time into Hughes Aircraft (working on scheduling Satellite construction).

Table 1: Participant Demographics

Table 1: Participant Demographics

The names of the interview participants have been assigned pseudonyms. My study groups results of these interviews by five common themes that arose among the interviews – advanced training in technology, mobility, surveillance, diversity, and affect.

Advanced training in technology

All participants reported that they gained advanced and mundane technological skills as a result of on-the-job training, as well as experience at their work site. The participants found that these skills allowed them to move upwards within their respective companies. Most of the women’s jobs moved from manual labor to online work during their careers; they were some of the first in their communities to have computer training skills. These narratives allow for insight into the day-to-day experience of Latina women who work intimately with information technologies for decades.

Latinas who have worked in Telecommunications since the early 1970s experienced the transition of their work from manual to electronic and online as a shift not only in the greater economy, but also in their personal lives. Three of my participants began their work as manual telephone operators, plugging into a cord board. For these women, going “online” meant plugging their headsets in and fielding incoming calls.

Sandra described her work with cables as manual until it transitioned to a more sophisticated technology and moved to a different location. She also recalled a process of training in the early 1980s, when she assembled computers and used the original DIOS program. She explained earning surprised reactions from family members at her knowledge in troubleshooting computers, and how her job in billing also led to her utilizing early data-transferring systems over the phone and microfilm.

Out of all of the interviewees, Francis’ career track proved the most upwardly mobile, eventually earning her a position as scheduling manager for Boeing (originally Hughes Aircraft and GM). Francis began her work through a temp agency, which would eventually give her the training, combined with taking night classes for her Bachelors and MBA, to move on to more permanent work.

All of the participants discussed a wide range of skills, from the mundane and repetitive motions of the telephone operator, to early applications of software training. However their experience with information technologies did not take place in a vacuum, but was tied to larger operations of the companies that they worked for. Mobility and change arose as common phenomena during these interviews.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Gloria,” 2014, Image used by author’s consent.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Gloria,” 2014, Image used by author’s consent.

Mobility- horizontal, vertical, and temporal

One of the most common themes among the interview participants’ experience with information technologies was the horizontal and vertical mobility that they experienced during their decades-long careers. I use “mobility” as a neutral term, not always denoting an increase in wages or status, but to describe the frequent changes in technology and skills that come with jobs in major telecommunications companies.

Gloria described this mobility as geographic changes around the Greater Los Angeles region, as well as with merging corporations in constant flux, whereas Monica remembers her mobility as vertical, and identified how the job improved as she moved up in floors at Pacific Bell. She also notes how the technologies advanced as she moved upward.

Maria’s occupation as a technician has her consistently driving around Los Angeles to different cities. The resulting intertwining of changes in time and technology indicate a temporal mobility, whereas Francis saw mobility as a change in geographic location, and in her personal comfort zones. This mobility became upward mobility as she received more possibility for promotion with each new experience she received. However, Francis also recognized an overload of work that came with this upward mobility.

Participants’ lives often formed around the greater socio-economic shifts in the practices of the companies that they worked for. Wrapped together with the enjoyment of work and the potential for upward mobility were larger critiques of the neoliberal economy, which the interviewees indicated affected their quality of life.

Telephone operators and surveillance

All of the interviewees offered critiques of the shifts in the value of labor, and changes in technology and skills. Their analyses of larger socio-economic structures indict the shifting global economy, the social construction of technology, and the deskilling of labor. A clear parallel became evident throughout these discussions between the hyper-surveilled and monotonous work of the telephone operator, where three of the five interviewees began their work, and the contemporary organization of labor and technology within large telecommunications conglomerates.

The telephone operator position was an entry job for Monica, Gloria and Maria that led to more skilled and better paying opportunities. They describe this work as highly surveilled, physically tedious, monotonous, and stressful. As technology shifted and work became automated, the work became deskilled. The interview participants found themselves hesitating when it came to trusting technology. Maria expressed her dissonance with the ways in which technology had changed her field, often frustrated that she had to call oversees for assistance with computers, and had lost her community as a result of globalization.

Gloria expressed a conflicted distrust in technology, though resolved in the necessity for change, and Maria indicated that the level of surveillance of her work has greatly increased since technologies such as the GPS have developed.

The deskilling of labor became a common topic among conversations with Maria and Gloria, who had had life-long careers in phone companies, and who had not moved into management positions. Maria noticed that training and skills was related to the interconnection of community among laborers for the phone companies. Over time the compartmentalized knowledge of a system of communication also led to the breakdown of relationships among peers.

Gloria’s career has shifted her title and geographical location a number of times. She made decisions on where to work based on the desire to keep her technological skill level up, exercising the small amount of agency she was given.

As companies broke up or merged, working conditions further disintegrated, and the interview participants found themselves with less benefits, less support, and more work. Maria specifically identified the shift in corporate identity as hard on working conditions, and Sandra explains some of the confusion and lack of control among employees when the FCC broke up AT&T in 1984 (though ultimately she was given an option of whether she could stay with the company).

Francis found that the awards and benefits that she had grown accustomed to through the 1980s and 1990s became less frequent. She began her Masters in Business under the pretense that her company would pay for it, however in order to finish she had to pay out of pocket for a degree she does not believe helped her in the end.

Because of the decades of insight the interview participants have had in telecommunications, they identify a clear degradation of their work and skills with information technologies. Though they adapt to the new conditions with resolve, they often identify a general suspicion of technology and its overall affect on community, quality of life, and the well being of the companies themselves.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Gloria,” 2014, Image used with author’s consent.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Gloria,” 2014, Image used with author’s consent.

Affect

A noticeable aspect of the ways in which participants spoke about working with information technologies was the affect with which they engaged their work. Recognizing feelings as a mode of agency, these women expressed their work as deeply intertwined with their personal lives.

Gloria was especially aware of her life’s intimate connection to the telephone company. She described her “party days” as related to her time as a telephone operator; she reflects on maturing with the phone company as a personal as well as professional process.

Many of the women described a fulfillment through certain types of work and skills, as in Sandra’s experience at Personal Records and Transportation. Interviewees often relate this as well to the experience of community built into these spaces. Maria also attributed positive affect to her job, despite the physical toll, and Francis found that she enjoyed the challenges of her job, recognizing her own potential in mathematics and engineering.

Race and gender critical analysis

The interviews purposefully addressed race and gender, with varying results. Sandra, Maria, and Gloria did not believe that they experienced discrimination as Latinas in the field, and primarily worked in offices with a majority of Latinos, Latinas, and African Americans. Monica and Francis recognized particular experiences in which they felt discriminated against as Latinas in a mostly white work place. All five of the women noted that their supervisors are white men with very few exceptions.

Monica recognized loneliness in the workplaces where she was the only Latina, and described an instance of technologies being used to create a hostile workplace. She also recognized that white employees appeared to have more access to certain technologies, such as a large data processing computer.

Francis analyzed the lack of diversity in her work place as problematic within her personal experience and for STEM fields overall. She identified intensely gendered discriminations that led to a change in the way she dressed and acted. Francis’ narrative ebbed between identifying larger institutional prejudices that deal with race and gender that affected her personally and professionally, and ascribing her lack of upward mobility to higher management as due to her personal traits.

Analysis

Latinas who have worked in telecommunications for long periods of their careers have important insights into formulating a Critical Latina Technology Studies. Multiple themes arose in these narratives that indicate a sophisticated analysis of information technologies that engage race, gender, labor, class, and the larger socio-economic structures that contextualize their experience of technologies.

Each woman articulated their experiences as negative when engaged in the lower skilled, monotonous work, and positive when challenged and engaging in complex tasks. These sets of skills were clearly identified as more readily available earlier in their careers, when they had more options to move into various roles in their respective companies. They identified access to skill development in multiple areas of their fields as a benefit of the past, having been superseded by the rapid change in information technologies and frequent shifting of larger corporate mergers and breakups. This analysis, though not directly named, is in direct relationship to the shifting economies and globalized labor and manufacturing practices of the neoliberal period. The interview participants identified a lack of community, poor management practices, and unhealthy work environment as a direct effect of these changes.

Latinas in IT, in telecommunications fields, and STEM fields, use affect as a mode of agency in describing their work. Affect, as well as Affect Theory, must be engaged as a point where technological skills and embodied experience meet. Ann Cvetkovich identifies the affective turn as one that depathologizes “negative feelings” such as shame, failure, melancholy, and depression and identifies these feelings as entwined with positive feelings such as hope and happiness. [6] To validate the feelings expressed in these technological spaces is to engage the critical analysis, which is already applied by many Latinas in technological fields. All of the women that I interviewed had saved old telephones, operator headsets, company books, and other technologies from their work place as artifacts of memory and affect. Allowing technological artifacts into their personal domestic spaces indicated the pride they took in their labor, integrating the personal and political. [7]

All of the women interviewed noted that the supervisors were mostly white, while lower level employees were more diverse. Monica and Francis seemed to experience and identify intense discriminations in their workplace as due to their difference. This may be due to two reasons; Monica had begun working in telecommunications earlier than the other four women interviewed. She clearly identified affirmative action and the Civil Rights Movement as playing a part in her integration into these workspaces, and found herself as one of the only Latinas as a telephone operator in the early 1970s. Francis pursued the highest level of education offered through her companies benefit plan, and moved upward in higher paying and higher skilled jobs. This upward mobility also caused her to be one of the few Latinas and women in her position as a manager. Intense instances of marginalization seemed to cause them to more openly recognize their experiences of discrimination, though not without some self-blaming.

By the mid-1970s, due to the affirmative action movement by the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee (EEOC), as well as race and gender based social movements, many sectors of manufacturing and customer service had integrated more diverse employees into telecommunications. The women interviewed described these diverse spaces as making the work more enjoyable overall. They often engaged the idea of “The Family”, an early motto of the Bell System, at a time before neoliberal restructuring, when these sectors provided better quality of life. Interpersonal tensions arose with the deskilling of labor and the decentralization of workspaces.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Monica,” 2014, Image used with author’s consent.

Telecommunications memorabilia from “Monica,” 2014, Image used with author’s consent.

Towards a Critical Latina Technology Studies

I conducted this study to answer the specific research questions: How do Latinas in telecommunications experience the social construction of information technologies? What are some critical analysis and concepts that arise in these narratives? How are race and gender identified in Latina experiences in telecommunications? The interview participants disclosed that they are already engaging a critical analysis of technologies and the larger socio-economic structures in which they are developed. According to the interview discussions, a Critical Latina Technology Studies would engage with Latinas who work at every level of IT, telecommunications, and STEM.

Five themes emerged from the narratives of Latinas in STEM: Latinas engage in a wide array of skills on information technologies from the mundane to the complex; a common phenomenon when working with information technologies is a mobility that moves in various directions; Latinas in telecommunications have seen an intense increase in surveillance and the deskilling of their technological skills reminiscent of their work as telephone operators; the use of affect in describing the ways in which information technologies become integrated into personal spaces; and finally a critical analysis of how race and gender is inscribed in technological spaces. Latina narratives of information work engage in disrupting technological determinism through critical analysis of the applications and engagements of technologies.

Though many of the women I interviewed spoke Spanish in their personal lives, they did not speak Spanish for or at work, dichotomizing their bilingualism into separate spheres of their daily practices. This trend suggests that Latina information workers who do not speak Spanish for their work also separate their language skills and socio-techno practices, reserving their Spanish fluency for interaction with private domestic technologies.

Future research would benefit from speaking to Latinas and Latinos who worked as Spanish-speaking telephone operators after the historic affirmative action cases of the 1960s-1970s, as well as those who engage Spanish more broadly as a part of their work with information technologies. However, many of the women interviewed identified an increasing pattern of Latinas and Latinos entering into their fields without unions, with fewer benefits, and increased dispensability. Because the women interviewed began their work in the early 1970s and 1980s, they are either approaching or currently retired, with sufficient packages to ensure their well being after their careers have ended. More research is needed on the younger generation that these women have identified.

A Critical Latina Technology Studies would prioritize Latinas who are from different generational age groups, queer Latinas, transgender Latinas, indigenous politics, Afro-Caribbean Latinas, Black Latinas, and Latinas in the U.S. without documentation that work in various sectors of STEM fields. Although Latinas are greatly lacking in the thriving tech startups and conglomerates of late, especially in management positions, they do indeed work at various levels of skill and information technologies. [8] A Critical Latina Technology Studies is already happening in the narratives of Latina information workers, who embody intersectional socio-techno practices.

 

References

  1. See Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980. Green explores the inherent whiteness that was built into the Bell System, emphasizing the technological displacement that the Bell System engaged in response to white women labor unions and the inclusion of black operators. Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).
  2. Cara Wallis describes these practices as the manner in which technology is integrated into proper social and cultural practices and also creates new spaces or possibilities for their enactment within the social world and material conditions of the user. Cara Wallis, Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones, (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
  3. I use Latina to refer to women residing in the United States whose cultural and national origin is from Mexico, the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, or Latin America. It is important to resist a monoculture, monolithic concept of cultural identity among Latinas and recognize the diverse linguistic, national, social, historical, cultural, gendered, racial, political, and religious experiences among Latinas. The women I interviewed are Mexican and Costa Rican American citizens who are working or have worked in the Southern California region. See works by Cristina Beltrán, Leo Chávez, Gloria Anzaldua.
  4. Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for ‘Qualitative Research, (New Brunswick and London: Aldine Transaction, 1999). Grounded Theory allows the theory to be discovered from the data collected during the research process.
  5. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2000). Sandoval argues that women of color are already engaging and critiquing technologies in their everyday lives, foregrounding the interactions between body and technology.
  6. Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: a Public Feeling, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
  7. Cvetkovich, p. 177.
  8. For more on the intersection of Latina’s race, gender, sexuality and technology see work by Devon Peña, Micha Cárdenas, Chela Sandoval, Norma Cantú, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Agustin Laó-Montes.

 

Bio

Melissa Villa-Nicholas is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work focuses on Latina and Latino socio-techno practices and histories of the social construction of technologies as they intersect with race, class, gender and sexuality. Her dissertation investigates Latina information workers and the AT&T v. EEOC consent decree.