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Critical Research on Gender and Information +


Systems
Eileen M. Trauth
The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Debra Howcroft
University of Manchester, UK

INTRODUCTION including critical theory (Horkheimer, 1976), critical


operational research (Mingers, 1992), critical eth-
In 1991 Orlikowski and Baroudi published a seminal nography (Forester, 1992), and critical management
paper about the role of epistemological lenses in studies (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996). Despite some
shaping information systems (IS) research. Citing areas of commonality, critical researchers draw
Chua’s (1986) classification of research episte- upon a broad range of social theories. These include,
mologies they went on to describe the way in which for example, the Frankfurt School of critical social
each of three lenses—positivist, interpretive, and theory (Horkheimer, 1976), actor-network theory
critical—influences the conduct of IS research. (Latour, 1991), Marxism (Marx, 1974), feminist
They concluded with the observation that whereas theory (Wajcman, 1991), and the work of Bordieu
positivism dominated the IS research landscape, (1990), Dooyeweerd (1973), Foucault (1979), and
interpretive research was beginning to make an Heidegger (1953).
appearance. They also noted the dearth of critical IS
research. Throughout the 1990s a few papers on
critical research appeared. Myers’ (1997) paper on BACKGROUND
critical ethnography helped to bridge the under-
standing gap between interpretive and critical re- It can be further argued that the topic of gender and
search. Ngwenyama and Lee (1997) used the criti- IS is particularly suitable for critical research insofar
cal lens to guide their approach to examining infor- as it is concerned with power relations and
mation richness theory. Doolin (1998) argued that a underrepresented voices in the context of gender
research approach based on critical theory is needed and information technology use (Kvasny & Trauth,
in order to view information technology within a 2002). The choice of a critical rather than a positivist
broader context of social and political relations. or an interpretive epistemology for research on
However, in the 2000s there has been a significant gender and IS, however, has definite implications for
increase in the focus on critical research, as evi- both the perspective on the topic and the way it is
denced in an increasing number of publications, researched (Howcroft & Trauth, 2004).
conference streams, special issues, and academic When the positivist epistemology is applied to the
electronic networks concerned with discussing criti- topic of gender and IT, the objective is typically to
cal IS1. discover whether and where there are gender dif-
It can be argued that the social nature of activi- ferences. The aim is to uncover gender distinctions,
ties associated with the development, implementa- not to explain or theorize why these distinctions have
tion, and use of IS and the management of people arisen and continue to exist. Examples of this include
who carry out these activities leads naturally to investigations of women’s vs. men’s use (adoption,
considerations of social and political power. This acceptance, etc.) of IT (e.g., Gefen & Straub, 1997)
consideration of power, in turn, encourages critical and women’s participation rate in the IS profession
analysis. In the social sciences the term critical is (e.g., Carayon, Hoonakker, Marchand, & Schwarz,
used to describe a range of related approaches, 2003; Truman & Baroudi, 1994). Further, the theory

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Critical Research on Gender and Information Systems

underlying positivist gender research is often essen- tion is also to advance our understanding of the
tialist whereby observed gender differences are relationship between gender and IT by understand-
understood to arise from the dichotomizing of male/ ing the point of view of the women IT users. Thus,
female roles that, in turn, are assumed to generally an interpretive examination of gender and the IS
derive from bio-psychological differences (Wajcman, profession might explore the influence of national
1991). culture on the social construction of gender identity
Much of this research is predicated on negative as it relates to the IT workforce (Trauth, 1995;
assumptions about women (such as assumptions Trauth, Nielsen, & von Hellens, 2003; Trauth,
that women are inherently less technologically com- Quesenberry, & Yeo, 2005). However, a limitation
petent than men) and is not typically informed by the of the interpretive approach is that the focus is on
gender literature (Adam, Howcroft, & Richardson, understanding the societal influences, not ques-
2004). This type of research is typically motivated by tioning them. It is directed at coping with the
a desire to advance managerial objectives. For dynamics of inequality, not challenging the legiti-
example, it might be to consider gender as a factor macy of underlying social influences or undoing
of production in better harnessing diversity in pursuit them.
of effectiveness and productivity (e.g., Gallivan,
2003; Igbaria & Baroudi, 1995; Igbaria &
Chidambaram, 1997; Venkatesh & Morris, 2000). MAIN THRUST OF THE ARTICLE
Problems of inequality are viewed in terms of wasted
resources, with increased equality being promoted In response, the objective of critical gender and IS
as a means of optimizing efficiency. The main research is to investigate why gender inequality
drawback of this research approach is that the exists. The motivation is to understand and challenge
investigation remains on the surface of observable power relations that reproduce inequality (Kvasny,
and documentable differences. In so doing, it offers in press). Critical social theory, postmodernism, and
an unproblematic treatment of the topic in which the feminist theory (Adam 2002; Adam & Richardson,
observation of differential treatment in the work- 2001; Kvasny, Greenhill, & Trauth, 2005), for ex-
place by gender has a tendency to become the ample, are used to inform the search for the under-
explanation (i.e., that men and women are treated lying causes of gender inequality. Thus, a critical
differently in the IT workplace because they are perspective on gender and IT might concentrate on
different with respect to their relationship to IT and the gendered nature of the workplace and techno-
IT work in some relevant, essential way). Further, logical skills (Wilson, 2002). This moves the re-
by offering only managerialist perspectives, positiv- search away from positivist and interpretive themes
ist gender and IS research privileges one perspec- of profitability, efficiency, effectiveness, and gender
tive over others. Hence, the gendered aspects of IT identity, and towards themes of control, resistance,
use, for example, are not considered from the per- and inequality.
spective of those experiencing it. Critical researchers also embrace the social and
In contrast, interpretive studies of gender and IS political influences on their research, rather than
focus on developing a better understanding of how negate these assumptions and beliefs. They aim to
these gender differences in IT use and IT work have balance their interest in the people being studied with
come about. The objective is to add context to the an awareness of less explicit ideological and struc-
observations about gender and IT. This research tural forces. This is in contrast to what Bhaskar
invokes such theories as social construction (e.g., (1979) has described as the “linguistic fallacy,” the
Nielsen, von Hellens, Greenhill, & Pringle, 1998; claim adopted by many interpretivists that subjects,
Tapia, 2003) or individual differences (Trauth, 2002; concepts, meanings, and accounts of their actions
Trauth, Quesenberry, & Morgan, 2004) in develop- cannot be criticized. In critical research the spotlight
ing theoretical explanations that incorporate social shifts from an exclusive focus on individuals, situa-
influences underlying inequality (e.g., observable tions, and local meaning to the systems of relations,
differences) between the genders. The point of view which make such meanings possible. This is not to
of this research is not just managerialist; the motiva- suggest that experiences are ignored; rather they

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Critical Research on Gender and Information Systems

are balanced against issues of an ideological nature ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


that may frame the experiences and ascribe addi- +
tional meaning. This article is from a study funded by a National
The use of critical IS research to study the topic Science Foundation Grant (EIA-0204246).
of gender and IS enables new explanations and
theories to become available. It addresses positivist
limitations by offering alternatives to managerialist REFERENCES
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Trauth, E. M. (1995). Women in Ireland’s informa- KEY TERMS


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Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, ANT is a social
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Critical Research: Research that critiques the
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139. create as they interact with the world around them
(Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1991, p. 5).
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Webster, F. (2002). Theories of the information
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Postmodernism: An intellectual movement that
rejects modernist principles and practices. It argues,
instead, that there is no single truth or reality. Since

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Critical Research on Gender and Information Systems

multiple versions of truth or reality exist, it argues for devoted to critical research include Data Base
pluralist principles and practices (Webster, 2002, (2001/2002), Journal of Information Tech-
Chap. 9). nology (2002), and Information Systems Jour-
nal and Information Technology & People
(forthcoming). Examples of conferences with
ENDNOTE a critical IS stream include the Critical Man-
1
agement Studies conference (1999, 2003, 2005),
An example of books is Howcroft and Trauth Critical Research in IS Workshops (2001, 2004),
(2005). Examples of special issues of journals and a critical stream at the Americas Confer-
ence on IS since 2001.

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