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Citizens Union

Women and Technology

In the past year, New York City has done much to promote high technology. While economic development in New York's special high-tech zones is a priority, it is also important to focus on upgrading the skills of citizens in these communities.

Currently, New York's high-tech economic development efforts are focused on eight districts: Harlem, Long Island City, DUMBO, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sunset Park, Red Hook, Staten Island and most recently in the South Bronx. These are some of the poorest neighborhoods in New York. Since there are a large number of single mothers in these neighborhoods, it is important to target tech education and training at women. Poor women are the least likely to have computer training and this keeps them out of higher paying jobs. Focusing training on single mothers will enable their families to benefit from the influx of high-tech businesses in their communities.

If mothers are trained in high-tech skills, it is highly likely that they will pass on this knowledge to their children. Thus, by focusing new tech-training programs on women, New York can also influence the future generation of New Yorkers. This is extremely important if New York is to further develop its current focus on high-tech industries like biotechnology and information technology.

One way to upgrade the skills of working mothers in these neighborhoods is to divert money from already established programs. New York's Commission on the Status of Women could play an important role in making this happen. For example, recently, the U.S. Department of Labor gave the Private Industry Council funding to train several hundred New Yorkers over the next two years in high-tech skills. These funds could be targeted at building the skills of individuals within the eight high-tech districts.

Another way would be to require that companies lured into these high-tech zones by below-market rent in wired office space offer high-tech skills workshops focused on women. This would help build positive relations with the communities in which they reside while improving their likelihood of being employed.

If efforts are not made to focus on the education and training of families where economic development programs are planned, it is likely that they will be further marginalized. They will be less likely to know how to use a computer or access information via the Internet. In the end, economic development without social development is a recipe for exacerbating the digital divide.

The high-tech sector is still dominated by men. Therefore, focusing high-tech education and training on women is a sound policy choice no matter what neighborhood they live in.

While women have now attained parity in Internet use in the U.S., employment opportunities are still highly biased towards men. According to New York-based high-tech networking association Webgrrls International women still represent only 20 percent of employees in Internet businesses. In addition, typically, women work in technology business areas such as marketing, advertising and public relations; very few work as programmers with computer science or engineering backgrounds or make it to upper management. Two notable examples of women who defy the norm are New York-based venture capitalist Esther Dyson and Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

It is easy to see these recommendations, while targeted specifically at women, could easily be used as a basis for all New Yorkers who find themselves unplugged and tuned out. In the end, if New York's high-tech economic development efforts are to benefit people living in all five boroughs, we must closely coordinate them with related social development programs.

New York cannot rely on the private sector to bring wealth to our poor neighborhoods. Instead, the city must make a concerted effort to target education, training and employment at women and youth. It is only then that we will be able to realize the goals of our economic development programs and build a better future for the city.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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