Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions are some of the most lucrative and sought-after careers in the U.S., but black men are largely absent from those fields. Lynette (Kvasny) Yarger, an associate professor at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), is investigating the social, cultural and economic factors that cause some black men to shy away from information technology (IT) careers and others to succeed in them.
“The objective of the study is to look at [black men’s] career pathways,” Kvasny said. “How do they get to the point where they choose IT as a career?”
Kvasny, along with Eileen Trauth, a professor of IST, and K.D. Joshi and P. Unnikrishnan, faculty members at Washington State University, co-wrote the paper, “How Do Black Men Succeed in IT Careers? The Effects of Capital.” While most of the academic literature on black men focus on academic failures and poverty, according to the authors, their work “focuses on the positive by profiling black men who have successfully entered IT majors.” The research conducted for the paper is part of a larger National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study involving a multi-year project undertaken to profile IT career pathways of black males. The project consists of a series of studies that are investigating the questions of black men’s success in IT.
“People don’t perceive black men as IT workers,” Kvasny said. “What is it that makes these guys successful?”
The IT sector holds a wealth of opportunities for college graduates, according to the researchers. The career prospects of STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, while non-STEM occupations have a projected growth of 9.8 percent. Despite this promising growth, the percentage of black males in IT remains low. Black males comprise around 9 percent of the total workforce but only represent 2.2 percent of those working in IT occupations.
“Expanding the range of black males’ career options within an increasingly technology-oriented work world will not only help increase the much-needed skill supply, but also help alleviate the high unemployment and poverty often experienced by black men,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
As part of their research, Kvasny, Trauth and their colleagues conducted 88 interviews with undergraduate black men at Penn State, Washington State University, and historically black colleges Howard University, Southern University and A&M College, Dillard University and Hampton University. In answering the interview questions, participants were asked to reflect upon their life histories to identify critical events that motivated them to achieve academically and attend college, and inspired them to pursue IT careers.
In their study, the researchers uncovered that black men succeed in IT careers by accumulating five forms of capital: cultural, social, symbolic, technical and economic. Cultural capital concerns forms of knowledge embodied in culture, individual competencies and institutional credentials. Symbolic capital refers to accumulated honor and prestige. Social capital refers to the social networks that one employs to improve social standing. Economic capital refers to monetary resources, such as property, stocks and money. Technical capital concerns the specific skills that a person develops through engagement with modern computing equipment.
According to Kvasny, black men that pursue IT careers must overcome significant barriers. First of all, people commonly assume that black males are more suited to athletics than academics, or are beneficiaries of affirmative action. However, those preconceived notions can also motivate black men to try harder to prove themselves. Also, many African-American college students at predominantly white institutions must build their own support systems, since they may not have a built-in network of black students and faculty in their departments.
On the other hand, Kvasny said, black men who succeed in IT careers possess several unique strengths. Many black males in IT professions demonstrate an “entrepreneurial spirit” and feel a need to give something back to the black community rather than fall into crime and poverty like many of their peers. The rap and hip-hop culture has produced a “hustle” mentality among black men that translates to other areas such as IT, Kvasny said. “[Black male IT professionals] see themselves as exceptional in many ways and also see how easy it is to go down the wrong path,” she said.
Moving forward, Kvasny said, she and her colleagues plan to do more analysis and try to discover the nuances and strategies in how black men in IT leverage the various capitals to succeed in their chosen professions.