Why It Matters To Think about Gender and Technology

There's a parody/hoax happening on Bitbucket where a simplistic redaction of feminism conjoined with a lot of fake code is being put up to tempt the naive, I assume, to create a "feminist" programming language that will turn out to be bogus, a la the infamous hoax perpetuated against Lacanian critical theory long ago.  It's a trap, I gather, so that anyone who participates will be revealed to be silly, uninformed, and the whole enterprise fraudulent.  Really? Is that the best one can do with a serious issue that most of the world realizes deserves serious debate?  Personally, I'd avoid any part of this conversation that isn't a respectful engagement. Caveat emptor.   The mudslinging and name calling and reductionism are not what Ari Schlesinger's posts on feminism and programming (either the original or the follow up) are about. 

It's been astonishing to see how much response and discussion her post has received.   It's great to see how many programmers realize that the concerns she raises are real and important.  And, of course, it is sad and dismaying that some programmers are so defensive or so isolated that they seemingly are not aware that issues surrounding gender and technology are among the most pressing in the programming world today.  and surprising that th

I give a lot of talks now at corporations dedicated to technology innovation.  Within fifteen minutes, I always hear that the single biggest problem in that world is lack of diversity.   CEOs and CIOs don't see it as a problem for women but a problem for technology:  you cannot create technology for a very diverse world (in every sense) with a homogenous core of developers and managers.   They find it to be a major problem and are funding ways of changing the problem to the tune of billions of dollars a year worldwide.  No one knows what to do but no one in that world is sanguine about the fact that the number of women entering the field of computer science has declined since 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser was released to the general public and the "Information Age" officially began. 

That's a problem.  So is the 9%-14% (the numbers vary depending on what and who you count) representation of women among editors of Wikipedia.   We have a major cultural, social, political, and economic issue here and everyone in the tech world is aware of it.  

Please put the parodies aside, folks.   This is a real, serious issue.  Getting to the root problem is essential in real, practical terms as well as in theoretical terms. Ari Schlesinger is performing a real service to the profession by provoking serious conversation on these matters. 

Needless to say, since many people are researching this topic (both scholars and those in the business community alarmed by the problem of lack of diversity), all the responses--positive as well as negative--are part of the data and evidence about attitudes towards women, gender, and feminism that pervade the culture of programmers and other technology designers.  I'm fascinated, of course, that there was such a quick, voluminous backlash. Why?  Anyone who studies the history of programming languages should be aware that there is a long history (going back to the very beginning of cybernetics) of wondering how the ones and zeros of binary code actually encode cultural values at the deepest level.   Since language is the basis of code and language encodes values, code does too.  This is also true in other areas, aside from and apart from gender, including for those who live in cultures where language itself is far less binaristic than Indo-European languages.   It has long been argued, for example, that ideogram languages (Chinese, Japanese, etc), for example, do not map well onto binary code.  These are deep not trivial issues.

We invite your comments and your disagreements although, as always with HASTAC, we are an open community that promotes difference through thoughtful, civil, engaged, respectful exchange. 

Snide parody? Name-calling? Slander? Hoaxes? Trolls?  There's no place for those in a world where there are real and important issues that will benefit from all of us thinking together about how we can do better.

Arielle Schlesinger's New Blog:

Original Blog: