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Gender and Programming Culture: 2018 Critical Code Studies Workshop
By Elizabeth Losh, Judy Malloy, and Jacqueline Wernimont
Although code purports to be neutral, its binaries speak to deferrals and differences marked by the power and privilege of gender. When Ari Schlesinger asked if there could be a feminist programming language on the HASTAC blog in 2013 (this later became a central thread of CCSWG14), based on experiences with the critical code community, Reddit commenters at The Red Pill attacked her as an opponent of logic and mocked her with satirical guides to pseudocode. By the Fall of 2014 with Gamergate, what Anastasia Salter has called “toxic geek masculinity” went into overdrive with the stalking, doxxing, and swatting of aspiring feminist coders in the game industry and elsewhere. Last year the famed author of “The Google Memo” became an alt-right celebrity by asserting that women might be biologically less competent to succeed in tech-careers and thus were underrepresented (See also his recent lawsuit).
In arguing that women might be inherently worse at software engineering than their male counterparts (as members of a population rather than discrete individuals to be fair to how he qualifies his claims), author James Damore obviously ignores the fact that at one time women dominated the field of computer programming. This is well documented in the research of many scholars -- including Nathan Ensmenger, Marie Hicks, Kate Hayles, and Janet Abbate. Very often these labor histories show a pattern of devaluing the role of female pioneers and suggest that cultural exclusion may be more important factor than Damore would like to admit, which might justify Google's belated inclusion efforts. In particular, Marie Hicks’ recent book on the history of “programmed inequality” suggests that structural factors including government policy and legal frameworks, might propagate bias in technology fields.
Other triumphant historical stories like Hidden Figures suggest reasons for hope, although the film adaptation of the book left out important information described in the original text about the role of Virginia’s campaign of “massive resistance” in a federal workplace, black sororities, black male allies in the NACA/NASA workplace, and the pipeline in black churches to STEM careers. While salutary, the movie version of Hidden Figures also further plays into the notion that programmers, including black women, emerge spontaneously in isolation from their societies. Even in attempting to demonstrate their skill the movie contributed to a cultural mystification of code (think of the dense scribbled blackboards that are unexplained).
What if we examine a specific piece of code composed by a woman doing NASA contract work as a primary text? Judy Malloy suggests that in a thread on “Gendering the Apollo 11 Onboard In-Flight Software”, we start with Margaret Hamilton. Using Margaret Hamilton's work as an example, but also including the work and environments of the women at the NASA Langley Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), this thread addresses the role of women programmers in NASA space exploration technology. Primary questions are:
Malloy’s associated code critique, “COLOSSUS and LUMINARY: The Apollo 11 Guidance Computer (AGC) Code for the Command and Lunar Modules” will review the commented source code, document where Hamilton is credited, and critique comments from a humanist and/or gender perspective.
In seeking to credit pioneers in software engineering like Hamilton, FemTechNet members have encouraged engaging with the Wikipedia community to foster better practices for accounting for otherwise ignored female coders.They have also argued for the importance of people other than programmers in thinking through the history of computer science, including digital artists and animators, as well as those who attended to questions of infrastructure, like the planner who chose the locations for hubs in the national computing infrastructure, Mina Rees, who was often perceived as a secretary despite her doctoral degree and lead position at the Office of Naval Research.
In thinking through how code not only executes but simulates models that reveal the infrastructural conditions of the world, FemTechNet members Liz Losh and Jacque Wernimont have worked with lines in the programming language Processing. Using sample programs from The Nature of Code, which are available to CCSWG members on GitHub, they invite close readers of the algorithms to think about how forces, agents, and environments can be modeled They ask participants in their workshops and institutes to imagine ways that code can simultaneously simulate and represent the challenging circumstances of life lived under patriarchy with its heavy gravities, winding trajectories, and flocking obstacles.
It is in this spirit that we encourage code critiques that are constructive, respectful, generous, and collaborative as we undertake the work of the week together.