Is It Getting Better? Or Do You Feel the Same?

Posted Monday, April 9th, 2012 at 8:23 pm

I don’t normally want to “harp on” gender issues in tech by doing two posts about them in a row, but I’ve gotta write about this while the news is still kind of current. In my last post, I wrote about the Geeklist fail and the Sqoot/Boston API Jam fail. At the end of my post, I wrote: “I think it’s getting better”. I mentioned that the reactions to those two fails had been much more feminist and progressive than previous ones I was aware of.

Since then, there have been two more incidents about gender and tech. And the first one is a near-perfect rebuke to Geeklist’s Sanz and Katz, who showed an almost textbook example of how not to respond to criticism. Chad Whitacre instead shows a pretty good example of how to do it right, and earns himself Geek Feminism Wiki’s “Cookie of the Week” award.

Testosterone Becomes assertEquals

Seven years ago, Whitacre created a testing framework for Python. It runs on the command line using curses[1]. When it came time to pick a name for his testing framework, Whitacre decided on Testosterone and called it “the manly testing framework for Python”. Which was vaguely amusing, until his friend @velociraptors pointedly asked: “what, exactly, makes it manly?” There was a little bit of polite back-and-forth on Twitter, in which Whitacre tried to explain his reasoning.

He did not get offended, he did not condescend to her or get huffy… and after sleeping on it, he decided to change the name of his framework. He posted on Twitter saying, “Sorry for the sexism”, and then wrote an announcement and explanation of why he was renaming the software to assertEquals.

What She Really Said

The second item is Jessamyn Smith’s “What She Really Said” bot, designed to counter a “That’s What She Said” bot in her workplace’s IRC channel. This one is less of a total win, because honestly, she shouldn’t have had to write her bot at all. Her initial requests to co-workers to turn off the bot were met with the usual “It’s fun! You should lighten up!” dismissals.

So she wrote her own bot, which simply responds to “that’s what she said” by replying with an actual quote from an actual woman. And then she also released the code on GitHub, like any good open-source programmer.

So, what happened after that?

The reactions on Hacker News were… interesting. There was a fair amount of support for Smith, and at least a few people who came up with many of the same tired, old arguments. In particular, there was user batista, who went for a full Trifecta of bingo-card dismissals.

But on the bright side, at least three or four other users took the time to argue and debate with him, pointing out many flaws in his “reasoning”.

Over on Reddit, it’s even easier to see which comments get voted up, and there the trend is clear: The highest-rated comments are all supportive of Smith.

Reactions outside the programming community were much more consistently positive. Which seems like yet another great example of programmers being dicks. Hey, guys, can we cut this crap out?

Finally, it’s interesting to note Smith’s comments about some of her co-workers’ reactions. First, I’ll note that many co-workers reacted positively. So that’s good. But then there were the ones who didn’t like it:

There have been complaints about it spamming the channel. There were several “Make them shut up!” responses. These are not reactions I have seen the other bots elicit, certainly not with such intensity. One person even complained about the name being too long, though to his credit he realized right after he said that that several other people in the channel also have very long handles.

(Once again, note that the What She Really Said bot only responds to the specific words “that’s what she said”, so it cannot possibly be spamming the channel any more than existing TWSS traffic is.)

It’s interesting how things that were “funny” when done by the TWSS bot suddenly became “spamming” when the WSRS bot did them. I love[2] how programmers, who often think of themselves as being — and sometimes openly declare themselves to be — rational, unbiased, and guided by measurable facts, nonetheless displayed obvious, undeniable bias here.

At least one of them was honest enough to notice it when he criticized WSRS on completely unfair grounds. And who knows, maybe some of the other guys quickly realized how silly their “spamming” accusations were.

I don’t mean to simply hold these guys up for ridicule, either. Much like when I wrote about Cliff Stoll’s failed predictions, “it does me no good to simply point and laugh”. I’d rather ask: How can we improve? How can we do better?

Chad Whitacre’s example is a good one to follow. Another way is by not believing our own hype. If you believe “I’m unbiased and guided by objective facts”, it’s too easy to close your mind to other people’s experiences. Open your mind, open your ears, and listen to what people — including women — have to tell you.

If Jessamyn Smith’s co-workers had done that, she wouldn’t have had to write WSRS in the first place.

[1] For non-geeks: “curses” is the name of a standard programming library that uses cursor motions to draw things on a text-only screen. 

[2] Where “I love how…” really means, “I hate how…”. In Metamagical Themas, in the Post Scriptum to “Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness”, Douglas R. Hofstadter talks about meeting philosopher and feminist Joan Straumanis. They “particularly enjoyed swapping stories of the sort that make you groan and say, ‘Isn’t that great?’ — meaning, of course, ‘How sickening!’” He explains this as: “You need outrageously clear examples if you want to convince many people that there is a problem worth taking at all seriously.” Hence why I “love” these obviously-biased and irrational reactions. 

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