Programming, gender, and masculine metaphors

Dr. Margaret Burnett, one of my professors from my grad school days at Oregon State University, gave a wonderful keynote address at the PPIG (Psychology of Programming Interest Group) workshop in Madrid, Spain on September 20, 2010, entitled “Gender HCI and Programming.” In her keynote, Dr. Burnett outlined seven years of research that she and her colleagues have conducted into issues of gender and computer programming. (For more detail about their research, see the Gender HCI Project page.)

One of the most insightful moments for me was when Dr. Burnett pointed out that  computer programming and systems often employ violent or crude metaphors that are potentially offensive or abrasive to many women. For example, we abort processes, kill programs, spawn zombies and daemons, etc. Who invented these terms? For the most part, guys. And not just normal, run of the mill, let’s shoot some hoop and watch the game sort of guys. But nerdy, hard-core, dungeons and dragons, caffeinate and code all night sort of guys.

I hereby add my own small data point. Some of my kids had been pestering me for a few months to teach them the material from BYU’s CS 100 course, “Introduction to Computing.” The Saturday after Margaret’s keynote address, I relented, and my lecture in the family room was attended by two sons (ages 17 and 14) and one daughter (age 15). At some point, near the end of my lecture, I was talking about programs and how you launch them so that they run. I said something like, “So when you click on the icon, it executes the program.” My sons nodded blankly. But my daughter cried out, “Ew! Execute the program?!” See, that’s the gender gap. My boys didn’t even blink and my daughter is having flashbacks to the French Revolution.

So there, Dr. Burnett. You can add this to the list of seemingly innocuous technical terms that in fact evoke a negative reaction from a teenage girl while her brothers, raised in the same home, don’t even notice. And we wonder why we have a gender gap in Computer Science enrollment.

9 thoughts on “Programming, gender, and masculine metaphors

  1. I normally love your observations and notes on the world, but this has to be the dumbest thing you’ve written. Do you really think the word ‘execute’ was chosen by a bunch of caffeinated teenagers fresh off 24 hours of gaming? If anything, your example argues that girls are simply uneducated as to the meaning of common words in our language. Are you going to claim that using the word ‘run’ instead of execution is somehow derogatory to folks unable to do so?

  2. Sam, put down the 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke and back away slowly. I considered toasting your comment on the grounds of uncharacteristic hostility from an otherwise gentle (if nerdy) soul. But then I realized how profoundly you helped establish the precise point that I was trying to make. :)

  3. I just changed the title of this post. Original title: “Programming, gender, and abrasive masculine metaphors.” I decided that “abrasive masculine” was somewhat redundant, and that I ran the risk of suggesting that masculine metaphors were somehow less valuable or appropriate than other metaphors. This was not my intent.

    Rather, my intent was to suggest that the nerdy guys (yes, nerdy, and yes, guys) who invented this field naturally used the metaphors that they felt comfortable with. For folks who fall along a different distribution (such as the average woman, give or take a couple sigmas) some of the metaphors are either gross (e.g., “SCSI,” pronounced “scuzzy”), violent (e.g., “kill,” “abort,” “crash,” etc.), or just plain uber-nerdy (e.g., “bits,” “bytes,” and “nibbles”). For a lot of young women, that’s a career turnoff.

  4. I was about to say that your daughter’s reaction, though a tad extreme, was a clear example of what I’ve seen over and over.

    When I was a sysadmin in the Chemistry department on campus, a couple of us were standing in the hall eating doughnuts the department office had left over after a grad seminar. Our talk turned to our adventure the day before with our mail server showing up with a bunch of runaway, zombie imap processes. As we discussed various ways of determining who the parent process was and how to kill it so it would reap its children, we wondered at the strange looks we were getting by the people passing by (many of them female). Until we noticed that we were being looked at like aliens, it never occurred to us that talking about parents reaping their zombie children wasn’t “normal”.

    I think the problem extends not just to females, although they are a relatively clear generalization in this case, but to the almost non-existent crossover between non-geek and geek fields. How many people, male or female, do you know who after a lifetime of being “normal”, suddenly understood geeks?

  5. You said you wanted a female to respond, so here I am. ;)

    You have to be aware that whatever I say is tainted because I am very much a nerdy CS-person.

    Personally, I never saw the terminology as offensive. I have always had an unusually large vocabulary, and so maybe I just already knew that “execute” meant to “carry out”, or “put into effect”. It didn’t have anything to do with killing people.

    I do realize that zombie children is not as much that way. For me, though, by the time I had heard about such terms I was fully ingrained in nerd-dom and just thought it was amusing. However, the choices are perfectly logical, if a little weird. Having processes who are parents and children is perfectly logical, because one created the other. You have a child process whose parent died, it becomes an orphan. You have a process that should have died, but for some reason is still alive, that is exactly what a zombie is. You have to prematurely end a process, that is what aborting is.

    I think that there is a slight chance that the terminology could put off females from CS, but I don’t think it is likely a big number. The chances of me hearing about such odd terminology applied to programs before I already kind of knew I wanted to go in a CS direction were very low. Most females (excluding some eavesdropping) won’t hear about it until they already want to go that way. And then what is the terminology in opposition to your life goal? Maybe they smile and shake their head at the odd boys who created it. Maybe they join in, or see the logic in it, like I do.

    To wander off in another direction from this topic, I have my own idea of why girls never get far enough into wanting to do CS to even hear of these “offensive” terms. I think it probably has more to do with the social perception of the “CS Nerd”. People who do computers are nerdy, glasses-wearing, skinny, acne-filled, socially-inept boys with no friends (except other nerds) who live in their parent’s basement until they are 30. Nerdy girls are portrayed exactly the same, just with a change in gender. What girl wants to grow up like that? What girl wants to marry or hang out with a boy like that? I think social stereotypes are more likely to contribute to the dearth of CS females than the indelicate terminology of the CS process.

    But as I said, I am a CS female, and am obviously lacking in whatever thinking it is that repels girls from CS, so take what I say with a grain of salt. ;P

  6. Heh. It never occurred to me that C.S. word choices would turn girls off for being abrasive, but then, I grew up in a Dungeons and Dragons household. Killing zombies is my idea of fun. :-P

    I find Ariel’s take on the matter likely, and I’ve heard similar ideas before. But I have my own ideas on why there are so few women in computer science. I’ve just written a blog post about this:
    http://kathys2bytes.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-so-few-women-in-computer-science.html

    Now look what you’ve done, Dr. K. :)

  7. Pingback: banane » Blog Archive » Girly Metaphors For Computers

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