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.