Women in Tech and the Code Censors

A friend who works in IT brought this discussion to my attention. It relates to the removal of a line of code which some of the (seemingly all male?) community found to be sexist. The code made reference to the phrase “not your fathers’ [x]”. I know quite a few men who work in tech, and although they are fabulous individuals, I don’t have to be convinced of the sexism and misogyny which are generally still very prevalent within IT circles. Women are stil very under-represented within the industry, and misogynist attitudes within IT are certainly a contributing factor to this.

The discussion on Github about this line of code and whether it should be removed gets quite heated. It seems that many people are convinced that the phrase “not your fathers’ [x]” is actually quite sexist. The origin of the phrase, an Oldsmobile ad, was quite sexist, in the way that many ads are, particularly of that era. But I hadn’t ever seen that ad, and the phrase to me has a very different meaning. As someone who has certifiable “dad issues” I can say that the phrase means little other than something new/better/improved/different than that which has come before it. Obviously, I can’t speak for ‘all women’ or any other group I might be a part of, and I’m not a women who works in tech. Maybe that line of code is offensive to some women.

The real issue is that the developer community over at Github are trying, it seems, to counter the anti-women culture which tech circles so often cultivate. That’s great. But I’m not sure that this particular line of code is something that required so much time and energy. Conducting small scale censorship doesn’t seem particularly worthwhile at this point. If only such effort could be channeled into other things to affect cultural change within tech.  Confronting issues like sexual harassment at conferences and the broad issue of under-representation of women, by supporting those who are already doing it would be great ways to achieve this.

[Edit: Appears I may have viewed an alternative/different ad, not the original Oldsmobile ad. The original isn’t particularly sexist.]


5 responses to “Women in Tech and the Code Censors

  • davewilkinsonii

    Hello. You are not sure if the line was worth the effort to remove. Considering that that line could be removed in a single click of a button, I’d say it is more surprising that so many people gave the effort to voice an opinion to preserve the line. Why do people fight so hard to maintain the status quo when it is so trivial to avoid these issues?

    Here is the deal. We need to spend this amount of effort on seemingly little things. These little details to add up to present a culture that is less accepting and tolerant. By spending the effort now on these little details, we make it a little better. We will spend less effort in the future. Eventually we can create a safe space for a wealth of people.

    This line does indeed need to be removed. It paints a subtle, but potent image of programming as a male field. This hinders diversity by discouraging non-male individuals. It does so by something called the stereotype threat, which is a very real concern in the tech space, especially education. Considering this web site is to attract new programmers to a fundamental tool, this is the perfect place to make some changes and set a precedent.


    One of the strange notions is that, depending on the age of your father, it is extremely likely that at some time in their life, the programming world was considered a women’s field. More likely still that it had a wealth of women. Not a majority, since the peak is around 42% in the late 80s. However, we currently paint a world where men are the only people interested, that men created everything throughout time, and where a prominent gender assumption exists. We marginalize the efforts of women who very much created the programming field. So. Yes, we should eliminate such assumptions. And, no, we should not let it slide because it is a ‘minor’ offense.

    I want my non-male students to not feel compelled to ask me questions in private. I want them to feel comfortable learning. I want there to be more of them taking the class not just because they are required to do so. I want them to be able to look up material online and not have to read many gendered pronouns in tech articles and documentation nor in general see any remarks that imply a relation between gender and a programming tool.

    Please, understand that this is about the dismissal of an entire gender (actually, many genders.)

  • davewilkinsonii

    Don’t you hate it when it doesn’t post for a couple of hours so you rewrite everything? And then that posts immediately??? My apologies. I like my second comment better. Can you delete the first? 😛

  • steveklabnik

    Hi there. I originally submitted the patch.

    I do not think that the line is sexist. I do think that it reinforces traditional gender roles and norms, one of which is that women are not programmers.

    This also has zero to do with ‘offense,’ and everything to do with not automatically assuming that any random programmer is male. Adding a gendered comment here adds absolutely nothing, while subtly reinforcing that ‘programming is for boys.’

    > If only such effort could be channeled into other things to affect cultural change within tech.

    Just because someone does one thing doesn’t mean they’re not doing others. For example, at RailsConf, I gave a talk introducing anti-oppression concepts: http://vimeo.com/41237183 I’m giving a full-length version with a close (woman) friend of mine at two more Ruby conferences this fall.

  • Anne

    1. I believe the original intent was to facilitate inclusion by gently calling out a slogan that was more than your everyday “he/she” case of gendering. Implying that the phrase ‘not-your-daddys-version-control’ is/is not “sexist” is a judgment call and in eye of the beholder, which I presume is why you were compelled to throw in your .02. Without the gender reference, there would be no polarizing sexism discussion in this particular instance. The irony is that Steve’s change request spurred yet another sexism “discussion.” And here we are again. 🙂

    2. “But I’m not sure that this particular line of code is something that required so much time and energy. Conducting small scale censorship…”

    The change request and it’s resolution involved very little time and energy. The discussion, possibly another matter. I would not consider this an example of conducting small-scale censorship in the tech world. Github is no small deal to the tech community. In addition to version control, collaboration, and code-sharing, it is the place many potential employers go first.

    3. Regarding the tagline itself, it is interesting that there were more women coders, as a percentage, 25 years ago than there are today. Given all the exclusion and sexism documentation and discussions going on now vs. then, perhaps it sheds a new light on today’s use of this tagline-with-historical-reference, no?

    4. I believe the choice of slogan was not intended to offend. I applaud Steve for subtly making a point and I applaud the folks at Github for removing the slogan. It shows a level of maturity and understanding beyond themselves, while the lack of which, for a small portion of people in tech, is a problem.

  • Piotr Zolnierek (@pzol)

    Thing is, that a lot of people, male people that is, feel that those kind of things are anti-male. I perceive those kind of actions as trying to right a wrong by doing the same wrong.
    If you want to see more women in tech, I would love to see that happen in a more constructive and active way, like e.g. http://railsgirls.com/

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