~ By Jiro Ghianni ~

Why wouldn't you be super interested to look for ways to make technology more diversity-friendly for any minority? I know I'd like to build a world that represents me and keeps me, as well as others, fundamentally safe. Inclusion will never be perfect but there must be ways to enhance it. But how?

Minorities are a majority

It's a known fact that the fields of software, computing and computer science are plagued by tremendous underrepresentation of women and people of color. I wonder which other diversity factors need a bit more of a boost. Apart from the gender gap be sure that little to none transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals will be able to get coding jobs. And what about the differently abled? If you're deaf you could still be the best programmer out there, but Scrum isn't known for being deaf-friendly. And how about autism? An agile process doesn't seem like the best place for people who are very well qualified in coding but just act 'different' with crazy speedy deadlines where people have to assert themselves...

But wait a minute... Is this really about minority? As I come to think of it: diversity among humans is huge and incredible. The one group that is in undisputed power is just this one: white men. But wait: as a white man it's sort of okay to be gay but don't be open about it and don't be a sissy or nice, be assertive. Also: don't be disabled in any way. And ehm... when you're over 40 you're now old... The group that has it easy is becoming smaller and smaller. White men are not in power, if they are over 40, gay, disabled, friendly and a feminist. There is now a small minority in power: white, able-bodied heterosexual men between the age of 25-39. With their tunnel view increasing, leading to grave mistakes in programming, like this one:

"Gay dating apps leak location data, unsafe for LGBT users in repressive regimes"

Obviously the white heterosexual western first-world men who made these apps had zero sensitivity to the daily life situations of their clientele...

We really NEED coders who understand the people they are creating for.

More painful examples

For your enjoyment, here's a bunch of examples with mixed amounts of loveliness. Cases where blindness to inclusion and gender-biased technology has immediate results. Sometimes funny, sometimes not so funny:

  • Remember Sally Ride, the first female austronaut in the US? She was offered 100 tampons for a 7 day trip because the scientists at NASA had no idea how many tampons a vagina-bodied person uses.

  • Kinects face-tracking gaming software famously didn't track people with dark skin very well, nor did HP webcams. It turned out to be a lightning issue but they remain clear examples what happens when all the engineers and testers are white.

  • For a long time seat belts were only tested on dummies that had the height and build of an 'average' man. As a result seat belts were positioned too high for an 'average' woman and cut their necks. And the influence of having breasts on seat belt comfort and safety was not tested. Currently conventional seatbelts still do not fit pregnant women properly.

  • Medical instructions about heart attacks often only describe the most common symptoms experienced by male-bodied people and ignore the most common symptoms experienced by female-bodied people. Defibrillation instructions often do not describe that the bra needs to be cut open in the middle. Instruction videos that show defibrillation almost always use a male actor because the makers of a video do not dare show a woman's naked chest, even though 50% of the world population has them and we already know what breasts look like.

  • Visual gender role clichés:

    • On airplane safety instructions it's almost always a woman 'assisting the child' to put on an oxygen mask.
    • Most ICT flex-work software systems that depict a 'person' almost always represent them with icons of little white men with ties. Anyone else isn't really a person I guess.
  • From my personal experience: Some years ago I was working as a callcenter agent at a health insurance company's helpdesk. One day I received a call from a man who asked if he could please get a new insurance card because the company sent him a pass with the wrong gender; every year. As it turned out: this was a married gay couple and this type of health insurance would automatically also cover the partner of whomever was main insurant but... the system's database was programmed in such a way that it would calculate whatever opposite gender partners would have from the main client... This happened quite a lot (I'm from the Netherlands where gay marriage has been legal since 2001). I never even thought about this, but I've learned. I would say this is a perfect example of a practice where programmers really can make a change. Programmers who themselves are diverse and by default can translate their life experience in diverse data systems.

  • STD forms: many health institutes that check on Sexually Transmitted Diseases will start their web forms with question number one being "are you male or female", then splitting up the respondents to direct them to very different question paths and their respective body parts. This makes no sense for transgender clients who can present a different gender from what their body parts are traditionally said to dictate, and it makes no sense for intersex people either who may or may not have particular bodyparts that were set as static in the database. For example: you might be a very masculine transman, mostly cruising in the gay male scene, and therefore you'll need to get tested on "traditionally gay male" STD's - yet these web forms won't allow you to enter any symptoms you might have near your vagina if you so happen to have one. This is an example where a database poses an actual health threat.

What to do?

Well, it seems simple. If we need coding to keep a better eye on inclusion we need to hire and school more diverse programmers. But that's not enough. Project leaders and managers also need to be diverse. The value of this issue needs to be ingrained in everyone's psyche so we can all understand the essence of safety.

We need more video games that don't have the cliché hyper-sexualization of women. We need more medication that isn't just tested on men only. We need databases that do not define gender but make it a variable entry. We need feminist emoji's. And we need more, way more public urinals that are not just accessible to people with penises, because yes: building stuff is technology, and we need to build better stuff. Better software and better hardware. It's possible, we can do it. There really is nothing that can stop us.

Let's start today.

"Keep in mind: As a developer we are often one of the last lines of defense against potentially dangerous and unethical practices"

Are you a coder? Can you build projects that keep people safe and that increase inclusion?

Do it now!

Some good initiatives

Here is a bunch of links to some interesting organizations and individuals who are trying to make the world of coding less of a place for just the tiny minority of white-heterosexual-30-something-able-bodied-assertive-men:

Contact me if you know of more mind-blowing examples or if you have a project that needs to be improved and you would like me to work on it with you!


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