Sexist coding

Sexist coding and how to fight it

Say goodbye to sexist bosses and hello to the newest threat to gender equality – sexist coding. Year 10 student Stella Wailes has the scoop.

Ladies, not only do you have to worry about the sexist remarks of Donald Trump, but researchers have discovered that your own computer may be sexist as well.

You may be wondering how a computer – which is effectively a collection of metal – can be sexist?? Well it turns out that it’s not the actual metal itself that’s sexist – it’s the code inside the computer, which is being created by biased humans.

This may come as no surprise, as people have been found to have both conscious and unconscious bias that creeps into their work. It’s a similar case with computer code.

What’s the big deal you may ask? The big deal is that sexist coding has real life consequences that could ultimately increase sexism in society.

What are word embeddings?

Word embeddings are effectively dictionaries for computers. These are algorithms that allow computers to associate words together, such as “Paris” with “France”.

Some large tech companies such as Amazon and Sony use Applicant Tracking Systems made up of word embeddings to scan resumes for keywords related to the job.

A word embedding not only allows relevant phrases such as “computer programmer” to be picked out from the resumes, but also finds other related terms such as “coding camps”. This seems like an effective short cut but here’s the problem: many of these word embeddings are blatantly sexist.

Arvind Narayanan and his colleagues at Princeton University looked closely into how some word embeddings associate pleasant words together such as “love” and “peace”, as well as unpleasant ones such as “death and “disaster”.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Wow this word embedding is pretty smart, why wouldn’t companies use this?’ But the researchers also found many sexist word pairings. Male names such a “John” were closely associated with words like “boss” and “computer programmer” while female names such as Lisa were matched with “homemaker” and “artist”.

If this word embedding were to be used to sort through resumes, it might associate more male names with a role in technology and make it harder for a woman to be offered the job. Say goodbye to sexist bosses and hello to the newest threat to gender equality – sexist coding.

sexist coding
Female names such as Lisa were matched with 'homemaker'.

How can we tackle sexist coding?

Now that we know that these word embeddings may be increasing sexism, especially for women in the technology industry, the real question is: what are we going to do about it?

A possible contributing factor to the large amount of sexism in computer code is that approximately 75% of coders are men. There can only be one effective solution to the serious gender problem in coding  – and it’s quite simple. Employ and encourage more women to get into coding!

We need more woman writing and checking code if you want to reduce the risk of your own computer being sexist.

So if you’re interested in coding or just curious to find out more, go sign up for a coding camp or check out that free coding course you saw online the other day.  

Getting more women involved in coding is no longer just a preferable option but a necessity. After all, women have come too far not be stopped by a computer.

– Stella Wailes, Year 10

Recommended for you: Coding for Feminism

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