Mansplaining Gender – Why Tech Needs A Bechdel Test

Oct 16, 2014

The topic of women in tech has been growing in urgency recently (a good thing) and this week saw some pretty startling lows for the men of the tech world. At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing's conference they managed to gather some pretty A-List male talent to talk to women about... well, I don't know what they were supposed to be talking about.

First up was the  "Male Allies Plenary Panel" featuring Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, Google SVP of search Alan Eustace, the CEO of GoDaddy Blake Irving, and the Tayloe Stansbury, CTO of Intuit.

Now who on earth thought that having the CEO of the company whose ads are the platonic ideal of male sexual id talking to women about their opportunity to one day being equal in tech is beyond me, but the others might have had interesting things to say. Sadly they didn't. The whole thing was a mess. And then it got worse. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, had a keynote conversation in which he said that instead of asking for raises, women should have faith and rely on karma. Women, not surprisingly, told him where he could put his karma.

To be fair, some of the 'Male Allies' tried to make amends with a listening session and Nadella apologized and "clarified" his comments.

All of this got me thinking. Before I returned to tech, I spent years in the film industry as a producer. The film industry, though filled with women, has a horrendous track record of allowing them to have genuine positions of power, especially as directors (in 86 years, the Academy has only nominated 4 women for Best Director and only Kathryn Bigelow has won), and consequently, the female characters presented on screen are often conforming to male sexist ideas in ways that are not readily apparent to the uncritical viewer.

In 1985 a female cartoonist (and 2014 MacArthur "Genius") named Alison Bechdel in her series Dykes to Watch Out For created a strip called "The Rule" in which a female character asserts that she will only watch a movie that satisfies the following requirements (this is believed to have been an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf idea from her essay A Room of One's Own):

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Ok, now try to find a film that satisfies the rules... Harder than you think. In fact, there's some pretty famous films that fail it (unsurprisingly "The Social Network" fails it).

The test has inspired offshoots including an interesting one for journalist seeking to avoid bias called the Finkbeiner test. I think we need one for tech. I'm certainly not the right person to write it for a constellation of genetic reasons, but I could see it looking at things like the gender distribution of a company's staff, the distribution of women by role (are they just design & community support or are they engineering), or the gender distribution of git repo commits. So, anyone want to come up with something? I'm all ears...
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