Art by Molly Lee

9th May 2012

Post with 5 notes

Female Digital Humanists: Hacking It

The intersection between humanists and programmers within the digital humanities field is characterized by innovation.  This innovation has brought digital humanities to the forefront of scholarly endeavors, trailblazing a path that most scholarship is likely to one day follow.  But, let’s consider this: there are currently more male digital humanists than female.

Programming, a field that has long been male-dominated, is an integral part of the current digital humanities projects.  Humanities, however, represents a field that has evolved over time to not only include women, but to promote women.  So why is it that there are still more active male digital humanists than women?  How does the gender gap that exists in the world of programming duplicate itself in the field of digital humanities?  And lastly, how can we fix it?

There is still a remarkable gender divide within the science and technology fields.  Since the digital humanities field instigates collaboration from these two groups, it is worthwhile to take a look at the gender trends in digital humanities.  One informal study from 2010 pointed out that in humanities fields that typically connect to digital humanities, the majority of scholars are women.  In fact, over 80% of librarians are women, yet the author analyzed twitter accounts from scholars involved in the digital humanities field and determined that 60% belonged to men.  In addition, men had on average over 200 more followers on twitter than the female DHers.  Some data estimated digital humanities courses enrollment at a 2:1 male-female ratio.  Also, in the February issue of Digital Humanities Now, the first issue, all of the seven articles open for peer review were written by men.  I noticed that articles about coding were commented on overwhelmingly by men while the articles centered more in the humanities were overwhelmingly commented on by women.

I would like to focus on a female-centered digital humanities project that is utilizing humanists and programmers to advance scholarship.  The CWRC, Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory, is a digital humanities project based out of Alberta, Canada.  It is also a feminist project at its core.  The project aims to promote female writers through increased access to documents and technological efforts and to share the “words that most move people in and about Canada.”  The collaboratory has developed several technical projects to help this goal.  Examples of these technological projects include the CWRC Text Writer and the Online Research Canada (ORCA) Repository.  Through the tools being developed, the CWRC hopes to take on the challenge of analyzing words and language in a meaningful way through the interdisciplinary efforts of literary studies, humanities computing, computing science, business, and earth science. 

Through conversations with Susan Brown, one of the founding members of the project and a current professor of feminist theory at the University of Guelph in Ontario, it is clear that one of the main goals of the project is to lower the barrier of participation for female scholars in digital projects.  At the CWRC, most of the researchers are women.  However, it still seems that most of the programmers are men.  Brown expressed the same anxiety that many scholars in her field deal with: that Digital Humanities may replicate the biases of the past.  So how can female digital humanists avoid this replication?

Simple, some say.  Learn to code.  Michael Widner’s article espouses the virtues of coding, comparing being able to code to being able to understand a foreign language on a trip abroad.  He himself has been coding since he was ten years old, so it might be argued that this kind of understanding is like a second language to him.  Although his goal of learning to code is important, it doesn’t solve the problem for women.  If he is to compare coding to language, then he would know that the older you get, the less easy it is to learn.  And in a culture where females were never expected to excel in math, science, and technology, this education and understanding may come along a lot later than a man’s.  Miriam Posner highlights the cultural inequality in a recent blog post.  As she points out, learning how to code later in life is enough to cause anxiety and failure.  Add to that the presumption that your efforts represent all women, and suddenly coding becomes even more intimidating.  In addition, the technical world is couched in male-centered expressions that range from inconspicuous to overtly offensive.  Some female programmers experience male-biased programming language and the “imposter syndrome,” in which a female feels she doesn’t belong or she is faking her success in comparison to an authoritative male voice. The Coding Humanist, a male, speaks about an uncomfortable and sexist technology presentation and meanwhile, the increasingly popular meme of the “brogrammer” is popping up.  “The fratty “brogramming” meme is on the rise, but some female computer scientists feel the phenomenon is sexist and it alienates them.”  There are, however, resources that aim to promote programming for groups that may feel this alienation.

Recently, Codeacademy, a free, interactive coding site was launched to help with practice and understanding.  Although, it has received some criticism that it’s helping too late in the game for some people involved in technology fields.  In another effort aimed specifically towards female programmers,, an internet entrepreneurial site recently offered ten $5,000 scholarships to women to attend hacker school.  This effort was blogged by transformDH, a Digital Humanities Tumblr reporting on alternative projects.

Lee Ann Ghajar suggests in a February 2012 blog post that learning the basics of coding may not be enough to change the environment for women.  Humanists tend to want to understand the context, the motivation, and the larger cultural significance to invest themselves in a project.  Perhaps, she suggests, the same should go for coding.  Instead of creating a dichotomy between programmers and humanists, digital humanities can afford a greater flexibility, not only through interdisciplinary cooperation, but through the sheer fluid nature of digital presence.  One of the most innovative projects, to embody this is THATCamp, an affordable, participatory project where humanists and technologists build projects together without formal proposals or presentations.

Moya Z. Bailey, a graduate candidate at Emory University points out in a blog post, All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave, that projects such as THATCamp can potentially add women to the mix, stir the pot, and celebrate their participation. 

More than anything, it’s important to note that digital humanities is changing just as rapidly as does technology, and the dearth of women may not remain for long.  Simply viewing the vast female participation in the online discussion bodes well for the future.  Indeed, this post could not be completed without the hundreds of online resources present that identify, analyze, discuss, and humanize the state of digital humanities.

Molly Lee is a graduate student at the University of Illinois School of Library and Information Science.  She is an artist, feminist, and blogger, in no particular order.  Original pictures taken at the International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Tagged: digital humanitieslibrary sciencefeminismcanadian writing research collaboratory

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