The Computational Humanities and Toxic Masculinity? A (long) reflection

Today, I want to talk about the Computational Humanities discussion from last year and finally say something with regard to the gender issues in it. I called this post ‘Toxic Masculinity?’ and maybe that’s provocative to you. But maybe it also correctly describes a situation which could come to pass in the DH – a discipline which considers itself so forward-thinking – if we don’t take lurking issues seriously. So this is my reaction.

Some disclaimers and considerations

I wanted to respond to this discussion when it originally came up. Then I didn’t dare  to post it because I was kind of afraid there would be a bad reaction, especially as the slightly-shitstorm-like situation was still fresh and I didn’t want to offend anyone. So I didn’t and now it’s all kind of too late and not up-to-date anymore. But since the general subject is still relevant to me, I decided to use this Corona situation to write up this post. And also because it is such a feminine problem to not post something because you’re afraid people might not like you if you speak your mind. I consider it a bad habit I was taught by a dysfunctional, non-gender-equal society that needs to be shedded, so here I am putting my thoughts out there now.

Maybe some of you are bored enough (and bored of the news) so they have an open mind for this sort of discussion. And even though I make some pointed, maybe to your eyes exaggerated statements, I want to start with this disclaimer that these opinions are my own. Maybe they aren’t even my own and I put them here to provoke a reflection, mabye not. Please don’t take this too seriously and don’t hang on every single word too much. It’s difficult being politically correct and it kind of always goes wrong. I’m a controversial person sometimes, so this is my post. Take it with a grain of salt.

Background: One year ago…

I realize that I am a bit late with this post. I don’t know why I never posted this. I had a draft lying around for a year now. I guess I was afraid to bring up the feminist issue. But I decided that now is a good time. I will include some of the Tweets from the discussion last year so you can follow what this was inspired by. I’ll also probably tag a few of the people originally involved on Twitter back then in my Twitter ad for this post. Let’s see what will happen.

I actually came up with so much I want to say that I wanted to keep this post the feminist one and add another one at some point later about what I think of the idea of Computational Humanities in general and how they would need to be as a neutral, scholarly phenomenon later. Lastly, I think I’ll have to give my take on “broad, inclusive DH” versus “not too broad DH” at some point soon too, or this post will end up being cluttered with all those issues. So finally, let’s get started.

My contribution: A feminist perspective on the Computational Humanities paradigm

In this post, I want to make my very own contribution to Computational Humanities research by pointing out an aspect which will have to be addressed if the CH want to be a discipline which people can take seriously: Gender equality.

The DH as a discipline, it seems to me, feel so young and cool that members of this community can be lead to believe that certain societal issues (sexism, gender equality) don’t apply to the DH and don’t concern us because we think we’re some small utopia / group of friends where such things don’t happen.

Plot twist: The DH is not a group of friends anymore. This young nerd group of friends isn’t even young anymore. We now have generational and power issues in the DH. There are professors in the DH. We aren’t all the same anymore. We aren’t all “the subordinate tech guy” in a project. Some people are not even “techie”.

And – believe it or not -, some of us aren’t even guys. While I felt initially that the DH were a place of gender equality, I fear that it will become less and less so. Especially when we merge with a discipline (computer science) which continues to fail epically in promoting and achieving gender equality. In this case, the CH paradigm is a feminist issue. I think the CH can not and will never be a valid DH subdiscipline unless they address (and fix) this issue. We are Humanities people. We should be good with such things. Please prove me wrong and show me that we’re better at this than computer science. (Regarding the claims that CS fails to include womxn, see the References for some links or rather an extensive list whose size kind of got out of hand…)

The beginning: Techie people feeling ‘unwelcome’ in the DH…

Like stated in the Tweet linked below, apparently some techie people feel unwelcome in the DH.

The opinion that Computational Humanities people feel “unwelcome” apparently, I can’t really understand. I personally have seen many cases already where the ‘computational’ thing has been used as a means of power, especially in hiring or job application situations. Fancy CH-topics like Machine Learning or Dataviz just dominate conferences. They will be appreciated much more than some solid but less technically fancy project and get much more attention. In a job interview, if you are the person doing this well-done but not-extremely-techie stuff, you are the one who is boring nowadays.

And even if you do CH, as a womxn, you will likely not really be taken seriously. You’ll have to prove you have the skills whereas a man would never have to. It’s just the bias. And don’t say it is not like that – because there are many studies which show that, for example, men get hired or promoted on potential while womxn get hired or promoted on past achievement. Or that womxn need twice the skills to get taken seriously. But being “too good (to be true)” is also a thing for womxn but not for men. So even if you have it all as a womxn, you still run serious danger that people will not believe you anyone can be that productive. (In a man, this would be considered excellence or genius.) Don’t deny it’s like  that – or that people (men and womxn alike) will automatically think a womxn is incompetent while they will automatically assume competence in a man. Like it is stated in some of the publications linked below (see Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in Digital Humanities), the presence of some very influential and successful womxn in the DH (and even it’s CH corners) gives the illusion of equality. But in reality, this equality does not extend to womxn outside of these power-corners who are not “hyped”. (I don’t mean “hyped” in a derogatory way, I just didn’t know a better way to phrase it).

With more tech skills required, this problem is exacerbated without doubt. The more tech skills a job description requires, the more likely a womxn is to not get taken seriously. Look to Computer Science, they’re not exactly successful on the gender equality. Look at the incidents where good-looking womxn are shamed when they say they are programmers because apparently you have to be a man to be a good programmer. This definitely is a feminist issue. And even if you think you are not biased that way – sorry to inform you but bias is not something you’re aware of. If you’re a man it would likely be uncomfortable to acknowledge male privilege, so it’s likely you’d tend to overlook such things. Privilege is not visible to those who have it.

Not to shame men or anything. But I’ve personally had many discussions where men minimized some of my concerns because “they didn’t feel it was a problem”. Well, of course, they didn’t… This happened to me even with men who were self-proclaimed feminists and guys I believe when they say that they want to be allies. Still I’ve had many incidents where men only believed me something was a problem when I shared the top 5 five horrible sexism stories which happened to me in the past two months. Which I do because I’m trying to break the silence about these things – but most womxn probably won’t have the energy to furnish all this proof until you believe them, time and time again. And they shouldn’t have to.

The (white and male?) future of the DH

“Computational Humanities” is a power tool in job or grant applications. With this new DH subcategory, everything else which is ‘only digital’ is not good enough for us anymore.

I have personally witnessed people – it was only men, thus far (which might be a coincidence but actually I don’t really think it is) – using the “computational” as opposed to “only digital” label in job applications. It’s being used in grant applications. If you don’t use fancy-as-shit technology, your grant applications aren’t good enough.

Well, I am white, so I can’t adress the “white” part of the problem. But I can and want to offer some thoughts on the feminist problem.

Some tweets suggested doing a qualitative DH which is sensitive of gender, race, etc. issues would be more sophisticated than a “techie” DH. Well, I think it’s not the technology’s fault that people are using it to create elites. Creating status using technology is nothing new. But it really isn’t the technology’s fault. It’s the people’s fault. For example, cars are being used as status symbols too, especially think about the early days of the automobile where not everybody could afford one.

Would it have been more “sophisticated” to ban cars alltogether rather than making them accessible to all? (Maybe the environment would have preferred the ban but that’s not the topic right now.) I think the solution is Fordism, in this case 😉 Everybody working in a car factory should be able to afford a car of their own. The same goes for the DH, I think. Everybody working in the DH (a wide notion of DH) should be allowed and enabled to join the “techie corners” of it.  Not that I’m suggesting people were actively and consciously trying to exclude womxn. I just feel that there are some feminist issues in the DH that the DH are reluctant to adress because it doesn’t fit with the image we want to have for ourselves to be subconsciously non-egalitarian. And because we don’t want to see it, we become non-egalitarian. Not good.

Womxn of the Computational Humanities, Unite 😉

Well, I don’t want to say that I have the answers but I would be really happy if the DH as a community would start to see the toxic masculinity which is currently hiding behind the fancy label of the Computational Humanities. That we start to see that the closer we get to Computer Science, the more we are prone to getting infected with its toxic masculinity and gender issues. I’m not pointing fingers. I think people who profit from male privilege in the DH are unaware of it and many of them even consider themselves he-for-she-style feminists. I just wanted to put this out in the world and hope to get an echo from somewhere. After all,

privilege is invisible to those who have it.

So what do I want? I think a discussion of these matters would be a nice and a plan for how we can reduce potential toxic masculinity in the so-called ‘Computational Humanities’. Maybe criteria for how you can tell whether you are discriminating against womxn or raise awareness for gender bias regarding tech skills would be nice too. But for now, a discussion would be a good start, I think.

So actually, I have said what I wanted to say, however, one last thing:  An all-female CH group would be fun! Just because I always wanted to found an all-female punk band but didn’t find people willing to join. Applications to an all-female CH-Punk group are now open 😉  (Also did you know there are studies proving that womxn are more successful if they have all-female support networks?)

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PS: While you’re at it, you might be interested in those posts on a sexism in academia workshop (part one: breaking the silence & part two: female skill etc).



Computational Humanities Discussion


Bodies of Information: Feminist Debates in Digital Humanities

[…] Yet as women and feminists who have been active in the digital humanities since it was called “humanities computing,” we are often astonished to see forms of intellectual engagement that confront structural misogyny and racism relegated to the status of fringe concerns. Even as leaders of digital humanities labs are finally being outed for sexual harassment or systemic discrimination, trivialization of feminist methodologies continues…. […] (from the abstract)

DHers uncritically adopt tools and methods from the tech industry, they in fact often reinforce preexisting power structures (Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia). […] The heavily male gender skew at DH conferences may lead one to suspect a bias in the peer review process. […] certain topics women are more likely to write about are also less likely to be accepted through peer review. This does not imply a lack of bias in the DH community. […]

A woman has just as much chance of getting a paper through peer review as a man if they both submit a presentation on the same topic (e.g., both women and men have a 72 percent chance of passing peer review if they write about network analysis, or a 65 percent chance of passing peer review if they write about knowledge representation), but topics that are heavily gendered toward women are less likely to get accepted.

In the last years, the general perception that digital humanities, as a discipline, is balanced in terms of gender has spread to the mainstream press.[2] Moreover, articles produced within the DH frame have explained that “digital humanities is ‘nice’” and have built specific arguments for a narrative of why it is so (Scheinfeldt). However, these perceptions are easily challenged.



Gender Gap / Equity in Computer Science

Gender disparities are greatest in STEM fields that have two prominent qualities. The first is a perceived masculine culture and the second is a lack of course experience before college.

Masculine cultures are environments that foster a greater sense of belonging and ability to be successful in [men] than they do in [women].

One aspect of masculine culture is stereotypes about who excels and belongs in a field. The current image of a computer scientist is someone who is singularly focused on programming and socially awkward (think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). These characteristics are at odds with the way that many women see themselves.

Other aspects of the masculine culture include stereotypes that women have lower abilities in these fields and a paucity of female role models.

Each of these characteristics – male-oriented stereotypes of the people in a field, negative stereotypes of women and a dearth of female role models for women – has been shown to be a powerful deterrent to women’s interest in a field. We found that computer science and engineering have all of them. (Source, emphasis added.)

Wo bleiben die Frauen in der Informatik? Die Zahl der Informatikstudierenden an deutschen Hochschulen hat sich insgesamt mehr als verdreißigfacht, seitdem das Fach in den 1970er Jahren etabliert wurde. Doch der Frauenanteil stagniert weitgehend – mit großen Schwankungen. Während er Ende der 70er Jahre bei etwa 18 Prozent lag, sank er bis Mitte der 90er zunächst auf knapp zwölf Prozent ab, um dann allmählich wieder zu steigen. Heute liegt er bei 19,4 Prozent. […] „Naturgegeben“ sei der niedrige Frauenanteil in der Informatik jedenfalls nicht, betont das Autorenteam um Isabel Roessler, Projektmanagerin am CHE. Vielmehr sei er „offensichtlich kulturell und strukturell bedingt“ – und damit „potenziell veränderbar“. In der DDR lag der Frauenanteil in der Informationsverarbeitung zwischen 50 und 60 Prozent; […]

“Nerd-Image”: Informatik ist männlich konnotiert
Woran liegt es nun, dass es Hochschulen in Deutschland aktuell offenbar so schwerfällt, Abiturientinnen für ein Informatikstudium zu begeistern? Das CHE verweist auf zahlreiche Studien, nach denen Frauen der Zugang zur Informatik „durch sozialisationsbedingte, gesellschaftliche und strukturelle Hindernisse verwehrt“ werde. Dabei gehe es etwa um noch immer virulente Zuschreibungen bezüglich der „Technikunfähigkeit“ von Frauen. In den gesellschaftlich vermittelten Geschlechterrollen sei Informatik männlich konnotiert – bis hin zum negativen „Nerd-Image“ des Fachs.

(Tagesspiegel, Frauenmangel in der Informatik. Gebremste IT Begeisterung)

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