‘Computer says no’ is no longer a valid argument
Professor Alexander Serebrenik wants to make software more inclusive.
Both software and the people developing it are still not diverse. Where the white male is amply represented, the same is not true of many minority groups. Alexander Serebrenik, recently appointed professor of Social Software Engineering in the department of Mathematics and Computer Science, is working hard to change this. On November 4, he delivered his inaugural address on inclusion in the world of software engineering.
Is it even possible to take everyone into account? Both at work and in the software and in the software produced by developers? "Yes and no," says Serebrenik. "It all depends on the criteria you use to determine what counts and what doesn’t. Take the admission tests we use to select students for a program, for example. If you only take into account specific knowledge and make that a general requirement, you need to understand that not everyone in society had the opportunity to acquire that knowledge. You then have to set up a preliminary course to retrain those people. However, these kinds of solutions cost money, which is a problem.”
Serebrenik, who graduated in Leuven as a computer scientist, didn’t always know that diversity would become a point of focus for him. “If I had known this when I was a student, I would have decided to study sociology. But there’s always a human component to software, it doesn’t just happen. Software is practically always developed by teams, and the interaction between people in those teams has an influence on both the development process and the end result. Somewhere in that process, my fascination for the human component started.”
The person behind the software
In his inaugural lecture, Serebrenik refers to a study that showed that pull-requests (the request to submit a piece of code) on GitHub (a code hosting platform for software projects) from software developers from countries with a low score on the human development index (HDI) are less likely to be accepted than those of software developers from countries with a high HDI.
Another study showed that pull-requests from software developers from Switzerland are more than twice as likely to be accepted than those from Chinese developers. “The West is still dominant when it comes to setting the standard for expectations. People who belong to that dominant, western group are judged less harshly.”
There are numerous examples of computer programs that are (unintentionally) discriminatory. “There’s the classic example of skin color, such as Proctorio (software used to supervise online exams) which fails tpo recognize people with darker skin tones. Another example is an automatic water faucet that gets activated when you move your hand close to a sensor. However, since the sensor doesn’t detect a dark-skinned person’s hand, it won’t dispense water to black people.”
“Often the discrimination is much more subtle. Take, for example, gender differences in information processing strategies. Men often use a so-called heuristic information processing strategy, whereas women tend to use a comprehensive information strategy. Many government websites still communicate with long chunks of text without a proper summary. The information you’re looking for is hidden somewhere between all those words, which is why you need to read the whole text. That puts women in a disadvantage. And there are a thousand of other examples. Some banks in Belgium still send letters that use the traditional male-female gender stereotype to address recipients. A as gay man, I still get letters that start with ‘dear Mr. and Mrs. Serebrenik.’”
Classic heterosexual argument
In order for software to become more inclusive, the teams responsible for producing that software also need to become more diverse and inclusive, Serebrenik says. “Apart from gender and sexual orientation, age can be a divisive factor as well. When we look at the labor market – specifically at software engineering –, you’ll see that older developers are forced out of the profession, certainly in the US. When you’re old, you aren’t up to date.
Older people are encouraged to rejuvenate, to be young both in spirit and physically. They’re encouraged to dress youthfully and to look younger. Some people even undergo plastic surgery or take Ritalin, or they try to hide their age on their resume, for example.”
As far as diversity in teams in the workplace is concerned, you can ask yourself how far that should go. Which aspects of your identity should you be allowed to bring to work? Does that include sexuality?
The basic idea of inclusivity at work is that everyone should feel comfortable in the workplace and that people are free to decide for themselves what part of their identity they want to reveal at work.
Serebrenik believes that this is a classic heteronormative idea: “Sexuality isn’t something you experience only in the bedroom. It’s there when you talk about your weekend when you return to work on Monday – perhaps you went somewhere with your wife and kids –, when you formulate your research questions, and when you interact with colleagues and students.
The idea that sexuality belongs only to the private sphere is a classic heterosexual argument. Rather homophobic, because it implies that sexuality is normal only when you can’t see it.
Interviews with LHBTIQ+ software developers have shown that it’s very important to them to be themselves at work. The extent to which they feel at home in the workplace varies significantly within that group. The basic idea of inclusivity at work is that everyone should feel comfortable in the workplace and that people are free to decide for themselves what part of their identity they want to reveal at work,” Serebrenik believes.
Diversity isn’t a rainbow sticker
“Diversity isn’t a simple sticker that you can paste on something. Diversity isn’t about painting something in rainbow colors and having an director say a few words without really changing anything. Take our learning management system Canvas, for example. It’s still not possible to change one’s (desired) pronouns in that system. At the VU in Amsterdam, by contrast, these pronouns have been incorporated in their system.
And that brings us back to the issue of money, because it costs money to change systems. An executive board has to choose between handing out a teaching award, financing research or changing a computer system. If they choose the latter option, they will have spent money on something that will go unnoticed by 95 percent of the community. This is a discussion that we need to have, no matter how difficult it is.
Our registration model for international, non-EEA students makes it impossible to be inclusive to begin with, since we charge these students an annual tuition fee of 11,000 euros. In the end, people always use the argument ‘but it costs money.’ Yes. But talk alone won’t get you anywhere. You need to invest to become more inclusive.”
What is fair?
Serebrenik’s mission to make the world of software development more inclusive isn’t completed yet. His next step is to involve social sciences.
If we make the community of software developers better and more inclusive, we will also have made society as a whole better and more inclusive, because software is everywhere.
“George Fletcher of TU/e, Linnet Taylor of Tilburg University and I tried to start a discussion between software people, data people and people from various social science fields to determine which differences of opinion we can live and which ones we can’t. We dubbed the project Social X, since we have/had no idea beforehand what the results would be. Which battles haven’t been fought yet. Fairness is such a controversial concept. What does it mean to be fair? I don’t even want to say it in Dutch, because ‘eerlijk’ doesn’t adequately express the meaning of the word ‘fair.’”
“What I’d really like to tell software developers: software is developed by and for people. It’s really important to remember this. If we make the community of software developers better and more inclusive, we will also have made society as a whole better and more inclusive, because software is everywhere.”
You can read Alexander Serebrenik's inaugural address here.
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