Beki Grinter

Lack of a Critical Education: An Explanation for IT problems?

In academia, computer science, discipline on April 7, 2014 at 9:41 am

An New York Times article about sexism in the tech industry has been making the rounds on Facebook. One explanation that some of my friends have used to address the why such rampant and explicit misogyny exists is the lack of education. Not engineering/computing education, but a well rounded one in which people would come to understand why its inappropriate and why having a diverse workforce actually matters.

I was making the same argument the other day about a different topic. When Snowdon, Assange, and Manning decided to leak intelligence secrets all of them claimed they had done so because to do otherwise would be ethically wrong. I/You/the NSA may disagree, but they all agree that they had a moral/ethical/civil duty to do so. As I said to a colleague, what drives this moral/ethical/civic sensibility? I shared the thought with my colleague that perhaps a lack of a well-rounded education might play a role here.

For decades we’ve shortchanged all education. It cost us too much. Further, we’ve long prioritized the sciences over the social sciences and the humanities. (We now find it alarming that Congress ridicules the sciences, but as another colleague of mine pointed out, that’s how long many/some in the sciences have treated the social sciences/humanities). But it is just these maligned disciplines that would have gone some way to create the critical thinkers that seem to have vanished from the tech sector. And now we have an industry that’s unabashed in its misogyny. We have “rogue” technologists who now have the power to decide when to leak secrets, and deciding to do so based on moral principles that at least to some are questionable. I wonder whether we did it to ourselves and if there is worse to come.

p.s. if you want to be even more depressed here’s a timeline of sexist incidents (thanks to the friend of another colleague) in the Tech Sector.

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  1. Interesting thoughts, Beki! Agreed that education could help here, but there’s a necessary pre-requisite: Interest in learning. We can look at it from a sociocognitivist perspective. Learners (even Snowden) want to be central to a community of practice. They aim to become a member of that community, to take on the values and processes of that community. If the community is visibly unethical or misogynistic, that’s the value that the learner seeks to develop. Saying, “Hey, the community you value is wrong — come learn this other way,” unless we’re perceived as a member of the community. If not, the response is, “Why should I listen to *you*?”

  2. These are central issues in Huckleberry Finn, which I would imagine still is taught in school. I suppose the focus on Snowden is because he is a visible technologist. As one who agrees with those giving Snowden and the reporters who enabled him to do what he did awards for telling the truth and spurring needed discussion, I would ask about the critical thinking and ethical training of those, including anonymous technologists, whose surveillance and twisting of laws to cover activities the legislators did not intend was exposed. There seems a trajectory, but we’ll see

    • That’s a really good point, especially if you agree with what Snowden did, then the question turns to those in the shadows and asking them how they justify their actions as you say.

  3. I suggested that the Ada Initiative add this link to the sexist incident timeline. Unfortunately, this problem has existed for many years.

    http://homes.cs.washington.edu/~lazowska/mit/

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