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Critiquing a comment without critiquing the speaker

Topics/tags: Rants, short

For the past two days, I’ve been at the Grinnell/UIowa Digital Bridges conference. Throughout a really good talk on the digital humanities, the speaker kept referring to programmers as he [1]. I didn’t think it was a conscious choice, but it bothered me. And so I started asking myself,

How do I politely say By using male pronouns for programmers, you normalize gender expectations that I strive to disrupt?


How do I critique the comment without critiquing the speaker?


How do I avoid the Grinnell smackdown?

I was already planning to put on my curmudgeon hat for my talk about the new CSC 151 [2]. But there’s a limit to how many curmudgeonly comments I should make. Although our commitment to diversity was a central part of the talk, I didn’t consider it appropriate to add a blunt comment like the following.

I ask your support in our attempts to diversify computing. When you refer to programmers, please do not gender them as male. Rather, use she or they.

I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect on the matter. All of the talks were interesting and I wanted to pay attention. So I figured that I would let it pass.

Then came my time to talk. I was reminded that I can’t follow a scripted speech [3]. And, somewhere in my talk, I started to refer to programmers. I said something like,

When you talk to your programmer and she goes on to implement a solution …

That seems like it was the best way to make my point. I’m not sure whether or not I was successful.

Postscript: Does posting this musing undermine my efforts? I wonder.

[1] You go to the programmer and he …

[2] In case you couldn’t tell, I dislike suggestions that we replace foreign language requirements with computer science (or computer programming) requirements.

[3] More precisely, I can’t follow a planned speech that’s on the screen of my laptop. I do much better with paper.

Version 1.0 released 2018-08-09.

Version 1.1.1 of 2018-08-17.