On Women, Coding and Capabilities



Gender, social justice and capabilities

Gender and social justice do not make strange bedfellows. Any injustice wrought on the basis of gender is fundamentally at odds with the belief that all people have dignity by virtue of the fact that they are human. By the same token, human dignity is fully compatible with the notion of “equal worth,” which necessitates a respect for the inherent value of all people. Equal worth moreover precludes any abridgement of the value of human beings on the basis of gender, and it takes root in the democratic ideals of freedom and opportunity. Yet, to advocate for equal worth apropos gender is not passive; it means embracing the human ability to create a life that aligns with what matters most, or with what is most sacred. And in order to secure and protect equal worth (i.e., to respect human dignity notwithstanding differences in gender), it is necessary to consider the “capabilities approach,” which prioritizes what people are able to do and to be.

The capabilities approach stems from Amartya Sen’s economics, which influenced the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports for some time. This approach in particular poses an elegant question: “What is a woman able to do and to be?” It is a question that goes fundamentally to the heart of what a woman’s opportunities and liberties truly are. Moreover, the capabilities approach rests on two assumptions. First, it assumes the existence of a category of functions that are vital to human life. Second, as do Marx and Aristotle, the capabilities approach assumes that to perform those functions in a “truly human way” is a distinctly human feature. These two basic tenets of the capabilities approach bespeak the idea that a human being – dignified and free – may shape her own life rather than live as a passive observer whose life the world shapes. Hence, a woman capable of shaping her own life bears value and is an end in herself instead of an exploited object whose worth is predicated on its utility to someone else.

Proponents of the capabilities approach note that the traditional economic (or resource-based) approaches prove they are not sufficiently comprehensive. Inquiring about Gross National Product (GNP) per capita and problems with distribution of wealth and income, say, does not paint an entirely accurate picture of peoples’ lives, or of their manifold parts: life expectancy, infant mortality, educational opportunities, health care, employment opportunities, land rights, political liberties, and so on. Not to be forgotten, the issue of equality demands looking at more than just economics. For instance, there are social variants to consider, such as traditional hierarchies and prejudice.

A cursory look at preference-based approaches also reveals a contrast between the capabilities approach and other approaches to development. For example, women may have no preference for economic freedom before they learn about how women similar to them attain such a goal. Nor may they consider themselves citizens whose rights society ignores unless they learn about those rights and receive encouragement to believe in their equal worth.

Of course, this is all topical to a much wider feminist discussion of women, science, and technology, a conversation whose historical underpinnings are many. Consider the early 20th century and the “Industrial Revolution” in American homes that led to the proletarianization of the housewife. New domestic technologies effectively multiplied (rather than economized) the work performed by a single housewife. Yet, for their work and skill, women did not usually receive remuneration for their increased share in domestic labor output. The economic element is certainly integral to feminist assessments of such events, and the technological and scientific components are no doubt a party to the political effects that ensnare and relegate women.

Albeit in retrospect, the capabilities approach is useful here. Initially, the fundamental question of the capabilities approach – What is this woman able to do and to be? – calls into question whether the early 20th century American housewife was able to create a life that aligned with what mattered most to her. Then, it ropes the technological element and securely drags to a place of primacy in a discussion that must thereafter account for questions like “Whose technologies?” and “Technology for whom?” Such instances invariably circle back to a point of primacy within the context of the abovementioned, larger feminist discussion. That is, any injustice wrought on the basis of gender is fundamentally at odds with the belief that all people have dignity simply because they are human.

Women in coding and capabilities

While concerns about “what a woman is able to do and to be” certainly manifest in the world of development work, it is less explicit whether the capabilities approach, which hinges on the very question, has any weight in the realm of coding. After all, it is a technological sphere where gender equality today is tenuous at best. But if ever the capabilities approach is to be enlisted in the service of social justice and gender equality for women and coding, it is necessary to test whether the capabilities approach satisfies the need for a new kind of action and political analysis that addresses women, coding, science, technology, and the fresh sources of power they engender. Testing this hypothesis for falsifiability is an important, scientific step, and it demands testing whether the capabilities approach and women in coding are incompatible.

To prove the capabilities and women in coding incompatible, it would be necessary to evidence the irrelevance of the functions that the approach deems vital to all human life. A fool’s errand at best, it is not the only feat necessary to substantiate the irrelevance of the approach; it is moreover necessary to show that the capabilities approach’s doctrine of vital functions does not command a sweeping, cross-cultural and global consensus among women—including women in coding. Hence, it is necessary to evince that such vital functions cannot be adopted for political measures by people whose views on what a “complete” and “good” human life may otherwise be at odds. Furthermore, testing for falsifiability requires proving that the approach’s functions have no place in a pluralistic society, one that equally values women’s participation, work, and overall contribution to coding and science and technology. Ultimately, however, it is in virtue of such functions, which are separate components of distinct quality and central importance to basic human powers, dignity, and equal worth, that the capabilities approach and women in coding effectively coincide.

There is something beyond coding and capabilities approach coincidence. Applying the capabilities approach to women in coding invokes a capabilities approach to women in rich countries rather than women in countries—where a lack of access to even basic education, say, is the reigning issue. But unlike women in poor countries, where coding and programming are perhaps chimeras, there is little doubt that women in rich countries can “do” coding and “be” coders. Even Ada Lovelace, an Englishwoman and countess of the mid-19th century, was the world’s first computer programmer. Of course, the notion that a capabilities approach to women in rich countries is different from women in poor countries is categorically different from claims about the inexistence of obstacles to woman becoming coders and doing coding. In fact, there are many obstacles, not the least of which is the unabashedly misogynistic ether in the coding realm that can, and often does, make women seem alien from the outset.

Additionally, the basics of the capabilities approach to women in poor countries and throughout development work reveals that a number women in rich countries face very different obstacles than their counterparts around the globe. Whether a language of preferences or rights, these are very important things to consider for women in, or who hope to join, the world of coding. The language of capabilities may supersede preferences and rights wholesale for women in poor countries (and, perhaps, to their benefit). But how will obviating such approaches oppress women in rich countries who “may have no preference” vis-à-vis the economic freedom that coding brings them, and who “may not consider themselves” worthy of at least a basic tutelage in coding literacy?

Some may take issue with this very question. In fact, they may go so far as to argue that women who do not have the chance to read are far worse off than women who have more than their basic needs met but are not being encouraged to take certain software engineering classes in college. In a way, though, such responses do little more than qualify certain capabilities approaches as “real” and “valuable” while at the same time relegating others. Is the intention behind these responses to legitimate certain kinds of development by presuming their preeminent significance a priori? It is therefore reasonable to ask whether this kind of contention suggests that the capabilities approach is willing to ignore the plight of some women in light of others. If so, it becomes necessary to acknowledge the fact that the capabilities approach is not itself the product of any sort of feminism.

Thanks to women, progress

Ada Lovelace was born two centuries ago in 1815, and she studied mathematics and logic out of a deep, personal interest in both subjects. She was both an Englishwoman and a countess, and she became the world’s first computer programmer while working with fellow mathematician, Charles Babbage. Lovelace’s intellectual contributions were unimaginably significant for many reasons, not the least of which is the advent of modern computer science. Ultimately, Lovelace’s achievements in programming (and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or “stem”) make her predecessor to the very women that would kindle the powerful world of coding a century after her death.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was women who were responsible for founding two of the United Kingdom’s first “software houses,” or the sites where workers actually made the programs that might run on a computer. These women excelled at writing the programs themselves, and they were very financially successful despite the fact that many people assumed only science departments or technical firms would have any interest in their work. The fact that women started these businesses and turned a handsome profit comes as no surprise, though; it was during this brief period in the history of women in coding that many laypeople normally considered coding to be “women’s work,” as it required dedication to both detail and typing.

One woman, Dina St. Johnston (formerly Vaughan), quit school at age seventeen and joined a “pioneering computer firm” by the name Elliot Brothers. There, St. Johnston learned programming and spotted an important market gap: She recognized that there were no programmers selling software straight to industry. “There was a shortage of processor-oriented people who were happy to go round a steel works in a hard hat,” she noted. So, St. Johnston donned the hard hat and went to work, and in 1959, this remarkable woman founded the business known as Vaughan Programming Services, the UK’s first software house. Her business created software for industry powerhouses like the BBC, Unilever, British Rail, and more. Most notably, St. Johnston created real-time passenger information systems (forerunner to the “clickety-click” timetable boards in train stations) and flight simulators for the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Another woman, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, who in 1939 made her way to Britain as a child Holocaust survivor, studied for a degree in mathematics in night school and later founded her own software house, Freelance Programmers, in 1962. Bent on working while raising a family, Shirley was intent that other women be able to do the same. So, she employed only women programmers until the mid 1970s, when the Equal Opportunities Act forced her to make applications available to men. Her business made sold software in the areas of banking, transport, and telecoms.

In many important ways, women’s contributions to computing history differs from those of the highly popularized Enigma machines of the 1940s, or the personal computing revolution of the 1980s. It was women in 1960s computing who assumed the task of “coding” for the mundane matters that affect life in vastly different parts of the world. Women lay claim to engineering solutions to everyday matters like train signaling, payroll automation, banking system, and air-traffic control—contributions to computing that people take for granted every day. Such were the kinds of computing tasks that presented women with an opportunity to capitalize monetarily and to advance in areas about which they felt passionate. Women’s early work in coding and computing has thus in large part allowed for new and digitally creative economic sectors to emerge, ones that have a tendency to be very profitable.

Today, gaming is one such industry. Regardless of its profitability, however, the gaming industry is rife with problems concerning to gender, participation, and opportunity. Some years ago, an American blogger tweeted the question “Why are there so few lady game creators?” Hundreds of women game developers responded. Many detailed their personal encounters with “entrenched industry sexism.” Now, it is no secret that women are highly underrepresented in programming-heavy industries like gaming and game development and that they face discrimination.

In 2006, female staff accounted for little more than ten percent of the UK games industry workforce. Figures from only three years later suggested that the number fell by three percent. The nonplussing question is precisely this: Why such underrepresentation in gaming and game development when women are comparatively well represented in others, such as marketing, PR and support services? Why not the design and production of new games? Moreover, the impacts that this unbalanced gender split creates worries industry leaders—especially now that virtually half of all gamers in the UK are women. And if trends continue to fall so dangerously low, the fear is that the UK will suffer creatively and digitally in its economy.

The problem extends beyond gaming and is global. Virtually forty percent of computer science graduates were women in 1983. That number today, in 2015, has decreased by half. What is more, the US Department of Labor reports that American universities will only be able to meet about thirty percent of the demand of the computer specialist job openings by 2020. One issue is that many women simply do not pursue coding. But when young women interested in coding have been asked why they want to pursue it, they identify a number of things: job prospects; love of video games; love of technology; or the simple fact that coding is empowering. Women represent a portion of the population that can enter and suffuse the industry with the missing talent and intelligence it so desperately needs. So, why do more women not enter one of the 21st century’s major creative sectors? For one thing, casual prejudice – sexism, racism, homophobia – is ubiquitous and not made unacceptable.

Arguing against change

For women and development in poor countries, it is worth mentioning that the capabilities approach mitigates several complications that arise among the different discussions on global gender equality. One is the argument from culture. This argument posits that traditional cultures subscribe to their own norms, which condition what women’s lives ought to be; too much encroachment on such standards is suspiciously “Western.” Another qualm is the argument from the good of diversity. This argument holds that the world is wonderfully diverse because not all people act according to a single ledger of norms; to homogenize the wealth of cultural standards at work in the world is tantamount to impoverishing the world’s cultural splendor itself. Finally, there is the argument from paternalism. This argument holds that the implementation of a set of cross-cultural norms disrespects people’s freedom and agency; moreover, the best judges of “what is good” are those who judge for themselves.

It is also important to note that applying the capabilities approach to the context (indeed, the lived experience) of women in the coding kingdom may incite resistance due to these very same arguments. Borrowing from the argument from culture, critics may manifest that software engineering or coding culture is already capable of providing avenues for women to flourish and construct worthwhile careers. But to introduce the capabilities approach – they may argue – is to arrogantly presuppose that coding culture is incapable of providing women with economic and political opportunities that equal those of their male counterparts. Those opposed may likewise borrow from the argument from the good of diversity and claim that introducing the capabilities approach to existing practices and norms in coding culture detracts from its worth and beauty and risks homogenization. Or they may cite the argument from paternalism and wager that pushing for change thusly relegates women to childlike positions of having to accept “what is good for them” rather than facilitating their freedom and agency to judge “what is good” for themselves. Nevertheless, it is only fair to ask whether such opposition counts for something more than a stratagem whose intention is to scandalize the push for change in the software and coding spheres.

The capabilities approach to women in coding today is ultimately significant for a number of reasons that go beyond argumentation. For one, women in coding presents a historic event that is coplanar to a multiplicity of similar histories that involve gender and technology. The capabilities approach has much to offer women in coding who work in rich countries and are potentially a party to a new chapter in this women in coding history. Moreover, women merit the application of the capabilities approach to their history, lest a new form of proletarianization occur, persist, or worse. Prioritizing what women are able to do and to be in the realm of coding effectively fashions a new paradigm, one which presumes gender-based injustices to be fundamentally at odds with the belief that all people have dignity and a right to shape their lives regardless of gender. Such a push to secure and protect equal worth and dignity in coding requires nothing less.

Broaching just one example suffices to show that the application of the capabilities approach lends much needed assistance to gender equality and social justice in coding. The relevant function in question here is the category entitled “Senses, imagination and thought.” This entails that women should be able to employ their senses, their imagination and their rational faculties. Moreover for women to perform these in a “truly human way” implies their cultivation by education, literacy, scientific, and mathematical training. It implies that women are able to imagine and think “in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice…” It implies that they are free and able to use their minds “in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression” and the possibility of avoiding pain and having worthwhile experiences.

Yet, if women are not being encouraged or equipped with the education necessary to enter coding from the outset, then there is certainly a set of social and economic preferences at work that stifle equal participation and propagate gender-based discrimination. This is remarkably problematic; historically speaking, it has been the women in rich countries who, with access to education in the stem fields, have not only created programming and modern computing, but who have also fomented one of the most powerful instances of industry that surrounds them. Moreover, in advanced industrial societies where coding reigns supreme, the social relations of science and technology have largely restructured the “historical positions” of women. Some have categorized such “women’s places” in advanced capitalist societies as the home, market, work place, state, school, hospital and church. One more task is thus to identify “women’s places” in coding and other software engineering spheres in order to reveal how power structures and social life are further plagued by a lack of equal worth.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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