Why was Eve practising poor programming?

I was looking for some information about design by contract versus defensive programming and one of the first results my favourite search engine gave me was a PowerPoint presentation by professor Theodore S. Norvell, a member of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. However, what I have found there was not exactly what I was looking for. If you have a look at the slide 12, you will see a summary of the results of an attempt to defensive programming carried out by four characters: Bob, Chris, Dan and Eve. Of all four just Eve was practising poor programming! Why she? Why not any of the guys? Someone could say that this is just nitpicking on my part, but I find it very symptomatic. This is an example of one of those prejudices that caused an exodus of women from IT that started in the eighties. It is an important social issue that greatly affects our lives.

Since the advent of the home computer in the eighties our field is conquered by a socially fairly homogeneous group. As a result we introduces many different biases that affect our daily lives in a way we do not even fully comprehend. I have a good example from my own life. Some time ago I moved on to a new home, so I had to change my postal address. Easy task using the Royal Mail redirection service. Unfortunately there was one tiny problem. The system does not recognise that surnames in languages other than English can have gender related variants, because of the grammatical gender of that language, very common, for example, in Slavic languages. So, my surname and my wife’s surname, though the same, were treated as two different by the Royal Mail’s computer system just because mine ends with a letter i and my wife’s with a letter a, a simple indication of gender in Polish language. As a consequence I would have to pay double the price of that service, which I refused to do and just called every place I knew is sending me a letter from time to time, hoping that I have not omitted any. And no one was the winner, because I had the hassle of calling so many places, risking missing some, while Royal Mail lost opportunity to get the money that I was more than happy to pay for saving me trouble. All because a simple bias, this time introduced by lack of linguistic knowledge of some software developer who probably never used any other language than English. I cannot even imagine what are problems that women have to face because of the prevalence of men in the IT industry.

2 thoughts on “Why was Eve practising poor programming?

  1. We are in an interesting time. Was Eve chosen randomly or due to bias? Such questions arise.

    Your second point about the Royal Mail system highlights the ignorance in Britain of Slavic culture. Despite decades of migration, at least since WW2, when we were close allies, there is no gendered variation for surnames. One would think that this would be a simple optional field to offer, or something that could be manually adjusted after a telephone call (allow 2 technically separate applications in the system on one fee). Residents of Polish heritage surely cannot be the only people faced with this potential problem. I am part Polish myself with relatives having migrated after WW2, so I find the inflexibility in our administration systems very backward.

    Are you aware of any particular technical approaches to handling gendered name variants in Polish IT/paper based systems?

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    1. I did not have much contact with Polish IT systems at the time I was in Poland (I have been in the UK for many years) but I have just checked Polish Post Office website and a service similar to the one offered by the Royal Mail has no issue with surnames and it is free of charge. The only issue is that the person that wish to use it has to contact local post office to confirm identity using ID Card (in Poland every adult has an ID Card that is compulsory, and that card contains also the address of that person).

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