Technology

Textbook’s sexist photos dismay advocate for women in science and related careers

The Head First Java textbook contained this and other photo-and-caption examples that drew complaints from Susan Warren. The authors say they are revising the book for its next printing.
The Head First Java textbook contained this and other photo-and-caption examples that drew complaints from Susan Warren. The authors say they are revising the book for its next printing. The Kansas City Star

A photo of a man aiming a clothes iron at a woman’s rear end wasn’t the only thing that shocked Susan Warren about the textbook in her computer programming class at Johnson County Community College.

There also was the picture of a woman basking in a bubble bath, an anecdote about “Tawny” who “purrs” in a tight shirt and short skirt, and other non-professional references to women in photographs that came out of the 1950s.

Warren was appalled and dropped the course. She thought the images ran counter to everything that she had advocated for as a participant in the Kansas City area’s “Women in STEMM” efforts to encourage women to enter and succeed in male-dominated science, technology, engineering, math and medicine careers.

She saw the text as an excellent example of why women are vastly under-represented in STEMM professions nationwide even though they make up slightly more than half of the U.S. workforce. In the computer sciences particularly, men outnumber women 4 or 5 to 1, creating a “brogrammer” culture that’s often insensitive or even hostile to women.

Recently, for example, there has been a big blowup in the video game programming industry, with vitriolic, usually anonymous, Internet attacks on a couple of female programmers. Essays about sexism in Silicon Valley and technology fields in general have dotted online and print journalism in recent months.

It turns out that one of the textbook’s two authors has herself been a victim of harsh sexist attacks in the programming profession. She and her co-author, her husband, plan to remove some of the offending photographs and language in the book’s next edition.

“We had good intentions at the time, but there’s a different climate now, a different level of awareness,” said the co-author, Kathy Sierra. “We’re changing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Although awareness of sexism in the computer industry has evolved, women still make up less than a third of the employees at large tech companies such as Facebook and Google. Women also are under-represented at many tech startups, where reporters have found that “frat house” atmospheres prevail.

Critics say the sexism tends to cause women to leave tech companies and deters others from continuing their tech educations. Female graduates with computer science majors have plummeted to one-fifth of the male rate.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, just 7,594 of the 39,589 bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2011 in computer science went to women. That compares with 15,129 degrees going to women in 1985-86, an early peak, and 15,483 in the more recent 2003-04 peak.

Many schools, companies and nonprofit organizations are working to be more inclusive. But Warren found herself called to challenge sexist overtones that others had overlooked or ignored in the programming guide, which is still widely used.

“At the least, the text is insensitive about women’s issues/rights,” Warren wrote to community college officials. “In my opinion it is blatantly biased, sexist, stereotypes women, sexifies the subject matter, shows women as passive, and is offensive.”

JCCC computer science professor Phil Walleck said he had used the textbook, Head First Java, since 2007 and “never received a complaint about it before.”

Deb Elder, interim assistant dean for JCCC’s computing sciences and information technology department, said the textbook previously had passed the college’s normal departmental review process. But after Warren pursued her complaints, college officials said they were removing it as a required class text starting next semester. They also agreed to refund the book’s cost to Warren.

“Kudos to the college for taking action,” said Holly Streeter-Schaefer, a lawyer at the Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City who is vice chairwoman of the Women in STEMM committee at the Central Exchange. “I haven’t seen the text, but from Susan’s description it doesn’t seem to be consistent with trying to get more women into STEMM. It doesn’t appear conducive to creating an inclusive environment.”

More than 400 reader reviews of the text posted on Amazon.com, the vast majority appearing to be by men, didn’t reflect much concern about inclusivity. Men who critically referenced some of the same language or photos were more likely to dismiss them as unnecessary jokes.

The men and a small handful of women reviewers offered varying opinions about the quality of the information, whether it was good for beginners or experienced programmers, and whether the graphically rich format made the instruction interesting or distracting.

Several reviewers noted that one of the authors was a woman, a well-known Java expert. Sierra and her husband, Bert Bates, who wrote some of the copy that Warren found offensive, said when they started writing the book more than 10 years ago they didn’t perceive the 1950s-era photos as controversial.

“I just thought we were making fun of the whole ’50s era,” Sierra said. “We see different implications now that we didn’t see at the time. We’re changing some of the pictures that I never should have put in.”

Bates, for example, will re-do the references to Tawny, which they initially thought would be perceived as a nod to film noir crime show characters.

A new edition, covering updated Java programming information as well, is scheduled to be published early next year, the O’Reilly publishing house said.

The photo and copy revisions, like other efforts in the Kansas City area, reflect heightened attention to making the tech arena more inclusive. JCCC’s Elder pointed out that the college supports several Women in STEMM activities, and other activities are widespread in the Kansas City area.

In addition to the Central Exchange, a local networking organization for professional women, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, national groups such as the American Association of University Women, the Association for Women in Science, the Society of Women Engineers, the Association for Women in Mathematics and the White House Council on Women and Girls are encouraging girls and women to enter those male-dominated professions.

Central Exchange president CiCi Rojas noted that the organization last month held its inaugural STEMMY Awards gala to recognize area women who excel in those fields. The textbook issue and the awards program, Rojas said, each give the organization “an opportunity to create awareness of women in these non-traditional careers and help women reach their personal and professional potential.”

But Warren said it’s not just women who are affected by the sexual innuendo in the textbook. Her husband, Barton Stanley, a software professional who has worked in programming for 30 years, is familiar with the text and is concerned about possible ripples in the workplace.

“This type of ‘chatter’ is inappropriate in the workplace, and many companies have policies against it and actively train employees to not engage in it,” Stanley said. “As a potential employer, I am disappointed to see that a text like this is being used by a college to prepare people for the workplace.”

Joseph Steinberg, who writes about cybersecurity and entrepreneurship, said in a recent essay on Forbes.com that he has too often heard women dismissed as “booth babes” at engineering industry trade shows or demeaned in the technology culture.

“Tech’s high male-to-female ratio … creates an environment where sexism thrives,” Steinberg wrote. “At times, there’s almost an expectation that women will be left out. … Sexism doesn’t only impact women’s emotions, productivity and self image, or speak ill of our society; it harms careers and impacts our economy.”

Steinberg encouraged men to recognize the tech sector’s ingrained sexism and to take the lead to “stop pushing half our population away from the industry that literally creates the future.”

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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