Two of Penn’s Computer Science groups hosted an open forum on brogramming last night.

Yes, you read me right. Brogramming. Or that awkward mashup-man of programmer and frat bro. We had an entire forum on brogramming–and, by extension, sexism in computer science. (About two dozen people showed up.)

This all started when Penn’s general computer science student group considered making “Brogrammer” shirts for a bacchanal Penn tradition. When this was proposed, there was some resistance which led to debate. (See my post from yesterday if you want to know how these things tend to play out.)

And this time it turned pretty nasty. I won’t go into many details, but people on all sides got very heated and some (very clearly) offensive things were said.

At around the same time, a piece in Bloomberg Businessweek put brogrammers in the press. (Including in non-technical publications.)

So, last night, we had a forum to talk about it. (“To clear the air,” one of the moderators said.) We were also joined by Gayle Laakman McDowell, a Penn computer science alumna who’s a fierce advocate of women in technology.

Yours truly.

Here are some of the main points made and questions asked over the course of the 90 minute discussion.

Why is “brogrammer” offensive, anyways?

As I see it, women are put off by “brogrammer” for two reasons. Some women would say that dichotomy of “programmer” and “frat bro” leaves women out altogether. If you’re not a nerdy boy or a brogrammer, where do you fit in? Others see the brogrammer meme as taking the most “masculine” aspects of the discipline and emphasizing them (think chugging Red Bull, pumping iron, eating steak and “getting” women). Is this really what we should be doing when women are already so underrepresented?

Gayle also added that something is offensive just “because it offends people.” That is, something is offensive when enough people–especially people from a minority group–say, “This is offensive.”

So when does something become offensive? If only two people are offended by something, does that make it offensive?

One of the other issues raised was that something can offend people without being considered “offensive” in the eyes of the public. It’s a fine line, and, unfortunately, there’s no algorithm to determine it. (Maybe CS people would be more cautious if there were.) I personally think that in the case of “brogrammer,” that line has been crossed, and a quick google search would tell you as much.

Clearly Pulak and I are engaged in a raging debate. (This photo and the one above it courtesy the Daily Pennsylvanian.)

But reacting strongly to a word gives it more power.

There was also the question of “overreacting.” In the end, it was pretty much agreed that calling brogramming out is not an “overreaction” but a fair point was raised: Has brogrammer become offensive only because people have taken it so seriously?

Perhaps. But it’s not only women considering brogramming as a seriously offensive meme–it seems that there are some dudes out there who are actually trying to live the brogrammning lyfe.

I thought brogrammer was satire.

I would argue it was, once upon a time. Certainly, Rob Spectre (whose talk on brogramming is a seminal piece of brogramming culture) says it began as satire. But it seems like people are taking it more seriously now. This is very obvious if you read the piece from Bloomberg Businessweek. The pride some people take in being the “cool programmers” and in partying with naked women (yes… really) shows that this is no longer just a joke. And recruiters using it as a hook to nab CS students? Really?

Head "Brogrammer" Rob Spectre has said that it was an "inside joke"

Does intent matter?

One student said that the intent of the speaker informs “about 95% of how I interpret something that could be offensive.” And it’s true–in many situations, the intent of the speaker can make a statement affectionate instead of derogatory. But this works less well on the internet. And it also doesn’t take into account the fact that most sexism in CS isn’t intentional. I trust that there aren’t many men out there cackling, “Let’s keep out ALL the women by alienating them as much as possible!”

It’s easy to be sexist on accident.

As a woman in tech, I think about the fact that I am a woman in tech every day. Literally, every day. I am extremely conscious of this. One thing that I’ve learned through all of this is that guys don’t think about the fact that they’re men in tech. They’re just not nearly as conscious of gender issues in tech as I am (or as many other women in tech are). So it’s easy to make a remark, or a joke, or something else that’s subtly sexist. It happens.

And personally, I get it. It’s a mistake–no malice intended (so intent does matter, at least at first).

And if you do say something sexist…

Try to understand why you’ve offended.

Feel free to ask why people get upset. (Just don’t tell them not to be upset, and don’t get angry with them for bringing it up with you.) This is an important dialog to have, and personally I’d always be happy to discuss it with you.

One girl suggested to the other women in the audience that, given that this is computer science, after all, if one is offended they should explain why as logically as possible. (Someone else pointed out that this happens and then it leads to debate. But I agree that it’s an almost necessary first step–without it, women are labeled as hysterical, histrionic and overemotional.)

So what now?

Some people explained that they felt it wasn’t fair that such a good joke get taken away because it’s offensive. I think Hamidhasan, a (male) classmate of mine, had one of the best responses I heard all night:

I think we need to bury the joke, he said. In the short term, yes, we will mourn its loss. But in the long run, we’ll be a much better community for it. How can we call ourselves welcoming and inclusive when we’re still clinging to jokes that exclude half the population? And anyways, we’ll make some new jokes.

Amen, brother.

One final note–many of the conclusions we came to in this discussion are absolutely applicable to other minority groups, too. The fact that it’s a *sexism* in CS forum is almost a Tyranny  of  the Majority-Minority kind of thing–but we had to do what we could. And I’m glad we did.


Edit 3/23: A male student from Penn reached out to me last night with an important point: This post, as it stands, makes it sounds like Penn’s male CS students aren’t supportive of the women. This is absolutely not true. It is a close-knit, highly supportive department. In his words, “I personally feel very proud of the successes of all you girls and I am very happy that we have girls like you in our CS community! I am sure all of the guys also respect you girls very much.” And I’m pretty sure he’s right. Thanks Penn CS guys.

I’m Tess Rinearson, a computer science freshman (and girl!) at the University of Pennsylvania. If you’ve read this far, you should follow me on Twitter and say hi. I talk about girls in CS plenty, but I write and tweet about other things, too.




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