Part of my research over the past year was a deep dive in the history of what I’m calling cultural gatekeeping in computing. Gatekeeping, generally, is a broad concept that is applicable to almost any professional environment. Examples include requiring doctors and lawyers to take professional exams, a publication or news source deciding what news items to promote, and charging admission to a professional organization are all forms of gatekeeping that are necessary to maintain society. This is a narrow understanding of gatekeeping, however. Gatekeeping is also a means of preserving culture. In this kind of gatekeeping, a community rewards particular cultural activities and beliefs and does not reward, or punishes others. In this (somewhat hastily written) post, I am talking about this second kind of gatekeeping, specifically in computing.
The stereotypical culture of computing is one that values “close to the metal” and “difficult to learn” technologies and activities. It is a culture that rewards with anti-social dispositions, white male identities, and extreme and erratic working styles. This culture is epitomized in the lore of the “Real Programmers” that is, legends about extreme feats of memory management and masochistic programming tasks that circulated among in-groups on listservs throughout the 1980s or so. In these legends, programmers were born, not made. The stereotypical programmer was glued to the computer into the wee hours of the morning for the love of it, writing complex, ultra-performant code that few others would be able to understand. These legends live in on programming humor and in the ways programming is still considered some kind of magical discipline that not everyone can understand.
We know now that this is a narrow and false representation of programmers and programming, and that on many teams, traits such as being a reliable team member who writes maintainable code are highly valued. However, the legacy of these stereotypes and this culture around computing is what I am calling cultural gatekeeping. Cultural gatekeeping in computing is any activity or belief that works to maintain this status quo, or this legacy, of computing culture. So far, I’ve found three ways to express this gatekeeping:
- Unrealistic divisions between kinds of computational labor, for example, between front-end and back-end, or data analysis vs. data science; where one kind of labor is seen as more “real” and is more highly paid.
- Disparaging humor in computing communities is deemed culturally appropriate. Just look up “programming language memes” and you’ll see what I mean.
- Interviews may test for skills that are not required to perform the job. An example are algorithms interviews that test for esoteric computer science knowledge and privilege candidates with particular backgrounds.
In my research, I’ve been thinking about this cultural gatekeeping as barriers that make out-of-school pathways to computing careers particularly difficult to follow. Out-of-school pathways to computing careers, for adults, can begin with technologies that cultural gatekeeping dismisses as inauthentic; not “real” programming. I’m talking about Excel, CSS, HTML, and contributions to technical projects in formats other than text-based code. There are people who build computing careers from these beginnings, but it’s really hard. The below image shares examples from my career of how cultural gatekeeping can make this a difficult pathway.
What do you think are some examples of cultural gatekeeping in computing? Have you encountered something like this in your career? What do you think of this concept, more generally? Is there other language you use to talk about this concept? Feel free to write me an email to lara at notlaura dot com.
I’ve been a little blocked regarding writing blog posts about research…let’s see how this goes. There is a lot of nuance to this topic that’s missing from this post, and plenty of counter arguments I’m not going to address here. One thing I’ll say is that there is another “what is programming” post I’ll need to write to tell more of this story. Also, more details are needed on how this cultural gatekeeping makes it more difficult to pursue a computing career and why that is significant.
Aurooba Ahmed’s blog post about the variety of ways to be an open source contributor inspired me to write this post. She describes how, in open source communities, certain kinds of contribution are assumed more significant than others, for example, writing documentation or code that has been directly merged into the open source code base is valued more highly than the work that surrounds the codebase, e.g., writing tutorials about the open source tool. She doesn’t call this gatekeeping, but I think it is an example of cultural gatekeeping in computing because it positions “close to the metal” and “difficult to learn” activities as more authentic than activities that do not align with these concepts. These values might be unique to computing, but cultural gatekeeping and questioning authenticity is not unique to computing. My own journey into research is another example. I started exploring this topic through my conference talk and related writings about CSS as a programming language. To me, blog posts and conference talks didn’t feel like “real” research, so now I am continuing this work through a PhD program.
None of this is necessarily “good” or “bad”, but when it comes to broadening participation in computing and our need for a more diverse workforce to build the tools that increasingly determine fundamental aspects of our lives, cultural gatekeeping in computing turns people away from pursuing computing careers, and we know little about how this affects out-of-school pathways. Given that in-school pathways have resulted in only a marginal increase in the diversity of the computing workforce over the past ~15 years, I believe it is important to consider out-of-school pathways, and better understanding this gatekeeping is one step in that direction.
Here is some further reading on this topic:
Lara L. Schenck, Sabine Verdult, Felienne Hermans, and Betsy DiSalvo. Under review; Details removed to protect anonymity during the review process. (someday you can read this one!)
Cheryan, Sapna, Allison Master, and Andrew N. Meltzoff. 2015. “Cultural Stereotypes as Gatekeepers: Increasing Girls’ Interest in Computer Science and Engineering by Diversifying Stereotypes.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (February). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00049.
Dym, Brianna, Namita Pasupuleti, Cole Rockwood, and Casey Fiesler. 2021. “‘You Don’t Do Your Hobby as a Job’: Stereotypes of Computational Labor and Their Implications for CS Education.” In Proceedings of the 52nd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 823–29. Virtual Event USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3408877.3432396.
Washington, Alicia Nicki. 2020. “When Twice as Good Isn’t Enough: The Case for Cultural Competence in Computing.” In Proceedings of the 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 213–19. Portland OR USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3328778.3366792.
Lewis, Colleen M., Ruth E. Anderson, and Ken Yasuhara. 2016. “‘I Don’t Code All Day’: Fitting in Computer Science When the Stereotypes Don’t Fit.” In Proceedings of the 2016 ACM Conference on International Computing Education Research, 23–32. Melbourne VIC Australia: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/2960310.2960332.
Barzilai-Nahon, Karine. 2008. “Toward a Theory of Network Gatekeeping: A Framework for Exploring Information Control.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 59 (9): 1493–1512. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.20857.
Nahon, Karine. 2011. “Fuzziness of Inclusion/Exclusion in Networks.” International Journal of Communication 5: 756–72.