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Women Who Contributed to Science but Were Buried in Footnotes (theatlantic.com)
94 points by richardhod 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

It's a pity that this interesting research into changing customs in science and publishing is so driven by a predetermined narrative.

They found women accounted for 59% of acknowledged programmers -- so 41% were men and got the same treatment. The obvious conclusion would be that programming wasn't acknowledged the way it is now, but instead they push the narrative that they weren't acknowledged because they were women. Giving overlooked women in science some due attention is perfectly fine, but unwarranted conclusions about the causes for various situations aren't, in my opinion.

And the same with their explanation for how it changed. They state that it's in part because the work started being done by graduate students and postdocs, but then still conclude "Programmers, essentially, only became rewarded with authorship when they started becoming male." (and this "when" here is clearly intended to be read as a causal when). Of course there is a more plausible explanation, namely that men started becoming more interested in programming when it started presenting better opportunities for high-paying and high status jobs. Fully what is expected based on evolutionary psychology.

> She and her colleagues found that in the 1970s, women accounted for 59 percent of acknowledged programmers, but just 7 percent of actual authors. That decade was a pivotal time for the field of population genetics, when the foundations of much modern research were laid. “Based on authorship at the time, it seems that this research was conducted by a relatively small number of independent individual scientists, nearly all of whom were men,” the team writes. But that wasn’t the case.

Nice way of glossing over that section.

At some point you just have to reject the argument that it was "best intentions" or "that's just evolutionary psychology". It was only 45 years ago that the "Equal Credit Opportunity Act" was passed. There are still tons of weird attitudes about women and their contributions to society. One that I see often is that "Women select lower paying jobs", but I rarely see the obvious counter argument "why in the hell doesn't our economy reward women for raising the next generation of workers?", as they do 80% of the house work. Women are often ignored in history books, Texas even made an attempt to have Hillary Clinton completely removed.

This discussion is just one such example. There are mounds of evidence of the sexism in our society. There might be scientific reasons that it exists, but there is no scientific or ethical defense of it's continued existence. Whether in the workplace or at home, women have been supplying half of economic output for the entirety of our history, and it's time to stop pretending that it isn't the case, or that historically those in power were powerless against some natural economic state.

I'm not glossing over it, it's a different point. They are implying a causal link between the 7% and the 59% when they haven't demonstrated that. They show that individual authors got a lot of help that wasn't awarded with authorship. You can point out that nowadays this work would be worthy of authorship, and that women were somewhat overrepresented in the acknowledgements without authorship. That doesn't demonstrate the big claims of sexism they're stating/implying. If they showed men getting authorship for only the programming help, and women not getting authorship in comparable situations, that would be a different matter.

I didn't say sexism didn't (or doesn't) exist, there's plenty of other evidence that it did/does. I'm just saying it doesn't follow.

And if I say something can be explained by evolutionary psychology that doesn't mean that therefore it's fine, or that it couldn't be changed given the right system of incentives.

You made the suggestion that as programming work became a higher paying field that men suddenly looked for jobs there, due to "evolutionary psychology", without a lick of proof that it wasn't the other way around.

Perhaps programming work is really well paid now because Nintendo of America decided to advertise to boys, and then those boys grew up to become men who were interested in programming, and because men pay other men more than they offer women. Or perhaps because, as the SV folks like to say "They aren't a good culture fit" when interviewing female candidates.

> We used wage data and productivity data from the whole of New Zealand to look at the reasons for the gender wage gap. We found that sexism (where employers prefer to hire men rather than women, are more likely to reject equally qualified women, or offer women less) is likely to be the most important driver of the gender wage gap. This is opposed to women working in low-paying industries or firms, being less productive, or being less successful at bargaining. [1]

Of course it follows. It is undeniable that many centuries of sexism are going to take a lot of work to undo, and it isn't exactly easy when most religions followed the world over, by huge swaths of humanity, also belittle their contributions to society, and actually devalue them to be below men. These beliefs and stories have a major impact on what we do.

So I'm going to stick with sexism because it is most likely the correct answer.

[1] - http://theconversation.com/women-paid-less-for-same-contribu...

With the suggestion that "evolutionary psychology" isn't involved in men seeking higher income jobs, why is there an extreme correlation between income for men and having children, but not for women? Why is it that society reward rich men with larger social network, while women has on average larger social network than men that is not associated with income? perhaps, as people say, "Poor men aren't as attractive"...

> So I'm going to stick with sexism because it is most likely the correct answer.

Personally I am sticking to the incentive model. A woman who prioritize other aspect in their work and personal life over income does not have fewer children, has the same social network size as other women, and get similar respect in society at old age. For men the opposite is true, where a man who make the same choices would end up (statistically) at the bottom of society, alone, childless, with no respect in old age. As a result low income men also has a lower life expectancy. Pretty strong incentives if you ask me.

"why in the hell doesn't our economy reward women for raising the next generation of workers?"

I thought the obvious answer to this is that the benefits women provide through parenthood are externalized. This is the case with education as well. Elon Musk's 9th grade science teacher doesn't get any shares in Space X.

And from what I can see, women overwhelmingly dominate careers that have a lot of positive externalities: teaching, (prenatal/neonatal) medicine, social work, philanthropy, environmentalism.

On the other hand, you don't see a whole lot of women hedge fund managers, oil and gas explorers, mechanical engineers, etc.

I've seen it argued endlessly that fields began paying less when women entered a field. Why isn't anyone asking if it's men exiting a field because it started paying less?

What kinds of rewards would you like to see women get? I see some. For example, women constitute some 85% of consumer spending. So they're getting some kind of financial reward, presumably from men who appreciate all that house work they're doing.

> they do 80% of the house work.

I have a question. ppl often say housework is "unpaid work" but how can that be since each spouse gets 50% of wealth accumulated by the family. For example spouse would get 50% of the family fortune in case of a divorce, if anything housework is overpaid not underpaid.

Ofcourse your future earning potential takes a hit the longer you just do "housework" prbly not very different than ppl doing menial jobs.

So why don't men just deposit their salary into their wives' bank accounts? It's all the same, isn't it? Legally 50%, no matter whose bank account it's in?

That's what I do. My salary goes into my wife's bank for her to dispose of as she sees fit. I figure I wouldn't be able to do my job without her help and she does take on most of the housework, so I figure she's entitled to the primary decisions on how money should be spent.

This is to suggest that the answer is local, and can be solved in the household.

My argument is that our entire economy needs to reward this behavior, because the entire economy benefits from it.

Localizing the solution prevents those who gain the most from not having to pay for child care, education, food and shelter for a future workforce from helping to pay for this extremely important part of our economy.

The money that I earn at work is the money of my wife and I already. My point is that the economy should be rewarding the work that she does during the day while I'm doing my office work.

I have a significant portion of our disposable income direct deposited in my wife's account. I pay all the bills from mine.

Legally, your premise is correct in most states. Practically it tends to play out differently in a divorce situation.

curious, why do you guys have separate accounts vs a joint account?

All of our accounts are actually joint. But she has the accounts she's primary on and uses, and I have the ones I pay the bills out of. Trying to manage finances while multiple people spend money out of one account and there are auto-pays for bills from the same account is simply too taxing for me to deal with.

most families i know have joint accounts but that might be a cultural thing.

It's really interesting how back in the 50s-70s, programming was considered boring, clerical women's work and the architecture side of things was considered men's work. The attitude at the time was that the men did the real work by writing flowcharts and the women were doing menial labour by turning those flowcharts into computer instructions. A lot of these women in the footnotes seem to be a footnote because of this consideration.

The Computer Girls is another interesting article about this attitude and how programming became masculised:


This reminds me of RMS:

"I find it bizarre that people use the term "coding" to mean programming. For decades, we used the word "coding" for the work of low-level staff in a business programming team. The designer would write a detailed flow chart, then the "coders" would write code to implement the flow chart. This is quite different from what we did and do in the hacker community -- with us, one person designs the program and writes its code as a single activity. When I developed GNU programs, that was programming, but it was definitely not coding.

Since I don't think the recent fad for "coding" is an improvement, I have decided not to adopt it. I don't use the term "coding", except if I were talking about a business programming team which has coders." - https://stallman.org/stallman-computing.html

Because in those days big part of "coding" was actually transcribing program logic into codes and then punching holes in cards for those codes. It was tedious and boring process. What we today call code monkeys is super-creative position compared to that.

This is a revisionist and false narrative, and I believe it may be inspired by the "just world fallacy": you may be inclined to believe the world couldn't actually be unfair to women, so you search for another reason why their contributions would actually have been less important.

Your narrative is historically incorrect. Women invented many of the things that made software engineering _less_ tedious, such as debuggers (Betty Holberton, 1945), subroutines (Kay McNulty, circa 1947), assemblers (Kathleen Booth, 1947), linkers (Grace Hopper, 1952), and compilers (Grace Hopper, 1954). Programmers have always strived to make their job easier. If you don't see these inventions as creative effort, I don't know how to help you.

Even the parts of programming that were tedious were still important. If you saw someone tediously programming in assembly code today, you might celebrate the effort.

The flowcharts that these women were handed by their managers were not "program logic". There were many difficult details to work out about how to implement a program given the limited computing power of the time. You would not describe a manager today who draws a flowchart as having "written a program".

You jump to conclusions and project your own anger/frustrations that have absolutely nothing to do with me. First of all I totally agree with you that to women it was much harder to succeed in those times, there's no need to explain that to me. Second I never even mentioned gender issues anywhere, I was talking about the difference between what was called "programming" and what was "coding" back in those days. And of course women invented a lot of great stuff, but as you said yourself it was programming. And the coding part on the other hand was boring as hell, in order to write and run a program you had to do a lot of manual labour. It's just not comparable to anything today. You mention assembler, but imagine doing asm using only pen & paper, and then you give that program to someone else to turn it into holes on punched cards. And then you had to reserve some time to run that code on mainframe (where operator would run it for you and hand you back the results) and there was a usually a long waiting list for that, so if you've made any mistakes it would take days to get a chance to re-run it again. It was very different than coding today, involved more steps and more people.

> considered boring

It was boring though. Programming 50's is nothing like programming in 2019. They were doing tedious data entry.

No, they weren't doing "tedious data entry", they were writing the entire program. And I'd say it would be less boring than programming in 2019, which is easier and pre-existing libraries solve most of it for us.

You are doing exactly the thing the article describes.

I'd be interested to see a thorough breakdown of everybody, not just women, who were "buried in footnotes".

This kind of comment is off topic and predictable, and predictably leads to dull (or worse) discussions. It seems like a fine sentiment (who wouldn't want everyone to be unburied?) but it's so general that it only serves to exclude those who happen to be featured here in this article, even if it's not meant that way.

This is one reason the guidelines ask us to increase substantiveness on controversial topics.


I see your point, thanks for referring me to the guidelines.

When ideology-laden topics are discussed on HN, I often struggle to find the right amount of detail to put in a post. Erring in either direction seems to cause problems. My OP was apparently too light.

I find this kind of comment a bit off-putting.

Women deserve a focus.

Other people also deserve a focus. They should also get it.

But for now, this article is about giving women a focus. Talking about giving other people a focus seems to be an attempt to get the focus away from women or denying that they deserve it. It seems a bit like derailing. Given HN's overwhelming male demographics because computers and software are overwhelmingly male, it's a bit harmful to be talking about other people whenever women are mentioned.

For now, just read about women. That's a big chunk of the population. Later, read about other non-women people who also were left out. But give women a chance.

> Other people also deserve a focus. They should also get it.

I think I understand where you're coming from, and I sympathize. I recognize the tension between competing ideals here.

Unfortunately I don't know of a solid, reasoned answer for why we should prefer one or the other. I'm left with just a sense of humility (regarding my command of metaphysics, logic, and empathy) and personal tastes.

My personal taste is that, at the moment, I'm feeling annoyed with so much focus on "girl power" at the expense of other social injustices. Which is why I was interested in knowing what other aggrieved groups were being neglected in the same way that women were in the scientific literature.

But honestly, I can't give a solid reason for why someone should prefer my take on it to an unwavering pro-women approach.

It's a bit like asking why there isn't a Straight Pride Month, really. Men in science haven't really been categorically underrepresented/excluded from science the way women ever have.

Representation is irrelevant, it has 0 value, and it is a silly game anyway, because you can just pick another arbitrary category. For example: blonde people are underrepresented, and so on. Is it interesting? No. Is it relevant? Not really.

Are blonde people systemically discriminated against through laws and broad cultural values?

Women and blacks are not "systemically discriminated against through laws" in most countries. I will emphasize that US and UK are not the countries in which they are.

And as to broad cultural values: I should have brought up gingers then, because I am sure you can agree to it that they are. Plus, you really cannot claim anything about the relevant people's cultural values and if they really have been a major influence on the decision of putting people in the footnotes, and that it was due to this people's biological sex. Why do you so want it to be the case? Why cannot it be something else, like something related to the contribution itself? That would definitely make more sense and would be more likely than some random, arbitrary attribute.

>Women and blacks are not "systemically discriminated against through laws" in most countries. I will emphasize that US and UK are not the countries in which they are.

This is patently and obviously false:


>A 2017 study by Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economists found that the practice of redlining—the practice whereby banks discriminated against the inhabitants of certain neighborhoods—had a persistent adverse impact on the neighborhoods, with redlining affecting homeownership rates, home values and credit scores in 2010.


>Low income black communities that have been segregated by social forces through city design have higher levels of criminal activity rates.


>According to U.S. Sentencing Commission figures, no class of drug is as racially skewed as crack in terms of numbers of offenses. According to the commission, 79 percent of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders in 2009 were black, versus 10 percent who were white and 10 percent who were Hispanic. The figures for the 6,020 powder cocaine cases are far less skewed: 17 percent of these offenders were white, 28 percent were black, and 53 percent were Hispanic. Combined with a 115-month average imprisonment for crack offenses versus an average of 87 months for cocaine offenses, this makes for more African-Americans spending more time in the prison system.


>Blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be searched after traffic stops, even though they proved to be 26 percent less likely to be in possession of illegal drugs or weapons.


>The results show significant discrimination against African-American names: White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews. We also find that race affects the benefits of a better resume. For White names, a higher quality resume elicits 30 percent more callbacks whereas for African Americans, it elicits a far smaller increase.

Why would it be off-putting? I find it off-putting that people focus on a specific group of people because of their sex or some other irrelevant attribute.

Focus on people in general, not people who belong to the group G. Focusing on people in general is not an attempt to get the focus away from women, since women are humans, too. Focusing on women alone reeks of discrimination to me. You cannot "fight" discrimination by more discrimination.

It's the same as when "Black Lives Matter" is shouted back at with "All Lives Matter". It doesn't actually help nor highlight the individual and unique plight of a particular group. It's just a shouting attempt to silence the problems of a particular group.

"All Lives Matter" is a truism. Of course they do. It doesn't even need mentioning, so why did you mention it? "Black Lives Matter" highlights an actual problem that needs to be addressed, so why are you shouting "All Lives Matter" back at it when you weren't saying anything before?

"All Lives Matter" is just a bland retort to try to get the spotlight away from "Black Lives Matter".

In the case of women, their sex is not irrelevant, because the demographics of people in science overwhelmingly show a skew in sex and gender. Highlighting how women were relegated to footnotes much more than men were is an interesting bit of information that shouldn't be shut down with "what about the men?"

> "All Lives Matter" is just a bland retort to try to get the spotlight away from "Black Lives Matter".

It sounds like you're confident that you understand the motives of the persons in the "All Lives Matter" camp. Could you explain what lead you to that conclusion?

People tend to get upset when they are excluded from a group. Do you think that the right way of going against it is by further exclusion? I do not think that this is the case.

> "Black Lives Matter" highlights an actual problem that needsd to be addressed

So what is that problem? Does it have to do with exclusion? If so, why do not you promote "All Lives Matter", to make sure no one is excluded, then?

> "All Lives Matter" is just a bland retort to try to get the spotlight away from "Black Lives Matter"

And I could say that "Black Lives Matter" is just a bland way of trying to get the spotlight away from the fact that everyone deserves equal treatment, and that we should not discriminate people, or exclude them for their skin color, which is what it is actually doing. It is doing exactly the same thing it is fighting against.

Fighting fire with fire is not a good way of doing it. You do not even have to create such groups or whatever to address these issues. In fact, I cannot think of a reason of why shouting "Black Lives Matter" is a solution at all.

> In the case of women, their sex is not irrelevant, because the demographics of people in science overwhelmingly show a skew in sex and gender.

There are men who have been underrepresented, and there are women who have been underrepresented. Why focus on women only? What is the point here exactly?

> Highlighting how women were relegated to footnotes much more than men were is an interesting bit of information

So were men. How is it interesting?

Back to the matter at hand, what could be the reason that some men and women get shoved into the footnotes only? Does it have to do with the merit of quality of their contributions? Why do we assume that it has to do with their sex to begin with? Maybe it has to do with the contributions themselves, or something completely different.

> So what is that problem?

The problem is that Black Lives manifestly do not matter as much as others, and particularly white lives, in the accountability structure that actually functionally exists.

> If so, why do not you promote "All Lives Matter"

Because a bug report needs to point as specifically as possible to the way the actual behavior is defective.

> I could say that "Black Lives Matter" is just a bland way of trying to get the spotlight away from the fact that everyone deserves equal treatment,

You could say anything, but as a matter of fact you would be wrong to say that.

Would you be happier with "black lives matter, too?"

> You could say anything, but as a matter of fact you would be wrong to say that.

Is it not concerned with black people only?

It isn't about getting the spotlight away from a place it never was; if there had been a meaningful focus on universal equality, the glaring failures that provoked BLM would not have occurred with widespread unconcern outside of the Black community.

As a matter of historical fact, both All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matters are reactions in defense of status quo inequities from slightly different angles.

What is BLM's actual goal, what do they want to happen?

> defense of status quo inequities

Well yeah, the point should be to solve this issue. "Black Lives Matter" is not the right way of doing it as it excludes other people. If you get "All Lives Matter", then you can focus on lives that are not being treated equally, while not excluding other groups of people. My point is, that exclusion is really not necessary to recognize and solve issues, even if those issues' victims are predominantly a specific group of people.

But "this issue" can't be cleanly generalized across races and genders. Inequality is a theme that is represented in a variety of symptoms, but those symptoms and their causes differ across underrepresented groups (e.g. women are not disproportionately incarcerated or killed by police). As a result, there is not general solution because the problems differ. Advocacy for one group does not imply that other groups don't deserve advocacy, it's just targeting very specific issues impacting that group along with specific root causes.

Applying the same logic to software development, a product manager shouldn't assign a development ticket that just says "make the application better" and bug reports shouldn't just say "the application is broken". Those themes may be true, but it's not an effective way to solve problems.

>So what is that problem? Does it have to do with exclusion? If so, why do not you promote "All Lives Matter", to make sure no one is excluded, then?

On Veteran's Day, do you point out that all jobs matter?

"Black Lives Matter" is a truism. Of course they do. It doesn't even need mentioning, so why did you mention it? "All Lives Matter" highlights an actual problem of police incompetence and poor training that needs to be addressed, so why are you concentrating on "Black Lives Matter" and introduce racial context to the problem that affects the whole society?

Our society is like that cartoon monkey who tries to pick a bunch of coconuts: she holds three in her arms, she tries to pick another one, but two fall out. She tries to pick the fallen ones, but drops the rest...

We proclaim "more focus to women" and we immediately forget "more focus to black people" we put on our banners ten years ago. We then jump to "more focus to lgbtqrst" and completely forget about women.

Should we indeed focus on personalities and abilities, not on whether a person has a vagina or a certain skin color?

>Should we indeed focus on personalities and abilities, not on whether a person has a vagina or a certain skin color?

Yes, we should recognize abilities and contributions irrespective of sex or race. The problem is that this historically has not been the case and to argue otherwise is to imply that people of a certain sex or race are inherently less capable.

The problem hasn't been naturally corrected without deliberate intervention so far, so it seems reasonable to think a deliberate, targeted approach is required to make sure we're getting better at recognizing and cultivating talent from the entire population.

Imagine if more men decided to play "woman's advocate" even half the time they're compelled to play "devil's advocate".

This is basically just a history of science, which as far as I can tell is a massive, continuous enterprise of taking credit for the work of others.

Unlike the meritocracy of the business world, clearly.

The same types of individuals seem to rise to the top of both (that is, folks who are primarily interested in being at the top of things).

Footnotes are the most important text, in my opinion! I remember from college, to remember and study footnotes. Because, always (100% guarantee) exam questions come from those! Little golden nuggets of information are placed in those and reading them is habit, for me - through today!

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