For Girls Only:

What do Developers Owe to the Children?

 

Since the late 1990's there has been as steady decline in the number of females involved in computer science. One report[i] claims that the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to women in computer science reached its peak in 1986 at 36%. But this number has steadily declined throughout the 1990's. Now only 27% of computer science degree holders are female. The reason for this decline has been a matter of debate. Some believe that the bias created by schools to favor boys in science and math is a leading cause. Others believe it is the type of exposure to computers that makes females less likely to pursue a career in computer science.

 

            Currently, the software industry is one that caters primarily to a male audience. Video games tend to emphasize male characters, aggression, and gender stereotypes. Female characters are usually portrayed in a less than favorable manner. Their physical appearance is often overemphasized, and a recent study performed by Children Now [ii] has shown that it is more common to see lead characters that are not human, than to see a female as the primary character in a video game.

 

            Educational software tries to be more politically correct, but there is a subtle bias in the thoughts of most people. If asked to envision typical computer programmer or computer user, there is a definite tendency to envision a male in these roles. And software designers have a tendency to envision their audience in the same way.

 

            The result is computer labs dominated by software such as Oregon Trail and Math Blaster, which appeal to a primarily male audience. Boys tend to dominate these computer labs, and being territorial and competitive by nature, they often make girls feel uncomfortable in this setting. Add to this the common stereotypes about females not being very good at math or technical skills, and we have a trend of discouragement that could be steering potential excellent software engineers away from computers entirely.

 

            Karen Frankel, in her article “Women and Computing.”[iii] , discusses a test in which software engineers were asked to design educational software for one of three groups. The first group, “boys” resulted in software that was similar to video games, with educational traits added.  The second group, entitled “girls,” resulted in software that was described as “learning tools.” Meanwhile, the third group, entitled “students” resulted in software that was similar to the software designed for boys.

 

The implication of the study is that software engineers differentiate between the traits of software designed for a male audience and the traits of software designed for a female audience. It further suggests that if the sex of the audience is not specified, that software engineers are more likely to create software that would appeal to a male audience.

 

This article also shows that children who use educational software designed for the opposite sex tend to benefit less from the software than they would have if they had used software designed for members of their sex. In support of this claim, a group of researchers from Bournemouth University in the UK studied how males and females viewed computers. As part of their study, they had both boys and girls play with a problem-solving program that deals with themes more traditionally associated with boys. The results were not surprising. The boys clearly outperformed the girls. When a new program was introduced that made use of themes more traditionally associated with girls, the results were a little surprising. The difference in performance witnessed previously completely vanished, and the girls experienced a two-fold performance increase.

 

Most girls when presented with violent video games will be uncomfortable with them, claiming to have very little skill with the game. The girls, however, often show themselves to be just as good at these games as boys. The difference is that the girls in the study lacked the confidence displayed by their male counterparts.

 

            Another example can be found in the January 20th, 2000 issue of the New York Times[iv]. This article discusses two computers released by the Mattel Company. One of which is the “Barbie Computer,” and the other is known as the “Hot Wheels PC.” Both of which are computers released in the fall of 1999, with a theme based on toys made by Mattel. The Barbie Computer comes with several pieces of educational software, such as the following titles:

Compton’s Encyclopedia 2000 Standard
Compton’s 3D World Atlas Deluxe
Math Workshop
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 10 Standard
National Geographic: The ’90’s
Ultimate Writing and Creativity Center

 

The “Hot Wheels PC” comes with all of the educational software listed for the Barbie Computer, as well as the following titles:

BodyWorks 6.0
The ClueFinders Math 9-12
Compton’s Complete Reference Collection
Kid Pix Studio
Logical Journey of the Zoombinis

 

            When asked why the computer that targeted a male audience comes with more educational software, Dana Henry, a spokesperson for Mattel answered by stating that the software was left out of the Barbie Computer to make room for such popular Barbie Programs as “Barbie Fashion Designer” and “Detective Barbie.”

 

Gender bias in software is an issue that many software engineers may face at least once in their career. But what is the right thing to do? We have provided a very exaggerated case to help new software engineers learn how to apply the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and other decision-making skills to some of the gender issues that may appear in their career.

 

Hypothetical Case

 Frank Fredson works as a project manager at a well established and prestigious educational software company— The Learning Factory. They specialize in producing games for older children (ages 9-14) that teach advanced skills in math, language arts, science, geography, and logical problem solving. Frank has been given the honor of developing The Learning Factory's latest product, "Clue Quest." The premise of the game centers on a young boy named Billy who becomes separated from his family while canoeing down the Amazon River. During his quest to get back home he stumbles upon a girl named Buffy who has been living in the jungle for years. Together they set out to find civilization.

 

            During the course of development of the software Frank begins to notice some disturbing things. When the character graphics come back from the artist, Billy looks more like a muscle bound teenager who does all his shopping at the army surplus store. Even more disturbing is the portrayal of Buffy. Instead of resembling a normal 13 year old, she has the proportions of a Barbie doll and is very scantily clad in leopard skins.

 

            Concerned by the graphics, Frank decides to take a closer look at the storyboards for the new game.  The simple interface allows the characters four directions of movement through each screen but no matter what direction is chosen Billy is the one to lead the way.  In each new screen, the characters are presented a new riddle to solve.  Frank begins to see a pattern forming in the way the characters solve these riddles. Only one character at a time is playable when attempting to solve a problem. He notices that Billy is the active character in almost all of the riddles that involve logical problem solving, math and science. While Billy is busily solving the problem, Buffy stands on the side of the screen brushing her hair or picking flowers. Buffy is the active character for questions that concerns language and geography. While she is answering her questions, Billy is flexing his muscles or climbing a nearby tree.

 

Frank is now very worried that this game is teaching children all the wrong things. His suspicion is confirmed when the sound files come back from final production. He is dismayed to hear that when Billy answers a question correctly he shouts, "I am the man!!" and when he misses a question he remarks, "I'll be back." Buffy has a completely different approach. When she answers a question correctly she jumps up and down while clapping. When she misses a question she says in a sulking tone, "That's to hard" or "No fair!"

 

Frank decides that he must speak up on what he feels to be a gross injustice to the children and parents who purchase this product. He approaches his supervisor Hal and begins to explain his concerns. Half way through the discussion Hal tells Frank that he is reading too much into the software and market research shows that Clue Quest has all the characteristics of a top seller. He continues by informing Frank that their leading competitor, BroadBund, will be releasing a similar product in less than two months. If the Learning Factory wants to be first to market they will not have time to change anything. He tells Frank that he wants the project to continue as planned. Frank is having a difficult time deciding what he should do. It is true that Clue Quest does have more educational value that any other package currently on the market but is that worth promulgating the worst gender stereotypes to get this package to market early?

 

To help Frank decide what the correct decision will be, we will first explore his options using the Paramedic Method v. The chart attached shows two possible choices Frank can make.  He can chose to continue the project, business as usual or he can delay the project for re-tooling. 

 

Next, we consult the effects his actions can have on all the people that can be affected by his actions.  We have attached a chart that gives the relation Frank has all the stakeholders and what this relation is. This chart is translated into a table that demonstrates the vulnerabilities and opportunities that can result from each of Frank's actions. From the table, below we can see that Frank has many people to which he is responsible. He has an obligation to his company to be a loyal employee and insure they make money. Frank must consider the well being of his family as well as that of the children, their parents, and society on the whole. A not often thought of obligation is to the future of computer science. By alienating females they are reducing the number of potential computer scientists that society could draw from in the future.

 

 

Potential Vulnerabilities

 

Stakeholders

Continue project

Delay Project

Publicly Object

Publicly Comply

Frank

Loss of self esteem

Lose Job

Increase self esteem

Lose job

Franks Family

 

Lose support

 

 

Lose Support

The Learning Factory

Liability to society

 

Be late to market

Negative publicity

Liability to society

 

Parents

Loss of trust from parents

 

Loss of trust from parents

 

Children

Reinforce negative stereo types

Lower self esteem for not being ideal

 

Reinforce negative stereo types

Lower self esteem for not being ideal

 

Computer Science Profession

Lose potential members

 

Lose potential members

 

Society

Loss of potential computer scientists

 

Loss of potential computer scientists

 

 

Potential Opportunities

Stakeholders

Continue project

Delay Project

Publicly Object

Publicly Comply

Frank

 

Gain self esteem

 

Gain Self Esteem

Franks Family

Continued support

 

 

Continued
support

The Learning Factory

First to market

 

Create better product

 

 

 

Parents

 

Get better product

 

Get better product

 

 

Children

 

Get better product

Get Better product

 

Computer Science Profession

 

Possible gain new female members

 

 

Society

 

Possibly gain females interested in computer science

Possibly gain females interested in computer science

 

 

OBLIGATIONS

Stakeholders

Continue Project

Delay Project

Publicly Object

Publicly Comply

FRANK

 

-To Frank

-To his family

-To The Learning Factor

-To Parents

-To Children

 

-To Profession

 

-To Society

Keep Integrity

Support Self

Support

Work Well

 

Gain trust

Bias Free product

Be Professional

Prevent Stereotypes

-

 

-

+

±

 

-

-

 

-

 

-

Keep Integrity

Support Self

Support

Work Well

 

Gain trust

Bias Free product

Be Professional

Prevent Stereotypes

+

 

+

+

+

 

+

+

 

+

 

+

Keep Integrity

 

Support Self

Support

Work Well

 

Gain trust

Bias Free product

Be Professional

Prevent Stereotypes

+

 

+

-

-

 

-

-

 

+

 

-

Keep Integrity

 

Support Self

Support

Work Well

 

Gain trust

Bias Free product

Be Professional

Prevent Stereotypes

-

 

+

+

±

 

-

-

 

-

-

THE LEARNING FACTORY

-To themselves

-To Children

-To Parents

 

-To Society

 

 

Make Profit

Prevent Bias

Provide Education

Produce Quality Software

 

 

+

-

±

 

-

 

 

Make Profit

Prevent Bias

Provide Education

Produce Quality Software

 

 

+

+

+

 

+

 

 

Make Profit

Prevent Bias

Provide Education

Produce Quality Software

 

 

-

-

-

 

-

 

 

Make Profit

Prevent Bias

Provide Education

Produce

Quality Software

 

 

+

-

±

 

±

SOCIETY

-To The Learning Factory

 

Pay Fee

 

+

 

Pay Fee

 

+

 

Pay Fee

 

+

 

Pay Fee

 

+

 

From this chart we can see that Frank has a clear path. If Frank can fix the product, it will produce the best results for the largest number of stakeholders.

 

            While the Paramedic Method is very useful it is not the only source of guidance that can be found. The Software Engineering Code of Ethics vi has several relevant sections that Frank can use to his advantage.

 

            We can begin our analysis by examining Section 2.07 which states “The software engineer shall identify, document, and report significant issues of social concern of which they are aware, in software or related documents, to the employer or the client”.  Frank has followed this to the best of his abilities by expressing his concern to his supervisors. He has mentioned his reservations concerning the graphics, sound files, and methods of navigation.

 

            Section 1.02 states "Moderate the interests of the engineer, employer, … with the public good." Frank knows that releasing this product is consistent with the good of the company but it has the potential to cause consequential harm to members of society that are in no position to protect themselves. This is followed by section 1.07 that The Learning Factory has chosen to ignore. 1.07 states, "Consider issues of… factors that can diminish access to the advantages to the benefits of software." Having gender roles so blatant in an educational software title will greatly decrease the benefits females will gain from playing it. Half the population will see no benefit from this product.

 

Section 8.07 says that, “Software engineers shall not give unfair treatment to anyone because of any irrelevant prejudices”. We cannot say for certain if the prejudices were intentional or not but we can clearly see that this game is catering to the male audience and excluding females in almost everyway.

 

While we have not attempted to use every aspect of the code of the SECE that may apply, we have given a general understanding of how this code may be used.

In summary, Frank Fredson should delay the release of the Educational Software until it can be better tested to ensure that there are no gender-biased elements to the software.  Mr. Fredson is required to ensure that the software does not alienate any race, creed, or gender that might use the software in the process of bettering him or herself.  If the software that educates our youth gives them the impression that computers are only for the male members of society, then the software industry might miss many intelligent women.



[i]   http://www.cpsr.org/program/gender/index.html

 

[ii]  http://www.childrennow.org/media/video-games/2001/

 

[iii] http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/gender/frenkel.cacm.womcomp

 

[iv] http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/00/01/circuits/articles/20barbie.html

 

v “Paramedic Ethics for Computer Professionals,” W. Robert Collins and Keith W. Miller, in Computer Ethics and Social Values, eds. Helen Nissenbaum and Deborah G.  Johnson

 

 

 

ÓCopyright 2002 Shawn Bryant, Brad Engle, Travis Griffith, Thomas Morgan, Jason Roberts, Mark Savage

This case may be published without permission and at no cost as long as it carries the copyright notice.