Back in the early days of the Internet, some feminists theorized that “computer-mediated communication” would erase the lopsided power imbalances of gender. Online, they imagined, “male” and “female” might not matter so much.That, alas, is not the case. Gender constructs still exist online and, worse, the conversation on the web — like in the physical world — often defaults to male.
Case in point: Software used by Little League Baseball to write game stories from box scores called Mo’Ne Davis “him” in a lead describing Davis’s powerhouse pitching.
In case you missed it, Davis has made sure that the phrase “you throw like a girl” will henceforth be a huge compliment. She’s a 13-year-old girl from Philadelphia who’s been hurling baseballs at speeds up to 70 mph in the Little League World Series. That’s as impressive as it sounds. Most boys in the league, reports NPR, throw at 50-60 mph.
It’s easy to blame the pronoun error on a computer glitch, but it’s not a glitch at all. Rather, the software was following directions, strings of code written by a programmer who probably didn’t think twice about assigning the male gender pronoun to all baseball players. (While boys are the majority of Little Leaguers, girls have been allowed on the field since 1974.)
The error is a powerful example of how gender imbalance in technology fields can damage the credibility of the journalism we’re creating in the digital world. It’s likely that software programs like the ones used to generate basic game stories will become more common in the future, and it’s important that they’re created by programers from diverse backgrounds.