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Why ‘her’?

The Case for a Pronoun for a Programmer.

In computer programming, time zones are famously tricky to work with. Antarctica has a lot of timezones. That’s all the context you need to understand why this tweet I posted struck a nerve with computer nerds:

The tweet started to get some traction, and soon I received this question:

Other men—yes, I feel confident assuming MightyPork is a man—shared this stranger’s concern:

And the pièce de résistance:

(I realize that these negative responses are few and tame. I can only imagine the harassment I would have experienced if I’d had a woman’s face and name on my Twitter profile.)

In most cases, I resisted responding to these trolls. But each one made me consider again: Why “her”? I didn’t choose the pronoun unintentionally. If I closed my eyes and pictured a programmer, I would probably see a man. It takes effort and intention not to fall back on stereotypes. In writing the tweet I made a deliberate decision to use “her”. Most people think of “a programmer” as male. But not all programmers are men. I wanted people—including myself—to be confronted with that fact.

Using “she” and “her” to refer to software engineers doesn’t come naturally to me, which is exactly why I try to do it whenever I can. It’s my hope that doing so will, however slightly, increase the chances that someday, when my three-year-old daughter pictures a programmer, she sees someone who looks like her.

Apparently, the fact that some programmers prefer to be called by feminine pronouns is so seldom acknowledged that people—well, women, at least—will actually stop and thank someone who does acknowledge it:

This sentiment might have been part of the reason the tweet got so popular. Eight months prior I’d posted a very similar tweet—minus the gendered pronoun—with the identical image. That tweet was liked fewer than 10 times. The tweet that contains “her” has more than 2,000 likes, and counting. (Is it weird that I tweeted the same image twice, with a similar joke? Yes. Yes, it is.)

To my surprise and delight, for some people, the tweet didn’t just bring to mind a female programmer, it reminded them of a specific person. Christine Corbett Moran is an actual programmer stationed in real Antarctica who is a living, breathing female woman.

Calling Corbett Moran a programmer is actually selling her short. According to her bio, she does research in “computational astrophysics, high performance computing, and big data visualization”. She’s on leave from an astrophysics postdoc at Cal Tech to spend the antarctic winter with the South Pole Telescope.

And, apparently, she is not at all deterred by the complexity of timezones.

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