DRAFT: Women writing about technology: a reading list for the new year

Draft!  Feedback welcome!

If you want to get straight to the list, feel free to skip the backstory.  If you’d prefer to start of with a great example of why we need lists like this, read on 🙂
Inspired by Bill Gates, the folks at Y Combinator (YC) published a year-end reading list.  Jared recommends books by Steve, Philip, and Dan; Kevin recommends David and John; Michael, Daniel and Elon; Paul, Marshall; Matt, Michael; Justin, a different John … hey wait a second, I’m noticing a pattern here!

To be fair there is one exception: YC associate Amy Buecholz recommended Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. But then it’s back to business as usual: Luke recommends Neal and Andy; Daniel recommends Charles, Noam and Shimon; Geoff, Yuval; and Aaron, Andrew.  Maybe it’s time for Shelley Powers to write a post about how Guys don’t recommend.

It turns out I wasn’t the only person to notice this pattern.

On YC’s site Hacker News, roastbeast’s observation was immediately downvoted to the bottom of the thread.  The comments are much like they usually are when gender issues come up on HN.  The most popular response:

Or, from one of HN’s highest-reputation commenters

Sigh.  No, it’s not irresponsible to highlight a systemic bias.  And more generally pointing out marginalizing behavior doesn’t create an obligation on the person pointing it out to deal with it.  If YC wants to try to overcome their reputation for sexism, it’s up to them.

That said, a list of technology writing that’s skewed towards women sounds like a good thing!   And somewhat to my surprise, I wasn’t able to find one with some quick searching.  So I decided to write one up myself.

The thing is, I didn’t read a lot of tech books in 2015.  So with the exception of the opening essay, this is quite literally a “reading list”: a list of books I’m going to read.  If you’ve got interests similar to mine — social media, startups, software engineering, computer security, and diversity in technology — hopefully some of these will interest you as well!

Targeted Surveillance, Civil Rights, and the Fight for Democracy, Malkia Cyril

I’ll start with an essay that I actually have read, and several times: a transcript of a powerful lunchtime keynote at the 2015 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference.  Malkia Cyril is Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice, and does a great job of describing one of the reasons these kinds of systemic bias in technology matters so much.

The decentralized power of the Internet has made much of this moment possible. But I ask myself, will the technology serve a future of equity and democracy? Will it fuel a new era of civil action, a renaissance of human rights? Or will it drive a widening wealth gap, a more militarized state, a political economy characterized by structural inequality and persistent discrimination?

I submit that the answer to that question is up to you. Look around, see who is and who is not in this room.

Yeah really.   And if this whets your appetite, CMJ’s The Digital CultureSHIFT: From Scale to Power (a collaboration with Color of Change and others) explores the ways in which social change is affecting the internet in more detail.

Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research, Sandra Harding

The latest work from Sandra Harding, known for her work in feminist standpoint theory and post-colonialism, was my Christmas present to myself, and I’m a few chapters into it.  Harding focuss one of the most challenging issues in science and technology studies — and one particularly relevant to people in the Silicon Valley startup scene who tend to pride themselves on their “objectivity”.  From the description:

In Objectivity and Diversity, Harding calls for a science that is both more epistemically adequate and socially just, a science that would ask: How are the lives of the most economically and politically vulnerable groups affected by a particular piece of research? Do they have a say in whether and how the research is done? Should empirically reliable systems of indigenous knowledge count as “real science”? Ultimately, Harding argues for a shift from the ideal of a neutral, disinterested science to one that prizes fairness and responsibility.

So, returning to my original rant, if you’re not sure why it matters that the almost-all-male partners at the most influential startup accellerator have an almost-all-male reading list and the almost-all-male commenters on Hacker News don’t think this is a problem, this book’s a good starting place — especially if you like analytical approaches.  And if you already understand the problem, it’s even better 🙂

Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, edited by Elyssa Shevinsky

Then again, as feminist epistemology Barbie might say, “standpoint theory is hard”.  If you prefer starting with people’s lived experiences, this anthology might be more to your tastes.  To me, it’s yet another good complement to the previous two.

The split between the stated ideals of the corporate elite and the reality of working life for women in the tech industry—whether in large public tech companies or VC-backed start-ups, in anonymous gaming forums, or in Silicon Valley or Alley—seems designed to crush women’s spirits….  Lean Out collects 25 stories from the modern tech industry, from people who fought GamerGate and from women and transgender artists who have made their own games, from women who have started their own companies and who have worked for some of the most successful corporations in America, from LGBTQ women, from women of color, from transgender people and people who do not ascribe to a gender. All are fed up with the glacial pace of cultural change in America’s tech industry.

Hmm, I can see why this didn’t show up on YC’s list.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle’s classic The Second Self, originally published in 1984, shaped a lot of how we think about the digital age, and it’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of her thinking about digital culture over time.  In her latest, she laments the loss of empathy and connection she sees as a consequence of today’s technologies:

Long an enthusiast for its possibilities, here she investigates a troubling consequence: at work, at home, in politics, and in love, we find ways around conversation, tempted by the possibilities of a text or an email in which we don’t have to look, listen, or reveal ourselves….  At work, we retreat to our screens although it is conversation at the water cooler that increases not only productivity but commitment to work. Online, we only want to share opinions that our followers will agree with – a politics that shies away from the real conflicts and solutions of the public square.

But there is good news: we are resilient. Conversation cures. 

In an interview with Diane Rhem, Turkle clarifies that she doesn’t see herself as anti-technology, but rather pro-conversation.  So her perspective’s a great complement to the go-go triumphalism of so much writing about tech.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Whitney Phillips

One of the reasons it’s so hard to have good conversations online these days is because of trolling.  It’s almost like Mark, Jack, Ev and Dick, Tom, David, Kevin, Steve and Alexis, and all the other guys running social networks haven’t paid as much attention to trolling, harassment, and abuse as women in comparable roles might have!  And in this book, Whitney Phillips sets trolling within today’s broader corporate-run media landscape.

Trolls’ actions are born of and fueled by culturally sanctioned impulses — which are just as damaging as the trolls’ most disruptive behaviors. Phillips describes, for example, the relationship between trolling and sensationalist corporate media — pointing out that for trolls, exploitation is a leisure activity; for media, it’s a business strategy.  She shows how trolls, “the grimacing poster children for a socially networked world,” align with social media. And she documents how trolls, in addition to parroting media tropes, also offer a grotesque pantomime of dominant cultural tropes, including gendered notions of dominance and success and an ideology of entitlement.

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon, Kim Zetter

Long-time Wired journalist Kim Zetter has written a lot about computer security, and her work’s consistently approachable even if you’re not an expert.  Here she starts with one of the most interesting stories, starting with the initial discovery of unexpected problems with centrifuges in a secret Iranian nuclear facility, caused by computer malware that became known as Stuxnet.

In these pages, Wired journalist Kim Zetter draws on her extensive sources and expertise to tell the story behind Stuxnet’s planning, execution, and discovery, covering its genesis in the corridors of Bush’s White House and its unleashing on systems in Iran—and telling the spectacular, unlikely tale of the security geeks who managed to unravel a sabotage campaign years in the making.


But Countdown to Zero Day ranges far beyond Stuxnet itself. Here, Zetter shows us how digital warfare developed in the US. She takes us inside today’s flourishing zero-day “grey markets,” in which intelligence agencies and militaries pay huge sums for the malicious code they need to carry out infiltrations and attacks. She reveals just how vulnerable many of our own critical systems are to Stuxnet-like strikes, from nation-state adversaries and anonymous hackers alike—and shows us just what might happen should our infrastructure be targeted by such an attack.

Cracking the Coding Interview, 6th Edition, Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Gayle Laakmann McDowell’s a software engineer who worked at Microsoft, Apple, and Google.  As an undergrad, she started up Career Cup, a crowdsourced site where people could submit interview questions they were asked.  A few years later, she published the first edition of Cracking the Coding Interview, with questions and solutions, and even more importantly coaching about how to think about the process and how the companies look at hiring.  Over the years she’s continued to refine it, and the sixth edition is another major step forward.

Learn how to uncover the hints and hidden details in a question, discover how to break down a problem into manageable chunks, develop techniques to unstick yourself when stuck, learn (or re-learn) core computer science concepts, and practice on 189 interview questions and solutions.

These interview questions are real; they are not pulled out of computer science textbooks. They reflect what’s truly being asked at the top companies, so that you can be as prepared as possible.

I went to the Seattle launch event for this latest addition, and there were literally hundreds of people there who told me how much Gayle’s book had helped them.  So if you’re looking for a job as a programmer, or know somebody who is, check it out — no matter what your gender is 🙂

And … ?

This is a very short list, and there’s lots more great tech writing by women out there.  If you’ve got other suggestions for books or essays written by women (or even co-authored by women, like danah boyd, Mimi Ito, and Henry Jenkins’ Participatory Culture), please leave them in the comments or share them on Twitter.

As we go into 2016, notice who’s written the books you’re reading and recommending.  My experience is that when I’m not actively paying attention to gender ratios, it’s easy to fall into the “almost-all-male” trap; if you look at Amazon’s tech bestsellers, books by women are quite rare.  It takes an effort to get more balanced perspectives.  At least for me, though, it’s well worth doing.  Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reading these books — and blogging about some of them.  Whether it’s these or others, I hope you do the same!


* To his credit, a third of the books on Bill Gates’ short list are by women: Nancy Leys Stepa’s Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever? and Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  But it’s still 2/3 guys..