What Uncle Bob Gets Wrong

How Uncle Bob’s “Thought Police” blog post does a disservice to his colleagues in the software industry.

Bradley Holt
Aug 9, 2017 · 4 min read

There are many people in the software industry who look up to Uncle Bob as a leader. Given this, I want to address one of the many major problems with his recent “Thought Police” blog post. Through intentionality or through sloppiness, Uncle Bob has aligned himself with a sexist worldview. This is highly unfortunate given his stature in the community and the many problems our industry faces around diversity and inclusion.

In Uncle Bob’s words…

Let me tell you the sad story of Edward. Poor Edward is an escalator operator working for a company named Escalators-R-Us (ERU). ERU had noticed that people less than the average height (short people) tend not to become escalator operators. In fact, at ERU, only 20% of escalator operators are short. So ERU held classes for short people, encouraging them to take escalator operator jobs. ERU also adjusted their hiring practices so as to prefer short people over tall people. ERU’s goal was to increase the height diversity of escalator operators. The managers at ERU felt that the height gap was a result of deeply ingrained societal heightism. They believed their policies were a way to promote social justice

Edward, being tall, didn’t think this was the right approach. He felt that the issue was not really a problem. His idea was that there’s something biological about short people that predisposes them against operating escalators. So Edward wrote his ideas in a memo and published it on one of the internal discussion groups.

The context of Uncle Bob’s post is, quite obviously and despite Uncle Bob’s protestations to the contrary, the Google employee who was fired after writing an internal memo in which he asserted that there are biological differences between men and women when it comes to the skills needed to be a software engineer. I could not find a job description for “escalator operator,” but presumably Uncle Bob has chosen an analogy in which height is a bona fide occupational qualification, though no one within the world that Edward lives—other than Edward—has realized this.

By choosing an analogy in which height is presumably a bona fide occupational qualification, and by choosing to make the analogy within the context of the fired Google employee, Uncle Bob has chosen to align his narrative with a sexist worldview. With this analogy, he is lending his credibility to the worldview that women are less qualified to be software engineers than men. If there is a possibility that Edward is right, then isn’t there a possibility that those who think that women make for less qualified software engineers are right?

Poor Edward. It wasn’t a new idea, of course; and the research had already been done, and was conclusive. Short people had never been shown to be more anxious about operating escalators. Moreover, short people had been conclusively shown to be just as capable, and sanquine [sic], about operating escalators as tall people. So Edward’s idea was wrong. He really should have done his homework better.

Plot twist! It turns out that I, the reader, was wrong in assuming that height was a bona fide occupational qualification for escalator operators. No. This is just a cheap narrative device on the part of Uncle Bob. The intent behind his initial analogy seems clear, and his alignment with a sexist worldview with that analogy (given the context) stands. Of course, Uncle Bob’s original analogy is just vague enough to conveniently leave doubt as to his intent. Perhaps I am the heightist!

Uncle Bob betrays his plot twist with this one phrase:

They were firmly convinced that the reason for the height gap was that heightism is deeply embedded in our society.

Why does Uncle Bob choose the wording “firmly convinced?” Perhaps it is simply a nod to intellectual curiosity, to trying to remain objective and to hear people out no matter how wrong you think they might be. However, with this wording he is leaving open the possibility that those who know that the height gap is a result of heightism are, in fact, wrong. That the research is wrong. That short escalator operators are not as capable as tall escalator operators. That Edward’s ideas are not wrong. That it’s OK to endlessly debate harmful stereotypes that have been proven wrong multiple times over.

Why does Uncle Bob leave this space open in his analogy? Is it that Uncle Bob thinks that there is a possibility that Edward’s worldview on short escalator operators is correct? Or is it simply that he thinks there is value to hearing Edward’s perspective? Here again, given the context of his post, Uncle Bob has aligned himself with a sexist worldview, or at least asserted that we should listen to people with wrongheaded, sexist opinions. He is leaving open the possibility that women are less qualified than men as software engineers — despite the overwhelming evidence and research to the contrary. Women have had to argue, debate, and fight for their place in this industry at great personal cost. Leaving this on the table for debate causes significant harm.

Uncle Bob states that “a company who fires people for expressing ideas is dying” and that this amounts to “thought police.” The argument that you “counter bad ideas with better ideas” is worn thin. That women are less capable than men as software engineers is not simply a “bad idea.” It is wrong. I don’t mean it is morally wrong (though it certainly is), I mean that it is unequivocally, factually wrong (it is also legally wrong within a work environment). We do not hold space for the possibility that this harmful “bad idea” is actually a correct idea. By leaving open the possibility that this is a correct idea, or by asserting that women should be subjected to a debate on their place within the field of software engineering, Uncle Bob does a disservice to his colleagues in the software industry.

Written by

Leading developer advocacy for open source data and AI at IBM | opinions are my own

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