Gender HCI, Feminist HCI, and Post-Colonial Computing

Emma Willard’s Temple of Time (1846)

Whenever I talk about the intersection of software engineering and diversity, I ask people if they know about gender HCI, feminist HCI, or post-colonial computing. Even when I’m talking to designers and others who know about the general area of HCI (the study of human-computer interaction), people usually reply something like “sounds interesting, but never heard of it.”

Which is a shame. These fields have some great insights about how to create software that works better for everybody. An overview:

  • Gender HCI focuses on the differences in how different genders interact with computers
  • Feminist HCI is concerned with the design and evaluation of interactive systems that are imbued with sensitivity to the central commitments of feminism — agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, diversity, and social justice.
  • Post-colonial Computing centers on the questions of power, authority, legitimacy, participation, and intelligibility in the contexts of cultural encounter, particularly in the context of contemporary globalization

Even though these are all relatively new areas of research, there are some solid — and very actionable — results. Here are a handful of key papers, along with a few videos.

[For a longer bibliography, also including Sustainable HCI and Humanistic HCI, see the Human-Computer Interaction page that Tammarrian Rogers and I put together for our Open Source Bridge talk on “Supporting Diversity with a New Approach to Software”.]

Gender HCI

Dr. Margaret Burnett’s Open Lecture from the IT University of Copenhagen.

The GenderMag Method, a gender-specialized cognitive walk-through process and a set of four personas, can very quickly identify significant ways in which a piece of software embeds gender biases — and leads to improved usability by people of all genders. It’s the latest in a series of excellent research from Oregon State University, starting with Laura Beckwith and Margeret Burnett’s 2004 paper Gender: An Important Factor in End-User Programming Environments?.

GenderMag: A method for evaluating software’s gender inclusiveness describes the five facets of gender difference that Dr. Burnett and her collaborators have identified over the last decade of research (motivation, information processing styles, computer self-efficacy, risk aversion, tinkering). “The users who tend to be best supported by problem-solving software tend to be those best represented in software development teams (e.g. relatively young, able-bodied, males), with other users’ perspectives often over-looked.”

Finding Gender-Inclusiveness Software Issues with GenderMag: A Field Investigation is good companion piece, with three real-world case-studies applying the method. “The results were that, using GenderMag to evaluate software, these software practitioners identified a surprisingly high number of gender-inclusiveness issues: 25% of the software features they evaluated had gender-inclusiveness issues.” The EUSES Gender HCI Publications resource page has a longer bibliography, including fascinating work on a strategy assistant for Excel.

Gayna Williams’ “Are you sure your software is gender-neutral?” is a good more general overview, looking at some of the reasons for gender bias in software, with suggestions for free and low-cost ways of improving the situation.

Most work to date on Gender HCI has used a simple binary gender model. Gopinaath Kannabiran’s Where are all the queers? looks at some of the implications of this. Morgen Brommell’s 2016 AlterConf talk Imagining Radical Queer Futures Through Tech considers the possibilities of online spaces created by queer and trans people of color.

Morgen Brommell, Imagining Radical Queer Futures Through Tech

Feminist HCI

Shaowen Bardzell’s 2010 paper Feminist HCI: taking stock and outlining an agenda for design defines Feminist HCI in terms of interactive systems “that are imbued with sensitivity to the central commitments of feminism — agency, fulfillment, identity and the self, equity, empowerment, diversity, and social justice” and “entails critical perspectives that could help reveal unspoken values within HCI’s dominant research and design paradigms and underpin the development of new approaches, methods and design variations”.

Justine Cassell’s Storytelling as a nexus of change in the relationship between gender and technology: a feminist approach to software design,(1998) suggests principles of a feminist approach to software design

  • Transfer design authority to the user
  • Value subjective and experiential knowledge in the context of computer use
  • Allow use by many different kinds of users in different contexts
  • Give the user a tool to express her voice and the truth of her existence
  • Encourage collaboration among users
Casey Fiesler at CHI16
 (the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems)

Several case studies apply these frameworks to real-world software projects:

Emma Willard, Temple of Time (1846)

Lauren Klein‘s unpublished monograph,“Feminist Data Visualization: Rethinking the Archive, Reshaping the Field” is described in Dave DeCamp’s blog post about a 2015 presentation at Northeastern University. Klein’s presentation focused on three 19th-century female “data visualizers” including Emma Willard. “What alternative histories emerge when we rethink the archive of data visualization? … Instead of focusing only on the legibility of visualizations for data, argument, or evidence, Klein considers alternative means for creating, employing, and interpreting data visualizations.”

Olivier L. Haimson and Gillian R. Hayes’ “Towards Trans Inclusion in Feminist HCI discusses the value of trans inclusion, and suggests three approaches: designers should consider changing and faceted identities and temporal complexities when designing technologies; researchers should avoid unnecessary assumptions and rigid gender categorization; and professionals should emphasize trans inclusion in groups and workshops aimed at women or diversity in computing.

Post-colonial Computing

Lilly Irani, Janet Vertesi, Paul Dourish, Kavita Philip, and Rebecca E. Grinter’s 2010 paper Postcolonial computing: a lens on design and development describes postcolonial computing as “an alternative sensibility to the process of design and analysis.” It asserts a series of questions and concerns inspired by the conditions of postcoloniality but relevant to any design project. The authors suggest four shifts in approach: generative models of culture, development as a historical program, uneven economic relations, and cultural epistemologies. 2012's Postcolonial computing a tactical survey is a good companion piece, focusing on tactics for “rereading, rewriting, or reimagining” hegemonic forms of computing.

ACM: Residual Mobilities: Infrastructural Displacement and Post-Colonial Computing in Bangladesh

Residual mobilities: infrastructural displacement and post-colonial computing in Bangladesh, by Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, Nusrat Jahan Mim, and Steven J. Jackson is an excellent example of applying this postcolonial lens. Based on a field study among populations displaced by a development project in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the authors argue that “different and heretofore residual experiences of mobility must also be accounted for in post-colonial and other marginal computing environments” and document “four forms of infrastructural experience — dispossession, reconstitution, collaboration, and repair — that characterize real-world engagements with infrastructure in such settings”


Originally published at A Change Is Coming.