By E. Ashley Rea
Purpose: This article shares insights from an ongoing study of activist coding organizations offering coding education programs designed to increase access, representation, and equity in technology. In particular, this research seeks to better understand storytelling practices of women working in technology.
Methods: This qualitative study deployed participant observation and semi-structured interviews with organizers, instructors, and participants. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed with a grounded theory approach.
Results: This study reveals how women programmers strategically craft a counterstory practice to resist exclusionary workplace narratives.
Conclusions: This research demonstrates how women in technology deploy counterstory to work to transform access to coding education, support women’s professional development, and change workplace culture.
KEYWORDS: technology, counterstory, identity, social justice, feminism
Technical and professional communication (TPC) contexts often are shaped by exclusionary narratives that negatively impact the professional experiences of marginalized and minoritized technical communicators.
Counterstory as a methodology can be used to create more inclusive and ethical TPC scholarship and teaching that centers the experiences of marginalized and minoritized communicators.
Counterstory as a practice (whether written, spoken, or coded) has the potential to facilitate culture change in TPC workplaces.
In 2021, women comprised only 25% of the computing workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics). While emerging networked information technologies are often discussed as empowering and liberatory, minoritized and marginalized computer programmers face overt and systemic discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and ability (Agarwal, 2020; Gurchiek, 2020; Heubl, 2019). Exclusionary narratives about who “can” code permeate tech workplaces, contributing to problems of access and representation. Even when underrepresented programmers are hired, such discriminatory narratives often lead to attrition, what is often referred to as the “leaky pipeline” effect (Amrute, 2020; Wynn & Correll, 2018). Note, for example, Google’s recent ousting of Black AI researcher Timnit Gebru following her research critiquing systemic bias on the platform (Allyn, 2020).
Problems of access, representation, and equity are not unique to technology industries, however. As Walton, Moore, and Jones (2019) argue, injustice is endemic to technical and professional communication (TPC). TPC practice and research are imbricated within larger systems of power, privilege, and positionality, a phenomenon Jones (2020) labels as “political, problematic, and patriarchal” (p. 515). While TPC practitioners and researchers have historically understood effective technical communication as neutral and objective, scholars like Haas (2012) and Williams and Pimentel (2012) reveal how technical communication is imbued with assumptions that perpetuate varying systems of privilege and oppression. For example, the prevalence of color-blind ideologies in technical communication classes works to disadvantage students of color. But as Agboka and Dorpenyo (2020) remind us, “TPC, after all, is all about solving problems.” Social justice research considers injustice as a central TPC problem to be solved, examining how communication can be used to “amplify the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under resourced” (Jones & Walton, 2018, p. 242).
Storytelling and narrative—both as an area of study and practice—are central to social justice research in technical and professional communication. Within the discipline, researchers have theorized storytelling and narrative as a methodology for user-experience testing and software development (Acharya, 2018; Jones, 2016), analyzed racialized and oppressive narratives embedded within historical and contemporary technologies (Nakamura, 2014; Noble, 2018), and practiced storytelling as a feminist and antiracist methodology towards social justice goals (Shivers-MacNair, Gonzales, & Zhyvotovska, 2019). In particular, scholarship about women in technical and professional communication has used narrative as a means of exploring relationships between identity and practice. For example, Williams, Ammetller, Rodríguez-Ardura, and Li (2020) examine narratives of women entrepreneurs to understand complex articulations of professional identity, gender, and culture. Similarly, Petersen’s (2019) research on women TPC practitioners reveals how women leveraged social networks to rewrite workplace narratives—she provides one striking example of women adopting the derogatory label “reasonably bright girls” as the name for their informal company alumni group dedicated to professional development (p. 29). This research represents a mere fraction of the growing move to center the marginalized voices of practitioners and researchers in TPC—yet there remains much work to be done. As the social justice turn in technical and professional communication gathers momentum, it is imperative for technical communication scholars to engage ethically with the stories and practices of minoritized and marginalized communities (Agboka, 2020).
This article contributes to research on social justice and narrative in TPC by considering the storytelling practices of women working to change pervasive problems of access and representation in the technology industry. My research asks: how do activist computer programmers counter dominant discourses about women in tech? How might these practices influence their professional development? This study elucidates how narratives of “coder identity” function as gatekeeping mechanisms and offers insight into how activist programmers use storytelling as a means of coalition-building and resistance. I begin by explaining the project’s methods and its intersectional feminist theoretical framework—an essential framework to help avoid essentialisms and erasures that can accompany research on women in tech. Then, I contextualize the workplaces and professional settings of research participants and offer an analysis of their storytelling practice. In particular, I argue that activist programmers craft a counterstory practice (Martinez, 2020) to work towards greater equity in their professional communities. I conclude by discussing implications of the project and avenues for future research.
METHODS AND METHODOLOGY
This research comes out of an ongoing IRB-approved study of sites of coding literacy education designed by and for marginalized communities. I categorized sites of coding education as: online-only educational platforms, hybrid online and in-person meetups, structured workshops and bootcamps, and traditional university courses and micro-credentialing programs. For each kind of coding education, I selected two or three case studies for participant-observation, collection of print and digital materials, and semi-structured interviews with organizers, instructors, and participants. I initially recruited coding organizations for participants marginalized on the basis of gender and/or race located in the U.S. Northeast to facilitate travel to the in-person workshops, bootcamps, and meetups. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, I opened up the study to include virtual events hosted by coding organizations across the United States and Canada. Once I obtained permission to participate and observe from event organizers, I recruited organization leaders, instructors, and participants through each organization’s Slack channel.
My focus on coding education for underrepresented communities shaped my recruitment practices. Of the 16 interviews conducted at the time of writing, 13 participants identified as women, with three identifying as East or South Asian, one as Black, one as Hispanic, five as white, and one as white and Hispanic. Two women did not disclose their race or ethnicity. The three male participants identified as Black, Latino, and white. The over-representation of white and Asian-identifying women slightly echoes larger industry demographics—of the 25% of American tech workers who are women, 14% identify as white, 5% as Asian, 3% as Black, and 1% as Latina. While some participant observations occurred in-person, all interviews were conducted over video calls. All participants are referred to using pseudonyms.
I recorded and transcribed the interviews and used grounded theory (Urqhart, 2013; Saldaña, 2016) to analyze the transcripts. For the first coding cycle, I used in vivo coding to center participants’ experiences in their own words. I organized the in vivo codes into related clusters and drafted analytic memos to reflect on my field notes and the in vivo codes in the interview transcripts. Examples of in vivo codes included, “inclusive, open, and culturally sensitive pedagogy,” “community,” and “empowerment.” For the second coding cycle, I used axial coding to categorize codes and draw out the relationships between them. For the final coding cycle, I used theoretical coding to better understand and identify participants’ storytelling practices in each site of coding education (see Table 1).
My research is grounded in an intersectional feminist theoretical framework (Crenshaw, 1989; Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019). Crenshaw (1989) theorized intersectionality as a means to understand how interlocking systems of oppression affect marginalized individuals in a variety of ways dependent on their positionality. An intersectional approach is especially vital for research on feminist technology interventions, which all too often center the voices and experiences of privileged white women. For example, Scott and Garcia (2016) found that girls of color were often left out of feminist coding interventions. Drawing on Jones’ (2020) decolonial narrative inquiry, what she explains as “concurrently a methodology, perspective, and practice,” I highlight the importance of narrative and lived experience in TPC research (p. 520). Walton, Moore, and Jones (2019) argue for the necessity of centering and valuing marginalized perspectives in order to transform institutional and organizational contexts of technical and professional communication. Following their call, this research shares stories of minoritized and marginalized women’s experiences as they work to transform the tech industry.
Chávez and Griffin (2012) argue that intersectional research challenges “who has the power to name, whose discourses can be heard, whose ways of knowing are valid, and whose approach to communication can be valued” (p. 20). Intersectional feminist work demands reflexivity on the part of the researcher, especially when engaging with communities outside one’s own. For this research, I toggled between insider/emic and outsider/etic perspectives (Moss, 1992). As a consultant at two university digital studios, I had shared experiences with the academic technologists, software engineers, and front-end developers I talked with. But as a white woman working with communities often led by women of color, I wanted to adopt a reflexive stance and practice reciprocity with the communities I worked with (Moore, 2017). To that end, I became an active participant in the gender-inclusive coding meetups and workshops, learning from other participants and leaders and contributing my stories and academic resources when appropriate. In this article, I also quote from participant interview transcripts to share their stories in their own words and follow a practice of member-checking.
In what follows, I describe the workplace contexts and narrative practices of women working in tech. Each participant shared an acute awareness of the dominant narratives shaping their workplace contexts. I offer an analysis of the exclusionary narratives that connect performances of coding identity to practices of gatekeeping. Next, I posit that the activist coding organization leaders and participants at the heart of this research practice storytelling in their DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work. Specifically, I argue that the activist developers craft counterstories and narratives of resistance to create change in three related areas: tech industry educational access, personal professional development, and institutional and industry culture.
While my ongoing study features interviews with 16 participants, for this research, I focus on the stories of five women in particular: Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Katherine, and Neha. Taken together, these participants reveal how marginalized and minoritized developers can resist prevailing discriminatory workplace contexts and work to transform their industries through their counterstory practices. Olivia is an academic technologist and the founder of an organization offering coding education and professional development for women of color. Sophie, a senior software engineer at a major tech company, has years of experience as an organizer for DEI programs and currently leads a workshop for underrepresented developers in Go, an object-oriented programming language. Drew, a quality assurance automation engineer, led and participated in a national organization for technologists with marginalized genders. Katherine and Neha, both software engineers, are participants in different chapters of the same national organization. Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Katherine, and Neha each described how their professional experiences were influenced by prevailing narratives of who could be considered “technical.” In what follows, I share their experiences with identity-based gatekeeping to establish the context for their counterstory practices.
Coding Identity and Gatekeeping Narratives
Narratives about who can code are closely tied to perceptions and performances of identity. Alfrey and Winddance Twine (2017) theorize the phenomenon as a “gendered spectrum of belonging” that results in differing experiences for women based on their race, ethnicity, orientation, and gender expression (p. 30). Prevailing tech culture privileges masculine identities, especially for white and Asian programmers. Tech culture emphasizes the importance of occupying a coder identity, one often synonymous with a racialized masculine “geek” ideal “measured by one’s technical skills, but also by specific personality traits, styles of dress, interests, forms of cultural knowledge, and gender presentation” (Alfrey & Winddance Twine, 2017, p. 35). In order to occupy the coder identity, programmers need to demonstrate a myopic interest in technology above all else. Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Katherine, and Neha experienced how racialized and gendered coder identity narratives effectively functioned as a gatekeeping mechanism. When women, especially women of color, enter tech industry spaces, they are often automatically assumed to be less senior or less technical than their male colleagues. Compounding the effects of such discriminatory narratives, programmers who viewed coding as a practice rather than an identity to be taken up often faced professional penalties.
For some participants, the demographics of their industry and workplace discrimination contributed to their reluctance to claim coding as an identity. Reflecting on a StackOverflow survey that found 95% of Go developers identified as white and male, Sophie shared that she didn’t identify as a Go developer, despite her experience and senior engineer position at a major tech company. Beginning her analysis of identity and coding by first acknowledging her own positionality and relative privilege as a “North American-born, English-speaking, cisgender East Asian woman,” Sophie describes the tightrope she and others have to walk in order to prove their technical ability. Without their constant vigilance and rhetorical work to shape their professional persona, underrepresented programmers can quickly be left out in established systems for retainment and promotion. Sophie explained this “dehumanizing” phenomenon further:
Identity is such a complicated thing in tech. And I think a lot of us, myself included, haven’t done the hard work to think about all the ways that we make quick snap judgments about people based on some perceived identity. Existing as a woman in tech means that you always have to be hyper aware of how you’re being branded at all times. People tend to round you down to the least technical thing you’ve done recently. For example, if you work on a team of all engineers, you are an engineer by job title regardless of what level you are. If you organize a team dinner and everyone has fun at the team dinner, then the feedback you’re going to get at the end of that quarter is, “Oh, everyone thinks she’s so good at organizing team dinners.” But guess what your male colleagues are getting? Your male colleagues are getting: “Oh, John is such a great technical contributor.” And guess who gets promoted?
Sophie expressed frustration with prevailing industry narratives that viewed women developers as less technical. For Sophie, the lack of representation in her programming language, Go, and her resistance to exclusionary narratives contributed to her motivations for her DEI leadership work. Maalson and Perng (2016) argue that occupying the coder subject position is complicated, with a multiplicity of factors influencing how individuals perceive themselves, explaining that some factors “are more closely related to coding, including confidence, competence and experience,” while “others depend upon how individuals recognize the relationships between code, work and identity” (p. 6). Sophie, Katherine, and Neha each reflected on how exclusionary narratives of coding identity (and outright identity-based discrimination) influenced their professional experiences.
Katherine, a backend developer in the Midwest, also viewed the coding identity as a practice of gatekeeping and experienced consequences from not taking on a coding identity firsthand. Katherine contrasted her understanding of something she did as a means to achieve a certain lifestyle (in particular, the work-life balance she lacked in her previous career as an academic) with her developer husband’s view of coding as tied to his identity. She described:
It wasn’t quite impostor syndrome, but I just felt like I’m not a very good software engineer, because I feel like I lack ambition or drive or something because of my boundaries. There are people, and my husband’s one of them, [who] are always reading tech blogs on evenings or on the weekend, or someone will just come to work on Monday and [say] I fixed [the system] over the weekend. Please review my code. That’s not me . . . It’s not who I am. It’s what I do. If I’m being perfectly honest, it is what I do so that I can provide security for my kid. I feel like a mother is like the biggest part of my identity. It was really hard to say that out loud. I even thought, if I don’t feel like such a passion for my job that I’m just going to do it on the weekends, maybe this isn’t the right career. [When I told] my manager, [he said] we need all types of people to make a team work. He was the first person that made me realize it’s okay to be that way, and it’s okay that writing code is not really something that I see as part of my identity.
Even though Katherine found acceptance from her manager and continued to strictly enforce boundaries between her time at work and her time with her child, she experienced a system that ultimately penalized her for creating those boundaries. She continued, “It’s hard because you don’t want to punish people for having boundaries. But if someone does just do a bunch of work on the weekends, you want to reward that, because they’re working very hard. Sometimes the lack of a reward can feel like a punishment.” Ultimately, the privileging of programmers who center their identity on coding can lead to unequal career trajectories. Disheartened, Katherine described how her coworkers who worked around the clock were perceived as “better,” wondering, “Maybe I’ll just never get promoted . . . I feel like I’m mediocre, and I’m okay being mediocre.” Katherine’s experience is borne out in numerous studies that show how mothers, among others, face both individual and structural discrimination in the workplaces, what is commonly referred to as the “motherhood penalty” (Correll, Benard, & Paik, 2007). Resistance (or even resignation as in Katherine’s case) to taking on coding identity comes at a professional price.
Neha, an experienced developer in the Pacific Northwest, expanded on this reframing of exclusionary coding identity narratives, and connected it to educational programs (e.g., bootcamps) designed to increase access to the industry. For Neha, coding was a practice she did, not who she was. Coding allowed her to “solve problems,” but tech didn’t occupy the most central position in her identity formation. Neha expressed dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture that rewarded those who held coding as a key component of their identity. Neha described the contemporary movement to make tech more welcoming for people with nontraditional computer science backgrounds, framing coding as “building software” and “a skill that you can learn.” However, this framing of coding as a skill rather than a closely-held identity was perceived as devaluing coding as a profession. Neha observed, “What I have noticed is in the people who tend to tie this to their identity, [the move to view coding as a skill] feels hard for them to accept that. They always tend to get sucked into this thing of . . . nontraditional people can’t be as good.” For Neha, those narratives of coding as an identity feel “elitist” and come “from this place of, ‘Oh, wait, wait. This is my identity that I’ve cultivated over years and years. So how could you treat it as a skill?’” It is not a coincidence that the attitudes Neha described coincide with the increased number of bootcamp grads entering the field, new programmers who are more likely to be women and people of color.
Of the participants on whose stories this article is centered, only one programmer actively took up coding as an identity. Drew, a quality assurance engineer for a large job listing platform, immediately connected coding to part of her identity as a motivated and driven individual. She described:
I take a lot of pride in my work, and so I derive a lot of joy and self-worth out of the work that I deliver. In addition to coding, I do elite level triathlons. A lot of my identity is wrapped up in that as well. It matters to me, because it’s something that I’m measurably good at, and I can demonstrate that.
For Drew, actively occupying a coding identity closely tied into her sense of self. Drew also experienced the negative impacts of exclusionary narratives—her experience in tech was rife with both microaggressions from coworkers and managers, from being called “too emotional” in performance reviews to having to constantly work to assert her technical expertise. These challenges contributed to Drew deciding to go by a gender-neutral version of her first name.
Alfrey and Winddance Twine (2017) found that gender-fluid women from higher-status racial groups—white and Asian—were able to assimilate into masculine tech culture in a way that their heterosexual, femme-presenting and/or Black or Brown women colleagues could not. While my research does not explicitly consider orientation and gender presentation, Drew’s experience as a white woman and her gender-neutral renaming practice might have helped her occupy a coding identity more easily. However, like Sophie, Drew also used her coding identity as motivation for her DEI work. She described, “What I work on is important to me. Last quarter I worked on accessibility efforts at the company, which was hugely important, because it’s the right thing to do.” Drew connected her professional work in accessibility to her personal experience with triathlons, sharing, “I’ve done some guiding on triathlons, guiding for blind athletes. It is one of those things where once you experience someone else’s world, you start having a full appreciation for it.” Despite exclusionary narratives that used coding identity as a means of gatekeeping, Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Neha, and Katherine all worked to make their industries more equitable. The following section details how they crafted counterstories to transform access to coding education, their own professional development, and their workplace contexts.
Constructing Counterstories and Narrative Resistance
Jones (2020) urges researchers across composition studies and technical communication to build coalitions for learning oriented around their goals for more socially just classrooms and communities. For Jones, this work is vital “if both fields intend to pursue a more just and ethical approach to teaching, learning, and engaging with texts and technologies,” a process she describes as beginning to address Royster and Kirsch’s (2013) call to re-story master narratives in the discipline (2020, p. 517). It is in this spirit that I introduce Martinez’s (2020) pivotal work on counterstory as a means to better understand storytelling practices of activist computer programmers at the center of this article. Drawing on critical race theory, Martinez (2020) theorizes counterstory as methods that “empower the minoritized through the formation of stories that disrupt the erasures embedded in standardized majoritarian methodologies” (p. 3).
Counterstory encompasses a range of genres, including narrated dialogue, allegory, biography, and autobiographic reflection. One genre Martinez (2020) uses to great effect is the composite counterstory, which blends empirical data, existing research literature, judicial records, and the author’s experiences in order to illuminate theoretical concepts and humanize data. Counterstories are not simply the narrativization of marginalized subjectivities—though Martinez (2020) labels that a good place to begin—instead, counterstories require reflection and critique of one’s privilege and the use of such privilege towards social justice ends. Martinez (2020) explains the difference between storytelling and counterstory, writing, “while there are many stories, and while many data are narrativized, counterstory is distinguished from other forms of storytelling by its transparent commitment to a ‘liberatory and transformative approach to racial, gender, and class oppression’” (Matsuda as cited in Martinez, 2020, p. 17). As a method, counterstory shares similar aims with antenarrative, “a polyvocal, dynamic, fragmented, yet interconnected” practice which Jones, Moore, and Walton (2016) deploy to “destabilize and unravel aspects of the tightly woven dominant narrative” about TPC as a field to chart a path to a more inclusive future (p. 212). While both antenarrative and counterstory have implications for revisionist historiography, for my study of women programmers, counterstory holds more salience because of its orientation to the future and emphasis on accessibility to non-academic audiences. Martinez (2020) argues that accessibility is key to the practice of counterstory, so that the work is legible to community members and stakeholders.
In the face of overt and systemic discrimination, the women I spoke with crafted counterstories to resist exclusionary industry narratives. Olivia, an academic technologist and founder of a tech organization for women of color, put it best: “I’m literally trying to change the face of technology. Women of color are in this space and we’re not going anywhere.” Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Neha, and Katherine led or participated in meetups and workshops designed for underrepresented communities in tech. These meetups and workshops offer educational content and professional development opportunities, from learning coding languages to practicing technical interviews, and function as a space for networking and community-building. Each organization held a mix of in-person and online events and used a Slack channel or Facebook group for members to communicate between events. The women featured in this research are not necessarily writing counterstories for academic audiences using the genres of allegory or narrated dialogue (though writing is a surprisingly frequent topic in coding organization events), yet I contend that they are crafting a kind of counterstory through their oral storytelling, organizing, and coding.
Martinez (2020) emphasizes that counterstory must both illuminate and challenge existing systems of discrimination and move towards a transformative resistance predicated on a belief in social change (pp. 28-29). Counterstory in Martinez’s (2020) framing must include tenets of critical race theory (CRT), which she lists as: “(1) permanence of race and racism; (2) challenge to dominant ideologies; (3) interest convergence; (4) race as social construct; (5) intersectionality and antiessentialism; (6) interdisciplinarity; (7) centrality of experiential knowledge and/or voices of color; and (8) commitment to social justice” (p. 9). Using this framework in what follows, I analyze how Olivia, Sophie, Drew, Neha, and Katherine each create counterstories that highlight existing inequities and work to enact social change on three levels: access to coding education, individual professional development, and institutions and workplaces.
Coding education access
Olivia emphasized the importance of countering exclusionary narratives through her work as an academic technologist and leader of a tech organization for women of color. Olivia first entered the Philadelphia tech community when she decided to transition away from her work as a theater audio engineer. Dismayed by the lack of Black representation, she wondered, “When I go to a tech coding workshop, why am I the only Black person? This city is filled with Black people. Where are they?” In response, Olivia created her own organization to offer coding education for women of color focused both on the “hard” technical skills as well as “soft” skills for professional development. She explains her workshop’s purpose, arguing:
I’m teaching women how to code. But it’s bigger than that. What I’m really teaching them how to do is how to unlearn what they’ve been taught. A lot of women of color, or women in general, have not been taught that science, math, coding, you name it, is for them. But that means you have to unlearn all the societal things that you’ve been taught about what women can do. And who you see at the front of the table. So you’re unlearning a thing, and you’re learning a new skill.
Olivia drew on her background in learning development to describe her teaching and organizing practices. Her workshops operated as a counterstory by focusing on representation and community-building to encourage women of color to view themselves as technical. Viewed as a counterstory, Olivia’s workshop attended to CRT tenets including the permanence of race and racism, challenge to dominant ideologies, intersectionality and anti-essentialism, centrality of experiential knowledge, and commitment to social justice. Olivia designed her workshops to center women of color as the experts, countering dominant ideologies that held programming as a solely white and masculine occupation. Olivia explained, “I am intentional about having women of color be the leaders, so people can see themselves being in front of the class as well.” This representation continued to the content created in the workshop itself. Many workshops ask participants to use filler content like cat photos to show how to resize images and play with format. But for her organization, Olivia had a different focus, sharing:
But what I want people to see, what I want these women of color to see, is themselves. I want you to highlight yourself or someone that looks like you. We’re going to get [stock] pictures of women of color there and say, hey, use these pictures as a filler for your content.
She explained the importance of representation for women to take on coding identity, arguing, “If you don’t see yourself in that role, how can you get there? That identity piece rolls back into representation. You have to see it to believe it, to believe that it even is a possibility for you.”
Public conversation in tech has shifted, with many in the industry acknowledging problems of representation. The shift in framing of equity in tech is not without pushback of course—note James Damore’s incendiary 2017 memo bemoaning the lack of ideological diversity at Google. Maalsen and Perng (2016) found that while gender-inclusive coding meetups sought to create “inclusive computing cultures,” their “work encounters resistance of the broader computing community which view female friendly events as exclusive or divisive and hindered by perceptions and remits that narrow down the scope of diversity” (p. 6). Shivers-MacNair and San Diego (2017) emphasize the necessity of representation, what they label a “show, not tell” approach to localizing and supporting inclusivity. Of course, representation alone is insufficient for changing exclusionary industry narratives, but it serves as a vital first step.
Olivia’s workshop functions as a counterstory as it centers representation and community. Martinez (2020) argues that counterstories cultivate community through representation of minoritized voices, explaining, “counterstories build community among those who have been marginalized . . . counterstories nurture community cultural wealth, memory, and resistance” (p. 114). Olivia argued that the community and network facilitated by groups like hers was one of the most important aspects of developing a career in tech. Olivia described how this setup engendered “peer to peer relational activity” and learning, and explains this significance for her workshop’s participants:
In the Black community, community is really important. I want you to learn who’s in this room. I want you to get to know them, because you two, if you spark or kick it off with someone you know, have a great conversation, you might want to say, hey, let’s meet up later at the coffee shop and let’s finish our portfolios.
In order to create community, these coding workshops all had participants sit in small groups accompanied by teaching assistants. She described how such arrangements facilitated “peer-to-peer” learning, asking, “What if you have a spark of creativity and the person across the table is working on something where they may need someone who has your expertise?” Olivia and other coding organization leaders also facilitated this community through team-building activities and providing meals and opportunities to connect socially. Communities like those fostered by these case studies helped participants’ learning and also worked to increase participant’s “credibility” in industry settings. As a counterstory, gender-inclusive workshops function to legitimize participants’ technical knowledge.
As participants in a similar organization for technologists with marginalized genders, Neha and Katherine explained the benefit of finding representation and community. Neha described:
As a woman working in tech, I am used to being in rooms that are mostly men. So just being in a space where that is reversed is conducive to my desire and encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing because it’s a sign of, hey, I belong. Look, here are my people.
Neha and Katherine shared how belonging was especially meaningful when confronting microaggressions in their workplaces—sharing their experiences validated them. Neha describes how the community and learning experiences she’s had in coding meetups influenced her response to microaggressions and workplace challenges, saying:
I think there is definitely some subconscious aspect of “I’m not the only one. This is happening. We know this is a thing among underrepresented people.” Being able to see the truth of that influences how I respond to it. For example, I might second guess myself a little less about, “Hey, I just witnessed something that was not entirely acceptable.” I might not brush it off entirely. I might know that it’s not that I’m not competent. It’s just something else that I’m running into. [It helps me] be more mindful of [the fact that] there is a structure and system here.
Neha’s conversations with her fellow community-members operate as a counterstory that illuminates structures and systems of oppression and offers members support. Maalson and Perng (2016) conclude that as participants engage with activist coding organizations over time, they gain not only technical skills but also an identity as programmers, one “that many initially felt unworthy to inhabit.” They align this identity shift with a larger cultural shift, where “female coding subjectivities become inseparable from how they perform hybrid sociospatial relationships around coding” (Maalsen & Perng, 2016, p. 11). Olivia, Katherine, and Neha’s counterstories and community-building contribute to the identity shift described by Maalson and Perng. Activist coding organizations challenge these exclusionary narratives by considering coding education access as embedded within ongoing power structures that privilege a particular performance of coding identity. Furthermore, these organizations encourage participants to own their identity, lived experience, and technical expertise and intentionally rewrite narratives about who can code.
After building community and facilitating opportunities for greater representation, leaders of activist coding organizations also modeled counterstory as a means to speak back to workplace discrimination and move forward professionally in an industry that perpetuated exclusionary narratives. In the organizations that I studied, one of the main ways that participants were encouraged to resist exclusionary narratives and claim their own coding expertise and identity was through meetup events that positioned participants as experts. Coding meetups often hosted events where members taught technical and rhetorical subjects to the community. The participant pool for gender-inclusive coding meetups was expansive, encompassing a wide variety of positions in the tech industry and related fields, as well as a range of experiences and participant positionalities. The underlying assumption of meetup organizers was that all participants could contribute their unique skills and experiences. At one meetup I attended, a participant taught principles of universal design for front-end web development, while at another, a participant shared her own experience breaking into the tech industry without a university degree. Organizers frequently invited participants to contribute and offer talks on their areas of interest, ranging from events on combating workplace microaggressions to technical topics like design patterns. In so doing, coding organizations benefited from the diverse experiences of its members, and participants gained experience presenting their work as experts—a vital practice given the propensity for women in tech to be viewed as less technical and competent.
As the organizer for a coding workshop for underrepresented programmers, Sophie used her own experiences to create a counterstory that encouraged other participants to use their rhetorical expertise to combat discriminatory narratives about their technical expertise. Sophie explained the effects of this practice further:
One thing that I learned about being in an organizational role or wearing the captain’s hat at tech events is that people estimate your Go level to be a lot higher than it actually is. By people, I mostly mean men, people who are coming from a more senior angle relative to me, with more experience than me. What a lot of people operate by is that organizing things is hard, getting in front of other people is hard. In order to do that you must have high confidence in yourself. If you have high confidence in yourself, you must be technically capable already.
Sophie’s example reveals the conflation of confidence in one area, public speaking, with technical expertise, with the end result of countering other engrained stereotypes about positionality and tech. Sophie argued that while the conflation of rhetorical and technical expertise wasn’t “true,” the phenomenon and the network she developed through her diversity and inclusion organizing accelerated her career, continuing:
A requirement for getting up in front of people to do the managerial work is completely different than being a good engineer. But for whatever reason, a lot of people have these things conflated . . . Just having people treat me like I was capable has been such a [career] accelerator. I think it’s been personally good for me, but it also makes me sad that that their assumption [is not applied for all women]. Before I started organizing, I started going to events and a lot of people would mistake me for being a recruiter or an intern or junior engineer when I was a couple of years into my career already. So that sucked. I think the more interactions you have with that, the more likely you are to develop things like imposter syndrome and doubt if you belong and if you’re capable.
Sophie’s example highlights the ways in which exclusionary narratives can function to drive marginalized and minoritized programmers out of the field. Instead, by pursuing leadership roles in her DEI work, Sophie was able to craft a counterstory practice that made inequity in tech more visible. Sophie used her knowledge of the conflation of rhetorical and technical expertise to encourage other marginalized programmers to participate in DEI organizations and share their stories and expertise at technology conferences. In her counterstory practice, Sophie described how she worked to increase access and center representation, explaining, “I like creating a pipeline of people who are interested in the Go language so that eventually [they] get to the point of being able to present as public thought leaders or role models [in order to] kick off a positive feedback loop.” As leaders in coding organizations, Sophie and Olivia crafted counterstories that encouraged other participants to claim and demonstrate their rhetorical and technical expertise.
Rewriting institutions and workplaces
While each participant described how discriminatory narratives perpetuated varying forms of gatekeeping, they also created counterstories to organize for collective action and culture change. Drew and Katherine, in particular, shared stories of individual and shared efforts to reshape their institutions. Fed up with language-based microaggressions and a lack of inclusive language, Drew wondered what she could do as a line engineer. She asked, “What as a line level engineer can I do to help change the culture?” and created a bot that prompted her colleagues to use gender-neutral language (e.g., “friends” or “y’all”) when they typed gendered forms of group address (e.g., “dudes” or “guys”). Drew explained:
It got installed in probably 80 percent of rooms. And some people had very visceral negative reactions to it. It was trending on the internal blogs. It [had] over 200 comments. A lot of people were like, this is not a big deal. I was really frustrated because that second post [in response to her bot] [expressed], “We don’t really care how you’re asking us to speak to you. We just really need to promote women in leadership.”
Drew continued to express her frustrations about colleagues that downplayed her own experience with discriminatory narratives, especially because at her level, she couldn’t enact efforts to promote and retain more diverse programmers. Colleagues minimized her experiences with exclusionary narratives and gendered address, viewing it as a superficial issue compared to larger issues of women in tech. This perspective denies the relationship between discriminatory industry narratives, the experiences of marginalized and minoritized programmers, and hiring and promotion practices. Drew’s bot can be read as a counterstory attentive to the following CRT tenets: challenge to dominant ideologies, intersectionality and anti-essentialism, centrality of experiential knowledge, and commitment to social justice. Ultimately, experiences like these led Drew to transition to a different company, one that collected data on equity in the workplace and used pay bands and other measures to begin to more meaningfully address the working conditions of marginalized programmers and provide clear pathways to promotion.
Similarly, Katherine described her own efforts to enact institutional change by advocating for a paid maternity leave at one company. She explained:
I really tried to push to be an agent of change at my company and get them to offer [maternity leave]. I tried taking the “it’s the right thing to do” approach. I tried taking the “you just need to be competitive, because you are the only tech company in Chicago that doesn’t offer twelve weeks [of paid leave] for the primary caretaker.”
Katherine shared how she was ultimately “not successful in bringing about that change,” which disappointed her because she wanted to have a “legacy with that organization,” contributing to her decision to take another job. As a counterstory, Katherine’s example points to the CRT tenets of interest convergence theory and commitment to social justice. In her current role, she’s had some success in small efforts to change her workplace. For Katherine, these changes are “not tech-oriented” but rather “person-oriented.” For one of her recent initiatives, she started providing tampons in the women’s bathroom. Katherine “demonstrated the need by implementing the solution [herself].” After several months of doing this, she collaborated with the office manager to make this a company policy. Katherine is still working towards “being an agent of change” on a larger scale. She asks:
How can I bring about change on a larger scale for something like a parental leave policy? I’m still trying to figure it out . . . I haven’t even been at this company a year, but I don’t really think that you have to have a lot of seniority or be really high up on the food chain to make change. Maybe you have to enlist the help of somebody who has a lot of clout. But people at the bottom can be agents of change, too.
Drew and Katherine share their counterstories as they work to transform their institutions. While Drew used counterstory as she coded her bot to make visible gendered language in the workplace and spark conversations about equity in the tech industry, Katherine used counterstory as she sought to improve the working conditions for other women at her workplace. Reflecting on the importance of rhetorical skill and storytelling, Katherine concluded, “If you want to be an instrument of change, you need to know how to communicate.”
CONCLUSIONS, LIMITATIONS, AND IMPLICATIONS
This research yields insight into the innovative storytelling practices of marginalized and minoritized programmers. As Peterson (2019) suggests, TPC scholarship on women and work has been intermittent. In response, this project centers the experiences of women in the tech industry. Understanding these practices through the lens of counterstory sheds light on the ways in which activist programmers work to create change for women in coding education, professional development, and workplace contexts. Haas (2012) calls for “alliances between all designers and users of technologies and the discipline” in order to “rupture dominant notions about what it means to be—and who gets to be called—technical or technologically advanced” (p. 304). I posit that activist programmers and educators considered here are working to upend narratives about who can be considered technical. Olivia, Sophie, Neha, Katherine, and Drew each crafted counterstories in varying ways as they worked to transform their industry. Olivia rewrote narratives about women of color in technology as she founded an organization designed to “change the face of technology.” Sophie shared her own story with other marginalized programmers in her DEI leadership, encouraging them to strategically use their rhetorical expertise to combat discriminatory industry narratives. Neha used counterstory to cultivate a supportive community, while Katherine deployed counterstory in her efforts to change her workplace culture. Finally, Drew coded her counterstory as she created a bot to encourage gender-neutral language in her workplace. Taken together, these examples suggest the possibilities of counterstory as a productive response to systems of inequity in tech workplaces.
Because of the small number of participants, the results of this study are specific and non-generalizable. Nor are all activist coding organizations created the same in regard to their commitment to intersectional feminist practice. For my study, I sought out coding meetup chapters with diverse leadership, active membership, and frequent event programming. While I cannot speak to the totality of each organization’s culture, my experience participating in their events and online communities suggest that these organizations prioritize the experience of multiply-marginalized participants and create a welcoming environment for participants. These selection criteria limit my ability to make claims about coding organizations more broadly.
Ultimately, my study suggests that counterstory as a methodology and object of study holds much potential for TPC practice and research. As Olivia, Sophie, Katherine, Neha, and Drew make clear, stories and storytelling matter, shaping whose voices are heard and valued within professional contexts. This research sheds light on the effects of discriminatory industry narratives and identity-based gatekeeping and demonstrates the stakes of intersectional feminist interventions. Counterstory is an important practice toward social justice goals, especially for marginalized programmers working to make the tech industry more equitable. Counterstory also holds value for TPC practitioners. In this research, I have shared how five women in technology craft counterstories in their workplace and community advocacy and coding. Their stories suggest generative possibilities for counterstory in technical communication contexts.
Counterstory also opens up possibilities for pedagogy and research. As Martinez (2020) notes, critical race theory “has always been concerned with the colonizing functions of education” and CRT practitioners “have always aimed to disrupt this hegemony with transformative heuristics and praxes” (p. 115). Counterstory also can be incorporated into TPC classrooms as instructors craft more inclusive, ethical pedagogies that center the stories and experiences of marginalized and minoritized communicators. For example, Shelton (2020) offers an excellent approach to centering difference, bias, and social justice in the TPC classroom. TPC researchers might craft their own counterstories using Martinez’s (2020) framework and genres to re-story dominant disciplinary narratives. Future research on counterstory and technical communication in technology could consider a wider range of coding organizations and participants to offer more generalizable conclusions. This initial study suggests a series of follow up questions that might prove generative for TPC research on the social justice turn: Where is counterstory practiced in technical communication contexts? How might counterstory be used in other TPC contexts? Finally, how might we amplify the counterstories of practitioners and researchers? Jones, Moore, and Walton (2016) call for “other ways forward, other goals, and other approaches and methodologies for social action” in order to “suggest, create, and draw together other seemingly disparate narratives to tell a different, more inclusive and more just story of what our field can and, we hope, will be” (p. 224). My research suggests that counterstory is one avenue for TPC researchers and practitioners working to create a more just and equitable discipline.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- E. Ashley Rea received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Penn State University. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Communication at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Her research interests include feminist approaches to rhetoric and technology and, in particular, sites of computer programming education designed to increase representation, access, and equity in technology. She is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.