The Power of a Pronoun

Long ago in my technical writing, I sought to eliminate gendered pronouns whenreferring to unnamed people or entities. It's not that I'm fooling myself intobelieving that eliminating gendered pronouns somehow gets more women intocomputer science, but rather that I think that using male pronouns sounds likea holdover from the era of the kitchencomputer. As forthe mechanics of doing this, I personally dislike randomly substituting "she"for "he"; my preference is to use the singular they/them, recasting thesentence as necessary when that sounds too awkward.

I say all of this because of a recent issue in node.js, aJoyent-sponsored project. One of the node.js core contributors, BenNoordhuis, rejected a pullrequest thateliminated the use of a gendered pronoun inlibuv. Now, this was quickly reversed by node.js projectlead Isaac Schlueter (that is, Isaac acceptedthe patch eliminating the gendered pronoun), but because this is aJoyent-sponsored project, many made the reasonable inference that Ben is aJoyent employee—and have called Joyent to task for tolerating suchpoor behavior. (Especially when that poor behavior transcended into thegobsmackingly inappropriate as Ben tried to revert Isaac'scommit.)

But while Isaac is a Joyent employee, Ben is not—and if he had been, hewouldn't be as of this morning: to reject a pull request that eliminates agendered pronoun on the principle that pronouns should in fact begendered would constitute a fireable offense for me and for Joyent. On theone hand, it seems ridiculous (absurd, perhaps) to fire someone over a pronoun-- but to characterize it that way would be a gross oversimplification: it'snot the use of the gendered pronoun that's at issue (that's just sloppy), butrather the insistence that pronouns should in fact be gendered. To me, thatinsistence can only come from one place: that gender—specifically,masculinity—is inextricably linked to software, and that's not an attitudethat Joyent tolerates. This isn't merely a legalistic concern (though that too,certainly), but also a technical one: we believe that empathy is a core engineeringvalue—and that an engineer that has so little empathy asto not understand why the use of gendered pronouns is a concern almost certainlymakes poor technical decisions as well.

While we would fire Ben over this, node.js is an open source project and onedoesn't necessarily have the same levers. Indeed, one of the challenges of anopen source project that depends on volunteer effort is dealing withassholes,and fortunately in this regard, node.js is in Isaac's very capable hands. Isaac is one ofthe most inclusive, empathetic engineers that I have ever had the privilege towork with, and I know that he will deal with Ben's unacceptable behavioraccordingly and in the best interests of node.js. But just so you heard it fromus: if this were the act of a Joyent employee, we would—todeliberately use a gender-neutral pronoun—fire them.

Post written by Bryan Cantrill