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May 10, 2016

The Programming Historian's Commitment to Diversity

Adam Crymble

If you spend too much time inside a project, you soon become unable to see its faults. At The Programming Historian, I suspect we fell victim to that problem.

Since 2012 we have published 46 tutorials to help people learn new ways that technology can aid them in their research processes. We’re proud to say that almost two-hundred thousand unique users around the world have made use of our resources. But we are not so proud to admit that amongst our contributing authors, we’re predominantly male: Only 7 women and 23 men. We’re also predominantly white and North American – another fact we’re not proud of.

Of course, that hadn’t been planned. We weren’t doing anything intentionally to dissuade women, people of color, or people from other nations from contributing. But we do know that a number of well-documented institutional factors within the culture of technology and programming work against marginalized groups’ participation in technical forums. So, as a start, we began to address these questions of inclusivity by opening up a discussion on our message board, and later an anonymous survey to ask why our gender numbers are so imbalanced. Special thanks to Heather Froehlich for helping us build our survey. We’ve since collected those results and wanted to share with you both what people said, and what we plan to do about it.

Our survey received 47 responses (49% women), in addition to 58 comments on our message board. The respondents, of course, are self-selecting, but we thought they had important things to say.

In general, the responses on the open discussion board suggested a wider gulf between what women and men needed from us than did the anonymous survey, where responses were much less gender-specific. With this in mind, we’ve decided to focus on barriers to entry that our respondents have helped us identify, which we hope to remove and thus make contributing easier and more appealing to anyone and everyone.

We think this is the right approach. As a volunteer project, we don’t have the financial resources to hire someone to fix everything, so we have to be discerning. Here’s what you suggested:

Recommendations by Users

  1. Outreach:
    • Greater social media presence
    • Blogging about the process of creating lessons / how they tie to research
    • Target non-DH audiences
    • More face-to-face workshops
    • Advertise women’s contributions during Women’s History Month
    • Online live sessions (we’re going to do lesson X today and will be on hand to help)
  2. Getting Credit For Submissions:
    • Add the PH to the national Publication Forum classification
    • Encourage citation of PH lessons in the methodology sections of academic papers
    • Add clear and prominent ‘how to cite’ details on every page
    • Introduce DOIs (
  3. Gender Balance:
    • More female authors
    • More female editors
    • More female reviewers
  4. Submissions (Social):
    • Editors should respond openly and quickly during stages of peer review to ensure everyone knows the process is working.
    • Make it clearer that we seek submissions
    • Give would-be authors option to request to be paired with an author by the editor
    • Encourage co-authorship to reshape existing resources into PH lessons
    • Post lessons we’d like to see more prominently.
    • Mentoring option for contributors
    • Make it clearer that we will work with people pre-submission to sculpt lessons.
    • Create a tutorial on technical writing
  5. Submissions (Technical):
    • Add github/markdown lesson
    • Add alternative submission option
    • Put submission instructions to open review
    • Text-to-markdown online converter to lower barrier to entry
    • Make it less time consuming to submit a lesson.
  6. Peer Review:
    • Discipline specific testers important to ensure useful review
    • Closed review option for those uncomfortable with open review
    • Posting on github is not gender neutral (safe spaces) - option of contributing via email to post anonymously through an editor?
  7. Lessons:
    • Less verbose lessons
    • Make it visually clear that lessons are peer reviewed (icon?)
    • Suggested a lesson on making accessible web projects
    • Inline commenting on lessons to identify sticking points
  8. Misc:
    • Adopt TaDIRAH taxonomy.
    • Open project up entirely

Our Response

Phew, thanks! That’s a lot of ideas! We’ll be doing our best to chip away at the list over the coming months. We won’t be able to do it all (let us know if you want to help!), but here’s our plan to start.

Submission System (Technical)

It’s clear that for many people our submission system is a barrier to entry. We chose to use a combination of Markdown and Github pull requests because it was free and was meant to make life easy for editors (who are volunteers). We were quoted £4,000 per year for a commercial option and hoped this free option would work. We do recognize, however, that women in particular have good reasons for hesitating to involve themselves in platforms for producing and distributing digital content that, until recently, have been predominantly composed of men and that inadvertently favored the contributions of men.

To address this, our website editor, Caleb McDaniel, is currently experimenting with options that we hope will make this easier. Stay tuned to the blog for updates on our continued efforts to make submitting a lesson as accessible as possible while maintaining the zero cost and low maintenance requirements for our team.


We’d love to reach more people. So we’ve brought on a new member to the editorial team, Evan Taparata, who will be working closely with our editorial board to restart our blog, recruit a wider array of voices to PH, and expand our audiences. For example, we are interested in including the perspectives of feminist, POC, LGBTQ, and women-friendly programming and technology groups, such as PyLadies and FemTechNet. Watch this space, and email Evan if you know of potential contributors or collaborators.

Gender Balance and Submission (Social)

We’re pleased to announce that Jeri Wieringa has joined our editorial team. Jeri is the author of a popular lesson on Introduction to Beautiful Soup. She and our other editors will be working actively to encourage and mentor authors who are looking for extra support during the writing and revising process.

We’ve also revised the text on our website in an effort to make it clearer that we’re willing to work closely with prospective authors to develop their ideas. And we enthusiastically encourage you to reach out to any of the editors if we can help you to get a lesson into shape. We’re committed to making sure that this is a welcoming space for everyone, and we’ll be talking about how we can ensure this at every single editorial meeting.

How you can Help

One thing that came through loud and clear in the survey and discussion is that ensuring inclusivity is not a matter of quick fixes or one-time diversity efforts; it’s an ongoing and urgent conversation.

We hope that focus will make a material difference to the project and to people’s experiences with it. But there’s always more we could do. Here are some areas we could use help with:

Help us Spread the Word

Host a Workshop

Adopt a Cause

Thank you to everyone who took the time to share your ideas. You’ve opened our eyes to ways we can make our project more accessible, and we’ll do our best to make digital humanities a safe and productive space to which everyone can contribute.

About the author

Adam Crymble, University College London.