There’s Now A Bechdel Test For The Tech World


It’s well known the tech industry struggles with diversity on all sides. But instead of relying on companies’ diversity reports to illustrate the industry’s state of diversity, a open-source digital outfit for the government decided to take it one step further and see how many of its projects passed the Bechdel Test and had two code functions written by women developers that called on one another.

The Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel, a beloved cartoonist who created the a benchmark that required films and works of fiction to have at least two women who talk to each other about something other than men. But a tweet from Laurie Voss, co-founder of NPM an open-source developing firm in Oakland, California, turned the concept on its head and modified it for the tech world and began making the rounds.

Engineering director for 18F Kaitlin Devine saw the tweet and put the digital outfit for the government’s General Services Administration to the test, evaluating each of its projects to see if they met Bechdel’s tweaked criteria for code. “To pass, a project had to have at least one function written by a woman dev that called another function written by another woman dev,” Elaine Kamlley and journalist turned techie Melody Kramer wrote in a blog post.


The experiment expounded on a company-wide conversation about the company’s culture and social values, and demonstrated not only how many women were contributing to each project but how their work was being used.

“The conversation started with us quickly listing the projects that passed the Bechdel coding test, but then shifted after one of our [developers] then raised a good point: She said some of our projects had lots of female [developers], but did not pass the test as defined,” Kamlley and Kramer wrote. For example, the majority of code used in one project, SASS, was written by a woman and another woman wrote HTML that built on that framework. “But because neither language has ‘functions’ it fails the test.”

But even with diversity stats that best tech giants such as Google and Yahoo — 18F boasts 41 percent female employees, 20 percent who are people of color, and a policy that welcomes of individuals who do not conform to the gender binary, according to 18F’s optional orientation form — most of 18F’s projects failed the test. Only six out of 17 projects passed the Bechdel Test with one runner-up.

18F said the test had its limitations, excluding other project roles such as designers and researchers and focusing only on gender as opposed to race or socioeconomic status. Despite pitfalls, the experiment served as an icebreaker to address the deep-seated issues that have plagued the tech industry for years.

“It is a conversation we will continue to have at 18F to make sure we are building a team that looks like America and works like America. As our projects become Bechdel compliant, we plan to note the change,” Kamlley and Kramer said.


Correction: A previous version of this story listed Kaitlin Devine as a co-author on 18F’s blog post with Melody Kramer. The post was co-written by Elaine Kamlley and Melody Kramer.