IF woman THEN no entry

Have you ever thought about the power of the ubiquitous IF…THEN… statement? 

Every programming language has one and it can make extraordinary decisions.

Imagine Jane, a bright, handsome young woman who recently qualified as a doctor. She loves keeping fit and as a reward for her success decided to enrol in a swanky new gym in town. She completed the application form, proudly writing ‘Doctor’ as her title.

Next day Jane arrived enthused, ready for action in her gym kit and swiped her new gym card to get into the ladies changing room. A red light appeared. No matter how many times she tried the door remained locked.

‘Why?’ she asked perplexed. They gave her a new card – nope! No entry.

She complained at the desk, then to the manager, the manager’s manager, everyone was in disbelief until an astute member of the IT staff came to the rescue. The cause was simple ….‘doctor’ was not a valid title for a woman.

It’s true, unbelievable but true!

It appeared to be a simple programming error. The logic of the program on the door entry system was a simple IF…THEN…ELSE statement. 

The code on the women’s locker room read:

    IF title = <miss, mrs, ms> THEN open door ELSE show red light 

and on the door of the men’s locker room:

  IF title = <mr, master, doctor> THEN open door ELSE show red light. 

The power of the IF…THEN…. statement in two lines of code. 

IF <woman> and <doctor> THEN no entry! 

Such power! So many questions:

  • Was it a programming error?
  • Did the programmer not know that women can be doctors too?
  • Was it unconscious bias?
  • Who tested the swipe card – were any women involved?

The power of the IF…THEN statement to embody bias and poor Jane not able to get changed for her workout. Not only Jane but lots of women as the problem was replicated in all 90 locations of the gym chain.

Most people probably agree that  ‘title’ is not a good determinant of access rights, yet we are still asked for it whenever we sign up – is it a good reflection of today’s social and cultural values?

Do you ever think about how decisions are made? 

If you look deep enough you will find the ubiquitous IF…THEN statement.

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