American Univesity of Beirut

Operation Digital Humanities: Equalizing Healthcare

Dounya Farhoud

According to a study conducted in 2015 by the Department of Psychology at Princeton University, “women are underrepresented in fields where success is believed to require brilliance," such as physics, robotics, and medicine. The underrepresentation and lack of visibility accorded to women's accomplishments are unfortunately issues present in every field of study. In this blog article, I will tackle the discipline of Digital Humanities(DH) while emphasizing its role in the compensation of women's social and historical disadvantage in healthcare.

Before delving into the core of the subject, I would like to introduce you to DH. DH would be most appropriately defined as the intersection of the humanities and computing. This field is distinguished from the other disciplines by the virtue of its unique approach. Its particularity resides in the wide variety of computational tools such as Voyant Tools (see Figure 1). The latter is a DH tool at the disposition of the user, inviting them to examine humanities from an unconventional angle.                          

Getting Started - Voyant Tools Help 

Figure 1. Voyant Tools

Through DH's computational tools, and its technologically developed features, the reader can have a more comprehensive understanding of any given article, book, or documentation. One of the multiple advantages of DH is its different approaches to analyze texts. The techniques vary from close reading, distant reading, and text mining to analyzing and interpreting texts and corpora

One of the tools that sparked my curiosity is Google Ngram (see Figure 2). This tool charts word frequencies on a large collection of books  and corpora which illustrates the cultural changes that occurred throughout the ages. When I first accessed Ngram, three names were set by default–three male names:  Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes, and Frankenstein.

Chart, line chartDescription automatically generated 

Figure 2. Google Ngram search

Why weren't there any female names? This brought me back to a discussion we had in my DH class. We were tackling the book Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers, and Social Change (1989) by Gaye Tuchman. In her book, the author depicts the social constructs and dynamics behind the supplantation of women novelists in the 1880s. The author meticulously explains how men started to invade white-collar occupations, and consequently edged women out of fiction writing.

Unfortunately, this practice is still ongoing nowadays. Images of places from my hospital rotations resurfaced. All the conference rooms, skills laboratories, and surgical libraries that I visited were named after male physicians (see Figure 3).  There was little visibility or any form of recognition given to female pioneers in the healthcare field.


Figure 3. Picture taken by the author at the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) of the entrance to the Dr. Joseph J. McDonald & Dr. John L. Wilson Surgical Library.

Even surgeries are still known by the names of the male surgeons who performed them, such as the Kausch-Whipple procedure, Braun anastomosis, and so on. Interestingly, wasn't there any female healthcare worker on the case?  No female nurses, female surgeons, female medical or nursing students? In my opinion, women were undoubtedly present, but their contributions were overlooked, and not acknowledged. 

Similarly, the marginalization of female achievements and contributions is also present in the humanities, specifically in a pioneering DH project. The latter pertains to the case of the female operators who manipulated punched-card machinery. Their time, technical investment, and efforts allowed Father Roberto Busa's Index Thomisticus to see light. These women were unfortunately written out of the history of computing, which led to their labor being invisible. Thereby the lack of accreditation explains women's underrepresentation in the DH and computing field.

Pictures of these female skilled operators show them using the punch-card machineries of Father Roberto Busa. The female operators are photographed while being proactive in the workplace. In one of the pictures, Ms. Canestraro, one of the executive chiefs, is surrounded by men, clearly trying to understand the complexity and the logistics of her meticulous occupation. Canestraro was the one behind leading the data entry team. However, there was almost no accreditation to her, or other women contributors, in the official documentation of this ambitious project. In my opinion, in this case, DH contributed to women empowerment by giving them access to learning new skills and having jobs. However, this connected and digitized field did not make use of its tools to give these women the adequate and deserved accreditation.  One could speculate that the same occurred with women in surgery. Women must have contributed to the development of the operations, but they remained a hidden figure in history. Subsequently, DH needs to make use of its diverse tools to rectify and eradicate the underrepresentation of women. Hence, this domain will be an instrumental factor in implementing gender equality by putting forward equal visibility chances to both genders.

Yet, one may raise the following question: how will DH open the door for more recognition and visibility to women in healthcare? One of the multiple advances of DH is the creation of a corpus.  It involves computer-based empirical analyses of a collection of written texts. In our case, new corpora can be created to incorporate texts about women in healthcare, their achievements, and undeniable impact on the optimization of patient care. The inclusion of these writings in digital exhibits will exponentially increase their visibility. On the one hand, women in healthcare will be granted recognition. On the other hand, this DH approach will promote gender equality in terms of representation, and gender equity in terms of compensation for women's historical and social disadvantages.


Photo credits:  Shadow Robot Company. Wikimedia Commons.Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0.

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