Can we can it with the damn "where are the women?" crap already?
So I wrote this one a while ago but only just now cleaned it up because José asked me to rant. I was thinking about it because of this somewhat idiotic article, commenting on this incredibly idiotic article. For a historical look on my feelings on this topic, you can also read this article I wrote for O’Reilly. Also this post I wrote about the link between programming and math.
Giles writes in this polemic that there is not a fundamental intellectual gap between boys and girls, because girls in all-girls schools do much better in math and science than girls in mixed schools. This, of course, does tend to beat up—nay, pulverize—the idea that women and girls aren’t common as programmers because their little estrogen-soaked brains aren’t adequate for the hard, hard stuff!! which makes up computer programming. Which is something I, of course, have never believed anyway.
He has a poignant quote from such a kid in such a school, who claims that in an all-girls school, “You can be yourself.”
Well! What can you do with that one, folks? Clearly girls should attend all-girls schools. Because they can be themselves there. And who isn’t for girls being able to be themselves? Communists, that’s who! Communists, and people who wouldn’t vote for the Clean Air Act, because gosh, how could you be against clean air?
Over the past few weeks since I read his essay, this quote has occasionally popped up in my head. And ever since, I’ve been trying to decide the best way to rip it apart.
My final path goes something like this:
It’s not just projection, it’s reflection
Kids understand the game of survival, better than adults think (or remember). Whether it’s a conscious understanding is irrelevant. Children will not only repeat exactly what you don’t want them to repeat, they will repeat what you do. They understand the desire that adults project on them and they will mirror it.
Do the adults think that drugs are bad? You will get earnest crayon drawings out of 7-year-olds and cute, precocious, heartfelt quotes on the dangers of drugs as well. Do the adults think that the environment is in danger? You will get 9-year-olds setting up change collection in their 3rd grade classrooms, with the goal of sending the entire amount to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. You will be able to find endless permutations on the “war is bad because…” or “America is great because…” or even “Capitalism is evil because…” kinds of themes, because the rules of this game is incredibly simple and clear.
And it’s a great evolutionary trait, because boy do the grownups eat this shit up. Isn’t that sweet! and Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten and Kids say the darnedest things. And the kids see that the big people who control their lives go ga-ga over this stuff. Which, of course, just serves to reinforce the effect. Kids aren’t dumb.
Thus when a child says something that sounds like it came out of a marketing handbook, you must be wary. In all likelihood, everyone around this girl, who goes to an all-girls school, has justified the existence of the arrangement by saying “But you can be yourself! No boys to influence you or make you feel awkward in math class!” But surprise surprise when somebody looking to quote a cute, media-friendly, so-precocious-how-adorable! child is able to find one to say just that thing.
Math and science don’t equal interest in computer programming
The second assumption is that doing better in math makes a girl (or boy) more likely to become a programmer.
This is a case of confirmation bias.
Because lots of successful programmers today have been into math, and done well with it, it seems as if the two go hand-in-hand. But there are far many more people who do well at math and do not program than those who do. And there are lots of good programmers who aren’t mathletes.
On the other hand, you can take almost any almost-purely-male technological pursuit (photography, cars) and notice that those guys act in deeply similar ways to the programmer guys. But nobody’s claiming that being a hotshot at linear algebra leads to being interested in cameras or engines.
Instead, I would argue that interest in math and computers go hand-in-hand for one reason and one reason only: some types of mind are fascinated by a certain type of thing, and those minds sniff out the similarities between math and programming. In some cases, that certain type of thing could be described as an incredibly logical framework. Or perhaps an interest in the niggling technical details. Or the desire to have control over a complex thing. Or maybe just wanting something that’s easier to understand and deal with than other people.
It just so happens that obsession that programming and math are similar in this way if viewed from a certain angle. What a person finds interesting about programming is dependent on the person, not the intrinsic nature of programming itself. Math is just one lens with which to look at programming, and one tool to use when programming.
Computer science degrees don’t equate to computer programmers
This point is a very important one. Perhaps the fulcrum of the whole argument. Because of its importance, I’m going to take it slow and make no assumptions.
Let’s review the argument:
- There are fewer and fewer women in technology. As low as, say, 25%, give or take a few points.
- We know this because of the number of women applying for (or graduating with) computer science degrees.
- We suspect this based on preliminary numbers from technology firms.
OH NO! Sound the alarm! Send in the marines! Or the clowns! Create a meetup! Something must be done!
Now that we’ve reviewed the facts (a stereotypical male perspective), let’s have a story! (a stereotypical female perspective)
In middle school, I was definitely the recognized computer whiz. Not bad, for a well-rated school of about 1,500 middle class kids—a school with not one but several computer labs of various ages, and a broadband internet connection. I was the one who got pulled out of class to fix teachers’ Zip drives. Yep, that was me.
Consequently, I was buddies with the school library media specialist—librarian, to those not in the know. I was often in the library doing technical things, like helping put up the school’s first web page, teaching my librarian how to use Fetch, and reviewing eMate 300 PDA-laptop-things for possible school purchase (I gave it a thumbs-down, in case you’re interested). At 12 or 13 (1996 or so) I even taught a short class on Pagemill to about 30 librarians from all over the county, thus catching the eye of the head of library information services for the county, who held a powerful position indeed in the Board of Ed.
Get this: they were all women.
These women were by most accounts on the bleeding technological edge at the time. They may not have been writing their own FTP clients, but they were solving technical problems the majority of the populace could not have begun to tackle. So sometimes they needed my help. Big deal. None of this stuff was had even been dreamt up when they did their masters degrees, so they were showing an extraordinary interest and flexibility (on top of all their other responsibilities as librarians). I know that many of them went on from Pagemill to doing their own HTML, and a number of them eventually ended up learning PHP or ASP at least to some degree.
But would these women ever count in the statistics for women programmers as described above? No, never. And they are not the only ones. The world is full of programmers of necessity—people of both sexes who didn’t set out to be programmers, or computer scientists, but who need to be able to do some programming to fulfill their roles. Sometimes these folks mature in the direction of “real programmers” and sometimes they “only” continue to mature in the direction they’d originally chosen, through their ability to bridge two worlds.
Many of them are women.
Are they somehow less valuable to “the industry” than a man who graduates with a computer science degree which is essentially a degree in Java, and who thinks that the best way to sort an array involves using an invisible multi-select GUI widget?
In addition to these ladies of the library, I’ve come to know many other uncounted women: who had degrees in other topics, or who never graduated; who work for non-profits, or in non-programming positions which still involve massive amounts of technological understanding and capability and sometimes code, etc., etc.
A friend’s mother is a sales VP who worked her way up at a bank from a teller position, learning to program VMS VAX machines in the process. She had a degree in English. A friend of mine does PHP application development for non-profits. She comes from the (semi-)public sector, not from a technological background.
I am an uncounted woman myself. Nobody would accuse me of being a non-programmer, and yet I didn’t stay in university for programming, and I no longer hold a programming job (or any job, for that matter).
On the flip side—because there always is at least one—a healthy percentage of the best, most inventive, most thoughtful male programmers I know have no computer science degree either.
Computer science program enrollment is really a flawed data point on which to hinge an argument.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, try this one on for size:
When did the numbers of female computer scientist degrees begin to drop? Did it perhaps coincide with the access of middle class America to home computers, by any chance? The rise of the internet and online groups for programming?
There is less and less of a reason to take a degree in computer science for anyone, man or woman. For one, lots of talented and hardworking people are finding work without a degree, period. Secondly, “computer science” is a questionable term for a questionable field, and the quality of educational programs in American universities is almost unilaterally woeful.
Thirdly, the modern environments for learning programming suck. But that’s another rant.
Why is it that we care so much whether there is an equal percentage of women in programming positions?
You don’t typically see the photographers or car engine tuners worrying themselves to death over the question of their chosen profession’s sexual makeup. So why do IT professionals care?
The argument typically goes something like “different perspectives.”
Which I interpret one of these following ways, depending on my mood:
- Help, the ‘extreme male brains’ of all the near-autistic people are overwhelming me. I cannot listen to another Python vs Ruby debate, and please for the love of god make eye contact once in a decade and stop talking about the hot cylons on BSG.
- men (and possibly gay women): How can I find a woman to date who will understand what a brilliant code ninja I am?
- women: How can I find a girl friend to bond with who understands what it’s like to be me?
- Women have innate abilities and a way of thinking about things that balance very nicely with male ones, and we’re missing out on that.
Of course, reasons 1-3 are largely bullshit. They are not systemic problems, they are personal desires. Unfortunate, perhaps, but nothing to condemn the field. Also, there’s no proof that injecting more women into the field will solve these problems, because women are as variable in their personalities and dispositions as men.
I feel that the jury is out on reason number four. I can’t immediately disqualify it, although most days it sounds to me like nothing more than a diplomatic rehashing of reasons 1 through 3. And as I alluded to before, I’ve met women who are every bit as short-sighted and obsessed with faulty technical details as the most obsessive male programmer, and I’ve met plenty of women in programming jobs who were just phoning it in and didn’t know what they were doing. (No more so than the percentage of male programmers, understand.)
Women are not magical pegasus-unicorns who will ride into your office on wings of light and rainbows and wash away all the shittiness with one nod of their magnificent horned heads.
On the other hand, you never see anyone asking “Where are all the designers who learned to program? We need more of them. Designers have innate abilities and a way of thinking about things that balance very nicely with engineering ones, and we’re missing out on that.” Or replace women or designers with poets, architects, humanities students, history professors, musicians…
Ask not what (more) women can do for you, but what you can do for (more) women.
If the goal is to increase the number of female programmers, who is that helping? The people currently in the field, or the women themselves?
Are there really hordes of women out there who long for nothing more than to a job as keyboard jockey, yet thwarted by evil chauvinists, or innocuous but misguided men?
Maybe it is a valid worry for our society at large that more women don’t understand the principles that a good apprenticeship to Donald Knuth will teach.
On the other hand, Donnie yak-shaved on his third book for 9 years writing a page layout engine, and then claimed the resulting book looked as good as the first which was printed with hot type. Which was untrue because it didn’t.
So maybe not.
We overvalue things that are ours, and the way things are over how they could be.
It’s natural for those of us who live and breathe code to think that code is pretty important. Even that good—beautiful—code is really important. Certainly it is important to us and many of our friends.
But in the argument of how essential it is that more women program, are we possibly overvaluing programming as a career choice just a teensy weensy bit?
I’ve not done formal research on the topic but it seems to me that the vast majority of programming jobs are in businesses where programmers are treated as glorified typists who know a special syntax. Much of the work is drudgery, infected by spaghetti legacy code or third-party software packages sold via the old school “steak & strippers” approach, colleagues and/or management doesn’t “get it,” little or no opportunity to grow professionally unless you do it on your own time, pay is remarkably meager in relation to the amount of skill the job putatively requires while the hours are expected to be long and job security is nearly non-existent. Projects are derailed, constantly late, interfered with or sabotaged.
(Also “computer science” education in this country sucks. Almost without exception.)
To do better, career-wise, you pretty much have to be visible: write blog posts, publish code, learn obsessively in your own time, post on mailing lists, support newbies, speak at conferences, have super elite special skillz or be a known expert in some esoteric thing, and so on.
It’s like we’re all busy eating the same shit sandwich and—ill-content to eat it alone—we are holding a slice out to these putative women blocked by sexism, and saying “Hey, this goes GREAT with Wonderbread. Want a taste?”
If I hadn’t been in love with what I was doing, I would have checked out of this industry a long time ago. I have already quit jobs that were, in relation to the above list, okay, pretty good, and really great. But they still suffered from some of the symptoms above and that prevented me from doing good work and left me tied in frustrated—if very well-paid—knots. (And as it stands, I never code for hire any more. Never. It’s not worth it.)
If I hadn’t known a bunch of renegade-type, forge-your-own-path “rockstar” tech people as a teenager (through the miracle of the internet), I would have run as far away from programming and technology as a career as I could have. And I still did, in the end. Now I program only for my own gratification. (Even though I like hacking on stuff in the evenings and weekends, writing articles and cheat sheets, and speaking at conferences.)
Let’s face it. We are known, as an industry, for loving a movie where the protagonists—nice young men in our field—work in an incredibly degrading office environment, surrounded by a bunch of ninnies, “led” by a psychopathic boss and who live in constant fear of losing their jobs. In a moment of hypnosis-induced insanity, they decide to commit a crime in revenge for their maltreatment, almost get caught, finally undoing the damage by sheer luck. As the movie closes, it zooms out on the main protagonist, who has a new job in construction work. And that’s the happy ending. The construction work is better than programming.
The reason we like this movie, of course, is that it is funny in the the recognition-funny way: we laugh because we’re thinking “that’s so true! that’s exactly how it is!”
And it is so true. That is exactly how it is for the majority of people in our field.
So I sure can’t blame anyone for running once they get an eyeful of tech industry from the news media, TV and movies, users’ groups, forums and mailing lists.
Maybe women are more reasonable than men. Maybe they are simply less willing to fight an all-hours, multi-front uphill battle with little reward other than the dubious distinction of technical cojones and the respect of their fellow programmers.
In any event, the whole argument is stupid, and I really and sincerely wish people would develop the ability to think about a problem more deeply than the superficial top layer. And shut up until they do.
 I use this word with respect. I love a good polemic. I also love Giles.
 Sometimes we call this game indoctrination, but really you don’t have to try hard for it to happen. Kids absorb everything around them. They’re acculturation machines. It’s evolutionarily beneficial to understand and fit into the society to which you are born. Also, research shows that children do not develop their own, non-reflexive understanding of morals until they are 9 or 10 at the least.
 This really happened on a project I was involved with. It happened before me, but the story lived on.