August 20th 2013 Women, Programming, and Limitations

Yesterday the Internet was abuzz with an article by Dave Winer questioning whether biological differences led to the dearth of women in the programming sector. Dave’s article isn’t nearly as offensive as many things I’ve heard and read about women in the tech industry, and at first, I was reluctant to write a response. The article had created a “shitstorm” and I wasn’t inclined to pile it on.

But then I realized my response wasn’t about Dave; Dave’s thoughts are his own, and while initially inflammatory, are more curious than offensive. My response was really about limitations.

The funny thing about limitations is that we often don’t recognize them—and aren’t bound by them—until someone tells us we should be. That’s why children fearlessly launch themselves into new endeavors—because no one has yet had the chance to tell them, “You can’t do that,” or even worse, “You shouldn’t do that.”

Story time: About six years ago, I started dating a girl who, at 5′ 8″, was about six inches taller than me. A couple weeks into our relationship, she confided in me that a friend had warned her not to date me because I was too short. Initially, she admitted, she’d been confused, and wondered why that would even be an issue; perhaps the parts won’t line up correctly, she thought. She learned pretty quickly that wasn’t the case. But before her friend’s comments, it wasn’t even an issue for her, because she didn’t even realize people saw height as a limiting factor in relationships.

Unfortunately this story doesn’t have a happy ending. During the three years we were together, she endured snide remarks about our height disparity from her friends, comments from her aunts, and criticism from her mother. She didn’t care about my height until other people told her she should care. Thanks a lot, patriarchy.

Perhaps I was lucky growing up, because my parents, intentionally or not, rarely reinforced gender roles or stereotypes. I can’t remember my dad ever making a comment, in earnest or in jest, that women were worse at something than men simply because they were women. My dad also did all the cooking in our family; I have fond memories of him coming home from his job and immediately getting to work in the kitchen. This didn’t seem odd to me until I got to college and talked to other people; while I was certainly aware that stereotypically, men came home from work demanding that their wives feed them, I was led to believe that was a “tradition” from a bygone age that no one actually subscribed to anymore. I was actually aghast when the girl from above confided in me that her dad and brothers refused to do their own laundry because they felt it was her mom’s job—that idea wouldn’t have had wings in my family. In fact, only once did my parents hint at a recognition of gender roles: when they forbid me from taking ballet lessons in first grade (but my mom made up for it a couple years later by lending me her pantyhose and a skirt so I could be a witch for Halloween).

Studying computer science at college for four years, the fact that less than a half dozen of my classmates were women was not lost on me, but it never occurred to me that maybe women just weren’t as good or as interested as men at writing code; indeed, once I recognized that gender roles were still alive and well, it seemed fairly obvious to me that the low numbers were due to societal constraints, not the inevitable result of a chance pairing of chromosomes in a particular individual’s body. Frankly, I’m astounded that people still write articles theorizing the contrary.

Indeed, history proves that computer programming is not just for men. One of the most notable early programmers was Adm. Grace Hopper; far from being constrained by her genitalia in her programming pursuits, she actually created the first compiler for a programming language, and pioneered the development of machine-agnostic languages. Barbara Liskov’s CV is so long that Kerouac would have trouble fitting it on one of his infamous scrolls. And the mother of the aforementioned ex-girlfriend? She holds a degree in applied mathematics, which was basically computer science before computer science was a widespread major in US colleges. In fact, as late as 1984, 37.1% of computer science students were women, a number which has dropped precipitously to around 18% today.

Amazing, right? Forty or fifty years ago, which corresponds to the time period when my adolescent brain last thought people actually cared about gender, it was totally acceptable for women to be programmers. The trend towards otherwise has only occurred in my lifetime. Only an egghead can look at those statistics and think it has nothing to do with sexism.

Sadly, I’ve heard some male developers ask, why does this matter? Who cares what gender you are? Shouldn’t we worry about attracting both boys and girls to programming? It matters because little boys aren’t told, “Stop playing with the computer. Boys aren’t good at math.” It matters because, for the foreseeable future, programming represents one of the most accessible, stable, possibly even lucrative, career paths, and it’s not right to deny that path to an entire class of people through social conditioning and outright hostility.

What worries me is that some day, somewhere, a little girl will be happily writing a game or maybe even her own compiler, completely oblivious to the notion of some that women can’t write code, then will stumble on articles like these and think, “Wait a minute, maybe I can’t do this. Maybe I shouldn’t.” It’s our jobs to make sure she stumbles on the myriad responses to these articles and says, “Never mind—I totally can.”