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Women in CS (and the Digital Humanities)

According to Dave Winer’s blog post on his website a few days ago, women are a minority in programming because they lack certain qualities – namely patience – that allow them to succeed in the profession. He writes that because men have evolved to be more patient than women, and because of specialization, “programming as it exists today is a mostly male thing”.

Taken by itself, this statement can very easily be interpreted as one made by yet another “old white male” seeking to oppress others. But I think it’s the next sentence that’s worth focusing on, one in which Dave asks, how “can we make it so that [programming] can better-use the abilities of the other half of our species?”

I’m not well versed in the ongoing gender discussion and gender essentialism, but I don’t think that knowledge is necessary for me to disagree with Dave’s suggestion that men have the patience to program that women do not. Patience itself, frequently described as a virtue, seems to me to also be a skill, one necessary for programming (among many other things) – even if it’s a skill just as difficult to be learned as, say, recursion.

So if it’s not a matter of patience or lack thereof, what’s keeping women from going into computer science?

I can’t speak with much authority on what sexism women may encounter in the workplace, as I don’t have any such experience to talk about. But I can speak about one initiative that was created to address the real question that Dave writes about: the problem of too few women in CS.

Girls Teaching Girls To Code
is a day-long event that took place for the first time earlier this year. Attracting a little over a hundred high school girls (in addition to many more stuck on the waiting list), GTGTC featured a three-hour crash course in programming basics, followed by lunch, and concluded with a three-hour session in which the girls split up into specialized tracks, such as Web Design, and Programming Basics Continued. And all throughout the day, nearly 40 Stanford students – all women with some sort of interest in CS – were available to speak with and mentor these high school students.

It’s true that some of the girls with whom I talked were frustrated throughout the day. Programming takes work, thinking, and a ton of persistence – even if you’re learning the basics from a user-friendly tutorial system such as CodeHS or Codecademy. But the underlying mission of Girls Teaching Girls to Code was not to teach high school students the equivalent of one quarter of CS in a day. It was to empower high school girls, and to help them realize that Computer Science is an opportunity that is open for them to pursue. That all it really takes is the willingness to sit down and write the code – asking for help when its needed – and not to give up.

I hear that in CS courses on other college campuses, there’s a much smaller ratio of female students to male students. Attending an introductory CS lecture at Stanford, however, you’d never guess that was the case. When I took CS 106B, Programming Abstractions, in spring quarter of my sophomore year, the lecturer remarked that based on the number of rooms booked for our midterm, we were probably the largest class on campus – consisting of both male and female students.

I believe one thing is for certain: as an education in computer science becomes readily available to more and more people, there will inevitably be more capable and competent women in CS. Whatever field they are interested in applying their skills to – be that the digital humanities or computational biology – I believe that companies – and indeed, any male programmers who might hold any reservations about women colleagues – will have no choice but to acknowledge the talent that is available for hire.

And so this, I would argue, is one response to the question of why there are so few women programmers in the field. Yes, sexism and the prevailing attitudes of the work environment have to do with it, too, and those will have to change. And I believe that they will.

From what I could learn through a cursory scan of his website, Dave sounds like a friendly guy, and not at all the image of an “angry, oppressive white male who seeks to hold all others down”. I’d like to believe that he truly wants to see more women to succeed in programming.

And that’s not a bad goal we can all work together for.