Women in Programming (or the Lack Thereof)

Emma Honour Mae...August 22, 2013

When I first read Dave Winer’s blog post about the lack of women in programming, I braced myself. He suggests that women are not “very patient,” and that this explains why they are not very present in CS. Unsurprisingly, this does not conform to my experiences.

One of the largest purported CS interest groups is teenage males, who -- at least in the case of personal experience -- have little to no patience. My mother, who raised five children, has incredible patience, and no interest in CS. Patience can’t be the driving factor behind the field.

Then something occurred to me -- most people reading Winer’s post are either men who are interested in CS, or women who are interested in CS. Regardless of their opinions about why women are more absent than men, they’re united by a common interest in the subject.

Most people don’t choose CS, men or women. It requires a highly specialized set of skills -- in my experience, intense focus and a desire to understand how technical things work -- that belongs to a minority of people. More of that minority is men than women, but what separates the group from the masses is their interest, not their gender. The question should not be “why are there so few women programmers?” but “why are there so few programmers in general?” when some level of programming is essentially ubiquitous for navigating today’s digital world with proficiency.

I say this as a person who belongs to the masses with limited interest in CS. Growing up, I thought that programming was just about making video games, which held little to no interest for me. While my brothers sought the next level in Pokemon or Mario, I sought the next chapter in*A Series of Unfortunate Events.*It’s not a matter of superiority of one over the other, since arguably neither the world of Pokemon nor the world of Lemony Snicket is particularly applicable to everyday life, but simply that I had a preference for a certain kind of play, and my brothers a different one. Most CS or engineering projects I encountered growing up were about building moving robots or RC cars, which weren’t exciting for me. It could be that this has something to do with gender, but to me it seems like personal taste. My brothers became interested in CS under the pretense of making games, and I became interested in English under the pretense of making books. It wasn’t that the process was attractive to us -- it was the end goal.

Naturally, if I had no interest in CS, I wouldn’t bother writing. I’ve found end goals that excite me. Web design and computational biology, for example, both require some knowledge of CS. In working on Kindred Britain, I was able to mockup some design elements, but wasn’t able to implement them myself. To some extent I viewed this as the grunt work -- the intermediate steps between having an idea and seeing it actualized. If there was someone else able to take care of that for me, there was no reason for me to figure it out when I could be designing new elements.

At least from my perspective, this is a justifiable lack of interest. In many fields now, a bit of programming is a means to an end, and it is not important to understand code in order to appreciate that end. As a result, I will learn a little CS to keep on top of what we’re doing, but I’m far more interested in generating discussion around the modern family or mapping ancient Rome than learning how to use d3. Even when I eventually become well-versed in the programming I need to know for the Digital Humanities, I will not consider myself a “woman in CS.” I will consider myself a “woman in humanities” for whom CS is a useful tool.

There are many factors that could influence why a person would or would not go into CS, but rarely considered is the idea that they have every opportunity and genuinely don’t want to. Well-meaning and useful organizations that specifically encourage women to code have made me question whether society is really repressing me without my consent, but the bottom line is that I just have other interests.

Winer thinks that “there's something about programming that makes many women not want to do it” --- it’s mostly the same something that makes a lot of people not want to do it. We’re not all algorithm creators. Someone wants to be the engineer, and someone wants to be the architect. The sooner we focus on figuring out what we want, and stop worrying about whether it’s reinforcing a stereotype or not, the better. I guess that’s what we need patience for.