Programming is for Girls

Fair warning: Some gross generalizations and exaggeration for emphasis follow. But some valid points I think.

I wrote my first computer program over 35 years ago. There were more women in the field back then. Not as many as their were earlier in the history of computers though. Programming was a woman’s job. The excitement, the glory, the theoretically “hard part” was in the hardware. So was the money. Computer hardware cost a lot more than computer software. Even in the 1970s when one of my professors told me that one day people would spend more money on software than hardware I was not so sure he was right. But of course he was. Good thing for me and my career. But as the money moved into software women were pushed out of the field. This was not a good thing on many levels.

When I was a student I went to a really conservative university – girls had curfews but boys didn’t. It was a long time ago. The boys tended to spend a lot of time “after hours” in the computer center working on their projects. And during hours as well. The girls not so much. They spent less time in the lab and somehow seemed to always get their projects in on time and to get good grades. In fact they got as good grades as the boys who seemed to live in the computer lab. Weird no? Perhaps not. Also in my first job out of college, mid-1970s, there were a lot of women writing code. Not quite as many as there were men but close. And the women were older, mostly married with kids and at the end of the day they easily left their work behind. And they met all their deadlines with a seaming ease that I sat in wonderment of. What was up with that? I have a theory of course. We, in the west at least, socialize women to plan and men to, well, not plan as much. Think about a high school prom. Planning for the boy means remembering to buy a ticket, perhaps organizing a Tux and showing up on time. For a girl, a whole lot more. Just the day of the prom there is scheduling when the hair is done, the nails, perhaps the makeup, where in the mix does one actually get dressed. And oh by the way she probably made sure the boy got the tickets and his tux.

This post was inspired in part by an article from Stanford (Researcher reveals how “Computer Geeks” replaced “Computer Girls”) and there is a quote from Grace Hopper that I find most interesting

As computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper told a reporter, programming was “just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Naturals? Maybe or maybe not. But we do force women at an early age to plan. The women I went to college with and the women I have worked with in programming jobs were all planners. My wife was a professional programmer for a number of years. Her programs pretty much always worked the first time. She was not interested in debugging. She was interested in getting things to work the first time. And so it goes. When I was teaching I saw a lot of boys (not all but a lot) programming by the “ready, fire, aim” method. Start throwing code together, check it, fix it, check it, check what the result should be and fix some more. Bug? Throw in some code and see if it fixes the problem. Girls did not follow this pattern as often. Think things out, understand the problem, plan a solution, code. test, hand in and go on with their lives.

Some days when I listen to debates about computer science vs. computer engineering I wonder if the solution is just to get more women back in the field? We are seeing tools that are designed to teach and interest, interest perhaps being the more important thing, young women in programming. The man who got Kodu rolling has a daughter as do several of his team. It is no accident that the graphics are girl friendly (while not turning young boys off either). Alice has been used, especially story telling Alice, with good results with girls. Young girls seem to love building robots with Pico Crickets among other tools. I have heard about a lot of middle school girls getting into programming through FIRST Lego league as well. The thing may be to not scare them away later.

Either way I think we need them. I do not think our male dominated ‘throw a lot of code against the wall” sort of design works. It may get us there eventually but it is wasteful of time. money and energy. Oh girls are not the whole answer. There are girls who “program like boys” and boys who “program like girls” but are we getting the right mix? I don’t think so. And besides we clearly don’t have enough top programmers (Computer science grads fielding ‘multiple job offers’)  and if as many girls as boys went into the field we’d be a lot closer to having what we need. Plus we know that mixed gender times are more creative, productive and (at least in my opinion) more fun to work in.

Comments (14)

  1. Anon says:

    "We was not interested in debugging" hot damn

  2. Tom Indelicato says:

    I often point out that while a case could be made why some jobs that MIGHT BE physically more apporpriate for men (e.g., heavy labor) or emotionally more appropriate for women (e.g., nursing), there's NO GOOD REASON why women shouldn't be equally as capable for programming or engineering.

    Which means that if we (as society) don't encourage equal opportunities, we're effectively throwing away half of the creativity and innovation that women can offer the world.

  3. Muhammad Hussain says:

    Very nice,

    But I think the girls programmed what they have instructed to programme, they have no inner logic(except very few).

    Boys are more quick learner in this case.

  4. Steve Naidamast (Sr. Software Engineer) says:

    Men are just drones for the better half of the Human Species…  That is why most of them can't think…

  5. Alessio Placitelli says:

    Tom, I totally agree with you.

  6. Evelyn Rothman says:


    Women/girls have no "inner logic"?????????

  7. Matt says:

    Sometimes men get so engrossed by programming they ignored their assignments in order to work on their own software.  I knew a ton of guys who got mediocre grades but were very intelligent and had ridiculous knowledge of… everything.

  8. Mark LD says:

    I like the Grace Hopper quote. It's true programming is like cooking and I think that's why so many IT people like cooking.

    I started in 1976, and there were a lot more women in IT (DP, as it was then). Partly, I think, because programming was seen as a clerical job, and partly because there were a lot of women in jobs that have disappeared (e.g. "Punch Girls").

    Also, the current style of throwing code at a problem until it works wasn't possible then. We had to write our programs in one go, onto coding sheets. They went away to be punched, and then we had just two attempts to get the program to compile (otherwise we were in trouble). Once it compiled, it was expected to work. So, male or female, we all had to do a lot more thinking and planning then.

  9. Stack Overflow says:

    Excuse me, how come women have no inner logic, give me only 1 reason or scientific fact..

  10. The Reason says:

    Perhaps the reason why men were "after hours" in the school lab is not because they "didn't get it the first time" (well maybe some didn't) but its because as you said the hardware was expensive and the only way you could actually get to machine is in the lab, which proves a simple fact that most of innovation in computer world came from men.

  11. Dagmara says:

    Concise, eloquent and right on the money!

  12. Brenda says:

    I love the sound of crickets chirping when someone is asked to provide a scientific fact to a claim that women have no inner logic.


  13. Carlos says:

    Women on software? Where?

    Women on software are very rare, I think you are wrong. You do not have statistical data to base your statements.

  14. Jon says:

    I don't know if it's accurate to say that women have no inner logic, but I can tell you from experience that women have a much harder time understanding and writing code than men. I graduated a few years ago, so maybe modern programming logic is much different than what it was in the 1970s.  There are more data structures than simple arrays now, so algorithms require a good deal of spatial reasoning. There are of course exceptions, I know some damn good female programmers, but not so many in general.