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.