Should everyone learn to program? And by everyone I mean women

This is something I’ve been wanting to address, because I care about encouraging women to enter and succeed in STEM fields, because I am/have been a programmer, and because there’s a lot of angst around this. No, the discussion is not specifically about whether women should learn to program, but it is especially pointed and sometimes painful for women. Girls are not usually encouraged towards STEM careers and even less towards straight computer science. When women do make it into STEM fields, they may find themselves marginalized or otherwise stressed by the overwhelming dominance of men in technology.

Background reading:

On one hand, I think the answer is easy: if you need to know how to program to progress in your career and achieve your goals, then just do it. I went back to school after completing a bachelor’s degree in economics and philosophy so that I could gain programming skills. I did an M.S. in statistics but spent all my electives in the computer science department, because I knew that if (in the early nineties in Silicon Valley) I could demonstrate programming skills, I would be welcomed into the job market. And I was. Then I found many years later, that statistics + programming + domain knowledge = data science = $$$. Score!

On the other hand, I see serious obstacles for girls and women here. There are a set of reinforcing messages that girls/women receive that keep them from just doing it:

  1. Math (… computer programming … physics … etc) is damn hard.
  2. If you don’t have the brain for math (… computer programming … etc), don’t bother. It’s too damn hard!
  3. Girls don’t have the brain for math (… computer programming … etc).

Our culture thinks that natural aptitude matters more than hard work in figuring out subjects like math and programming. This is not the case in other countries; in Asian countries it is thought that academic achievement including in math and science is primarily due to hard work. It is the performance mindset in action rather than the growth mindset, which says that hard work is almost everything. There’s just a short step from the performance mindset that dominates in the U.S. to thinking that certain groups have natural advantages in learning such subjects and that certain groups have natural disadvantages.

An inevitable outgrowth of this is generalizing from individual cases to a group:

How it Works (xkcd)

I face this pretty regularly even though I work in education, which has a decent balance of women and men, if not lopsided in favor of women in non-tech areas. I recently went to a “big data” internal meeting where I was the only female in attendance. This is not at all unusual for me in my position–when we’re talking tech it’s usually mostly or only men, besides me. I am aware in such meetings that when I say something I am representing female techiehood. If I say something dumb, I have shown that all females are technologically clueless. But if I say something smart I imagine people (/men) may be thinking “well sure, this one woman knows a little bit but she’s not a representative case.”

That sort of bothers me, because I know in some ways I come across as not a representative case for women’s capabilities at large.

I am, however, a representative case of why more women don’t study computer science in college. Despite having taught myself BASIC on my dad’s Apple IIe in middle school, I refused to take Intro Computer Science as one of my distribution requirements in college after hearing from (female) friends that the class was killer. I didn’t believe I could hack it. I came back and took it in my master’s program. To my shock, it was not only easy, it was fun. I got an A+.

If I consider where we need to aim, I’m thinking it’s not at the idea of whether girls are good at math/programming/etc or not but rather from this idea of whether such subjects require natural facility or not. They do not. They require a lot of hard work, for everyone, no matter their gender or their race or their obvious natural facility for things technical.

I do not want to dismiss the very real social challenges women meet in male-dominated environments. I cannot speak much to that as I’ve never felt unwelcome or harassed among male-dominated teams. Quite the opposite: I find working with men exciting.

So ladies/women/girls, dive in. The water’s cold and the current is strong: you’ll get a good workout. Enjoy!

9 responses to “Should everyone learn to program? And by everyone I mean women

  1. Jim Stephens

    Great piece Anne! I think you are absolutely right about the whole identity representation in the tech world. I have noticed a change at the secondary level in this realm at DSST in the past couple of years. We have more female students involved in robotics and in my “History of the Universe” class there are more female students that are truly passionate about the subject, the science and the purpose. Convincing young ladies, while they are young, that this is just thinking and learning like anything else creates a norm around any subject. I did notice this year, however, that there were very fewer female students in the programming class. But, the fellas that were in there were far from what I would call “motivated” students. See ya, Jim

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  3. Great post!

    One thing I would add even though it’s really beside the point for this post:
    Programming also requires patience. I have about enough patience for data analysis, but not really so much for longer programs. Actually now that I’m older I might be a better programmer, or at least less likely to try to destroy a computer monitor when something isn’t working.

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  5. One of my favorite parts about the field is that you can combine it with anything. You love languages? Natural language processing. Business? CEOs and Product Managers with a technical background are amazing. Music? You can go work for Pandora! Geography? All sorts of things you can do there with automated mapping and other tools for geo.

    I loved math in high school, but I found it pretty weird in college – way too abstract. Programming was far more practical, which suited me better.

  6. Hi, I followed a link over from Nicoleandmaggie’s. I think everyone should have a basic exposure to programming. Not everyone will end up wanting to program, but understanding what can and cannot easily be achieved via programming is a really helpful skill to have.

    And personally, I wish I knew more about programming- I know databases and some scripting, but not “real” programming. One of these days, I’ll fix that…

  7. Interesting post for me. I have a bachelor of arts in English that is mainly rooted in that whole natural aptitude thing. Now I’m going back to school for a bachelors of science in computer science. And for whatever reason, maybe my age or life experience or whatever, I am approaching this from a hard work mindset and it’s working (so far). I’m getting an A in my Pre-Calculus when the majority of my class is struggling. In high school I struggled with all of my math classes.
    Funny enough I want to do Statistics too but my university doesn’t offer it as a major or a minor. I could get a Minor in Mathematics that would include only Stats classes. We shall see!

  8. MutantSupermodel: I had the same experience when I went back to math after college — it was hard but only because I needed to put a lot more time than I had imagined before to really get it. I think we do a grave disservice to both men and women when we pretend that getting these subjects has to do with talent rather than effort.

    Cloud: I hope all three of my kids have basic exposure to programming that’s for sure. Like my dad (Leigh) said, you can do so many different things with it.

    Nicoleandmaggie: I don’t have patience for longer programs either. I program as part of my statistical work but I leave building reliable reusable systems to the real developers.

    Jim I’m so glad to hear that there are more girls getting involved in robotics. I was bummed that my first year teaching bc calculus at DSST there was not a single girl in the class. I hope that as girls come up through the middle school more of them will be prepared for second year calculus in high school.

  9. I wish I read this blog my first year of college. No worries, I am tring to fix it and am learning all this computer stuff now. There are so many resources that I don’t have to go back to school. BS in Business and MPA in Public Administration are enough.