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.
- Women and coding [Geeky Mom]
- Should all majors, not just computer science majors, learn to code? [Audrey Watters/Hack Higher Education]
- Some things to think about before you exhort everyone to code [Miriam Posner]
- Computer science for the rest of us [Randall Stross/NY Times]
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:
- Math (… computer programming … physics … etc) is damn hard.
- If you don’t have the brain for math (… computer programming … etc), don’t bother. It’s too damn hard!
- 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:
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!