My Two Cents on Women in Tech

I feel that discussions on women in tech tend to have a certain formulaic character where neither side seems to really hear each other. I’ve never seen one erupt into a violent flame war like most other discussions in tech do every so often, but it does seem to me like the two sides of the debate spend a lot of time talking at cross purposes.

Recently I read this blog on the subject, where the author talked about her experience of realizing that there were hardly any women at StrangeLoop, the hip, cutting-edge conference where all the Clojure people seem to hang out. While well written, the blog (and the commenters supporting the author’s position) all took it for granted that we need more women in tech and that too few women in tech is a bad thing. This was met by the usual arguments against this idea, which to me were summed up by this comment:

I honestly don’t understand the anger. This is like me freaking out that there aren’t many men in childcare. So what? So what if most men just aren’t interested in spending their days taking care of toddlers? Should we create a program to incentivise more men into taking up that profession or spend our time on, you know, something constructive?

If I went to a conference for Nurses, saw that the main male toilets were temporarily converted to female toilets and had to walk around the corner to use a third set and ended up throwing a bottle across the room as a result, I would seriously question my sanity.

There was a time when I thought similarly. I supported efforts to make sure that women and minorities weren’t completely locked out, limited to jobs as cashiers, hairdressers, and maids because of sex or race. But I didn’t see why it was such a cause for concern that one specific industry, software, had an imbalance between men and women. After all, there aren’t very many female construction workers or auto mechanics or fighter pilots or football announcers. No one was clamoring for more female gun shop owners or rodeo clowns. Why software?

In Coders at Work, a book that shaped and fundamentally changed my view of software, Peter Seibel addresses that exact question to Fran Allen, the first female Turing Award winner and only woman interviewed for the book.

Seibel: To play devil’s advocate, why does it matter whether we achieve, say, Anita Borg’s goal of “50/50 by 2020,” meaning 50 percent women in computer science by the year 2020? Why does it matter whether this one particular field be representative of the population at large?

Allen: It’s such a transformative field for society as a whole. And without the involvement of a diverse group of people, the results of what we do are not going to be appealing or useful to all aspects of society.

This, I think, is the point that usually gets lost when people start comparing computer science to other fields. Computer science isn’t like other fields. Nurses and preschool teachers and construction workers and auto mechanics and football commentators are all important to our society. (Well, maybe not the last one…) But only a few fields have the same transforming effect on society that computer science does. Only a few fields are actually in any way shaping the future; most of them are in science and engineering and hardly any are doing so to the same extent as computer science. If you need an example, try the very system that lets me send my idiotic ramblings to you without needing to acquire a job as an Op/Ed monkey at a newspaper: the Internet. How about social media, which is used in the US for posting cat pictures and pictures of meals, but is used in some parts of the world to organize protests against dictators? How about Google, which killed encyclopedias (with help from its unholy partner Wikipedia), or iTunes, which gutted the music industry?

Software is only partially about writing code; it’s also about conceiving and designing systems. Some of these systems have a huge impact on society, far bigger than any politician’s bill and far longer lasting than any judge’s ruling. If society benefits from a diversity of viewpoints in boardrooms and legislative halls and laboratories and courtrooms, it also benefits from a diversity of viewpoints among people who create software.

So we should encourage more girls to try programming, and related fields like electrical and computer engineering. Not all of them will like it; as the other common argument goes, many girls just won’t take to it. That’s fine; I never took to sports and I hate working on my car. Some people just don’t like some things. There’s no need to try and explain that with pop psychology about the female brain, as people making this argument often do. But I bet there are lots of girls out there right now who would enjoy programming, but they don’t know it because they’ve never been exposed to it.

We should make a bigger effort to expose everyone, not just girls, to computer science at least a little during education. I disagree with the idea that everyone should learn to code; I don’t see it as a fundamental skill like reading and writing. But in the same way that every high schooler gets the experience of reading Shakespeare, building a birdhouse, painting a picture, debating a court case, and mindlessly applying a formula to hundreds of trivial exercises in mathematics, every high schooler should get the experience of programming. And the girls that show interest in it should be encouraged to take their interest to the next level, because the field of computer science needs to add their diversity to  its own.

That’s my two cents on women in tech. Maybe it can set off the first flame war on the subject that I’ve ever been party to!