I read this piece by Paul Graham yesterday called Female Founders. He is the well-regarded Y-combinator founder, essayist extraordinare, and programmer. As he describes in the essay, he was mis-quoted, creating quite a to-do. The sum of the article is- there are fewer successful women programmer/ hackers than men, because there are fewer women who have been programming for the past ten years. (doesn’t matter when in time you make that statement- the same is true in 1979 as in 2014.)
This started me thinking about my own experiences trying to learn to program. In 1992, was handed a laptop, pre-installed with visual basic, and a book on the language, by my father. I really, truly, wanted to learn to program. I was thirteen, seemingly an optimum age to learn to program. I was smart, and not just in the liberal arts- I always got As in science and math, though I found them less interesting. And, to reiterate, I wanted to learn to program! Even in 1992 the image of the hacker princess existed, and it seemed desparately cool. I wanted to be that girl.
I am 100% certain that there was nothing in my upbringing or surroundings that might have implied to a young girl that it was more important to be pretty than smart, or that liberal arts were more important than engineering. Plus, I had fallen in love with early 2-d computer computer games (Commander Keen!!!!) and wanted to design computer games.
So what happened? Why didn’t I learn to program?
At that point in time, I didn’t understand what I do now.
(what follows is the 13 year old thought process…)
I tried and tried to build the stupid calculator function that was the visual basic book example project number 2 (after hello world, which I did manage to do. Yes, I can always do hello world project in a programming language, but nothing further.) I never succeeded in making the calculator go, and gave up to go back to playing Commander Keen. The next computer game we got was Duke Nukem, and I realized I hated playing 3d games, and since that was where the future was, I had no more interest in learning to program. Plus, I was much, much, much better at drawing, and soon started making clothing.
Fast forward to my twenties. For five years, I worked inside a technology company. I primarily worked with the engineering group, in a non-technical capacity. I saw how few women worked in tech roles, and how rarely women applied for tech roles. It never once bothered me, because of the experiences I had had, both attempting to learn to program and thinking about feminity in the art school context.
I’m very tech savvy for a clothing designer. I can write HTML and CSS from scratch, make websites, theme or skin systems like wordpress or bigcommerce or magento. What I can’t seem to do: learn to write code. Like, actual logical code.
HTML and CSS and skins are visual. It’s no more than making a drawing, or sometimes an animated drawing. I memorized a relatively small set of words that one can use to adjust visual display. It’s an incredibly useful skill to have, but significantly different than programming. No logic, only visual descriptors. And it’s really no more time consuming than making a drawing. (It would take me longer to make a mockup of a website in photoshop than in html/css.)
And I’ve had glimpses of what it would be like to think in such a way that I could speak the language that computers understand. My glimpse looks like this: take a logical thought. Break it down to the smallest components. Write down the steps.
Now could I learn to program if I really, really wanted to? Sure. It would take a really focused effort, and probably a teacher. And mostly what I’d end up doing is memorizing a lot of small functions or code scraps for future reuse. I’d never be very good at it. And of course, since I have only ever really wanted to build blogs and ecommerce sites, and there are excellent widely available platforms, why do it?
It was in art school that I was introduced to ideas about feminine writing and thinking. The non-linear vs linear. The sensual vs the practical.
We can extrapolate that women are less interested in computer programming than men, based on numbers, and, I can relay to you “the why” of my own experiences. I think I’m rather typically female, and I like being and thinking like a woman. I like feminine things, I feel good about being a woman, and I don’t question my own intelligence. I don’t feel like somehow I’m lacking because I can’t comfortably think like a computer, just as I don’t feel lacking because I’ll never have the same type of upper-body strength as the average man.
(not to belabor this point, as it should be obvious to all contemporary readers, but I’m not talking about women or men, I’m talking about masculinity vs femininity. )
To summarize- I like the fact that femininity and masculinity are different, and lead to different ways of thinking. This is a good thing. And clearly, it’s sexism to consider one- the typically masculine skills- as more important than the typically feminine ones. It’s sexism to think that the things in which women are more often interested are less important than the things in which men are more often interested. However, that doesn’t mean that what the market will pay for them is always the same, but if you can step outside of contemporary time for just a moment, and consider things a little bigger than the market….the market is only a measure of value to other people in the moment, it’s not a legitimate measure of value, or a long term measure.
/***************A comment about young people****************/
One final thing: when I started working in tech, everyone assumed that the children of that time would be computer geniuses today- or at least many more of them would be. Those kids are in their early twenties now. This doesn’t seem to have played out anything like it was expected. Being exposed to technology for their entire lives didn’t lead to young people who understood the inner workings of computers.
It actually might be similar to what happened with cars: back when they were mostly mechanical, a lot of people knew how they worked. Now nobody outside of the industry does.