Will women programmers be extinct?

It’s well known and oft-times mentioned around the time a large technical convention is looming, there are not enough women in programming. I know, I’m a techie female and I know maybe half-a-dozen women in my chosen technology. As a mom of five daughters (and one son) I have just realized I’m contributing to this lack of interest in technology. Even though I’ve spent the last ten(10) years working with Open Source projects and talking about it, none of my girls are interested in the field at all.

They enjoy their online games and browsing their favorite sites and have absolutely no interest in learning how to program. They don’t care how it works, as long as it works. Trust me I’ve tried to engender interest in technology as a career and my attempts are met with indifference and yeah they actually scoff. All my kids are “creatives” and prefer to write, draw and entertain. My girls especially. My son failed Algebra 1 in community college 3 times! (sorry Jeremy) but he excelled in anything to do with writing & research.

So that is five girls/women who will not be entering into the technical field, unless they do like I did and shun anything remotely technical for the first 35 years of their life and THEN get interested. How many other families with girls are in the same boat?

What makes women less attracted to the programming field? For me it was all the usual stereotypes that were a deterrent. Programmers are anti-social and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, other than the fact that they can create mind-boggling applications. Meh, I never really believed that but my genius father was very introverted and I could never understand his fascination with the “black box” on his computer screen. It seemed “boring” and lifeless to me. At the time I was full of life and didn’t want to stay still for very long. Off to rehearse or hang out with my friends. Maybe it was my extroversion, not my gender, that kept me from sitting down to learn how to program when I was young. How many girls were encouraged to spend time on the hair and the nails and the selection of an appropriate outfit. Not to mention the obligatory cooking lessons (yeah I hated those too). I wanted to sing and dance and play, programming seemed (at the time) the antithesis of all things lively. I’m social so programming seemed to go against my personality.

So how did it happen for me? The crossing over from ‘I will never touch a line of code’ to spending hours in the command line and an editor manipulating code? Uh, yeah, it was a man. A very, very geeky man. A stereotypical somewhat anti-social brilliant and so-much-like-my-father-it’s-eerie-man, man. When I met him ten years ago I was the typical stay-at-home-mom trying to start a web business web monkey. I thought I knew html and css. Ha, little did I know how little I knew.

I was pretty proud of what I’d taught myself. “Lookit hon, I can make a table inside a table and watch this” I’d say as the text would blink at us from the browser.

“C’mere” he’d say, “I’ll show you something”

He introduced me to Open Source. He showed me there was more to life than tags and Front Page.

My first project was to work within a php application and add html wrappers (and some css). It was boring and we spent hour after hour trying to get it right (it was a source forge style application). I was sure this project would be my first and my last foray into Open Source. Then it happened, we finished it and we got feedback and it was awesome. My heart wasn’t in it at first but when I saw the finished product I was so proud of what we’d accomplished. The pop-up help tool that I structured and styled was my pride and joy. I fell in love with Open Source. It wasn’t love at first sight, no, but it was a solid kind of love that kept me rooted and interested for the next ten years.

It’s a very lonely existence being one of only a dozen or so women in a project with 100’s of highly involved, highly intelligent men. We need more women involved, for my sanity and the sanity of the other women in the project.

How can we encourage more female participation? What could I have done to encourage my daughters to look at programming as an option? Is our familial lack of interest in anything math-like or scientific a huge contributor to our lack of interest in programming? How many other families discourage their girls from getting into math or science? How about the schools? Are the schools doing better with encouraging girls in the math/science area? We need to answer these questions now.

Although geekyness is not regarded as fringe anymore, so many more people are “geeks” these days there is still a stigma attached and young women are highly aware (care about) how they are perceived. Geekyness is next to sexiness?

I and many women like me who are involved in programming/engineering in some capacity are not entirely different from our non-programming counterparts, so what is it that draws us and not them?

Some interesting reading:

http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/columns/ten_easy_ways_attract_women_your_free_software_project

http://tldp.org/HOWTO/Encourage-Women-Linux-HOWTO/x106.html

http://dobbscodetalk.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=Women-in-Engineering-A-Hard-Problem.html&Itemid=29

What do you think? Is the programming field going to remain a “male profession”?

  • I think female programmers and IT professionals are special. I was torn between two excellent job offers recently because of my skills and the fact that I’m a woman. (One of the employers actually told me that they needed a female manager to dictate proper behavior in an all-male computer repair shop. :P) I think a lot of women are too involved in how they are perceived by others to be interested in programming. (When you say programming, they think of a boy with pimples, glasses, and a pocket protector.) They reserve a lot of their brain capacity for learning about how to make themselves look better. When I was a kid while other girls were painting their nails, I was sitting at a computer desk.

    Things will eventually get better for us. We just have to push educating younger girls in school that learning about math and science is fun and very rewarding.