I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about why I like programming and why I’ve pursued software development. I thought I’d take some time to explore this narrative further, especially in terms of the gender gap in tech and it’s root in primary education.
Growing up, every family member and friend told me I’d be a lawyer. This was mostly due to a stereotype about argumentative kids. I loved to argue. For me it was a fun game that got me into more trouble than actually convinced others of my point. I loved to talk people and circles and end with them contradicting themselves and shoving that in their faces. Yeah, I was a fantastic child to be around. As I grew more mature, the idea of sharpening and adding nuance to argumentation captivating most of my time. I was on the debate team. I majored in philosophy and wrote 30 page papers that dissected and laid out arguments, reconstructing their flaws. Eventually however, I yearned for more precision and accuracy in my canon. It was in taking my first economics courses I found that in modeling and math. Math is the purest form of argumentation, nuanced and creatively constructed argumentation. It was in this period I discovered a great lie I had been told as a kid in my education.
I was a gregarious child who found the human mind more interesting than the insides of a computer. It would never had occurred to me as a child to choose computer science or mathematics over reading and writing. This early false dichotomy has cost me a great start to a career as a computer scientist. Now I know that solving a logic problem with a computer takes a similar level of nuance, creativity, and planning as solving and argumentation problem in text. It astonishes me that we don’t show kids how creative programming can be. And, in my opinion, this leads to a series of stereotypes that align naturally with gender stereotypes in this country as well. Reading, writing, emotional nuance and analysis are all things in the sphere of women’s influence, while repetitive actions in math similar to gaming are left to men. I have had several people speculate to me that the reason more boys are interested in computer science is that it is more nitty-gritty and repetition heavy (like video games) than big picture areas that are concerned for in the arts. Boys can spend hours at their computers or video games, while girls just aren’t interested.
I am discussing this because the question often arises, “Why aren’t there more female computer scientists in the U.S.?” And this question was not always relevant. At certain points in our history the rate of women in CS was rising higher than men. During the 70s and 80s almost all ads for personal computers were targeted towards young boys rather than girls. Girls stopped seeing themselves in front of a computer. And by the mid-90s computer science classrooms were dominated by men. I never saw myself as a person in front of computer, hacking away all day and never communicating with another living person.
This is why I think it’s important that we not only change the ratio in computer science and representation factor, but expand for children what CS is capable of and the array of learning styles and minds that can learn to program. Especially with the rise of machine learning and natural language processing, the ability to think creatively about communicating the complexity of language is more important than ever. The ability to build arguments and analyze a vast amount of information in order to make a choice about the direction of a program is important. The intuition to spot bugs in chaos is important.
If we expand the perceptions of what kind of thinking is needed for programming, it may help expand the types of people who pursue the field as well.