tl;dr; if you want to code, you should, regardless of gender identity. To find out what a modern programmer does, talk to one.
This article is a response to the disgraceful clickbait published by someone who should know better. It was called “Why Women Shouldn’t Code” and was published in Medium and I’ll let you look it up, as I prefer not to enable more click-throughs for her. A certain amount of uproar has already occurred over the internet and the article was amply eviscerated by Jenn Schiffer and Kelly Ellis:
Jenn gives good advice. Before I start in on this, I thought it would be useful to contextualize my perspective. First, I’m 44. My mom was a former first-grade teacher who decided to stay at home after she started having children because, in her opinion, there were only three professions open to women in the 60s: airline stewardess (which is what they were called), teacher, or housewife. She did one, then switched to the other, and was happy, but she always told me that my opportunities would be vastly expanded growing up as I did during the second wave of feminism in the 80s and 90s. Even Girl Scouts got really career-focused in this era, and we were constantly told that we could do anything, be anything, we just had to shoot for the moon. It was a good message, and not anyone’s fault that I was drawn to more traditionally feminine pursuits – I learned how to knit, crochet, tat, make lace, cook, draw, and sew clothes, but I wasn’t particularly interested in my three brothers’ legos or reverse engineering of that TRS-80 computer. After earning a Ph.D. in a highly specialized corner of French studies at Cal Berkeley, I was lucky enough to realize quickly that this career path was a dead end and I was able to retrain, starting back at ground zero with a remote internship, and gradually learning how to design, then code, then work with databases, then build mobile apps, then write about the whole experience. So you find me now a Developer Advocate at a great company with a bunch of Github commits, a portfolio of commercial apps, and something like 14 years’ job experience in Engineering. It’s been a great ride, sometimes bumpy, but almost never have I been discouraged from shooting for the moon…just like we were taught in the 80s.
So it was with real horror that I read an article that posits that women are not suited to the work of the programmer, but are rather more suited to the interactive status of the marketer, PR person, etc, based on their “innate biology”:
“In general, women are more intuitive and more perceptive. There’s mountains of research about that. They’re also more nurturing. That’s hard-coded into them for the preservation of the race.”
As someone who went to grad school in the 1990s when Judith Butler wrote her groundbreaking book on gender as performance, this concept seems incredibly dated. It reminded me immediately of the concept in Saudi Arabia that women are not innately suited to drive cars because they are emotionally unable to drive. It’s so ridiculous that it really doesn’t merit a response, but since a woman wrote this article it has the same credibility of someone like Phyllis Schlafly whose baking skills were extremely effective in crushing the ERA (yes, I remember!). These people are dangerous, which is why I’m writing this article.
But rather than debating the opinion that women are better suited to one or another career, I wanted to answer a different part of this article which is demonstrably inaccurate and makes me wonder if she has any earthly idea of the work process of a modern programmer:
“It requires enormous concentration, and it is exacting. It’s often done in a dark room with no interruptions. But the most important people in the company don’t write the code, they tell the coders what to write. Coders don’t make the big decisions.”
Other authors have demonstrated that coders who become CEOs or CTOs actually do make quite big decisions. I want to call out the concept that programmers dwell, like mushrooms, in dark rooms, like the guy from “Office Space”, which I fear has influenced this article. I want to tell you about my own work process.
For the past few years I have happily worked from home. I have experienced various other types of work environments, including small offices (as in a sort of closet with another person), a cubicle in a big company (horror!), a regular office in a smaller company, but I find that working from home works best from me as the mother of two kids. I have always accepted employment offers only if remote work is acceptable as I know that I am most productive in my own environment. Right now I am typing this at my kitchen table, close to my coffee maker and plate of biscotti. My regular office has a standing desk and several monitors but I can switch from room to room at will. When the kids come home at 2:30, I can meet them with a hot cocoa and a snack. In the morning I can go for a run or do a different workout. At lunch I can eat outside. During the day I am constantly chatting with my colleagues on Skype or Slack, and often have face-to-face meetings over Skype. I am not in a dark room unless I turn out the lights, I am not working in isolation, and I do not look much like a mushroom unless I don’t bother with makeup that day.
My home office
What I am trying to say is that by caricaturing the work of programmers, the author (Francine Hardaway, who again, should know better) is doing those of us who are evolving the field a real disservice. Her vision of the profession seems deliberately calculated to try to scare people, especially people who identify as gendered feminine, away. Why that is I don’t know, but I would like to invite women and girls who are considering the field to shadow current programmers to get an idea of what we actually do. You can contact me via this blog if you want to learn more. Alternately, if you can find a chapter of Girl Develop It or Girls Who Code in your area, talk to the pros who run it and see what they say about their daily work. If it sounds interesting or exciting, maybe it is for you! Because this is America, women and girls have real choices here, and it’s 2015 and I shouldn’t even have to write this article.