Women and Coding

I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, but I’m on break, and I basically refuse to use my brain. 🙂  Actually, there’s more to it than that, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Over the break, I ran into a couple of articles about Digital Humanities and coding, both by women.  They both address issues with exhorting women in DH to code.  Miriam’s post (second one linked) discusses the issues of the unfriendliness of both in-person and online communities for learning, and the pressure of representing all women.  The other post is more about not blogging and tweeting more, but it shares an issue with the other, which is about time.

These posts come on the heels of an interview I had with Audrey Watters about coding, and an article in the New York Times about the need for everyone to learn to code and touting all the new online ventures that are supposedly helping people to learn to code.  There are, btw, several women quoted in the article, at least one of whom I actually know in real life.  It’s a small world of people who think about these things.  There should be more of us.

As someone who is simultaneously learning to code and teaching women to code, I think a lot about why more women aren’t interested enough in coding to take the time to do it.  And I can come up with a few key things I’ve been thinking about.

First, to address the issue of whether DH’ers or anyone else should learn to code.  Short answer, yes.  Yes, they should know a little code.  They should spend maybe just a few weeks learning enough to write a couple of simple programs–in Python or PHP or Javascript or whatever, doesn’t matter.  It will at least give them an appreciate of how machines work and interpret instructions, of the limitations of what we can tell computers to do, and the logic of the instructions we give.  It helps people see the gap between how humans process information vs. how computers do, which has to be a huge help to anyone, but especially for those in DH.  This is not to say everyone doing DH should become an expert coder.  Only if they want to.  There are plenty of ways to contribute without knowing how to code.

Second, why don’t more women pursue coding, especially with all these great resources that are available.  The answers differ, depending on where you are.  For my students, there’s the time factor–finding time for a class or an after-school program or just figuring it out on their own.  And when your schedule is already packed, that’s hard.  But there’s also a coolness factor (or lack of coolness factor, I should say), something the first post I linked mentions as an issue for teens.  That’s hard to overcome.

Older women also have the time issue.  And here’s where I get to my break.  I could be coding over break. I’m not. My husband did.  He codes in almost every spare moment of his time.  Sometimes I do, but a lot of times I don’t.  And frankly, I attribute some of that to being a woman.  Even if the actual physical labor of our household is evenly divided, and it’s not quite, the brainpower devoted to it is not.  As soon as my husband walks out the door, he’s not thinking about whether the kids will do their homework and clean their rooms or the fact that we’re out of butter or milk or that I have no underwear and therefore need to do laundry.  Those thoughts crowd my head, plus doctor’s appointments, etc.  That’s not to say I’m distracted when I’m working, but it often means that when I do have spare time, those things become my priority, not coding.  Learning anything is a challenge, and frankly, learning to code is not a cakewalk when you get past a certain level.  It’s higher order problem solving.  It puts my brain cells into probably their highest gear.  Which is great and exhilarating at times, but requires energy.  And if I’ve just put in a long 10 hour day teaching, I have a hard time mustering the energy to code.  And laundry takes less energy and it’s already in my head to do anyway.

The other, more important issue, I think, is about the culture.  Learning to code is about entering another culture.  Miriam mentioned the inside jokes that go along with this culture.  Those jokes, along with many other things, are meant to keep people out.  And that’s the nice way of doing it.  If you’ve been to Slashdot lately, you’ll see the not so nice way.  Programming culture, especially online, is not far off from Mad Men.  Women are made to feel that they don’t belong and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.

The culture also creates particular structures for learning about programming which are not friendly to women.  Here’s how most men I know learned to code.  They or their parents bought them a (Tandy, IBM, Apple IIe), and they used the manual to learn to program, often in BASIC.  They did this on their own, in their bedrooms or rec-rooms.  By the time, they got to high school, they joined the computer club, which brought together all the other boys who’d learned to program the same way.  By the time they got to college, they’d written programs to do all kinds of things–from games to graphics to organizing their cassette tapes.  Girls, in contrast, often weren’t given a computer.  I got my first as a sophomore in college. Nowadays that’s less true, but nowadays computers don’t immediately look like they need to be programmed.  Why would anyone learn to program on their MacBook?  It’s got tons of programs.

The mostly solo, figure-it-out-for-yourself mode of learning has now been transferred online.  Every venture out there, from Stanford’s CS courses to Codeacademy, takes this as its model.  They think, well, I learned on my own, so if we just give people the resources, they can do it, too.  No, really, they can’t.  They might be able to get started.  But there’s no sequence of courses.  One doesn’t progress from easy projects to harder ones.  One doesn’t learn the next level of things, because often one doesn’t know the next level.  There aren’t group projects or socialization or a context that’s interesting and fun.  I’ve taken a couple of these courses.  In one from MIT, the first lesson had us calculating the first 1000 prime numbers. Woo hoo.  That’s going to be something I use again.  My first lesson in the class I teach? Draw a square with your robot.  Same principles apply, but it’s a lot more fun, imho.

My point is, these courses attract the same kinds of people to CS that CS has always attracted.  They’re not doing things differently enough to reach folks who’ve looked at coding and thought, nope, not interested.  As Miriam says at the end of her post: “If you want women and people of color in your community, if it is important to you to have a diverse discipline, you need to do something besides exhort us to code.”  Yes, you need to do things differently–way differently.  You have to attract the artist and the musician and the future scientist.  You have to contextualize coding within things that they’re interested in, not within things that you think are important.  It’s why I changed my 8th grade curriculum.  Okay, I said, you don’t like this, then let’s do this.  Similar information is being taught, but hopefully it’s in a way that doesn’t turn people off.  And I think it means you have to accept that most women haven’t been sitting in their basements hacking on their computers (though some certainly have), and that might mean explaining the inside jokes (or not telling them) and not assuming that they have a certain baseline knowledge.  And you can’t berate them for that.  I mean Apple once said, “Think different.” But when it comes to teaching coding, few people are.

7 Replies to “Women and Coding”

  1. Very timely, I am getting ready to start crafting a course like this at Mary Washington that would be run in something like a ds106 mode- less of a programming / coding class and more of how to connect existing systems and libraries to create things, having an awareness of inputs/outputs, how APIs work, etc.

    Are you coming to Faculty Academy? I’ll let you know if I come through Philly, would love to catch up.

  2. Laura, this is a really interesting post! I have tossed around the idea of learning to code before, with all the recent Codeacademy hype, etc, and my reasons for not doing so come very close to what you state here: carving out the mental space/energy and not being attracted to the solo-study model being chief among the dissuading factors. I wish there were clubs or social groups for women who want to learn how to code, where we could work together and have buddies and drinks and snacks, you know? Like Computer Club for Grown-Up Girls, I guess.

  3. Laura, I’d strongly encourage you or anyone else interested to spend a Friday evening/Saturday the next time there’s an event and check out PyStar Philly. Their next event is in June: http://phillypystar.eventbrite.com/

    The model is still very much, here is a task now let’s do it on our own but when you get that number of women in the room together to code I think the potential for a more social learning experience is there. As it is the teachers and volunteers are great and good at getting the group to think out loud through the exercises as you learn. The next step is something I’ve struggled with though – there is a monthly project night but I still haven’t attended one because of that TIME thing but I’ve heard good things from those who have followed through with the project nights to continue learning.

  4. Alan, I’m going to try to come to Faculty Academy. That middle of the week thing is hard for us K-12 folks, but I think I can swing. That sounds like a good class, btw. That’s where most people start, and many people will need to know those things if they do more in-depth programming.

    Yep, Jackie, those programs are awesome and there are quite a few in Philly. Also check out Meet Up for some opportunities.

    Cat, I hear ya. I follow many of those events and would love to attend, but often I’m too exhausted or literally don’t have the time.

  5. Great post. I think that Scratch out of MIT is a great program for kids to learn…there are lots of fun little programming environments for kids like that, but I happened to see a demo of it at the DML Conference in San Francisco and I thought, I want to learn that. And then I thought, why does it have to stop being “fun” Why can’t it be a fun environment and learning framework no matter the age? I realize some people don’t need or want that, but I sure do, otherwise I’m going to just go scan 4chan for funny memes instead of building something.

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