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.
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.