Recent Posts




« | Main | »

Women programmers

By Rosie Perera | May 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I was encouraged by this article to see that tech companies are recognizing the value of hiring top notch women programmers and resisting the all-male culture that was once common in Silicon Valley startups (and still exists in some). I’m also encouraged to see more women going into the field and gaining leadership roles lately. There are so many women who have made an impact and are inspiring more girls to go into computer science. It’s become “cool” to be tech savvy (probably thanks in part to Apple), so girls are not as turned off by that occupation as they were in previous decades.

When I worked for Microsoft I was one of a very small number of women in techie positions (programming, testing, program management). There were more women in other roles like user education and marketing (Melinda French, who later became Bill Gates’ wife, was a marketer in my product team). But Microsoft was actively concerned about how to recruit women back in those early days. I remember being invited to a meeting with Applications Division VP Mike Maples, along with a handful of other women programmers and techie types (maybe 8 or 9 of us in all – less than 10% of the techie employees), and asked “What are we doing wrong? What could we do better to make this a welcoming place for women or to find great women programmers to hire?”

It was a puzzling question. We didn’t really know what to suggest. Part of the problem was that those of us females who did work there back then didn’t mind much about the all-male culture since we fit into it. We were all pretty stereotypically geeky (I suppose I can only speak for myself, but I do think most of us were) and got along fine with the guys. So it didn’t turn us off. The guys we worked with, as I recall, were mostly nerds, all very friendly as colleagues, and did not engage in sexist remarks or harassment. They respected us for we were their equals in our technical abilities. We didn’t have any “brogrammers” — that concept is so very new.

For a while I was part of a group of women techies that formed at Microsoft to encourage our professional development, help with ideas for recruiting women, and for camaraderie. It was named “Hoppers” after Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist who developed the first compiler for a programming language and coined (or at least popularized) the term “debugging” after some of her colleagues found a moth stuck in an electrical part of a computer which had been causing it to malfunction. But I eventually took myself off the email list when conversations on it degenerated into complaining about how Microsoft ought to supply free tampons in the ladies’ rooms to make it a better workplace for women, and other such drivel. Maybe I would have been more tolerant of such “girl talk” now, but back then I didn’t think it was helping matters any.

There was also a problem at the supply end. Only 10% of the graduates in computer science from my university my year (1985) were women. Girls were not being encouraged to study math and computers at a young enough age to make them interested in majoring in it. And the nascent software industry already had a reputation of being filled with geeky guys who stayed up all night working in computer labs (dungeons) to crank out code (think The Soul of a New Machine), so most girls would not have been drawn to it. The numbers improved for a few years in the late 80s to early 90s, but that didn’t last. On a recruiting trip back to my alma mater I visited my old friend professor Andy van Dam, who was as concerned about the lack of women going into computer science as anyone could be. He told me there was an even lower ratio of female students in the department than when I had been there.

I’m happy to see that the Brown CS department now has three female faculty members out of 28, plus four adjuncts out of ten, whereas there were none when I was a student.

Please encourage any girls you know who seem to have any interest in numbers and gadgets when they are young to learn about programming and aspire to be whatever they want to be. It is simply not true that male brains are better at this stuff than female brains. We direct kids into stereotypical pursuits based on our expectations of what they ought to be good at. Sometimes we don’t even give them half a chance. I wrote a paper for a psychology class in college on women and math anxiety, and concluded that much of it is culturally imposed.

I am forever grateful that my parents encouraged my love of math and all things geeky, the things usually only boys were encouraged in back then. My dad taught me to play chess at a young age. My parents gave me a Radio Shack (Tandy) Science Fair Digital Computer Kit when I was about 14, and I had hours of fun with it, learned so much. They gave me gave me a programmable pocket calculator for my 16th birthday. They let me take a BASIC programming class in summer school when I was in high school, and paid for me to take a FORTRAN class at a nearby college when I’d outgrown what my high school could teach me. They also sent me off to a summer program for high school math geeks called HCSSiM (Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics) when I was 16. All of these things provided an enriching environment to grow up in which led me to become a software engineer.

So what can I say to companies now who want to recruit more women software developers? You’ve got to get them when they’re younger. Work to continue changing the cultural perception of computer programmers as anti-social geeky men. Sponsor girls in science fairs. Encourage your own daughters to play with math and science toys and puzzles. (Rubik’s Cube was a big part of my teen years.) Take them to Maker Faires.

Some other good articles/posts on this topic:

Some resource websites for girls/women interested in programming:

Topics: Uncategorized | No Comments »


You must be logged in to post a comment.