Women in Computing

Posted August 24, 2009 in Feminism, Internet

Full disclaimer: I am a man.

And that, many assume, makes me better at computing than if I were a woman.

To me, such reasoning is, on the surface, patently absurd. What possible difference should testosterone or estrogen make in typing or programming skills? Yet here I work, sifting through resumes and interviewing candidates during my last few days of software engineering, and nary a woman has sat across from me. All my engineer coworkers, past and present, are men. Even at school, lecture halls infusing 200 students with computer knowledge would never seat 10 women. I can only conclude that there is a huge absence of women in computing.

And so, runs the thinking, it must be women's choice.

Must it?

At work, I code in a programming language called Ruby, using a set of tools called Rails. These are both relatively new technologies, netting a fresh generation of programmers. In April of this year, a conference was held, the Golden Gate Ruby Conference, in which a male programmer presented his data storage and retrieval project. His presentation showcased soft-core porn—in fact, it was entirely themed on porn. The six professional women attending this professional conference of 200 professionals were, I assume, horribly offended (judging by some online reactions). Many men stand in solidarity with these women, but others do not: a notable backer of this sexually degrading imagery being displayed in a professional setting is the originator of Rails, a role model for aspiring programmers, who boldly states, “I'm an R rated individual.” Many men (and few women) agree.


Another software hero is the founder of the Free Software Foundation. Most of my readers have probably heard of Linux; without this programming giant, Linux (and, indeed, most of the Free Software movement) might never have come to be. This man, a famous role model, speaks at schools and conferences. This July, at one of his talks, he declared that women who do not use the EMACS text editor he wrote are “EMACS virgins,” whose “holy duty” is to be relieved of their virginity. When one (male) attendee brought to his attention that such statements can easily be interpreted as denigrating and sexist, his response did not address these concerns at all. Legions of computer programmers leaped to the defence of his female virgin joke, with a vast array of explanations and excuses.

With role models like these, who loudly protest that they hold women in the highest regard while simultaneously insulting and dismissing them, what happens with aspiring computer geeks?

Women are passively and routinely excluded. Who would use Rails after many in the Rails community publicly stated her rights and dignity are less important than a cheap joke? Who would use EMACS after being told by the author that she must use it to relieve herself and her female friends of their virginity? These comments have nothing to do with computers and everything to do with a deep-rooted absence of empathy and common sense. And these are just the role models: individuals, outside of the public eye, are quick to judge women as less talented, based solely on their gender.

With such a shortage of computer women in schools and jobs, young male computer experts fail to learn a balanced view of reality. There is a whole world of rational arguments and disgusting truths about male behaviour, but few speak of them in the computer world: for most male students, our prevailing cultural norms remain unchallenged.

This patriarchy is self-perpetuating: the exclusion of women leads to distorted male perspectives, leading to further exclusion of women.

Some women's computer users groups have sprung up and flourished, of course, but I argue that their necessity is a flaw in computer culture: proof that women struggle to find their places in a culture where they are perceived as second-rate citizens.

I feel the best recourse is education. Read about feminism (which is not a dirty word), feminism in computers, and maybe a feminist blog or two. Reality paints a serious, horrifying picture of men and predicts a long, painful battle for women, in computer circles and elsewhere. As a man, my level of participation is slightly limited; yet I vow to always cheer from the sidelines, and I promise to do my best to educate myself and others.

Sifting through more resumes, interviewing more candidates, I find myself hopeless, unable to envision a society in which women and men program computers as equals. This is a heart-wrenching loss for computer-savvy women, who are demeaned at every turn, and for the computing world as a whole, which would otherwise hold twice the talent.