Women in Tech: Why am I here?

Dave Winer set off a firestorm with his blog post asking Why are there so few women programmers.

Lots of people on twitter and his blog called him a lot of unwarranted names, said his straight, white, male privilege was showing, etc. etc.

Just a suggestion — if you find yourself getting all bent out of shape as you read my blog, you might want to read to the end.

Winer must have been in school about the same time as me, and he is right. There were very few women in programming.

In the 1980s,  I was working as an industrial engineer, at General Dynamics, doing programming. Nearly every meeting I sat in, I was the only woman in the room.

It’s not any kind of misogynistic statement to say he worked with few women programmers. I worked with one other woman engineer and no other women programmers.

Fast forward to now. There are certainly more women programmers than there used to be. In the work that I do, statistical programming for The Julia Group and educational gaming for 7 Generation Games, the number of women varies. I see more women at statistics conferences, though most are not in senior positions at their organizations – so I doubt they’d work on a team with someone at Winer’s level.

At the gaming side, when I go to start-up events, I meet very few females who are coding.

Long-winded way of saying there were very few females in tech 30 years ago, and at least in my little spheres, they are still the minority now.



Like Winer, I can only guess, but I will make four guesses.

1. Women are not encouraged. I took three required programming classes. My older brother was a computer science major and was always there when I had a question. After him, I can’t think of a single person for the next several years. Partly, I’m here as a fluke. I was nine months pregnant, insisted on still walking through the factory and clambering up on machines to see what was going on and frankly, it was creeping the factory management out so the powers that be sent me to a SAS class to get me out of there.

2. Women feel uncomfortable. Back in the day, users group meetings were great because you got freeware on FLOPPY DISKS. My husband, though, wasn’t too excited about meetings with 60 guys and me. When I attend start-up events now, everyone assumes I am in marketing. It gets annoying to have to establish my credibility in every conversation. Random fact about me, I was the first American to win a world judo championships, so I’m a lot more used to being the only woman in the room than most people. Interestingly, I was at a tournament a few years ago, talking to the women registered in the black belt division. The first woman was a programmer (SQL, I think), the second did maintenance on (unbelievably) legacy code in COBOL, the third was supervisor of a road construction crew, the fourth was a carpenter. Maybe I’m here because I early on got used to being in an all male environment. It certainly seems to be a more common path for women in judo (which is one of the more sexist martial arts in the U.S., far more than mixed martial arts).

3. Some men in tech are complete assholes. Let’s just get it out there. There are men who are just vicious in tearing apart their colleagues. Some are more hateful to women and some are just awful to everyone. I was listening to a podcast the other day where someone said, “If you make (this error) in SQL, you should just cut your fingers off and put them on your desk. Let someone who knows what they are doing write code.” These are the people who stand up in conference rooms and want to point out the slightest departure from perfection in the work done by anyone else, with the insinuation that only a complete moron would have used an ARRAY here.  There are some hateful women, also, but I have met fewer of them. I *think* men are socialized more to suck it up and be tough. Women seem to be bothered more by colleagues who are mean, insulting and abusive than men are, although neither gender finds those people to be a walk in the park. Maybe I’m here because I’m a straight-A bitch when the situation warrants.  If you post nasty comments on my blog, I delete them, think “what an asshole” and move on. As for women who have had their families threatened, I don’t worry about it because no one could possibly be that stupid. Darling Daughter Number Three is the world champion in mixed martial arts . (Her best friend’s picture is below mostly just because we’ve known him since he was 13, we love him dearly and I am so proud of him that he won his second UFC fight this year over the weekend.)

Manny Gamburyan

4. A lot of people in tech lack social grace. This includes me, and there may be a better phrase than social grace, which kind of supports my point. The Invisible Developer is extremely kind-hearted. However, he would say things to the children like, “I can’t believe you are having trouble understand integrals. I figured this out by myself when I was in the eighth grade.” And he would be puzzled when they burst into tears. Often, and this may even be the case with Dave Winer and his blog, they say something completely well-meaning from their point of view, like,

“I wonder why there aren’t more women in programming. Maybe they don’t want to do it because it’s like hunting. You need to sit on your ass and do nothing for long periods.”

and they really don’t understand at all why people get upset. It’s a good bet that people whose strengths are more in the technical realm than diplomacy are more often found in tech fields. Maybe I’m here because I have a very thick skin. Almost every time I get stuck on a technical problem, The Invisible Developer asks, “You want me to do that for you?” I do not give my immediate response, which is, “No, I’m fucking 55 years old. I can figure it out for myself!” Instead, I tell him that if he did it for me, then I wouldn’t have learned how to do it so that sort of defeats the point. (See, I do have some social skills.)


If you take away from this that I think I’m better than the average woman and that’s why I’m here, you missed the point. I don’t think those reasons I mentioned are always good. Often, I think I have disappointed my children when they wanted someone to say, “Oh, poor baby” instead of “Suck it up.”

They probably would have liked a mother they didn’t have to caution, “Please don’t say, ‘Fuck’ in front of the admissions people from Harvard.”

My female friends undoubtedly wish I would be more empathetic when their feelings are hurt – and I am very, very fortunate to still have those friends after “not getting it” so many times.

My point is that there ARE fewer women programmers and this is why I think that is so.

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  1. My daughter just graduated with a minor in computer science. Her experience was that there was a hierarchy of perceived ability, with Asian males first, then other males, then (much lower) Asian females, then other females like her (and Grace Hopper).

    When there was a problem, she’d propose an answer and be ignored, and later one of the Asian males would come up with the same answer, and it would be accepted as correct. Or when she proposed an answer, people would look around, and wait for one of the males to approve the answer.

    There are fewer women in tech because this hierarchy exists, based on gender and not on actual ability, and I assume most women don’t like it and look elsewhere. The women who stick it out must be tougher, and very interested in tech, either for itself or because it opens other avenues of study. For my daughter, programming is an important part of AI, and AI is an important part of her career path.

  2. I have had that exact same experience. In a meeting once, it was assumed that someone else was responsible for a system I had designed and written. The department head (a woman!) said to me afterward that I could not blame the other person in the meeting for assuming that Mr. X had written it because “After all, he’s male and from India so he looks like a programmer and you don’t.”

    Incidentally, X was dumber than a box of hair and couldn’t write a program to add 2 + 2.

  3. I started with approximately 300 other Freshman who chose computer science as their major. Roughly 1/3 of the students were female. From what I personally saw, the women had the same treatment and opportunity as the men. The men were respectful to the women (and vice versa), and the professors encouraged everyone equally. About 20 of us graduated from the initial class of 300: 2 females, 18 males. I was amazed how many people (both male and female) switched majors when they realized it took actual work to succeed.

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