Update: Instead of reading this blog post, I suggest you read the article, “The Secret History of Women in Computing: Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?“
Spoiler: The thing that went wrong wasn’t that women stopped liking to code.
I’m at the Microsoft MVP Summit in Redmond, Washington this week. This is a great event for learning from the folks building amazing new technology at Microsoft, giving feedback and representing the community, and meeting and learning from other MVPs from around the world.
This is a week of optimism and inspiration and thinking about possibility.
But this morning I got a reminder of the mindsets and assumptions that limit this possibility. That squash that inspiration. That make people, particularly women, think, “tech isn’t for me.”
This post is an exploration of a comment that I found surprisingly “squashing.” This post isn’t about shaming any specific people (nobody is identified except for me), it’s about exploring my own beliefs and biases that led this comment to have such power over me. Writing this was part of my personal process of defusing those beliefs and biases.
I slid into breakfast slightly behind schedule
We get free breakfast at our hotels at this event. It’s served buffet style in an area reserved for MVPs. I wanted to grab a bite and then jump on the bus quickly to make the first session today, so I slid into a table by myself. Right away, I heard two men at the next table talking loudly about women in technology.
This is an international event, but for the record these two were clearly from the United States. They weren’t yelling, but they were speaking loudly and they sounded irritated.
One of the men was talking about how women didn’t come to his user group. He said:
There’s nothing keeping them from coming to my user group.
And then he said:
I just think there’s not that many women who enjoy coding. And I say that based on my daughter, too.
I was flooded with anger
Almost immediately, I landed in a place between two urges: a urge to stand up and yell, and also a big fear response, too. The kind of fear response which triggers chemicals in your body and you can really feel it.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say anything coherent in that moment. I wasn’t going to open anyone’s mind, because this comment connected me with the culture of “Nice/Pretty/Good Girls Aren’t Smart” which runs deep.
I’m not a kid anymore. I’m in my 40’s, and if someone calls me “Miss,” I look behind me to see who they’re talking to. I’ve developed some toughness over this time. But I still had a moment where I considered bailing out on the day and heading home early.
And then I mentally kicked myself and informed myself that I could throw this guy’s crappy expectations out of my head.
Why did I get so mad?
I’ve been fortunate in life: my parents told me I could do anything I want, and they expected me to do great things. They frequently told me that I was smart – when I was a toddler, an awkward pre-teen, and a particularly obnoxious teenager (there were some rough years) – my parents set high expectations for me and they kept on telling me I was smart. Even after I did dumb things.
I took this for granted as a kid. I rolled my eyes at it as a teenager. As an adult I am incredibly grateful they did this – because I was getting a lot of other messages from the media, from other kids, from friends’ parents and even sometimes from teachers:
- Cool girls aren’t smarter than the boys
- Girls can be good at things that are feminine, like literature and writing, but boys are just better at math and science
- Women shouldn’t be pushy. (The word “pushy” is a way to make “persistent and self-driven” into something negative, and the word is almost always used to describe women.)
These messages aren’t usually consciously sent, they are often accidentally said. They come from both men and women. These messages are still a hugely strong part of our culture.
I know, because I still fight against these feelings. I shouldn’t seem too smart in front of other people. Nobody likes a woman who shows off. It’s my role to make other people comfortable, not to challenge them. I should shut up and be quieter, I’m a girl. I’m supposed to be supportive, not a leader.
I got angry because the belief that “women just don’t like coding” is a manifestation of the cultural norm that women simply aren’t suited to being smart, that women are here for bringing comfort, not for blazing new trails. Women just don’t like it! How could they invent and lead when they’re so busy putting on makeup?
There is a relationship between these two statements:
- “There’s not that very many women who enjoy coding”
- “She’s such a nerdy freak, she thinks she can do this stuff. And she’s ugly.”
The first statement is completely ignorant that women in the United States are getting the second statement all the time, both blatantly and subtly (often complete with unrelated personal insults, usually on appearance – because we love to judge women on appearance in our culture).
The first statement rolls around in that ignorance and blissfully declares that it’s simply in women’s nature to not participate in a critical part of the most powerful and transformative industry that humans have ever invented.
Expectations shape reality
All those times when my mom or dad told me I was smart and I rolled my eyes, I still heard them. Those expectations sank in, even when I just had a sarcastic response. Those are the expectations that made my reality today. I work in technology. I run my own business. I wouldn’t be doing this if it my parents hadn’t drilled it into me that I am smart.
But yet, I still have those crappy cultural expectations in my head. I still have to constantly fight the feeling that I would be much better at this stuff if I was a guy.
And I sometimes have to squelch thoughts that censure other women for being bold, for being outspoken, for being brave leaders, for being unashamedly inventive and brilliant, for being the smartest person in the room.
That guy’s crappy expectations made me so mad, because I still share them in some shadowy way, and I constantly have to correct for them.
I’m not going to judge this anonymous MVP’s daughter. I am going to hope for her that someone in her life repeatedly tells her that she’s smart. And even better: that someone tells her she’s a leader, that she’s brilliant, that she has everything she needs to change the world with technology, with math, with her brain, and that she can start doing that whenever she wants. That she’s going to do remarkable things in her life, and she’s in control. Again, and again, and again.
“Interests” usually don’t just come from inside us. Our interests are hugely shaped by what people tell us we can do, and how that fits in with all the crappy cultural messages we are ever so slowly evolving away from.
My mission: raise my expectations, because we deserve it
A lot of my thoughts after this morning are around the question, “Is there something I could have said to change that guy’s mind?”
But the more I sit with this and write through it, I realize: that guy doesn’t matter.
The important thing is to change my own mind, and to evolve my own thought patterns. To not let his voice and the voices around him dim my love of coding / technology / geeking out. Instead, to bounce off those voices and be more inspired to do awesome work.
The important thing is to try to increase the messages to women in our culture: smart is the new beautiful, and YOU ARE SMART. I love it when you’re the smartest person in the room.
The important thing is to set high expectations for myself and my fellow women, and to have good assumptions about us, because we deserve those expectations and assumptions!
And that’s what I wanted to start doing more of in this post.
But there’s not that many women who code (added March 11)
A couple of folks in the comments have made the point that there are not that many women who are developers in technology, but there are women in other roles in IT — and that I overheard a statement of fact.
I’m up late and I’m in a cheerful, story-writing mood* inspired by a recent book I read, so take a quick break for a thought experiment with me!
*FYI, I am not the same Kendra Little who writes romance novels. I haven’t read the novels (YET!) but I’m guessing they are WAY juicier than this.
An uber wealthy group of women decide to start a new experimental culture.
They buy a private island, pay to outfit it with great infrastructure, and recruit a group of young women engineers and a few men to join their experiment, in which they are going to change the way society works.
The new society is based on a model where the adult women primarily work at a software engineering company on the island, making games that are sold around the world. The internet and media on the island is tightly filtered for everyone else to protect the experiment.
The men on the island primarily work building things, and also running the homes on the island.
The children are taught that men are suited to do things like build homes and structures, farming and gardening, raising animals and taking care of houses. They are told this is because men are very active and are naturally suited to moving around a lot and thinking in shapes.
The children are taught that women are suited to tasks that require using computers, math, and coding, because women are good at communicating with one another, resolving problems, and being creative together about engineering complex solutions.
When the children are very young, they do a lot of things together as they begin to learn, but they learn that boys like blue and wear pants (the better to build things in) and girls like pink and wear skirts (much more suited to sitting and thinking hard).
Once the kids start getting toward the pre-teen years, kids start to tease easy other, and the genders start to split more into groups.
Boys who like to play on the computer are called “girly-boys” and are mocked for not being manly. The kids all have some computer classes for basic literacy, but boys who do too well at it are teased by some of the mean girls, who say, “I’d never date HIM, he thinks he’s a girl.”
When a boy has a hard time on his homework for computer class, his father says, “That’s OK, son. I was never good at that stuff either. Your sister is great at it, but you’re really good at building things.” (Dad really never did see the attraction in it, I guess that’s why he signed up to come to this island.)
Most of the boys follow their role models in life. They pair up with someone they enjoy and they find some work that they like.
But there are still some boys who like coding so much that they persevere- because they don’t like building very much. Even though they get teased, they persist at learning it. Some of them give up and go back to doing more traditional manly things, but a few boys stick with technology and do well.
Some of the young men start to land jobs at the software engineering company! It can be a little lonely working in the development team at times, because most of the guys around are working in facilities, or they move furniture around the office, or they’re project managers (men plan a lot of the things they build, so they’re natural project managers), but the older men aren’t coders.
The women software developers all seems to speak the same language. Some of them try to be nice, but they get frustrated because they find the young men harder to communicate with. They just don’t seem to understand things as fast, and when a lot of women are having a high paced technical conversation, a lot of times the young men don’t even talk a lot.
But the men still keep trying. The software development company needs more developers, and the young men try to talk management into training and recruiting more young men.
The men worked really hard to get where they were, and they want to help other men — and make the software company even better.
One day at lunch, one young male developer sits next to two young women who are talking loudly. One of the women complains, in a loud, frustrated voice, “There’s nothing keeping these guys from coming to my user group. I just think there’s not that many men who enjoy coding.“
In both this story and in real life, the claim is about what people enjoy based on their gender.
Remember the Barbie doll who said, “Math class is tough! Party dresses are fun! I’ll always be here to help you! Do you have a crush on anyone?” That happened in 1992. The Barbie was marketed towards teens.
Remember Computer Engineer Barbie, who’s only computer skill seemed to be getting a virus on her laptop? She had to have the laptop fixed by two boys, who also were the ones doing the programming. That was 2013.
I’m not saying the Barbies are the cause of all this. I’m saying they’re just characters in this story – the story we tell our kids about what girls do and what boys do.
The story that explains why the fact that having few women developers does not mean that women do not like coding.
Oh, and the book that inspired this thought experiment is “The Power” by Naomi Alderman. It’s an interesting read, a real page turning, and enjoyable whether or not you give a hoot about coding.