Women can’t code. There’s no doubt.
It doesn’t matter that Ada Lovelace is considered to be the first computer programmer. She only wrote an algorithm intended to be carried by the 1st modern computer in 1842.
Or that in 1926 Grete Hermann published the fundamental paper for computerised algebra.
Or even that women were recruited as “computers” by the U.S government during World War II. And that in 1946 Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Meltzer, Fran Bilas, and Ruth Lichterman were the first programmers of the earliest electronic general-purpose computers made.
It doesn’t matter because women can’t code.
In 1949, Grace Hopper developed the first compiler. It’s nothing more than a computer program. One that transforms source code written in a programming language into another computer language, in order to create an executable program for an electronic computer.
And Dame Stephanie Shirley? Just a British woman who, in the 1950’s, built computers from scratch and wrote code in machine language. She founded the UK software company Freelance Programmers (now part of the Steria group) and was awarded a Recognition of Information Technology Award in 1985. But it’s irrelevant.
It’s not relevant because we all know that computer science is a world created for, and by men.
According to NPR’s article When Women Stopped Coding, it started mid-1980s. Computers were introduced in U.S. homes as a tool for gaming and business, and were therefore marketed to boys and men. (The fact that the first person, in 1965, to use a computer in a private home was a woman is trivial).
Pioneering women in computer science were slowly written out from history. Ads and films started creating the techie culture, defining computer science as a male dominated field, and gave us the “geek”: a socially awkward smart boy who uses tech savviness to save the day and win over the hot girl.
It’s a culture that has expanded to all STEM-related subjects and subsisted until now. In the very popular TV show The Big bang Theory, we had to wait until the end of season three to see neuroscientist Amy and microbiologist Bernadette joining the core cast. Until then, the only female character central to the show was Penny, portrayed as the archetypal “hot and dumb bimbo”.
This geek culture creates a clear disconnection between the computer science industry and the message girls receive about their ability to succeed in this field.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 1984-1985 academic year, women accounted for nearly 37% of all computer science undergraduate students. This number steadily dropped as the widespread use of home computers became more common Today women make up just 18% of computer science students. Which corresponds to the proportion of programmers who are female: 20%.
The stereotypes, the lack of role models, and sexism are some of the major reasons why women don’t see themselves as future programmers, says Robin Hauser Reynolds. For the director of the documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, the absence of women studying programming explains why tech jobs are growing three times faster than colleges are producing computer science graduates.
Robin hopes to help reverse this trend with her documentary. Code aims to inspire change in mindsets, in the educational system, in startup culture and in the way women see themselves in the field of coding.
And she is not the only one. Many initiatives are now providing opportunities for girls and women to engage in computer science. Organisations like Ada Developers Academy, Girl Develop It, and Girls Who Code offer training programs for women only, creating a positive learning environment and community support.
But why should women code?
The White House stated that by 2020 there would be 1 million unfilled computer science related jobs in the USA. Which represents 1 million of lucrative jobs opportunities for women.
And according to ComputerScience.org, women working in tech companies – particularly start-ups – are much more likely to have a healthy work/life balance. Many tech companies are supportive of non-traditional professional procedures, such as working flexible hours, working from home and employing videoconferencing technology.
Also, many technology companies recognize a key component of keeping female employees is providing substantial and fair paid leave policies for new mothers.
Facebook is a good example. While the average length of maternity leave in the U.S. for salaried employees is six weeks, all Facebook employees (whether a new father, mother or adoptive parent) receive four months of paid leave. And that’s in addition to $4,000 of “baby cash” to assist with unexpected costs. The company has also set up breastfeeding rooms in some of their offices.
However, even if many tech and computer science companies are at the forefront of progressive workplace policies, the gender pay gap is real. Glassdoor’s “Demystifying the Gender Pay Gap” report concludes that, when it comes to women’s pay, computer programming is the most unfair occupation in America. The job recruiting site found that on average, a woman makes 28 percent less than a man with the same job, education, years of experience and age, among other factors.
But with Apple announcing last summer that it’s achieved pay equity for its U.S. employees, let’s hope other companies will soon follow.
Alia Chebbab @AliaChebbab