One of the best articles I’ve read all week is this post from the Fog Creek blog. The author, Anna Lewis, briefly discusses the history of women in computing. In 1987, women made up nearly 50% of all developers, but shortly thereafter the number began to decline significantly. Those numbers are only now beginning to rise again, though they have yet to match the peak of the mid-80’s. The history part of the article is interesting but, in my opinion, the article really shines in its interview with Fog Creek intern Leah Hanson. Hanson, as it happens, is the only woman on the Fog Creek technical staff, and still a student at Johns Hopkins. Regardless of her professional stature or experience however, her answers to questions about women in computer science are compelling and informative (emphasis mine):
Q: Why do you think younger girls or college-age women don’t go into computer science?
Leah: Well, I used to be baffled at how they could miss seeing how awesome programming and CS in general are, but there’s a bunch of things that seem to contribute to that. For example, women seem to give up sooner even in everyday situations with technology. Like, it’s socially acceptable for a woman to give up on technology and say, “Oh I can’t figure out how this computer thing works.” My friends who are girls ask for help to fix their computers normally because it’s acceptable for them not to be able to do it. They don’t realize that I’m just going to google the answer anyway! They think I already know the answer! Whereas I think most guys would be embarrassed to admit that they can’t fix their computers. Having experience with going through the frustration of trying to get some piece of technology to work, and eventually succeeding, builds skills that you need for working with technology and for debugging. Also, most girls don’t really get computers of their own when they’re young. It seems like sometimes the family computer is bought mainly for the boy to use and then he’s kind of forced to share it with his sister. That means that girls can’t experiment on computers. You need your own computer because you have to be able to possibly break it while you’re trying new stuff, without getting in trouble. For my sixteenth birthday, I got to build my own computer with my dad and then I could have all the time I wanted on it and break it or whatever. Until I had complete control of my own computer, I never had any interest in trying Linux; when someone else is responsible for keeping your computer functioning, and does a good job of it, there’s little incentive to try something like a different OS, since you’d have to convince other people that it’s a good idea to mess with what’s currently working.
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