Featured / Technology & Society

International Women’s Day: The Rest is Just Syntax

Last week I was invited to observe a women in technology celebration day for young teenagers who are starting to look at the kinds of higher educational paths they want to pursue.  The highlight of the day for me was meeting Genevieve Smith-Nunes, an educator who uses arts to convey computer science concepts–and computer science to convey artistic concepts.  I knew of Geneveive from her fascinating work on [arra]stre, a data-driven ballet.  I find Geneveive’s attitude that arts and sciences are intrinsically linked terrifically inspirational and it’s heartening to know that there are a bunch of dancer/computer scientists out there ready to take the world by storm.

My least favorite part of the day was when one of the speakers pointed out that the proportion of women employed in STEM fields has actually shrunk in the past several years.  I’d love to dig into the data for this, but unfortunately I don’t have it to hand.  The problem of a highly unequal gender balance in STEM fields is widely acknowledged and there are tons of initiatives trying to make progress in this area.  The celebration day was one of these.

One theme that I frequently hear at women in technology career events–which I find a little bit worrying–is that you don’t have to be a developer or an engineer in order to work in the tech sector.  From my own experience I know this to be true: I’m not an engineer but I would certainly describe myself as a woman in technology.  I think these very well-intentioned speakers are downplaying the importance of learning to code because they want to ameliorate women’s fears about programming.  People seem to think that a major reason young women are not entering tech careers (or are dropping out of tech careers) is because they are put off by the idea that it’s all pizza-fuelled late nights in a windowless office watching scrolling lines of code in a terminal window.  And they think the way to stop women from fearing this brogrammer stereotype is by reassuring the young women that they don’t actually have to code.  It is true that there are roles in technical teams that don’t require what people generally think of as programming, but there is another message that I think would much more effectively inspire women–or indeed anyone who feels daunted by a skill set that they don’t feel completely comfortable in.

What I want to say to young women who have limited experience with programming but who are considering technical careers is you probably already ARE a programmer and you don’t even know it yet. 

I think would be so much more powerful to tell women that they already have a skill that they haven’t yet recognized than to say that they can spend their whole career avoiding doing something they find scary or strange.  If young women perceived programming as a normal thing they were already doing, the whole esoteric mystique of programming would disappear.  Even if they decided not to grow up to become full-time developers, understanding the principles opens so many doors.  Like any skill, it really is what you make of it: you can build a fantastic day job out of it if that’s what you want, or you can use it to do something astounding, unique and creative like [arra]stre.

When I took my one semester of computer science back in college, one of our first tasks was to write an algorithm for a routine that we did at home in daily life.  It turns out that daily life is full of activities that can be described in an algorithmic way: following a recipe, assembling flat-pack furniture, dancing the Charleston… these are all examples of the kind of precise instructions that can be broken down into tiny, repeatable steps.  These ‘programs’ are designed to be completed by humans rather than machines, but once you understand how the problem-solving part works, the rest is just syntax.

I’d like to think that some of the young women in the audience last week found something that made them feel like a technical career could be right for them.  My way of encouraging this would definitely have differed from most of the speakers, but the important part is that we’re all passionate about solving the issue.  The rest is just syntax.