Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why aren't there more women programmers?

I just returned from PyCon, and one question that was put to me several times was "Why aren't there more women programmers?"

I'm no expert on the matter, but I do know what I encountered growing up as a geek with two X genes rather than one.

Who was the computer geek in the house?

While I believe that children model both parents when it comes to behavior, there's more than a little evidence that they model the parent of the same sex as them more than the other. Could be biology, could be socialization, it's probably a lot of things that are outside the scope of this post.

In my house, it was my mother who was the programmer. My father was a logistician who detested computers. While my mother had no great love of them, she would talk about programming and be the one to fix someone's ailing PC if needed. When she took me to work she showed me what email was and let me play with any spare terminals lying around. She taught me the program for using the color printer and let me entertain myself with your tax dollars. She even let me write a few small programs at her terminal, and taught me what databases were.

My dad showed me spreadsheets. And the snack bar.

I had a unique situation, though. Most young girls that are of my generation grew up in a house where the father, the former electronics geek, did the computer fiddling.


If you're going to do anything outside what's seen as 'normal' for your sex, you have to be prepared for friction. There will be people who will give you crap for being a girl who likes computers more than literature. If you're a guy who wants to go into nursing, you get just as much crap, I'm told.


I have never felt ignored as a woman interested in computers. If anything, it's gotten me more attention. It's human nature. I looked different than anyone else in the room, so I was often noticed first. Being something of an attention whore, I've rather enjoyed it. Being as how geeks aren't always known as the most social of creatures, I can see where this can be intimidating. I knew an introvert who refused to join the chess club at his college because he was too good: he'd stand out. That horrified him.

Cluebat: geek girls can be just as shy as geek guys.


There's some cute guys in computers. I think the situation is getting radically better every year. However, in my formative years, computer guys were... a bit rougher around the edges. Their uniform was an ill-fitting t-shirt, often with the odd wear hole and unbleachable stain, baggy jeans, gray hoodie, and a patina of poor hygiene.

Imagine being a girl and walking into that particular after-school club.

Yeah, I'd go see if there were any open slots in the Model UN, too.

Note: I don't know who popularized showering in the past decade, but thank you.

So what to do?

I think things will get better with time, but if you want to really push the curve, here's what I'd do:

1. Geek guys: make sure to breed with geek women. I'm married to a geek, and we have two very geeky children. If you breed with a non-geek woman, you run the risk of ending up with a mother who limits their time on the computer. This will not do.
2. If all geek women are taken, try to convert a potential geek woman. I recommend starting off with Star Trek: Voyager (the Trek for your girlfriend) and The Sims. Do not start with World of Warcraft until AFTER you have cinched breeding.
3. If you have geek children who are male, start primping them for snagging the attention of potential geek girls. I recommend cool jeans, artsy t-shirts, a guitar, and excellent shades.
4. In your fellow geek males, do not accept slovenly ways. Beat them until they buy better clothes and can affect an air of cool disinterest that chicks totally dig.
5. Men of Python Calendar. We have a year until the next PyCon, so start working on your abs.

As we tempt more women with eye candy and careers that do not smell of sweat and Coke, women will become less a strange site in the industry, hence reducing friction and attention. Though I will not get as much attention as before (sob), I will accept this as a consequence of diversifying our trade.

So, guys, get on it.

Get some awesome jeans. Us girls need something to ogle.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, get some cool jeans like these to attract the geek girls!

Great article kcunning \o/

pam said...

I have tongue-in-cheek thoughts about this (I proposed a boykissing open space, but I was pretty drunk), and Deep Meaningful Ones, but I don't actually know if I'm going to go there. I've been really high-strung about this for months, and have found I can't even think about it for more than about five minutes without flying off the handle in some fashion. Maybe I'll resurrect my blog and try to cobble something together. Hmmmm.

jocknerd said...

Wow, Katie. What a difference in upbringing between you and me. My parents knew nothing about computers whatsoever. I finally got my mom on a iMac the early part of this decade because I was afraid for her to use Windows.

Looking forward to next years PyCon in Atlanta!

mae said...

nice post, we do need more females in the industry.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself a geek with two X's, and neither of my parents are geeks. I just got in the game because I was exposed at a young age and just happened to be good at it. I often wonder what would have happened if I took that cooking elective instead of computer programming 101. Exposure is something people talk too little about - forced or elected. How can the community change that?

kcunning said...


Regarding exposure, we could try having kids program when they're younger. By high school, gender roles are pretty set, so if they think that 'computers are for boys', they'll resist any exposure. Do it when gender roles are more fluid, and they'll have a chance to fall in love.

Another possibility is framing it differently. Different sexes and races do better on tests when they're called different things. Check out one of the more recent RadioLabs for a segment on that.

Guido van Rossum said...

Thanks for posting! You're dead on about the personal hygiene bit. I've been approached by more than one (male) fan whose armpits or breath turned my stomach.

kcunning said...


No problem! And I've encountered them as well, though cons seem to be particularly troublesome.

dgou said...

FWIW: One of my misc. #pycon conversations was with someone who was teaching programming to gifted kids, using Python. And the interesting take away for me was that teaching game programming was a very good hook for getting girls "interested in computers." IIRC these kids were pretty young, but I no longer remember many details of the conversation.

Richard Kilmer said...


We having some not-so-fun time right now over here in the Ruby/Rails community. I was just searching on woman programmers and ran across this post. Excellent points you make! I do think there is quite a bit to why there are not as many woman in the programming world. Having grown up with three sisters I very much appreciate the environments created by women and men working together. I agree that the most important thing us guys can do is WORK OUR ABS! My wife is happy with that too! Win-win.

Tarzioo said...

lol I love your post! I'm still in school for computer science and I have not really encountered that many creepy guys yet...