female programmers and programmers to be

Kathy Sierra has been tweeting about Women in Technology over the last week or so.  Today’s tweet really got me thinking.

Tired of being a Woman In Tech. I’m a programmer. I’m female. Does it have to be SO political/significant? Sometimes a coder’s just a coder. -Kathy Sierra

While I certainly haven’t been in the field as long as Kathy, I am a female programmer.  And I haven’t really thought about it since college.  Until recently.  It’s not significant to me; I don’t think it is significant to people I work with.  And yet in some ways it is.  My response to this tweet was:

@KathySierra sorry; you’re a VISIBLE female programmer & a role model for the next generation(aka me); don’t have any at work so branch out -Jeanne Boyarsky

And this is why I’ve been thinking about it.  Whether I notice or not, I am starting to become a role model to some people.  I know because they told me!  Sometimes it is people I know and sometimes it is people who read my posts on JavaRanch.

High schoolers

Kathy has also been writing about getting girls into IT in the first place.

Do high-schoolers choose a career based on who speaks at conferences? To claim even a trickle-down effect (respect! exposure!) feels wrong. -Kathy Sierra

@jeanneboyarsky agree in principle, just that conference keynoters are NOT on teen girl’s radar and don’t “count” as visibility/motivation. -Kathy Sierra

I agree with her that high schoolers don’t choose a career based on who speaks at conferences.  I do think some more awareness of women in tech is helpful though.  In the Spring, I volunteered at a high school robot competition.  A college professor asked me if ANY of teams had girls on them.  With thoughts like that influencing careers, it isn’t very encouraging.  I heard my share of “girls shouldn’t go into IT” when I was in high school as well – 1995-1999.  (The answer in case you are wondering is of course there are girls on teams.  In fact, there were a few all girl teams.)

This school year, I started volunteering as a mentor with FIRST robotics as a high school programming mentor.  The lead student programmer is also female. Nobody thinks much of this.  Which is the point.    People want to be accepted.  Being accepted for being a techie is better than people thinking differently of you because you are female.  It’s just a part of me as is my brown hair.  Or at least that is how it should work.

Female Architects

I think another reason for the dearth of female role models in technology is that less females tend to stick with it over time.

@KathySierra: “women speakers in tech?” I always wonder why ‘women’ are different. Don’t we want good _people_ in these sessions? –Steve Johnson

I think Steve makes an excellent point.  Of course we want good people in these sessions.  And I do see women at conferences.  I just tend to see them in “softer” roles like talking about social media than “harder” programming parts.  And absolutely favor strength over gender when choosing conference speakers.

Where I work, there aren’t yet any female architects. And by that I mean the really senior folks who have been doing this 20-30 years like Bear Bibeault and Ernest Friedman Hill rather than the watered down “developer with 7 years experience” definition.

I think this is due to a number of things:

  1. The culture of the past – If many years ago people were pushed a certain way, it affects the present.  I can’t speak to the past since I wasn’t there at that point.  But I do think it has an impact.
  2. The greater chance a woman would go into management than stay in technology – soft vs hard skills? preference? social conditioning? path of least resistance?
  3. Interest in keeping up with technology – you have to really like something to stay with it in your free time; money isn’t enough

Yes, I want to be an architect someday.  But I want to get there because I’m good at what I do, not because I am female.

What can we do

Thinking about three things I and people I know do to make things a tiny bit better:

  1. Like what you do; be passionate about what you do – Male or female, this is the core of why technology is fun!  If you happen to be female, let this excitement shine through and let others see it.  I’m volunteering as a programming mentor for robotics because I enjoy it.  Being a positive role model for the students is a side effect.
  2. Point out the “she” – If you are female and someone refers to you as “he” or “sir”, correct them.  This is how we introduce visibility into the fact that there are strong techies out there.  Scott Selikoff does so if someone calls me “he” in a blog comment. Some people do this so often at JavaRanch that Campbell Ritchie has made it a running joke. But it helps.  It serves as little reminders that we do have strong female technical females running around.  Not to the the teens of course.  But to the existing programmers.
  3. Look to the future – Things change over time.  The senior architects of the today were largely born in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  This was before people had the internet in their homes.  The students of today are growing up with social networking.  Computers aren’t as geeky.  There is more social interaction in the job.  In another couple of decades people my age will be those senior architects and then there will be more female role models.

[edited to add “when choosing conference speakers.” per comments on redit]

38 thoughts on “female programmers and programmers to be

  1. Pingback: female programmers and programmers to be | Down Home Country … | tech-gals.com

  2. @KathySierra: “women speakers in tech?” I always wonder why ‘women’ are different. Don’t we want good _people_ in these sessions? -Steve Johnson”

    Half the brains in the world are in women’s heads. If we really want good people, we should certainly be looking in that half as well. All too often, so-so men are actively preferred to good people who happen to be women.

  3. @KathySierra: “women speakers in tech?” I always wonder why ‘women’ are different. Don’t we want good _people_ in these sessions? -Steve Johnson”

    Half the brains in the world are in women’s heads. If we really want good people, we should certainly be looking in that half as well. All too often, actions make it seem that so-so men are to be preferred to good people who happen to be women.

    I am glad that Jeanne and Kathy both think that they are getting a fair shake — but suspect that they are both aged under 30, which sadly is still often a watershed.

  4. One more reason that there aren’t all that many women with architect titles has to do with the time commitment required. The transition from software developer/lead/architect to parent + software developer/lead/architect is hard for both men and women, I think. But somehow,it’s the women who don’t make it over that hurdle in the same way.

    I know many, many technical women who have faced that transition, senior women with strong technical chops, leaders and managers. Most are no longer in the industry; many are teaching science or math in schools as a second career. Others are there, but aren’t climbing nearly as fast as they were before kids.

    Anecdata, but something that I haven’t seen discussed, in part because it’s not politically correct. It’s an uncomfortable secret, I think, wrapped up in women’s identities and societal norms. It’s balanced between biological restrictions (there are things that men just *can’t* do, though that really doesn’t apply for more than a year or two depending on how friendly one is able to be with pumping technology) that become habits and re-evaluations, contrasted with the coolness that is breaking a system down and analyzing the pieces and parts and then assembling it into something that’s totally new and unique and …. amazing. If the pull of the latter truly isn’t strong enough to overcome the hours and frustrations and family balance issues that come with the former, well, we lose women architects at a much higher rate than men.

    There are women very high up in my management chain, and they’re open about the fact that they faced this choice and consciously chose not to have children because of the career hit it would mean. I don’t hear that same comment from men.

  5. > All too often, so-so men are actively preferred to good people who happen to be women.
    I’m thankful to not having experience this. The only times I was specifically told anything negative about me going into CS was in high school/college. And one job interview while in college – kind of. Someone thought asking how I would react to being on a team that thought women were weaker techies. My response was “Why, is that a problem here?” Someone said the question was a stressor. I thought it was in poor taste.

  6. Ti,
    > I am glad that Jeanne and Kathy both think that they are getting a fair shake
    > — but suspect that they are both aged under 30, which sadly is still often a
    > watershed.
    I am still under 30. Wikipedia says Kathy was born in 1957.

  7. Cjp,
    And the transition is worse for female architects than managers because? (I’m thinking because there is more continued learning for the tech side.) I recognize it is hard for female managers, but there are way more of those!

  8. There’s a core difference between top male software developers and women that enter into the profession. Amongst the men you find people that are into it in a deep way. They spend their free time developing software projects on the side and constantly learning new things. They are the consummate hacker type culture that live and breath what they do.

    Women don’t deep dive into the technology of computer/IT in that manner. They do it as a profession and by and large with less passion/devotion. You don’t see significant open source software that people are raving about and pervasively using that was written by women. Women get in the mix in a corporate setting and do their duty as a living.

    Plus, when women blog about their experience in the industry, it often is about the social aspects of what they do vs. the geek/tech side of it – the pure enthusiast side of it. For instance, I never see women showing up in a venue such as Google’s new Go programming language to discuss and participate.

    The women that work for me are competent and highly valued software developers – but I rarely find myself shooting the breeze about the enthusiast side of computer-science/IT the way I do with the male developers that work for me. They do their job and bug out. They don’t tend to live and breath it the way male devotees to the trade do.

    In the end this difference in social behavior ends up playing out in terms of the kind of software systems male vs female are best adept at working on. Mind you I don’t do anything to purposely steer things, but by personal preference it works itself out. The women excel at software that require meticulous attention to detail – and that tries the patience of mail developers. The best men developers are the ones that solve difficult problems with innovation and out-side the box thinking and the ones with years experience have the ability to fashion significant architecture of an overall system. No women that do architecture, but they do sub system design stuff for sure and do very well at that level.

  9. Roger,
    You mean “most women”, right? Or “the women you’ve encountered”. I’m talking about the top 5-10% of developers. The ones that really are passionate about what they do. I agree the “less than top” tier are what you described – both men and women. It’s just more visible because there are less of those top tier women.

    Aside from that, excellent point. I’d argue that the top female developers on your team aren’t the same caliber of the top techies overall. I run a monthly technical discussion group at work. We sometimes cover things that are just cool and not likely to be used at work. I’ve noticed this a great filter to find people who are truly interested in this as a hobby. And yes, the demographics are what you’d guess. But the caliber of techie shows through.

    Your comment got me thinking about what I do in my free time:
    1) moderate JavaRanch – mix of social/tech
    2) run book promos for JavaRanch – more social, but it has helped me develop my soft skills; a female skill that didn’t come as naturally to me as tech
    3) develop JavaRanch’s forum software – definitely tech
    4) blog – mix of social/tech
    5) volunteer as a programming mentor – mix of social/tech
    6) reader/tinker with tech – definitely tech

    Hmm. Does this mean that I’m balanced?

  10. I’m a senior level programmer. I’m a male. In my career, I was very fortunate to work with Jeanne. I was so fascinated by her technical knowledge and her devotion and passion that she became my role model.

    If I may share my thoughts, in the long run I think it’s not about being a female or a male but rather how dedicated and passionate you are about the work you do. Being an insder, I could tell you that Jeanne has been recognized by her peers at work and other Java programmers around the world (she is a moderator at javaranch.com) as a highly advanced and motivational programmer who other developers (male and female alike) are looking up to.

    I can assure you that she is a role model to a lot people and she happened to be a female. She is my role model and I happened to be a male.

  11. Thank you for sharing that on the blog. I think it is a great counter to Roger’s comment about not encountering the really strong female programmer. I agree with you it is not about gender. Or at least it shouldn’t be. At the same time, i think that while people still have the experiences Roger does, we need to share this with people. So they know that *all* women programmers aren’t like that!

  12. I learned of Jeanne and JavaRanch through some podcast interview prior to responding to this thread (linked from Dzone). Jeanne most definitely exemplifies herself in all the ways that I mentioned as characteristics of the top software developer talent in our industry.

    Am not sure what the underlying factors are, but over a career spanning back into the 80’s I really don’t see women present in our field at any more significant rate than back then. This despite all the efforts to provide encouragement and stimulate interest. It’s kind of weird, women are rampant in the medical profession, pharmacy, law, etc. Is there still a nerd stigma associated with computer IT that is a turn off to young girls?

  13. Roger,
    Thank you for clarifying. When I read your original post, I thought you were trying to say that since you don’t work with any, no top female software development talent exists. I’m glad that’s not your opinion!

    I agree that there isn’t a significant number of top female developers yet. I certainly don’t have all the answers either.

    The reddit comments on my thread (currently 80 comments), have a mix of interesting thoughts on the topic.

  14. @RogerV: Wow, that was… interesting. I have a female friend that’s currently working 60-80 hours a week, and studies more at home. And another that can’t stop reading Java books after working for me. Meanwhile I’ve struggled to have a healthier work/life balance.

    @Jeanne: I’m a lot older than you :'(

  15. Jeanne,

    >And the transition is worse for female architects than managers because?

    the time commitment involved and the balance of passions. In addition, transition usually occurs *before* someone hits 20 years in their career. Managers hours tend to be more predictable IME, and managers are more interrupt-driven, rather than requiring sustained concentration for very long periods of time. As such, it’s easier to work around other obligations and distractions. Perhaps that’s one reason why the softer skills are more appealing: they allow for keeping a hand somewhat in the game?

    Not all managers are the equivalent of RogerV’s 9-5 programmers, and in fact, I see some of them when I’m working late at night after the kids are asleep, especially in release endgame or performance review season. But it’s rare that I see the passion to architect software dev org structures and manage people drives folks to 2am inspirations. Maybe that’s behind the scenes and I’ve missed it?

  16. Cjp,
    Taken literally, I’m left with managers jobs being both predictable and interrupt driven – two things that sound at odds with each other. I know what you mean though. It’s a lot easier to respond to a BlackBerry message in between things that have complex thoughts.

    Personally, my job is already pretty interrupt driven and I’m on the tech side. Mainly because I spend a lot of my day mentoring, answering questions, etc.

  17. >Am not sure what the underlying factors are, but over a career spanning back into the 80’s I really don’t see women present in our field at any more significant rate than back then.

    There are places where women are more predominant than others. My career also spans across that same timeframe, but mostly working on large systems on the software side of the house. And I compare notes with friends working in similar sorts of positions at different places There were plenty more women in database (especially the less algorithmic pieces — metadata management, stuff like that) than in OS internals.

    The database teams that I’ve been on and the ones that I’ve led have been up to 50/50 (same in the 80s as very recently), though technical architecture leadership doesn’t match that ratio. In large part, I believe, for the reasons I mentioned above — the time commitment required to construct and create and build a large system when balanced against society expectations for parenting small children presents a very challenging choice. That choice is made on an individual basis, and yet it’s amazing how often it comes out the same way across the class of working mothers. The middle tier of strong women often seem to leave the field or become managers at about the time their kids arrive. (Often at the second child, not the first).

    OTOH, I’ve been the only woman on the team and in the group and in the room (and project lead or architect for some of these projects) when I’ve been working lower in the stack. There have been women with incredible architect and leadership skills at that level (and some have served as my mentors and role models), but they’re much more rare, and much more driven.

    Again though, this is all anecdata. My time has been consumed of late by getting a new project off the ground and out the door and I haven’t had time to gather the hard data necessary to support or disprove…

  18. Jeanne,

    Thanks, yes, that’s exactly what I mean. While it’s interrupt driven, the tasks are generally more able to be squeezed around other things. Sustained concentration to explore the nooks and crannies of an architecture, document it clearly, break it down into its coherent pieces and parts, and then figure out what should be invented, what should be recycled, and what can be used as-is from the wider ecosystem is much harder to do when one is being regularly interrupted.

    >Personally, my job is already pretty interrupt driven and I’m on the tech side. Mainly because I spend a lot of my day mentoring, answering questions, etc.

    Yes, I do a lot of that, plus being “she who keeps everyone focused on how things come together.” So my days are filled with meetings and IM chats and phone calls. As I told a coworker, it’s both a talent and curse to be able to take a big picture and break it down and see how it all comes back together, what depends on what, and how it sequences. Architecting projects, IME, is very similar to architecting the software and support infrastructure which the project is building. The ol’, “The state of the software reflects the state of the organization and vice versa” thing.

    So I spend my days doing that and my evenings (v. late evenings sometimes!) doing the detailed creation because that’s the only time I can really get into flow. If needed, I shut down IM, ignore email and phone, and try to focus during my “normal” working hours. But I can’t do that as much as I’d like. The late evenings after the kids go to bed takes its toll as well though.

    When you have a vision for how really cool something is, can convince 5-6 or more people to directly work on the pieces of it to realize the vision, get a bunch more to see what the world could be like with it there and build around it, well…. that’s the fun part of architecting and why I’m willing to give up some sleep.

  19. >It’s ok to have an opinion without doing a formal study

    Well yeah, but the next step is to support it with facts and decide on a course of action in response (the set of all actions includes doing nothing, of course). We’re computer people, so we like to rationalize our opinions by at least imagining they rest on a foundation of facts, not just anecdata 🙂

  20. Cjp,
    I’ve been trying to manage that time thing a lot myself lately and I don’t have kids to add into the mix. The “how to get thinking done while being interrupted so often.” Or even work where a mistake would be a big deal. I’ve taken to putting up a sign which amounts to “do not disturb for the next X hours unless you are my boss or there is a production problem.” I’ve only put up the sign rarely for more than 30 minutes. (When I’m logged in as root, I need that non-interrupt time.) I think this is something I’m going to have to be very conscious of over the next few months.

    And of course those are the next steps. I don’t plan to taking this to the next level though :).

  21. One of my “informal” indicators are technical conferences. In the computer IT field these tend to be very heavily laden to where men predominate over women, amd which tends to be in line with the rate of women we have in software development staff. When I was attending OOPSLA and USENIX in the early ’90s, that ratio is pretty much on par with conferences I’ve attended in the 2000s.

  22. JavaOne is predominated by male presenters, can’t remember going to any session given by a woman. Usenix – was very male centric. OOPSLA – have actually seen female presenters – tends to be weighted much more with academia than other conferences. Spring Framework conferences – ah, no female presenters. No-Fluff-Just-Stuff – after years of going regularly to that conference have never seen a female presenter. Dev Days (which has ridden on the popularity of the stackoverflow.com site) – few women attendees and definitely no female presenters. After two decades of conferences I’ve seen smatterings of women attendees and very seldom any women presenters.

    The folks that do conferences regular

  23. Roger,
    This brings things full circle nicely. A lot of of the tweets last week were about whether we need more female presenters at conferences. (I think we should choose good presenters and hope the industry changes over time to make the presenters more diverse.)

    Web 2.0 Expo had some female keynotes and a lot of female attendees. (I didn’t attend the paid part so i can’t speak to that.) Of course, Web 2.0 includes social media which could be arguably a soft or marketing area.

  24. I teach people how to build web sites using Microsoft SharePoint and often run into the “I’m so dumb about technology” mindset from Baby Boomer and occasionally Gen X female coworkers. I tell them they aren’t dumb when it comes to technology. They are only inexperienced and I am here to help them gain experience. Knowing that they aren’t going to be thrown into the deep end of the pool by themselves usually (but not always) helps to boost their confidence level.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  25. As a high school student and girl in tech, I love that you try to make a difference by volunteering as a mentor for a robotics team. We students are always looking for mentors. For our student business education organization, it seems many of the competition coaches we reach out to are reluctant to get involved, so thank you so much for investing in youth. You mentioned the “culture of the past”…thank you for changing what will be our “culture of the past”: now.

  26. Crystal,
    Cool! I think they key was that the school was in the right place at the right time. They saw I was interested first and then mentioned they could use mentors.

  27. My experience in Fortune 50 companies gave me an opportunity to work with many technology professionals. Higher up in the organization, there were fewer role models. I found a diverse team: gender, backgrounds, etc. results in the best projects.

    I volunteer with the Women in Technology (WITI.com) including encouraging young women to enter the technology fields.

    I encourage all of us to Spark Latent Energy http://www.cyberlifetutors.com/blog/2009/11/sparking-latent-energy/

    April M. Williams
    Speaker, Author, Coach

  28. Those who have been doing the hard programming work for longer, the less important gender is (since we all eventually see women developers who rock beyond belief as proof positive). Keep the spirit and vision!

  29. Pingback: A linkspam in every home (23rd December, 2009) | Geek Feminism Blog

  30. Pingback: Link Post 124 « Rayet’s Blog

  31. Wow — what a wonderful discussion you sparked, Jeanne. I needed to step away from the ‘women in tech’ topic for a few days before responding, but I don’t have much to add but a few thoughts

    * I want to make a distinction between *top/hard-core* and *passionate/into it*… while these two are heavily overlapped on a Venn diagram, I’m a clear example of someone who was REALLY into programming and software dev despite being only average at actually doing it.

    * I still believe we place WAY too much emphasis on “visibility”. Further, I believe these Where Are the Women discussions — while really REALLY important — are not without cost. Many women (me included) genuinely enjoy the work. Writing code. Making software. Working on projects. Learning. The idea that we must also be a representative of our gender, and have attention drawn to us simply *because* we are women in this field… these are not inherently good things. They can make the very thing we want in these discussions — to help more females find the work as appealing as we do — LESS likely. Many women — as is the case with many men — simply don’t WANT that kind of attention. Couple that with the well-intentioned but–I believe–way overblown, “IT is sexist / women have a very difficult time here” talking points, and we’re not exactly mounting a good PR campaign for the field.

    Who wants to consider a career where it’s not enough to like–and be good at–the work, but where you must ALSO be a role model, highly visible target, and (perception, not reality) that is apparently an uphill struggle? Had anyone told me any of that… I’d never have gone down that path. As I said in another tweet, I chose it because I really enjoy it — and it was most likely a combination of Asperger’s, curiosity, and cluelessness that made it an amazing and wonderful choice.

    I believe the elephant in the room in this discussion is the simple truth I faced each day raising my now 20-something daughters. Coding from the age of 5 or 6 (gotta love turtle logo), neither had known a world where tech–and CREATING tech–was anything other than natural and potentially interesting. But no matter how much fun they knew *I* was having, neither could imagine working in the field. “Spending all day in front of a computer writing code? Don’t think so.” (I tried explaining it wasn’t ALL day at the computer, but…)

    I once asked my daughter (and her entire high school class) about the “girls in tech” question, and my daughter summed it up: “Saying “girls in computing” is like saying, “girls in telephones”” Her point? While in my day, tech held special magic and special barriers, to most of today’s middle-class teens in the US, “tech” is just a tool. A very *cool* tool, but still a tool. Not special, not frightening, and CERTAINLY not “just for boys”. You’ll pry their iPhones from their cold dead hands as they’re tweaking their MySpace profiles and downloading pirated shows on their laptop while reconfiguring the home wifi for their parents.

    If we want more girls in tech, I believe we need more opportunities where tech is in a context of something *else*. It’s a tool… for something *else* they are deeply interested in. Something else that IS appealing. And if on the way to doing that other, cooler thing they need to write some software to make it happen? No big deal. Just a tool.

    But I have no special knowledge or expertise as a Woman in Tech. These are just my opinions.
    Regardless, thanks so much Jeanne. And by the way, you are an inspiration to *me*! 🙂

  32. > distinction between *top/hard-core* and *passionate/into it*
    Interesting. I agree they heavily overlap – so much so that I don’t notice the difference. The people who are REALLY into it are the ones that are fun to be around.

    > I still believe we place WAY too much emphasis on “visibility”.
    World we live in? The first time I learned I was a role model had nothing to do with gender. It was when the owner of JavaRanch (Paul Wheaton) noted that all the moderators are. Kind of took me by surprise the first time. Because I want to enjoy what I do. Being a role model or visible is a side effect for me.

    > But no matter how much fun they knew *I* was having, neither could
    > imagine working in the field.
    Interests? After all some people like knitting and it would drive me nuts!

    > I once asked my daughter (and her entire high school class) about the
    > “girls in tech” question, and my daughter summed it up: “Saying “girls in
    > computing” is like saying, “girls in telephones””
    This is awesome. It implies this won’t be an issue in another decade or two!

    > No big deal. Just a tool.
    Some of us like tools :). Whether they are physical tools in a shop or tech tools.

  33. Something rarely mentioned in discussions like these is how women geeks often wish to undermine other women, sometimes in a particularly vicious way. In this area (Boston/Eastern Mass.), petite women are favored and they quickly become prima donnas in IT departments. Women like this will fight tooth and nail to maintain their privileged position. I was undermined in two different jobs by women like this. Give me an all-male department any day!

  34. Marcia,
    I didn’t mention it because I (luckily) haven’t experienced this problem. I think regardless of gender, you’d prefer to work in a department where people aren’t trying to undermine you!

  35. Pingback: [first] robotics and young women | Down Home Country Coding With Scott Selikoff and Jeanne Boyarsky

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.