Enough women in Coders at Work?

When I started work on my book Coders at Work, the first thing I had to do was come up with a list of people I wanted to interview. I came up with a lot of names myself and then put up some web pages where people could suggest names and sort them in various ways in order to show me which folks they were most interested in seeing interviewed. Thanks to some front-page play on the programming Reddit, I received quite a few suggestions and lots of people tried their hand at generating a list of fifteen or sixteen subjects.

Pretty soon the issue arose of whether I would interview any women and, if so, how many? How did it arise? Well, my mom, for one, called me to ask. And a friend pointed me to a blog post by Shelley Powers on burningbird.net criticizing the at-that-time recently released book Beautiful Code, for having only one woman among the thirty-eight authors of its thirty-three essays. (Powers’s post, unfortunately, is no longer online.)

In the end, I ended up interviewing one woman, Fran Allen, and fourteen men. Is one enough? I don’t know. Here are a few things I do know:

The issue of sexism, in the field and in the world at large, is a huge ball of worms. Why are there relatively few women programmers? Is it because all male programmers are irredeemably sexist? Because there are sex linked characteristics that make it more likely that a randomly chosen man will turn out to be a good programmer than that a randomly chosen woman will? Because girls disproportionally drop off the science and math track way back in grammar school? Or because once the field became, for whatever reason, largely male, it became less appealing for women to enter it? Take your pick. Or make up your own reason.

And does it even matter that programmers are disproportionally men? If you read the comments on sites like the programming Reddit whenever the issue comes up, there’s a strong contingent of folks who claim that the field is already an essentially perfect meritocracy and therefore if there aren’t many women programmers it’s simply because women are less interested in being programmers or are somehow less suited to it – no big deal. Obviously if that’s your point of view, you’re not going to be worried about whether there are any women in a book like Coders. However …

I was actively interested in having women in the book. I do believe there’s enough sexism left, both in the world and in the field, that a girl who finds computers fascinating and who wants to be a programmer when she grows up will face obstacles that a similarly interested and talented boy would not. One of those obstacles, I believe, is the lack of women role models. Yeah, yeah, I can hear the “perfect meritocracy” advocates now – why should a woman be a better role model than a man for an aspiring girl programmer when we’re talking about something as purely logical and rational as computer programming. They can ask that if they want. My experience is that people, starting from when we are kids, do notice gender and that the path of least resistance is to do what other people of your gender are doing. So if you’re a girl interested in programming and you see very few other girls and women programming, that’s going to be a obstacle for you to overcome.

Given that, I didn’t want to write a book that was going to be another vector for the implicit message that all programmers are men. But …

A policy of diversity for diversity’s sake is tricky to implement. Assuming you decide you want to achieve a certain level of gender diversity, your problems are just starting. No matter who I selected, man or woman, for a book like Coders, some people are going to ask, “Did they really deserve to be included in that group?” Fair enough. But if people answer that question, “Oh, he just got in because they wanted a Java programmer,” that’s unlikely to cause them to think badly of all Java programmers. But if the answer is, “She was just included because she’s a woman,” it may cause a classic “affirmative action” backlash. Plus, as either Shelly Powers or one of the commenters on her blog pointed out, it can be insulting for a woman to be invited to do something “just because” she’s a woman.

So how did it happen that I ended up with only one of my fifteen subjects being a woman?

At the end of my name gathering, which included posting a comment on the burningbird.net article asking for suggestions of names of women coders and doing my own search for likely women candidates, I had 284 names, of which ten were women. (Or nine if your brand of feminism and/or chauvinism doesn’t accept transgendered people identifying as women as “real” women.) That’s not many: 3.5%. On the other hand, it’s better than the percentage of female Beautiful Code authors (2.6%) and Turing Award winners at that time (2%). (With Barbara Liskov winning the Turing in 2008, that percentage is now 3.6%.)

So if I were to assume that my list of 284 was a good sampling of the kind of programmers I wanted to interview, then in a book of fifteen interviews, I would expect to have .53 women. Since I knew for sure I wanted at least one woman – and since it is certainly possible that despite my best efforts, my list of 284 is not an unbiased sample – I rounded up rather than down and chose Fran Allen. And I’m glad I did. Anyone who wants to claim Allen got in just because she’s a woman can come talk to me after they’ve won the Turing Award. And she provided another important bit of diversity, representing IBM from the heyday of Big Blue.

Do I have any regrets? In retrospect, I wish I had tried to interview Amy Fowler, one of the lead developers of Java’s Swing GUI toolkit. I certainly seriously considered her and she would have added not only a younger woman’s perspective to the mix but also a GUI programmer’s point of view, both of which could have made it an even better book.

Did my own sexism ever lead me astray? Possibly. Early on, Alan Kay recommended that I interview L Peter Deutsch and Dan Ingalls and I signed them up. But what about Adele Goldberg, who was also part of Kay’s group at Xerox PARC? Did some bit of sexism lurking in my heart convince me that she wasn’t really a great hacker like Deutsch and Ingalls? Or was it really, as I told myself, that I just didn’t want to overload the book with Smalltalkers? I really don’t know. I’d like to think it was purely the latter but have to admit it’s possible the former played a part too.

At any rate, I’m pleased with how the book came out and glad that I had a chance to interview Fran Allen, whose historical perspective, technical opinions, and comments on being a woman in the field were all equally interesting and valuable. I hope that if my daughter – to whom the book is dedicated – decides she wants to be a programmer when she grows up, she will find something to inspire her in Allen’s chapter and in all the other chapters of the book.


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