The importance of language and framing, part eleventy-thousand

There’s a fascinating blog post up today called “Girls Go Geek…Again” by Anna Lewis at Fog Creek Software. The post is wide-ranging and starts off by talking about the decline of women in computing since the mid-1980s:

In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.

In fact, for a hot second back in the mid-sixties, computer programming was actually portrayed as women’s work by the mass media.

The post links to a Cosmo article from 1967 (including an awesome quote from Grace Hopper about how programming is similar to planning a dinner party), which implies that of course women are natural programmers—why wouldn’t they be?

Then, The Great Migration out occurred (emphasis mine):

There were many reasons for the unusual influx of women into computer science. …There was a tremendous need to hire anyone with aptitude, including women. Partly, it was the fact that programming work itself was not yet fully defined as a scientific or engineering field.

From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science dropped from 37% to 20% — just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the possible exception of physics. The reasons women left computer science are as complex and numerous as why they had entered in the first place. But the most common explanation is that the rise of personal computers led computing culture to be associated with the stereotype of the eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker.” Women found computer science less receptive professionally than it had been at its inception.

I’ve heard Fran Allen say similar things in the past—and, at today’s lunch for our research scholars, our speaker said something along the same lines when talking about educational technology. Once the requirements for what it meant to be a computer scientist became more “formalized” and once CS became more closely tied to engineering, suddenly it didn’t seem quite so welcoming anymore.

As interesting as the first part of this article is, the second part is equally fascinating. The blogger interviews the only female intern at Fog Creek (who, apparently, is the only technical woman on staff too!) about her experiences as a woman in CS. While the entire interview is interesting, I want to highlight two things in particular that Leah Hanson, the intern, said.

In answering the question “Why do you think younger girls or college-age women don’t go into computer science?”, she says (again, emphasis mine):

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….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. …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.

This perfectly echoes the arguments in Unlocking the Clubhouse as well: women and men need the experience of tinkering so that they can get into the mindset needed for writing and debugging computer programs. Men are more likely to get the opportunity to do so. By making it socially acceptable for women to not be troubleshooters and problem-solvers of their own technology, we essentially shut off career paths to them.

And in answering the question of how Fog Creek can do a better job attracting and recruiting technical women (emphasis mine):

Well, one thing I noticed is that on your website you really stress how the developers here are the best and all the perks that you offer. But, to be honest, that doesn’t really differentiate Fog Creek from Google or Facebook because they also have awesome developers and loads of perks. Whereas what I think your internship offers that you don’t stress quite as much is all the close mentorship we get….And, basically, these things that have to do with collaboration and learning appeal a lot more to female candidates than talking about the best developers in the world or all the perks. I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins, hosted by our Women in CS group, by Hannah Wallach on gender imbalance among FLOSS developers. And she said that one of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for something because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. Honestly, when you hear the phrase “the world’s best developers,” you see a guy. And, for women, that can be alienating.

Framing matters. Language matters. We can be as inclusive and aware and welcoming as possible, but if we’re not paying attention to the language we use—on our web sites, in our course descriptions, in how we talk about technology and its role in the world—we may end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

We’re at an interesting point right now: enrollments in CS are on the rise, and more women are choosing to major in CS. We have a golden opportunity to learn from our mistakes of the past and keep the trends moving upward. Let’s hope we’re smart enough to not let history repeat itself.