In your head

Photo Credit: Stacie Brew

As part of our Women in Technology (WIT) group at Yahoo!, ascariasis we invited a group of sixth graders last winter to our Burbank campus to learn about technology and the different roles that women have here.  Our goal was to expose them to technology and hope they would leave unafraid of entering a male-dominated field.

During one of the sessions, abortion I taught the girls basic HTML, CSS, and some JavaScript. What impressed me most was their determination to understand and absorb everything. There was no, “I don’t think I can do this” and no, “I think this is hard” (even when looking at and using complex JavaScript libraries).  Instead, there was amazement of how much they could do with a few lines of text on a computer screen.  At the end of the session, a few of them started to grasp the window of possibilities and begin asking how to do more complex interactions.

These girls, most of them with very little exposure to computers in their day-to-day lives, were daring, brave, and eager to try new things. Programming did not daunt them at all and confidence wasn’t an issue.

The WIT group holds leadership and career discussions among ourselves in order to provide support and networking opportunities. Self-doubt is a theme that frequently comes up in these discussions. I have heard so many women say, “I could never do what you do”, “I want to learn, but I am scared to try programming”.   I, too, have similar feelings when trying new things.

What causes these insecurities?  How did they come about? Are we really incapable of doing what I could teach eleven and twelve year olds to do in an hour? Is it a generational difference?  I think most of us feel men and women are equally adept at executing their tasks at work. So if these doubts are truly only in our heads, what put them there?  Passing comments by our mothers, fathers, and brothers?  The tendency for computer games to be boy focused? Is it cultural, where we were inundated with a stereotype of  what a cool girl is and not exposed to technology at an early age?

Do men have the same issues in significant numbers or are they shielded from this internal torment by social constructs?

I hope the sixth graders we taught that day remember the excitement they felt when writing a piece of code and visually seeing its effects on their browsers. I hope at least some of them decide to come into technology and that they don’t have to experience the self-doubts and fears that some of us face today.

This entry was posted in July 2010, Women in Tech and tagged , , , by Avni Khatri. Bookmark the permalink.

About Avni Khatri

Avni Khatri is a Senior Front-end Engineer at Yahoo! Inc. on the Flex Force Tiger Team, a team deployed to work on the company's highest priority projects. She is also president of the Southern California chapter of Yahoo! Women in Tech. Before coming to Yahoo!, she worked as a software engineer and project manager at UCLA, building database-backed medical applications for clinical care and research. In her free time, she contributes to the OpenACS open source web application toolkit and the .LRN educational free software project, and she plays guitar.

3 thoughts on “In your head

  1. Boys may be socialized more to state they know something when they at a novice level, while girls may be more often socialized that they need to master a skill before laying claim to knowing something.

    For example, I think everyone is likely equally capable of setting the time on a VCR. If you ask men and women if they know who to set the time on a VCR, more men than women will raise their hand. Every device is different, so likely no one really ‘knows’ how to program that particular VCR. Men say yes because they know they can. Women say no, because they haven’t yet, and therefor can’t claim it.

    In truth, we all have the same skill. It’s just when a group of people exude confidence that they can do it, the people who can’t do it — because they never have, not because they aren’t capable — may question their abilities.

  2. First off, a disclaimer. Society is complicated, and there are an enormous number of interrelated moving parts, and the parts are people, which are incredibly complicated in themselves. I don’t have any more answers than anyone else. Take everything that I or anyone says with a grain of salt. This is just exploration.

    I’ve known and worked with several great and terrible coders who were men, women, and even a few variations thereof. In my experience, gender has *no* effect on programming ability, good or bad.

    However, it clearly has a huge effect on who *chooses* to enter the field. Why is this?

    Certainly part of the issue could be societal. I’ve heard it said that boys are more encouraged to get into technology, whereas girls are taught to be good wives and such. I’m sure there may be some of that, but it doesn’t quite pass the straight-face test. There is FAR more encouragement for women entering technology than there is for men. There is a WIT group, and there has never been a “Men in Technology” group — and yet droves of boys are drawn to this field. Perhaps there is indeed so much pressure to view tech as un-ladylike that even with the WIT group’s efforts, it’s just too much to overcome. But that just seems so strange and dated.

    Another aspect that I’ve heard mentioned regarding this demographic disparity is that guys in tech tend to be a bit rude and boorish. It’s true. The field attracts social misfits who don’t quite understand how to be polite, and often say rude or offensive things. The autistic spectrum is well represented in all its colorfully patterned glory in this population. But you know what? Female programmers, in my experience, tend to be just as likely to be rude, socially awkward, and impolite. Programmers are nerds, and nerds can come off as jerks sometimes, usually by accident. No exceptions for the girls there. This argument is basically claiming that women are more turned off by rudeness than men are, and I’m not sure I buy that. A lot of nerdy girls choose other nerdy professions, where the people are just as rude. (Look at academia, for instance, where women are much more represented, and where the men are *at least* as rude as they are in tech.)

    I don’t know the answer. But I suspect that biology plays a role. Programming is, by its nature, intimidating to the newbie. It looks impossible. It takes a tremendous act of hubris to even consider doing it. You have to look at yourself and say “Sure, that’s impossible, but I’m so awesome, I’ll succeed where everyone else failed.”

    This is the kind of mindset that makes guys line up to try to kill the lion, even when they see everyone in front of them get eaten. It goes hand in hand with the kind of “sacrificial male” mindset that made our species able to kill off the other tribal apes more effectively. Lose half the males, and the tribe lives on. Lose half the females, and your tribe is gone in 50 years.

    That’s not to say that women don’t take risks. It’s just that they tend to be more risk averse on average than men. That’s why we pay higher rates on car insurance. One might say that, on some primordial level, women are in fact more death averse than men, and the likelihood of having that “I can do anything” hubris in their personality is a facet of that tendency.

    That hubris is dangerous, destructive, and hard to control. It makes people do stupid things. But it can also be a catalyst to try things that look impossible, which is the price of admission for programming. It’s worth noting that most men are turned off from programming for, I think, the same exact reason. Programmers are a tiny minority of the population, so it would only take a very slight difference in standard deviation to make a 10:1 disparity in gender when you skim the edge of the bell curve like that.

    One could argue that a lot of what we call “best practices” or “agile process” are really just about managing this hubris. That’s why managing programmers is like herding cats. We all have these strong opinions about how things can and should be done, and a tendency to shoot off in random directions.

    So, I wonder, how is WIT affecting this? What happens when you lower the barrier to entry, by making programming not seem so intimidatingly impossible? Will we see more girls deciding to pursue CS degrees and careers in software development? Will this mean that the next generation of programmers won’t be quite so crazy, and perhaps a bit more contemplative in their approach? Will software development start to steal nerdy girls who would have otherwise decided to study french literature or philosophy or something? How will it affect the decision of boys to go into programming? (“There are no girls in those classes” is a very genuine consideration for 18-20 year old males.)

    I’m not sure if that’s a terrible thing, or a really awesome thing, or some in-between thing. But I think it’s definitely a thing :)

  3. @Estelle – That’s a good point. I know I get nervous when I say I know how to do something and it’s not completely clear in my mind how to do it step-by-step. But how did this happen? Why are guys okay with saying they can set the time on a vcr and we’re not? And how do we change this?

    @Isaac – Your comment is longer than my article. :-) I don’t have answers either, only my personal experiences and observations. I totally agree, gender plays no part in who’s a good programmer or not, but it effects who comes into the field. I’m not quite sure I equate programming with killing lions (though with some bugs, I feel like it), but it does take courage. A friend of mine once told me, that being a programmer requires more intelligence than being a practicing doctor because programmers have to create new things where as most doctors “only” study existing beings. I also remember being less scared as a girl. When I was introduced to programming @ 11, it wasn’t -ooh this super hard computer stuff, it was here, do these set of instructions and watch what happens. The walls and feeling intimidated came later. I think the key is exposure when folks are young. And I do think if more girls are exposed to programming younger, they won’t be as intimidated (even by boorish behavior), and we will have more women in programming.

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