I have a vagina, watch me use a computer

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

Oscar Wilde

Dear Internet,

The New York Times recently published an article in its economy section about the status of women in technology. The perspective of the article is much like what has written about this topic before: Women are poorly represented in computer science fields, we’re less likely to obtain a computer science degree for X reasons, and if we do end up with a CS degree and work in the fields we’ve just trained for, we’re going to be underpaid in comparison to our male counterparts for the exact same job.

None of this is news. In fact, much of what was written could be hauled out and regurgitated for just about any other male dominated profession when pitting women against the men.

As I was reading this, I began taking umbrage with a lot of what the author was inferring, stating, and implying. It is not necessarily much of what she was writing about was incorrect or nonfactual, there are some points she’s made that I agree with, but her piss poor research model, her inability to look outside of the traditional path for education, and her broad stroke generalized comments got, as TheHusband would say, my vagina in an uproar.

As English majors round the world are often known to say, let’s unpack this shit.

“Writing code and designing networks are also a lot more portable than nursing, teaching and other traditional pink-collar occupations.”

I won’t disagree computing is a portable skill, but I would argue it is not more portable than nursing, teaching, or “pink-collar” (who actually says this?) occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer programmers are only projected 12% growth by 2020 while nursing is at 26% and teaching is roughly at 17%. The projected growth is an estimate of how fast the profession is growing, the number of jobs available, and the sub career paths being created as new job markets open up.

The other part of the problem I have with this is that computer science is much more than just writing code and designing networks and yet almost every article I’ve ever read that brays on this topic, regardless if it is about gender in tech or not, narrows their discussion to just those two options.

“Yet just 0.4 percent of all female college freshmen say they intend to major in computer science.” “Today, just a quarter of all Americans in computer-related occupations are women.”

I have a particular problem with this corollary because not all who go into computers are their main career choice obtain a traditional education in that field, and this applies to men AND women. I’m not strong in maths by any stretch of the imagination, but her figures don’t add up. You can’t lead with shocking claim that less than one percent of women are going into computer science as their preferred major  and yet jump  to 25% of Americans in computer related occupations are women.

When I worked at UUnet in the late ’90s/early ’00s, maybe 1 in 15 had a degree in CS. Almost ALL, men and women,  were college educated with a major in something else (mainly liberal arts degrees) and were either self-taught or learned on the job. This does NOT discount certification, which is different since certification is very specific to a particular hardware or software. And many, many employers were and still are more interested in your certification then your undergraduate degree program. A decade later, many of those I’ve met who work in a computer science field of some kind, almost all did so by the aforementioned method: An interest turned into a passion, which became then the new career path.

When I was talking about the NYT article with TheHusband, he echoed comments I’ve heard from men and women in the field: Those who have CS degrees are less likely to be good at their jobs than those who do not. The reasoning is that seemingly many CS degreed workers do not learn how to hack, explore, and troubleshoot, or even think outside the box, which are super critical skills in this field.

As I was going over my post this morning with one of my BFFs, Kate, who works as a systems admin for a large corporation. Kate admins UNIX, Linux, AS400, and storage servers and she forwarded me an email she received from her DBA recently:

To: Kate
From: DBA
Subject: Error when doing SSH to DB

Could you look into it?

ssh dba@yermom
The authenticity of host 'yermom (10.0.12.8)' can't be established.
RSA key fingerprint is 0e:d8:df:31:26:2b:90:f1:75:51:7d:2e:a7:5a:bd:d0.
Are you sure you want to continue connecting (yes/no)?

(All identifying information has been stripped.)

The above example illustrates WHY it’s important to learn how to troubleshoot and discover. Now I’m not advocating against getting a traditional education, but I am saying the computing industry is very much a hands on experience, willingness to go outside your comfort zone and get dirty job which will go much farther in advancing your career then just a four-year degree.

You don’t necessarily need a traditional four-year degree to break into the field either. The diversity, hard and soft skills, and availability of career pathways, with the fact most of the technology is still so new and constantly changing, is what makes this field exciting and easily accessible.  And the help available on just about anything from coding to engineering to network design and everything in-between is easily accessible online or in print, and there is always, ALWAYS websites and groups built around the support of self-study. The internet is the largest purveyor of study halls, ever.

Ergo: hack your education.

One of the biggest challenges, according to many in the industry, may be a public-image problem. Most young people, like Allen, simply don’t come into contact with computer scientists and engineers in their daily lives, and they don’t really understand what they do. 

This statement is so damn generalizing – again, could be applied to many professions like my current one: librarians. Personally, I don’t come into contact with people in every field every day, and there are large swathes of fields and industries I didn’t even know existed until well, I found out about them whether by meeting someone who works in that field, coming across something I read, or something else entirely. Yet I can’t help think this is true for most people as well. But this isn’t necessarily a public image problem, but an information literacy issue.  If we teach people how to research and to discover, the propositions of what they know and don’t know will shift.

There is, of course, no pop-culture corollary for computer science.

There is, of course, no pop-culture corollary for computer science.

There is, of course, no pop-culture corollary for computer science.

You cannot, seriously, make connections that computer programmers are thought of as Dilbert, a cartoon that is widely popular, and then go on to say this. That’s just incredibly stupid.

Computer culture and nerd culture are not mutually exclusive, but there is A LOT of shared similarities. You will almost always find a computer geek who is a nerd and a nerd who is a computer geek. But let’s start talking about this “no pop-culture corollary for computer science” and how it’s absolutely proves the author of the article could not even be arsed to Google.

By no means a complete list, shows/movies with where computers/inteneting/related fields are near a primary focus:

  • The Big Bang Theory – Highly popular TV show about male geeks who hack and love along with their fellow female geeks
  • The IT Crowd – Cult hit UK show that is widely revered in the US about two geeks and their non-geeky boss at a vaguely evil corporation
  • Veronica Mars – Cult show in the US about a teenage Nancy Drew meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who’s best friends with female  hacker
  • Whiz Kids – 1983 TV show about young group of computer experts, including a girl, who play detectives. I LOVED this show.
  • Wargames – 1983 film starring Matthew Broderick about a young genius who hacks into a Pentagon-like network and almost begins WW III
  • The Social Network – 2010 film about the founding of Facebook
  • The Net – 1995 film starring Sandra Bullock about a female computer programmer whose life gets hacked
  • Tron – 1982 film about a hacker transported to the digital world where he needs to fight for his life in a  gladiator type game
  • Antitrust – 2001 film with Ryan Phillippe that is a thinly veiled look at Microsoft
  • The Lone Gunmen – Failed spin-off of the X-Files about well, The Lone Gunman, Mulder and Scully’s personal geek squad
  • Matrix 1, 2, 3 – Did you take the red pill or the blue pill?
  • Hackers – 1995 film starring pubescent Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie as young hackers in love
  • Millennium Trilogy / The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Both the original Swedish and US versions are excellent. Central plot around a murder that may or may not happen, but the show is stolen by Lisbeth Salander, the ultra hacker to end all hackers.

Fictional female computer geeks/hackers in film/tv/comics. A Google search came up with over 95M results and the top results list site after site of current articles compiled by big, popular sites such as The Mary Sue and Flavorwire:

I trolled the internet and got lots of other great responses of fictional female hackers ranging from comics to anime to movies and TV shows. Are women under represented in geeky pop culture? Without a fucking doubt, but they do exist. However, to say there is no general pop culture connections or to say there is no fictional outlets to discover female computer geeks is egregious.

I also want to point out many of the above movies and TV shows are popular not within the circles they wish to emulate, but widely watched by variety of different people.

Lastly I noticed the authors quotes were either anonymous, “People in the industry say…,” or were mainly from men. How can you seriously write an article about women in technology and use penis bearers as your definitive source of information on what is happening in the field and expect to be taken seriously? How?

A couple of weeks ago, I proposed lots and lots of ways to start moving past the ballyhooing of the issue and start fixing the issue. I would also add

  • Buy female hacker positive materials such as the TV shows and films listed above as well as books, manga, and more to illustrate that female computer geeks do live in the pop culture world
  • Start a zine aimed at young women and girls as another

The only way the perception and culture of women in computing changes if we start actively making those changes we want to see. We need less of the, “oh woe is us” and more “what are we going to do to fix this damn problem.”

Keep the conversation moving forward.

x0x0,
Lisa

This day in Lisa-Universe in: 1998