Reprogram Computer Science to attract more women

Despite the considerable intellectual and financial rewards of an IT career, women are put off by the industry’s reputation. It’s time for change, writes Jake Bloom.

Jake Bloom

"You're a perv Jake and you only want more women in Computing so you can sleep with them."

As a straight, white, Australian, cisgendered male, I've had things pretty easy and I try my absolute best not to take it for granted. I believe that we should be encouraging more women to take up studies in Computer Science, not for increased dating opportunities, but to close the field’s huge gender gap.Okay, I'm exaggerating; no one’s actually ever said those exact words to me but that is what they are insinuating when people question my motives for promoting gender parity.

Women are responsible for some of the most significant advances in computing yet men still vastly outnumber women in IT, particularly in programming. With a critical skills shortage looming, the industry needs all the talent it can get — male and female. So when people ask me if it is ironic I get really annoyed, and for good reason. To quote every twelvie on Tumblr ever: you know my name, not my story.

So let me tell you my story. In January 1996, at about 3am one morning, my mother gave birth to her first child. Twelve hours later she handed me to my dad and went to work. When Mum arrived at the office, her co-workers were shocked and urged her to go home. She shrugged them off, saying: "No, I've had my baby and I'm back at work now." Eventually, Mum capitulated and took six months maternity leave. She hated every second of it. When my younger brother was born, she was back at work a fortnight later.

If my mother sounds formidable, she is. She’s worked extremely hard to build a successful career in a tough industry, and she doesn't take no for an answer. (Never try to negotiate with her. You will lose.) Her energy is as boundless as her ambition and she’s a genius time manager. Recently, Mum held down a full-time job structuring billion-dollar loans between banks while studying for her fourth degree at a fourth university in a third different faculty. At the same time, she oversaw the renovation of our family home, chaired a 'Women in Finance' networking program, and ran  marathons in her spare time, all while having to deal with three boys at home. She's an amazing woman and one of my most respected role models.

I was raised to believe in equality. It's one of the reasons I'm so proud to be a part of the Bloom clan and it's one of the reasons that I'm so disappointed by the skew towards men in Computer Science.

So how can we change our industry to ensure that women are accepted and valued? I don’t support stop-gap solutions like recruitment quotas because they militate against hiring the best person for the job. And they’re not exactly inspiring either. No little girl ever says, "I'm going to fill a quota when I grow up."

Which brings me to my second point: soon every company in the world will need developers, even if only to maintain a website for a small business. In 10 years, we'll be as crucial to a well-functioning society as doctors and lawyers are today. The balance of power in the world is shifting, and we're going to be the beneficiaries.

So how can we change our industry to ensure that women are accepted and valued?

Jake Bloom

Companies are falling over each other to attract the best talent. "I have an interview with Google" is a phrase that is embarrassingly common at UNSW Computer Science events.

Programming is mathsy, and involves lots of problem-solving and design. It pays well, has very little unemployment and there’s plenty of scope to start your own business.

It’s an amazing industry full of brilliant people but we have a perception problem. The general public sees us as nerdy, awkward and hostile to women. I once met a girl at a Roundhouse party, and when I told her I was studying Computer Science, she said, "Oh yeah? How many girls do you know, like two?"

Retrograde TV shows like The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory (ugh) reinforce the dorky, female-unfriendly stereotype. Worse yet is the tendency of popular culture to transmute geeky into ghastly. A case in point is The Social Network, which portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a narcissistic misogynist whose girlfriend famously tells him, “You’re going to go through life thinking girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. That won’t be true; it’ll be because you’re an arsehole.”

Jake's #include <women> sticker on his phone.

It’s clear that we need to do something about our image. We need to start thinking long and hard about the things we say and the people we say it to so that any sort of casual sexism, racism or xenophobia is wiped out. I was at a formal dinner once where the guy sitting next to me insisted, on the basis of evidence of there being so few women in computing, that men are intrinsically better at it and more suited to it. Rubbish.

The world’s first computer program was written in 1840 by Lord Byron’s mathematician daughter Ada Lovelace.  Her friend and collaborator Charles Babbage, inventor of the Analytical Engine — the modern computer’s prototype, nicknamed her the Enchantress of Numbers in recognition of her mathematical prowess and insightful understanding of computing’s potential applications.

The Apollo 11 space mission made it to the moon thanks to the work of its senior developer, Margaret Hamilton, who you may know from a viral Tumblr post. What you probably didn't know is that she coined the term “software engineer”, founded her own company, Higher Order Software, is currently CEO of Hamilton Technologies and has 130 publications and over 60 major projects to her credit. Without her, the crew of Apollo 11 would have died (literally, look it up, I'm not kidding), and without her innovations operating systems would be 10 years behind where they are today.

Anita Borg established the Palo Alto-based Institute for Women and Technology, which supports female computer scientists with networking and mentorship opportunities as well as awards and recognition. Her activism included a successful campaign to force Mattel to withdraw a Barbie doll that said "Math class is tough!" Borg’s career centred on research and, in addition to her honorary Doctorate of Science and Technology from Carnegie Mellon University, the self-taught programmer earned a PhD from New York University. It is thanks to her breakthroughs that your computer can do two things at once.

Jake and his mum.

Other unsung Tech Heroines include software entrepreneur Dorcas Muthoni, whose products have transformed public administration in Africa, and Elizabeth Feinler — co-author of the ARPAnet Protocol Handbook (ARPAnet was a US military network that evolved into what we now know as the Internet) and originator of the Domain Name System (.gov, .com, .edu, etc…) that all websites use today.

These pioneers should be mentioned in the same breath as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates yet very few people know of their achievements. This has to change. We owe it to the ground-breaking female programmers who have come before us, and we owe it to the talented female programmers who will come after us.

Change is possible, but it starts with you and me. When somebody makes a joke about how few women there are in computing, we need to stop them and say, "Actually, Computer Science is a really diverse and rewarding profession. Yes, gender equality isn't what it should be, but we're a very accepting bunch," and then back up those words with actions.

Together we can create a healthier, happier community where creativity and ingenuity flourish regardless of gender.

- Jake Bloom, Computer Science Engineering student

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