Boys Who Code

Like most people, I twinge a little when I think back on some of the things I really liked when I was a kid. Jam bands. Khakis. Taco Bell.

I twinge hardest when I think about all of the crazily sexist tv and movies I used to love. Family Guy. Every awful Adam Sandler movie.

I was especially into tv and movies that glorified computer nerds, because I was am one. Those movies I watched over and over again. Tron. Weird Science. The Matrix.

Notably, the last two categories overlap in a lot of places. 80s and 90s hacker/nerd glorification was super sexist—not only because the hackers/nerds were almost exclusively men and boys, but because they were men and boys who treated women like shit.

Weird Science

For a variety of contingent reasons, I managed to escape being turned into a complete misogynist by all of this. I’m gay and grew up in the south and had to deal with misogyny-coded-as-homophobia myself. My mom went to law school when I was in first grade, and she became a successful breadwinner while I was old enough to understand and internalize what that meant. My family in general is full of awesome feminist women who would never let me believe that there is anything men do that women aren’t just as capable of doing.

Moreover, the specific experience I had of computer culture was also unusually not male-dominated. My aunt is a programmer who made my parents buy me my first computer when I was four. And when I studied computer science in college, our department chair was a badass woman who had, amongst other things, worked on the Apollo Project. In the first week of our Introduction to Computer History course, which she taught and all new majors were required to take, Prof. Martin asked each of us to draw a picture of a “computer geek.” When we were done she was unsurprised to find that everyone had drawn a dude (either very skinny or very chubby), unkempt, with glasses. Even the women in the class had drawn men. “Let’s think about whether or not this has anything to do with why only four of the more than thirty of you are women,” she said.

That exercise has stuck with me for years. I think about it every time I hear about a Girls Who Code kind of initiative.

What I hadn’t realized, though, is that my own experience of computers and computer science came right at a turning point. Women, of course, played huge roles in the initial development of computer science. Prof. Martin made sure we knew all about Ada Lovelace, Ida Rhodes, and Grace Hopper. But an excellent new Planet Money podcast argues that the tide began to turn in 1984—the year I was born. Right then, as the number of women in other professional fields continued to grow, the number of women studying computer science began to plummet.

What Happened to Women in Computer Science?

The reason: dude hacker culture. Not just in tv and movies, but in the way companies began marketing and selling computers, and in the way computer science departments taught computer science. In the mid-80s, Planet Money argues, companies started selling computers as gaming devices. And though there were women making games, and there were games targeted at girls, the vast majority of games were branded for boys. Just as Tonka trucks were toys for boys, so too were computers.

This meant that boys (like me) were often exposed to computers at a much younger age than girls were. We were encouraged to build our own computers, to take programming classes in high school, to even (I swear to god) spend summers at computer camp. As a result, boys were often better prepared for intro computer science courses in college. We weren’t better at programming; we just had a leg up. Discouraged, women often dropped the major.

Today we can see the effects of this shift. A number of big tech companies recently released demographic data about their employees. At Google and Facebook, women make up less than a third of the total workforce. And when you home in specifically on tech jobs, they comprise only 17% at Google and 15% at Facebook. Women hold 21% and 23% of leadership positions at the two companies, respectively.

Obviously, these demographics reinforce the stereotypes that produced them. Computer dudes start to think that they own the place. (Because they do.) Some become protective of it. And when women push back—by, say, pointing out misogyny in video games—some of those dudes lash out.

Organizations like Girls Who Code, which try to show young girls why they should be interested in computer science, and programs in computer science departments like Carnegie Mellon’s and Harvey Mudd’s, which work to even the playing field by getting women majors up-to-speed on things their male colleagues often arrive at college already knowing, are doing incredibly important work.

But as in every other sphere of life, ending misogyny in tech isn’t only women’s work. To shift the tech world’s demographics, male computer nerds are going to need to relinquish some privilege. They’re going to need to think about how they perpetuate negative stereotypes, how the products they create affect the ways boys and girls understand computers. They’re going to have to change the environments in which they work. And the gamers—lord have mercy, the gamers—are going to have to chill the fuck out.

8 Responses to “Boys Who Code”

  1. Emily

    I’m so glad you posted about this. It’s shocking and deeply disturbing to see numbers around the gender shift in CS and how that correlated to personal computers. “Dude hacker culture” is real and will only build on itself without targeted efforts to disrupt it. It’s not only about getting more women interested in coding, but also largely about making them feel included in the professional culture. Thanks for posting!

  2. Diana

    Dead on! I am totally proud of my open-minded, intelligent and forward thinking Grandchildren. I believe the world will be safer in your hands!

  3. Elad sherf

    I also heard the podcast. It was super interesting. I love your added perspective. I am constantly amazed to see how screwed up “the system” is (by that I mean the way culture is set up). In my org behavior class I try to convince students how embedded these biases are in how make decisions (i.e., hiring, promotions, performance evaluations)… The more we talk about and take that into consideration in how we design systems, the better the societies we are going to create.

    Kodus on a well written post! (And generally a great blog)


    • Daniel Susser

      Thanks, Elad! It’s great to hear that you talk about these issues in your courses! We spend a lot of time in our philosophy classes trying to get business major and other students to think about these problems, and to take a feel for them with them to the jobs they go on to afterward. But you’re much closer to the source!

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Jorden

    What’s funny, is that the mid 1980s is about the time gender studies started becoming a thing in colleges. So to the demise of women in TECH, not just CS, the blame should be directed at the very programs that make profits complaining that there aren’t a lot of women in tech.

  5. Alrescha

    I predate personal computers, computer science programs, and worked in the education sector during the dawn of that era. I’m sorry, but this is a lot of politically-correct revisionism.

    The graph does not show numbers, it shows percentages. The reason the percentage of women in computer science went down is not because the number of women plummeted, it is because the number of men skyrocketed. I submit to you that it was because women, as a population, were simply not interested. There was no great conspiracy.

    Likewise, you have cause and effect reversed when it comes to games. Games were marketed to boys because boys were the ones interested in them. When personal computers first arrived in the late ’70s, you could find boys circling the display counters like moths to a flame – but darned few girls. It’s hard to claim an entrenched “men’s club” with a brand-new product.

    There’s no doubt that there were some women who were interested in computer science and girls who were interested in games. It is also true that the current environment is horribly toxic to women and needs fixing, but lets do it without rewriting history, shall we?



Leave a Reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS