I almost couldn't post this, because I've been in such an agonized tizzy, screaming myself to sleep at night as my white-knuckled fingers clench the sweat-stained bedsheets all about THE QUESTION.
THE QUESTION will not go away. It is front-paged on every news website, puked onto the table of every TV pundit debate, screamed from the headlines of every newspaper.
"ZOMG HOW DO WE GET MORE WOMEN INTO PROGRAMMING????????"
And science careers? And tech jobs? And STEM careers? And web development? And math? And database administration? And... and... where the wimmin at, dog?
None of these people realize that every time they ask this question, they drive women further away from programming. If there were a smidgen of interest in actually creating a balanced society, we would just make everything equally accessible and then let women make up their own minds what to do.
You know what question we never see? "How do we get more men into needlepoint?"
And nursing careers? And cake decorating? And ballet? Hey, guys, how would you feel if you had a mass of screaming harpies chasing you around with a camera and microphone demanding to know, right this minute, why you, sir, are not actively learning how to warp and weft a 10x20 penelope canvas? Would you be more open to getting into needlepoint then? Or would you be annoyed at being singled out for your gender? That's how women respond (and I know several myself) to "How do we get more women into programming?"
The answer is trumpeted to be, of course, that you must have this culture around needlepoint that is discouraging you from getting into it. Stigma. As soon as women find out you're a male needlepointer, they yell condescending remarks: "Oh, you petit-point pretty well for a man!" Flip that in reverse for women and programming. See how dumb that is? If women are only staying out of programming because of stigma, then men are likewise kept out of needlepoint. It's a female-dominated hobby, you see, so that would stop you from simply downloading patterns and buying thread at Hobby Lobby, because you'd be afraid of the clerks snickering at you behind their fist.
Not that it does. There are male needlepointers, there are female programmers. Ask either one of them what it's like in their culture, and they'll both respond that yes, the other gender does tend to dominate the industry, and yes, they do run into some sexism, but oh well, they deal with it and hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.
Yeah... but why? Why don't the genders show an even 50/50 split across all occupations and interests? Why are soap operas mainly watched by women; why are comic books mainly read by men? And yes, that last question is beginning to make the rounds; the media, endlessly helpless to distinguish one stereotypical pursuit from another, has leaped from asking why women aren't in STEM careers to why aren't there more women "geeks" and from there downhill to why aren't there more female Batman fans.
Oh, wait, they've tried to solve that one. Batman - boy-bits + girl-bits = Batgirl!
But wait, it didn't work. Women still don't read comic books!
Perhaps because they sensed that this "Batgirl" person (and Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc.) was a shallow attempt at marketing to them by taking the same thing that's popular with boys and painting it pink. There's jillions of female superheros, and they are all male superhero spinoffs with a sex change. You may have Batgirl, but Batgirl drawn and written and sold by men. Oh no! Here it comes again! "How do we get more women to be comic artists?????"
No, really, guys, listen to this: What if we make needlepoint patterns available that picture monster trucks, football games, Playboy models, and Transformers robots? Will that get you into needlepoint?
Oh, it won't? Oh, you hurt my feelings.
(Sidebar: By the way, yes, there's female comic book and cartoon fans. In the manga and anime section, because in Japan, they have special categories of just manga and anime by females for females about females, and if there's male characters and more than two of them in one plot, you can bet the guys will be in each others' pants by issue #3. And if they aren't, the female slash fiction base will correct that oversight. Manga and anime enjoys a 50/50 gender appeal, because it started out from the first place being segregated into genres.)
Why aren't more women into programming?
I have the answer. My answer is so good, so definitive, that I should charge you for it.
The answer is "money."
No, not that the money is bad (although it is bad, but it's perceived as good). It's that every boy who grows up pursuing a tech career has dollar signs in his eyes. Because of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg. These guys are trumpeted from the front pages of Forbes, Time, and Business Week. The message is "there's big money in programming!" True, most of the programmers end up slinging Java in some god-forbidden corporate data warehouse for $12/hr. and end up getting laid off in five years when their job gets outsourced, but when they started out, they were aiming for Redmond.
(Another sidebar: Yeah, yeah, I know, there's one guy out there I have to address: You're only motivated to program because you enjoy making computers do nifty stuff. It's the love of the art. And that's why you have a job that has nothing to do with technology, do nothing to promote your success amongst your technology peers, and if somebody offered you fistfulls of cash to do anything computer-related, even consult or deliver a lecture at a conference, you'd push it away and be insulted, amiright? Yeah, you do it for the "love of the game" - you and every NFL player on their way to cash their 8-figure check.)
No, the question we should be asking is "How come there's so many guys in programming?" Because programming, even in 2013, is still seen as an at least stable and potentially lucrative career. And (WARNING: We have reached the part of this essay that will draw screams of "sexism":) guys feel more pressure to make money than gals. Because how many women want to date a broke man?
That's it. There are a lot of men in programming, because programming is seen as a potentially successful career, and men, naturally competitive, want those wads of cash very badly. You want more women in programming? Get rid of the money and the potential for success on a huge scale, men will abandon the field like toddlers fleeing the canned vegetable aisle, and Glamour, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan will start carrying ads: "Learn freelance programming at home! It's the perfect 'mommy-job'!"
Here, I'll prove it:
Presenting a book I've held dear on my shelves for a very long time, waiting for its day in the sun. The book is Introduction to Business Data Processing, by Lawrence S. Orilia, published McGraw Hill, copyright 1979. Important date to remember as we browse through it.
Sure, in 2013 you might think that there's a gulf between "data processing" and "programming", but in 1979, there wasn't one. The book is chock full of code in FORTRAN, COBOL, and BASIC. With flowcharts, endless fields of flowcharts, because that's how data processing was done back then. Check that link I made to Google books - while they don't have a scanned copy, note the keywords in "common terms and phrases". Yes, they go into line numbers and loops and statements. The students who learned from this textbook weren't modern data entry clerks. They would become programmers, because advanced software didn't exist at the time and it was expected that you would know coding in order to just use a computer.
Thirty years later, even Tim O'Reilly can't say "everybody who uses a computer should learn a little programming" without a lynch mob battering down his door.
What this book is also chock full of is women sitting at computer terminals. All the way through the book. Females operate the computers, men enjoy lofty positions in suits and ties striding around with clipboards, supervising the women.
You see, computing in this era was still largely seen as office-type work. Before computers it was all typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets, which mostly women did in the position of "secretary", so computers at the time were deemed to be glorified typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets combined - hence "women's work". Mostly it was the kind of work you wouldn't catch a guy dead doing. Remember, we're not talking the world of 3D rendered graphics and Internet entrepreneurs, we're talking punched cards and magnetic tape.
That's right, women were the first "hackers"!
His tie is wide enough to land a plane on, so he must be in charge. No way is he getting his hands dirty with this grubby computer stuff.
And yes, these queens of code could actually use a command line! You know, that thing I get screamed at all the time by the troll chorus for being an "elitist geek" for advocating?
Just look how confident and happy she is! Little did she know that in 30 years, plugging in your own external storage media correctly on the first try would be beyond 95% of either gender without a frantic call to tech support.
But modern macho men, your final humiliation is yet at hand. So only big, strong, logical men can handle all this computer stuff, ehhhh? Well back then, computer operation as an occupation had to be sold down, not up, so they had to include this charming anecdote:
It says on page 252: "A computer has become the means of communication between Lana, a four-year-old chimpanzee, and the rest of the world. Two years ago, she started to use the symbols on a computer keyboard to talk to her keepers."
"You see that, ladies?" said 1979 businessmen desperate for technicians, "These things are so simple, even a monkey can learn to use them, so you have no excuse!" A female monkey.
Remember this was 1979. Nobody had made billions of dollars in software yet. In hardware, yes, certainly, IBM, Honeywell, DEC, and whatnot, were very big deals. So the manufacture of computers was a male-dominated field, but just like typewriters, once we make 'em, let the women type on 'em. Also take note that the word "hacker" had yet to enter public parlance. There was no mythologized archetype of the cyberpunk anti-hero.
So if programming computers wasn't glamorous yet, and software tycoons who would become world-class billionaires were years in the future yet, and operating a computer was so easy that a monkey could do it, then what was there to attract men? Nothing. Yet the world needed programmers. So they had to hire women, and lo, there were the women running all the big, hot, dusty machines.
Now, I don't have time to write a whole book here and you don't have time to read it. I've laid out all the tools you need to build your own answers, because you're all bright people. Think about men, women, jobs and hobbies, and which ones are male-dominated, female-dominated, or 50/50. Think about history. Think about motivation, and the options people have in society.
I hope you have all learned something, not just about the history of computing, but about the genders, society, and the way the public perceptions relate to all of them.
But above all, most of all, more than my dear blood, I hope I never have to hear this stupid, stupid, stupid question ever again.
Follow-Up: I misplaced the bookmark when I was writing this, but I found it again. Here's Stanford research about how programming changed from a female to male profession. Now, sociologically, they cite our old boogey, gender-bias. Subtle gender-bias covered up by personality testing and prerequisite courses. Yes, but saying "we don't have female programmers because personalities are screened for introverts and college records are screened for math credits" does nothing but move the question out to "Where are all the introverted math geek women?" There are introverted math geek women out there. But anyway, it's another point of view worth sharing here.
Update: How many times does YOUR head hit the desk when reading about the latest gender-tech scandal, known as "dongle-gate"?
Update 4/10/13: As I continue to get more responses to this, here's a link somebody found on Fogcreek from 2 years ago: “The Computer Girls” from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Once again, somebody else noticed that women used to dominate the computer field, but then answers "why did they leave?" with the knee-jerk "teh sexism!" Always, always, always.