Girl Coders, Patriarchy, and Despair

More Social Engineering

At something called the Harvard Gazette, apparently a literary asylum for ed-majors, sociologists, and the mildly brain-damaged, the female inmates are riled because there are not enough girls in computer science. Yes, discrimination. Their eyes agleam with the dull light of incomprehension, they moo, “When you make computer science about creative problem-solving, when you make it social, when it’s not scary and intimidating, and when you show people who look like real human beings rather than people who’ve been stuck in a basement … more girls will be attracted to it.”

Oh god, oh god, oh god. We’re going backwards. I told you Darwin was wrong. Gerbils to the right, gerbils to the left, and not a thought to think.

CodersDo these look to you like prospective programmers? Like people who could tell a branch instruction from a duckbill platypus?

Intimidating. Intimidating? Dear ladies, dear dear ladies, for men coding isn’t intimidating. It isn’t scary. It is really, really neat stuff. It is neat stuff for us because that’s how our heads work. You don’t need to bait guys into programming. You just show it to them and go do something else. Computers appeal to guys for the same reason girls appeal to us: it is built in.

Some girls can code, some do, and may they flourish—but it is chiefly a Y-chromosome thing. Girls fail to go into computer science because either (a) they don’t want to, or (b) they can’t do it, or (c) both. That’s how things are.

You can’t make it social. No one codes while in a salon while polishing doilies (or whatever you do with them. I’m not too technical on doilies.) You can’t program, or I can’t anyway, while having a cooperative bonding experience and listening to Sally doing relationship talk about her latest boyfriend.

For guys, computing is like love at first sight, but without child support. In 1968 I came back from Washington’s stupid war of the time and found that my school (Hampden-Sydney College) had gotten an IBM 1130, little brother to the 360 series. It ran Fortran IV, which I had never heard of. I looked at it and thought, “Wow! Motorized algebra!” Which it was. I suspected that it might do my chemistry homework. It did. While I was not a greatly gifted programmer, I loved the stuff.

But my point, oh lovely ladies of the Harvard Gazette, is that computing was even then a guy’s obsession, a geek’s joy. (Geeks are great people, smart as hell and make jokes that other people don’t notice. Such as women at the Harvard…never mind.)

Hampden-Sydney being a small school, the computer room was open all night, so guys—guys—stayed up late punching Hollerith cards and teaching ourselves assembly language and such. We loved it because…because…because it all made sense. Computers didn’t do opinion. There was no maybe, ifness, perhapshood. Computers called powerfully to the male love of controllable complexity. This is as genetic as liking loud motors.

Computing was primitive then, yes. With Fortran IV top-down programming was literally impossible because of the branching structure, so there was a lot of spaghetti code, and things like local variables didn’t exist. Still, it was a real scientific language—we were contemptuous of COBOL, which was for business drones. But Ken Iverson at IBM had come out with APL, a totally crazy language—more controllable complexity—and we had the interpreter. We liked it not because we had any use for it—we didn’t—but because it was complex and we could make it do what we wanted. Guy stuff.

And here, ladies, we come to (eeeek!) a gender difference. As we all know, men have been saying since three weeks before the Big Bang that women are not rational. This is not quite true. As long as their emotions and politics are not involved, women can be quite rational. For example, if a woman needs to use PhotoShop, which is a savage bear of a program, she will learn it and in all likelihood learn it well. But, while a woman will learn a thing despite its complexity, because she needs it, a man will learn it because of its complexity, whether he needs it or not.

Thus a computer geek will read books with names like Computer Architectureabout data buses, interrupt hierarchies, instruction pipelines, superscalars, segmentation vs. pagination, and virtual-memory things like thrashing, which is (if memory serves) what happens when the domain of a loop crosses the boundary of a page frame. (assuming that page frames even exist what with gigabytes of RAM). It’s just, you know, like cool.

Exactly the same instinct explains why in 1964 a boy kid in the country could talk about cars for fifteen minutes without using a single word his mother could understand: “Baa-a-a-d fitty-sedden Chev, 283, solid lifters, ported and polished, Carter AFBs, Isky three-quarter, 4.51 rear, Positraction, magneto ignition, phone flow, Hirst narrow-gate shifter, udden udden uddenudddenudden SCEEECH!!”

This described a nonexistent car with additions to make it go faster and louder than made any objective sense, but was complex and the speaker understood it. Coding.

(In case you are wondering, “phone flow” is Southern for a standard shift of four gears located on the floorboards.)

In support of my contentions, ladies, I will wager that all of you can drive, but that none of you knows what a cam lobe is. You needed to drive, so you learned how. You don’t need to know what is under the hood, so you don’t. It is a gender difference. Live with it.

A further point is that every known test of mathematico-logical talent shows that certain groups have more of it than others. Determining the identity of these groups I will leave to the reader as an exercise. How many do you see in the photograph above?

Hint: There is a reason why women are underrepresented as offensive linemen in the NFL. The solution to this injustice probably is not to make football a caring cooperative experience so that it won’t be scary and intimidating.

Finally, dearest ones, you want programming to be about “creative problem solving.” I wonder what you think you mean by this, if you think you mean something. Maintenance coding aside, programming is the solving of problems. I won’t ask you what you mean by “creative,” as you might tell me, and I am not sure I could stand it. You will forgive me if I take leave of you now, as I need to polish my doilies. Whatever they are.

Good book: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, really good account, often funny, of how we got Prohibition, who done it, and how we got around it.

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