Women in Computer Science

“Typical” computer science workspaces off-putting to women

This is something that has concerned me greatly. In part, because my wife (who graduated from Caltech and who is smarter than I am at mathematics) would do quite well as a software developer–and she won’t touch the industry with a 10 foot pole. And in part because, underneath it all, there is a definite culture which I do not like, which I tolerate because it is the price I have to pay in order to do the work I love.

The study quoted in Ars only covers the outward displays of a culture: science fiction memorabilia, snack food. But I suspect the problem runs much deeper than the outward signs.

The bottom line is that I have yet to work for any computer software development firm which didn’t have a strong wiff of adolescent teenage college boy frat-house hanging in the air–both in terms of interaction of team members, in terms of project planning (and putting out fires), and even in terms of the way projects are managed (like “scrum”, a term that comes out of Rugby).

No one thing, of course, is at fault: I suspect if it was just the matter of one too many models of the Enterprise sitting in the corner or someone using baseball terms to discuss a project, most women would be just as happy to ignore the occasional infraction on good taste. But it’s the overall culture that creates the problem.

And I don’t know how you change it.

I will note, however, that it’s not a lack of intelligence or a difference in education or something intrinsic about women–outside of a lack of willingness to put up with an adolescent male frat club culture: the majority of software developers writing the software for the Space Shuttle are women. I strongly suspect three things that make working on the Shuttle appealing are (a) a lack of “cowboy” programmers (with their ‘dick length’ contests), (b) complete predictability in the workday (and no “burn the midnight oil” rush sessions, since rushing kills astronauts), and (c) a culture of review and oversight that looks at fault as a fault in process, rather than seeking to assign blame to individuals who fail to be “cowboy” enough.

My goal with my own development group is to lead through teaching and establishing an example–and the example I want to set is one of predictability (through proper prior planning) and one where no-one is expected to “rush.” Next week I’m putting together essentially “course material” on how to write code within our project, on the theory that anyone who is interested in technology and who can write Java and use Eclipse can “turn the crank” without having to burn the midnight oil or be a self-directed “cowboy.”

We’ll see how this theory works in practice.

But I do know I completely despise the frat-house atmosphere at most software development companies. (It’s why I hated college: I loved the classes, I hated the frat-house college culture.) And if I can play a small role in banishing part of it in my own little corner of the universe, I will be a happy person.

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