Latest News & Current Events

Should Women that code be “leaning in” or “leaning to one side”?

Lately it seems that women are making some inroads at the top end of business.  Just this week we saw UK ITV News editor Deborah Turness Named President of NBC News. There are now 20 female CEOs running America’s largest companies. That paltry number (4%) is actually a record. The reason why it may feel like progress lately is because more than half, 11 of those CEO’s landed the top job between 2011 and 2012.

Yes prominent women such as Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer are proving that women are finding their place at the table. But in an op-ed for The New York Times, author and former programmer Ellen Ullman argues that women in the field today face "a new, more virile and virulent sexism."

While Sandberg’s recent book talks about “leaning in”, Ullman recounts how breaking into the ranks of computing in the early 1980s, there was no legal protection against “hostile environments for women.” To overcome lecherous clients and bosses, where what Ullman terms the “occasional need for male dominance would surface”, she decided to “lean to one side” and says “My leaning to one side, not confronting him, letting him be the flawed man he was, changed the direction of my technical life”.

In her op-ed How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’ Ullman recounts how over the 20 years that followed, being a woman meant that she was somewhat removed from the general society of programmers.  While she resented that distance, she does believe that by standing back she got a clearer view of the profession and its effects on society at large.  Ullman notes that, at the deeper reaches of software engineering, “it was as if some plague had specialized in the killing off females”. She looked around and wondered, “Where are all the other women?”

In Ullman’s terms “The first requirement for programming is a passion for the work, a deep need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might satisfy them”.   She believes that this “left the female survivors with an odd glow that made them too visible, scrutinized too closely, held to higher standards. It placed upon them the terrible burden of being not only good but the best”.

This landscape has not changed – rather it has shifted, to the extent that Ullman claims “Women today face a new, more virile and virulent sexism. The definition of success has somehow become running your own start-up. And venture capitalists decide who will get funding, who will get a chance for that success. Venture capitalists are all but explicit in their search: they want a couple of guys who can write an app over a weekend”.

In the world of start-ups, younger women find themselves sorely underrepresented, stalled at marketing and customer support, writing scripts for Web pages.  Coding, looking into the algorithmic depths, getting close to the machine, is the driver of technology; and technology, in turn, is driving fundamental changes in personal, social and political life and this world of coding remains the domain of male domination in the tech world.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 29.4 percent of people working in “Computer and Software,” a subcategory of “Commercial Equipment.”  The challenge is that this broad (and vague) definition can include everyone from system designers to office assistants, it tells us nothing about the participation of women at the deeper technical and theoretical levels of computer science, hardware and software engineering, in essence, the levels at which the future of technology is being defined.

Ullman’s only advice for women that are committed and passionate about being part of defining the future is to stare prejudice in the face and “structure your anger, to achieve a certain dignity, an angry dignity”. Given what one of Ullman’s bosses said back in the 80’s, “I hate to hire all you girls but you’re too damned smart,” accepting the status quo and just navigating through it, is not an acceptable path for the 21st century.

Women have the intellectual horsepower to help define the future and the women that now have a seat at the table in some of the top technology companies across the globe owe it not just to other women, but to their shareholders and customers too, to make sure that they are leveling the playing field for women that code.


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