Everyone knows that computer programming is a heavily male-dominated field. I think this is unfortunate. Over the years, I’ve come to conclude that there is a great deal that women can contribute to this field.
Why is computer programming regarded as a primarily masculine discipline? I think that in part, it’s because men have a reputation for being more likely to tinker around with gadgets and gizmos. In part, it’s also because computer science is supposedly a very math-oriented field, and men are supposedly more inclined toward mathematical disciplines.
(Incidentally, I know that such generalizations would offend certain people. I’d like to emphasize that this is not my intent at all, nor do I wish to make excessively broad generalizations about either gender. However, a multitude of psychological studies do claim that men have—on the average—a greater aptitude for mathematics and mechanics than women do, whereas women tend to perform better at linguistics and communication. These tendencies coincide well with my own observations, so for now, I’ll assume that these studies are reasonable descriptions of gender differences.)
Anyway, people often claim that men make better programmers because they are more mathematically inclined. Personally, I disagree. It is true that computer science is very much mathematical in nature; however, computer programming often is not. It’s true that a software developer should understand basic concepts such as binary computations, round-off error and Boolean logic; however, for most programming tasks, there is little need for calculus, group theory or other advanced mathematical topics. For this reason, I think that the importance of a strong mathematical aptitude is largely overblown.
Indeed, I think that linguistic skill is decidedly more important. I’d say that in years past, about 90% of the programmers that I encountered produced sloppy code—software that is clumsily structured, poorly documented and difficult to understand. I’ve also noticed a strong correlation between linguistic skill and the ability to generate clean, legible code. And why not? Computer languages are, after all, just that—languages. It’s thus reasonable to expect that someone with a strong language aptitude will—on the average—produce cleaner, more understandable code than someone whose language skills are lackluster.
That is one reason why I wish more women would pursue a programming career. If it is indeed true that women have better language skills, then they are likely to perform well with computer languages as well. Again, this jibes well with my own experiences. I haven’t known many female programmers, but most of the ones that I do know have produced some rather outstanding work. (To be fair, I’ve also known some lousy female programmers; however, these individuals had little passion for their field, and only entered it for the sake of a paycheck. That’s a pretty good recipe for mediocrity, regardless of one’s gender.)
Breaking into this field may not be easy. I’m sure that many women will have to combat the prejudiced notion that software development is a man’s field, and that female programmers are mere dilettantes. Still, it is my earnest hope that more women will make their marks in this arena. If they have the right passion for this field, and if they understand their strengths, then I believe that they have much to offer.