Explaining the Fascination with Explaining Why There Are No Female Programmers

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People love opining on Silicon Valley's gender gap — even if they have no data or even relevant anecdotes to back up their theories about why so few women enter coding or technology professions. The latest offering in the genre comes from software developer Dave Winer, who, like many others, fell into the obvious trap of saying women are inherently bad at programming. Winer, the "protoblogger" who helped develop the first blogs, RSS, and founded Small Picture, Incshared his flimsy "theory" on his blog Scripting News Monday evening, where he likened programming to the hunting and gathering our ancestors did in the wilderness...a skill that is not something women are genetically predisposed to do:

Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it's a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner.

Winer, predictably, got torn apart in the comments and on Twitter, where critics called the post "sad" and "poorly thought out." The most up-voted commenter on Winer's own blog, in fact, was a detractor who began her takedown thusly: 

If you say "I think there's something about programming that makes women not want to do it" then you are displaying a worldview that's very gender-essentialist. Gender essentialism and sexism walk hand-in-hand.

The dearth of women and minorities in coding has long been a popular topic of discussion: See here, here, and here. Some of it is simply "mansplaining," especially in the case of Winer. But, there's another factor at work here: The false idea of the Silicon Valley meritocracy, which posits that people succeed in computer related professions because they're the simply best at what they do. The logic, it then follows, is that if the industry suffers from  alarmingly low numbers of black, Latino, or female programmers, it must have something to do with the individuals themselves, not the larger culture.

This is exactly the sort of problematic mindset and inability or unwillingness to look at structural issues that leads to nonsense like Winer's hunter gatherer theory, or assertions that "women just aren't good at programming", aren't "attracted to programming at all" or don't work hard enough. It also, unreasonably, puts the burden on women, rather than the very real "artificial barriers" keeping them out of the field, as Ellen Spertus, a computer science professor who wrote the seminal 1991 paper "Why Are There So Few Females in Computer Science?" told The New York Times in 2008.

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Back then, things like "the different ways in which boys and girls are raised, the stereotypes of female engineers, subtle biases that females face, problems resulting from working in predominantly male environments, and sexual biases in language" were seen as impediments in the way of women's advancements. Now, some 13 years after Spertus wrote her paper, the gap has only widened. Although bachelors degrees in other sciences for men and women have evened out, "many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates," reported the Times in 2008. (In 2010, the National Center for Women and Information Technology had the number at 18 percent.)

As for Winer, he has since walked back his thesis in an update. "Note: This was not a well-written post." he wrote, tweeting out a link to Girls Who Code and adding that he has decided to focus less on the reasons behind gender disparity in programming and more on potential solutions. "I want everyone to do great stuff." So do we, but making this happen will have nothing to do with focusing on genetics.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.