When Women Stopped Coding

by whereibelongsf

There was an interesting story on NPR’s Planet Money this week exploring why women’s participation in computer science dropped dramatically in 1984.  The story argues that it had to do with the way that personal computers were marketed as toys for boys. Thus girls didn’t buy them and didn’t have the background in programming that the boys in CS classes did. And thus programming was seen as a male industry, and those few women who dared enter it were either made to feel unwelcome or got tired of being the only female, and tended to drop out.

I liked the article because it suggests that it is socialization vs. genetics that is to explain for the dearth of female programmers. It’s not that women’s brains just don’t work that way, it’s that they are actively discouraged from participating. Second, it points to how problematic highly gendered marketing to children can be. I went to Target recently to buy a farm playset for my daughter, and I was disgusted by how totally gendered the toy section was. The girls section was all pink and purple, and mostly centered around dolls, kitchen sets, and ponies. The boys section was all greens and blues and based on trucks, cars, and action figures. It was crazy. I mean, I get that in general little girls tend to be more into dolls and little boys tend to be more into trucks and action figures. I’ve seen this preference start with my daughter and her friends as early as a year old. My daughter has been playing with dolls since she was a year old, and her friend (who is a boy) has been obsessed with trucks and cars for as long. Neither my wife and I or our friends are encouraging our children to be interested in a certain thing, and none of us are either the most manly men or girly girls. I try to give my daughter non-gendered toys to play with along with her dolls, and she is pretty into Hot Wheels. But not nearly as much as she likes dolls.

The comments predictably included several men saying that NPR should spend as much time worrying about the dearth of men in the teaching and nursing professions.  I hate this line of reasoning. It’s like complaining to the Rotarians who were trying (and succeeded in) eradicating Polio that they should also eradicate measles at the same time, or that groups working on fighting malaria in sub-saharan Africa should also be working to cure hunger. Just because a group is focusing attention on one issue doesn’t mean that no other issues are important, or that they are also responsible for solving other issues before they can tackle the issue they are interested in. It’s not either/or. There’s also some that good old “you are selfish because you aren’t talking about ME” logic that you see in MRA’s.

I was thinking about the heat you see in articles about women’s rights, and here’s the analogy I came up with. The MRAs and their ilk are assuming that by advocating for healthier eating and getting more exercise, you a)hate fat people and b) are advocating anorexia. They assume that the extremes represent the movement as a whole, and that the fringe making nutty statements in blogs with a readership of four are indicative of all feminists. You can be concerned about how unhealthy the American diet is without hating America, hating fat people, being pro-anorexia, or trying to ban doughnuts.