Girls and Software

December 2013's EOF, titled "Mars Needs Women", visited an interesting fact: that the male/female ratio among Linux Journal readers, and Linux kernel developers, is so lopsided (male high, female low) that graphing it would produce a near-vertical line. I was hoping the piece would invite a Linux hacker on the female side of that graph to step up and move the conversation forward. And sure enough, here we have Susan Sons aka @HedgeMage. Read on.—Doc Searls

Yep, I said "girls". Since men were once boys, but women sprang from the head of Zeus full-grown and fighting like modern-day Athenas, you can start flaming me now for using that nasty word...unless you'd like to see the industry through the eyes of a girl who grew up to be a woman in the midst of a loose collection of open-source communities.

Looking around at the hackers I know, the great ones started before puberty. Even if they lacked computers, they were taking apart alarm clocks, repairing pencil sharpeners or tinkering with ham radios. Some of them built pumpkin launchers or LEGO trains. I started coding when I was six years old, sitting in my father's basement office, on the machine he used to track inventory for his repair service. After a summer of determined trial and error, I'd managed to make some gorillas throw things other than exploding bananas. It felt like victory!

When I was 12, I got my hands on a Slackware disk and installed it on my computer—a Christmas gift from my parents in an especially good year for my dad's company—and I found a bug in a program. The program was in C, a language I'd never seen. I found my way onto IRC and explained the predicament: what was happening, how to reproduce it and where I thought I'd found the problem.

I was pretty clueless then—I hadn't even realized that the reason I couldn't read the code well was that there was more than one programming language in the world—but the channel denizens pointed me to the project's issue tracker, explained its purpose and helped me file my first bug report.

What I didn't find out about until later was the following private message exchange between one of the veterans who'd been helping me and a channel denizen who recognized my nickname from a mailing list:

coder0: That was a really well-asked question...but why do I get the feeling he's a 16yo boy?

coder1: Because she's a 12yo girl.

coder0: What do her parents do that she thinks like that?

coder1: I think she's on a farm somewhere, actually.

When coder1 told me about the conversation, I was sold on open source. As a little girl from farm country who'd repeatedly been excluded from intellectual activities because she wasn't wealthy or urban or old enough to be wanted, I could not believe how readily I'd been accepted and treated like anybody else in the channel, even though I'd been outed. I was doubly floored when I found out that coder0 was none other than Eric S. Raymond, whose writings I'd devoured shortly after discovering Linux.

Open source was my refuge because it was a place were nobody cared what my pedigree was or what I looked like—they cared only about what I did. I ingratiated myself to people who could help me learn by doing dull scutwork: triaging issues to keep the issue queues neat and orderly, writing documentation and fixing code comments. I was the helpful kid, so when I needed help, the community was there. I'd never met another programmer in real life at this point, but I knew more about programming than some college students.

It Really Is about Girls (and Boys)

Twelve-year-old girls today don't generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn't turn the young women into hackers.

Why does anyone, anywhere, think this will work? Start with a young woman who's already formed her identity. Dump her in a situation that operates on different social scripts than she's accustomed to, full of people talking about a subject she doesn't yet understand. Then tell her the community is hostile toward women and therefore doesn't have enough of them, all while showing her off like a prize poodle so you can feel good about recruiting a female. This is a recipe for failure.

Young women don't magically become technologists at 22. Neither do young men. Hackers are born in childhood, because that's when the addiction to solving the puzzle or building something kicks in to those who've experienced that "victory!" moment like I had when I imposed my will on a couple electronic primates.

Unfortunately, our society has set girls up to be anything but technologists. My son is in elementary school. Last year, his school offered a robotics class for girls only. When my son asked why he couldn't join, it was explained to him that girls need special help to become interested in technology, and that if there are boys around, the girls will be too scared to try.

My son came home very confused. You see, he grew up with a mom who coded while she breastfed and brought him to his first LUG meeting at age seven weeks. The first time he saw a home-built robot, it was shown to him by a local hackerspace member, a woman who happens to administer one of the country's biggest supercomputers. Why was his school acting like girls were dumb?

Thanks so much, modern-day "feminism", for putting very unfeminist ideas in my son's head.

There's another place in my life, besides my home, where the idea of technology being a "guy thing" is totally absent: my hometown. I still visit Sandridge School from time to time, most recently when my old math teacher invited me in to talk to students about STEM careers. I'm fairly sure I'm the only programmer anyone in that town has met in I'm something of the archetypal computer geek as far as they are concerned. If anything, some folks assume that it's a "girl thing".

Still, I don't see the area producing a bunch of female hackers. The poverty, urbanization and rising crime aside, girls aren't being raised to hack any more in my hometown than they are anywhere else. When I talked to those fifth-grade math classes, the boys told me about fixing broken video game systems or rooting their phones. The girls didn't do projects—they talked about fashion or seeking popularity—not building things.

What's Changed?

I've never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than "the woman in the group", and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is "old" (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father's age than mine.

The new breed of open-source programmer isn't like the old. They've changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.

When we call a man a "technologist", we mean he's a programmer, system administrator, electrical engineer or something like that. The same used to be true when we called a woman a "technologist". However, according to the new breed, a female technologist might also be a graphic designer or someone who tweets for a living. Now, I'm glad that there are social media people out there—it means I can ignore that end of things—but putting them next to programmers makes being a "woman in tech" feel a lot like the Programmer Special Olympics.

It used to be that I was comfortable standing side by side with men, and no one cared how I looked. Now I find myself having to waste time talking about my gender rather than my technology...otherwise, there are lectures:

  • The "you didn't have a woman on the panel" lecture. I'm on the panel, but I'm told I don't count because of the way I dress: t-shirt, jeans, boots, no make-up.

  • The "you desexualize yourself to fit in; you're oppressed!" lecture. I'm told that deep in my female heart I must really love make-up and fashion. It's not that I'm a geek who doesn't much care how she looks.

  • The "you aren't representing women; you'd be a better role model for girls if you looked the part" lecture. Funny, the rest of the world seems very busy telling girls to look fashionable (just pick up a magazine or walk down the girls' toy aisle). I don't think someone as bad at fashion as I am should worry about it.

With one exception, I've heard these lectures only from women, and women who can't code at that. Sometimes I want to shout "you're not a programmer, what are you doing here?!"

I've also come to realize that I have an advantage that female newcomers don't: I was here before the sexism moral panic started. When a dozen guys decide to drink and hack in someone's hotel room, I get invited. They've known me for years, so I'm safe. New women, regardless of competence, don't get invited unless I'm along. That's a sexual harassment accusation waiting to happen, and no one will risk having 12 men alone with a single woman and booze. So the new ladies get left out.

I've never been segregated into a "Women in X" group, away from the real action in a project. I've got enough clout to say no when I'm told I should be loyal and spend my time working on women's groups instead of technology. I'm not young or impressionable enough to listen to the likes of the Ada Initiative who'd have me passive-aggressively redcarding anyone who bothers me or feeling like every male is a threat, or that every social conflict I have is because of my sex.

Here's a news flash for you: except for the polymaths in the group, hackers are generally kind of socially inept. If someone of any gender does something that violates my boundaries, I assume it was a misunderstanding. I calmly and specifically explain what bothered me and how to avoid crossing that boundary, making it a point to let the person know that I am not upset with them, I just want to make sure they're aware so it doesn't happen again. This is what adults do, and it works. Adults don't look for ways to take offense, silently hand out "creeper cards" or expect anyone to read their minds. I'm not a child, I'm an adult, and I act like one.

My Boobs Don't Matter

I came to the Open Source world because I liked being part of a community where my ideas, my skills and my experience mattered, not my boobs. That's changed, and it's changed at the hands of the people who say they want a community where ideas, skills and experience matter more than boobs.

There aren't very many girls who want to hack. I imagine this has a lot to do with the fact that girls are given fashion dolls and make-up and told to fantasize about dating and popularity, while boys are given LEGOs and tool sets and told to do something. I imagine it has a lot to do with the sort of women who used to coo "but she could be so pretty if only she didn't waste so much time with computers". I imagine it has a lot to do with how girls are sold on ephemera—popularity, beauty and fitting in—while boys are taught to revel in accomplishment.

Give me a young person of any gender with a hacker mentality, and I'll make sure they get the support they need to become awesome. Meanwhile, buy your niece or daughter or neighbor girl some LEGOs and teach her to solder. I love seeing kids at LUG meetings and hackerspaces—bring them! There can never be too many hackers.

Do not punish the men simply for being here. "Male privilege" is a way to say "you are guilty because you don't have boobs, feel ashamed, even if you did nothing wrong", and I've wasted too much of my time trying to defend good guys from it. Yes, some people are jerks. Call them out as jerks, and don't blame everyone with the same anatomy for their behavior. Lumping good guys in with bad doesn't help anyone, it just makes good guys afraid to interact with women because they feel like they can't win. I'm tired of expending time and energy to protect good men from this drama.

Do not punish hackers for non-hackers' shortcomings. It is not my fault some people don't read man pages, nor is it my job to hold their hand step-by-step so they don't have to. It is not my place to drag grown women in chains to LUG meetings and attempt to brainwash them to make you more comfortable with the gender ratio, and doing so wouldn't work anyway.

Most of all, I'm disappointed. I had a haven, a place where no one cared what I looked like, what my body was like or about any ephemera—they cared about what I could do—and this culture shift has robbed me of my haven. At least I had that haven. The girls who follow me missed out on it.

I remember in those early days, in my haven, if someone was rude or tried to bully me, the people around me would pounce with a resounding "How dare you be mean to someone we like!" Now, if a man behaves badly, we're bogged down with a much more complex thought process: "Did this happen because she's a woman?" "Am I white knighting if I step in?" "Am I a misogynist if I don't?" "What does this say about women in technology?" "Do I really want to be part of another gender politics mess?" It was so much simpler when we didn't analyze so much, and just trounced on mean people for being mean.



Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Girls and Software

OzoneBoy's picture

This article/commentary warmed the cockles of my little heart as I have
worked with females since the start of my career in I.T. back in 1987
and her attitude of "being one of the boys/crew" rang true with my memories
of several of my former cohorts (or, as Scott Adams would say, cow-orkers).
I'm not ashamed to say that all of them have been either my equals (at work
AND in off-work social settings) or even my superiors. All of them seemed
to have in common with this article's author almost a passion for what they
did - just like their male counterparts.
As for her statements that girls should be allowed/encouraged, like boys,
to follow their own interests and achievements and that "My Boobs Don't Matter;" that strikes me as what SHOULD be "common sense" (a phrase all-
too-often manifested as an oxymoron). In my own life I get to see this
being applied properly as I am an uncle to my baby brother's children -
3 girls and a boy - whose father is, like me, an I.T. geek. These kids
have hordes of technology to play with in video games and other toys and
their father allows them almost complete free reign to explore what they
wish, with his (or their mother's or their weird uncle's) help. I have
a warm memory of my brother's second daughter around the age of 18 months (back in AD 2000) giving every indication she was on her way to being an engineer or architect or something similarly geeky - she LOVED playing with her new toys, then taking them apart and poring over the bits rendered thereof, THEN slowly and with minimal (if any) errors, putting them back together again. She's 15 now and more interested in the usual sorts of things girls her age like (boys...) but genetics
will out; her youngest sister, Samantha - now 11 - loves card games
and other things with patterns that can be followed and taken advantage
Their weird uncle continues to root for them in whatever they choose
to do but is not above displaying a little more enthusiasm should their
interests be more left-brained than expected; as a result they tend to
get birthday and Christmas gifts such as books and (oy vey!) a cross-stitch kit.
What it all comes down to, I think, is that we've been living in a gender-equal community long enough (decades, now!) that if we're still
encountering cases of "good girls shouldn't even consider such work,"
something is awry and we occasionally do need someone to point upwards
and notify everyone in sight that the sky IS falling - perhaps only
a little bit at a time, but enough to cause a headache or 8 on impact.
So I appreciate Linux Journal for publishing this article and I offer
my thanks to Susan Sons for waving a little warning flag.
Thank you,

Where is the evidence?

Jaymie Strecker's picture

Susan Sons is entitled to her opinions about women/girls in software — but why did Linux Journal choose to publish them? Susan's personal experiences are interesting, but when she starts speculating about the wider world, it's clear she hasn't done the research. Her opinions are not backed up with facts, just a collection of anecdotes and tautologies. Where is the rebuttal (not just straw-man attack) on the thousands of articles demonstrating that open-source communities are rife with sexism? Where is the evidence that the "new breed of open-source programmer" is lowering the standards of open source? Without evidence, this is just fear-mongering.

If Linux Journal published an article on (say) user interface design, they wouldn't just pick some random person who's been using software for 18 years — they'd pick someone who has knowledge and experience in user interface design. So how come for an article on women, Linux Journal thinks it's enough to "invite a Linux hacker on the female side of that graph"?

Linux Journal — In future articles on women, please invite writers with expertise. Don't invite based purely on their gender.

Susan (and the many "me too" commenters) — Since you understand the importance of reading man pages and FAQs before you post about software, please do the same when you talk about gender. A couple of good starting points are Sociological Images and The Mismeasure of Woman.

Trust and Distrust

Tom Billings's picture

"So how come for an article on women, Linux Journal thinks it's enough to "invite a Linux hacker on the female side of that graph"?"


Perhaps because they respect the woman for being competent at the things LINUX Journal writes about all the time? Thus, they tend to respect her opinions and trust her to give her side of the story competently.


Perhaps because, like many, they distrust deeply the progressive politicization so easily observable of social science, and see people chased from the field if they don''t come to "correct" conclusions? Thus, they will tend to distrust the sincerity of those you want brought in as people who were not culled out by the politics of the field. Instead they are the ones who bent to the lash of the professorate, and are still supporting those views out of a need to deny they were lying all that time, and who know their funding will bleed away if they do not continue support.

Believing we should respect someone just because they have a degree in field X is an argument from authority. But of course, you would never do that, ...right?

You're making up stuff that I

Jaymie Strecker's picture

You're making up stuff that I didn't say. Did I say that the writer has to have a certain degree or a certain point of view? No.

I said that this article needs to provide evidence, beyond anecdotal, to back up its claims. The "expertise" I was referring to was the ability to provide this evidence.

I trust Susan to be "competent at the things LINUX Journal writes about all the time" (hacking, not gender) and to "give her side of the story competently" That was never in question.

Personal Experience

Neil Clopton's picture

People's personal experiences are extremely important but they are just that, personal. Susan Son's experiences are really informative in terms of what a woman's experience in open source can be like. I see no reason not to believe her.

That said, Jaymie is right to point out that Susan's experiences do not tell us much, if anything, about other women's experiences. Yet, they are presented as setting the record straight by disproving everything "modern" feminists have said about tech culture. That's a stretch, to put it mildly.

It's like saying "I just ate. This what it was like. People complaining about hunger are wrong." rather than "I just ate. This is what it was like. I bet other people would agree."

There is research on these issues. The conversation does not need to be limited to anecdotes.

As if it hadn't been said: thank you

Jody Bruchon's picture

I wish that everyone who has anything to say about technical fields was first required to read this. I find it sad that the condition of technical fields is being regressed by people who claim to be fighting for the equal treatment of women under the flag of feminism. The truth about these people is that their opinions don't matter one lick, because not a single one of them is a capable programmer or engineer. I have asked many feminists pursuing or possessing a degree in gender studies or English and denouncing the horrid anti-woman attitudes they claim exist in tech: "why don't you pursue a technical field and act as a shining example? Why don't you be the change you want to see in the world?"

The answer? Mostly accusations that I am trying to force them to do something and that I need to check my so-called privilege. Occasionally add a dash of insults regarding my appearance, genitalia, and success with the opposite sex.

People who think this way are toxic, and they have nothing of value to add to society. The best way to handle them is to be a great programmer regardless of what some loud-mouthed keyboard quarterback thinks. This is the spirit behind "show me the code!" Boobs don't parse linked lists, tap out threads, or replace capacitors. Genitals are useful for their purpose but they are no substitute for brains.

I would like to close with my favorite saying, a statement that we can repeat in our minds when fools attempt to distract us and hammer us down: the person who says it cannot be done should not bother the one who is doing it!

Ridiculous statement. Not a

JimBob12's picture

Ridiculous statement. Not a single one of them eh? For example the founders of the Ada Initiative: Valerie Aurora, who is a well known filesystem and kernel hacker with a double BS in CS and maths, and Mary Gardiner, another well known Linux developer who has a PhD in computational linguistics. Or Sarah Sharp, another Linux kernel hacker. Or Selena Deckelmann. Or ... please do your research before making such sweeping generalizations.

Not sure if I read you correctly but...

Anonymous's picture

I think that your son's confusion is caused by him actually living an ideal feminist life. I don't understand why you say his head is full of un-feminist ideas. His first encounter with the patriarchal problems that exist outside his home is a feminist moment too. As a son who grew up with a single mother who was a student in neuroscience labs, and later working as a qualitative researcher at a med school, I relate to your son's surprise and confusion. As an adult it drives me buggy to run into these situations that confuse me because I simply don't internalize the problem they are meant to fix. And yet, that is why I am a feminist. He might be too. Please don't push him away from the people who will create the most encouraging environment for him (feminists) even though they share the same labels as people who will mistrust him the most (feminists). That boys who grow up like your son suffer this kind of split social identity is arguably part of the consequences of living a life directed toward equity in a world directed at injustice. (And not the fault of feminism).

Well written, I agree fully

Fredrik's picture

This is what struck me as well when reading the article. Of course it's going to sting men when they start to learn about feminism. This is proof that the structures feminism expose actually are there, that boys recognize them as having infiltrated their own behavior.

The road for a white boy to becoming a hacker is straightforward, and can start early. But he learns no automatic lessons along the way of the patriarchal structures that surround the technology field and overwhelms society. Just as Susan writes - it is unlikely for a 20 something girl to find that she falls in love with coding at the local hackerspace. The same unlikeliness apples to a boy grasping the ideas of feminism in one encounter with them.

Structures are the focus of feminism, that means that we're not (as some other commentator suggested) discussing a supreme male conspiracy when we're talking about a patriarchy, nor are we talking about issues that are being introduced by the boys in the local hackerspace or somehow dependent on how they as individuals act at that time. Our social interactions are coded by these structures, that have been established, destabilized, built and rebuilt during centuries. Feminism is an old movement, but not as old as patriarchy.

Technology is culturally coded as one of the heights of male expression, and if we want to change that, we can't just look past gender in tech, but we need to address the structural roots of the problem and actively acclimatize men and women to new feminist environments. Adapting "boys will be boys" with the aim to equalize men and women won't work.

With that said, I believe this discussion is very necessary, and thoroughly enjoy writings on the subject, this one included! I think this can feed great conversations.

There is no "patriarchy"

Anonymous's picture

Your comment lost all validity when you started in on that big lie. Feminism is largely to blame for women being singled out and given special treatment. Don't pretend like somehow a non-existent male king is tweaking the elaborate wheels of society over which he has ultimate control; angry anti-social women who are the obnoxious minority are the ones who demanded "equalization" as in equal outcomes (an impossible goal) and thusly segregated the sexes. Feminism is responsible for the new "separate but equal" and you are a part of the problem. There is nothing benevolent about it; it's hate and sexism, which should be fought tooth and nail wherever it comes from. Your patriarchy theory nonsense is nothing more than an excuse to justify injury to males and it has no place technology, and quite frankly I find it to be demeaning and malicious.

No one in IT wants you or your ilk ruining it for everyone which is what this ENTIRE ARTICLE IS ABOUT. I am amazed that you would try to inject your BS in an attempt to cast what is said here into a pro-feminist light! When a woman is telling you that your ideology hurts her and all the women she sees around her that have to inherit the world and the fallout from your flame-throwing, you should shut up and listen. You know, the thing that feminists tell men they should do because "that's how discussion is started."

In case I didn't make it perfectly clear already: there is no room for your agenda in technology and we will not tolerate it. Technology was a more accepting and integrating place than society at large until you and the fools who brainwashed you showed up and tried to tell us all how horrible our situation is. Mkae

TechGirlz is teaching the hackers of tomorrow today

Tracey's picture

Great article. Please check out our organization which is teaching girls about tech through hands on learning in Philly. We have worked with close to 350 girls. We are even hosting a Linux workshop in April!

We have created a Techshop in a Box program that takes our material and makes it easy for others to teach. If you could tell your readers about it, we could create more hackers and technologists outside of Philly!


Girls-only segregation

Anonymous's picture

You didn't read the article before you showed up here to advertise, did you? The author is lamenting her son being denied opportunity because he isn't a girl and you're blatantly advertising your gendered offering that perpetuates something that is pointed out in the article as problematic. Way to go.

My experience is different

Verena2014's picture

I did solder and build things, constructed cars with Lego and trains with Merklin as a girl. I discussed physics and outer space, I created text-based RPGs in Basic and played violent computer games. I have female friends who became engineers or scientists. But I still ended up with a master of arts. The truth is I suck at math and science. I'm interested in languages, culture and sociology. So this is what I did.

I got into serious coding when I was 30 - not through being immersed in geek culture but in search of an occupation that pays the rent. I never knew that there were fields of engineering that didn't require good math skills but logical and analytical thinking. I happen to be good at that and find I really like it. I can say for myself that the recent wave of feminism helped me to become more confident and experiment with technologies that I hadn't considered before. The same way it helped me not to feel ashamed of myself for being a house wife. For me, feminism means freedom: To do what you want to do and not what you think is expected. It encourages me to see other women doing what I might be too shy to do.

Being acknowledged for what you know, say and do instead of being judged by your sex is a very precious thing for me. Unfortunately I have experienced the latter often enough to know that sexism is a real thing, and I hate it.

I really don't expect women to be feminist activists only because they happen to work in a field that's dominated by men. Nor do I expect men to feel guilty or protective about me. But I do think it's a good and important thing to call out harassment and power imbalance when you see it, because I don't believe that anything will change if you don't.

Why I believe that there is

Anonymous's picture

Why I believe that there is probably a girls only robotics class:

Congratulations on being a passionate and enthusiastic parent and providing your son all the world has to offer. You should start a robotics club for your son. Some women are not raised in environments where they are encouraged in the way your son is. They deserve a chance to change that.

I'm a freshman at a really

Anonymous's picture

I'm a freshman at a really good tech school (I should be doing work right now, actually) that I wouldn't've considered attending about a year and a half ago. I didn't consider programming until my junior year in high school, when I attended a program mean to introduce girls to EE and CS. My internal dialogue went something like "welp. there aren't a lot of women in computing. maybe if I like this it'll be easier to get a job. hackers are cool." While I'd always been good at learning things, programming was the first thing that I really wanted to learn more of because I saw snippets of how powerful it was in everyday life, and I knew this was attainable even for someone like me. I didn't really think about the women-in-computing issue until I ended up at an all-girls' high school that really pushed STEM for girls. Many of the girls at my school wouldn't have taken hard science courses or joined the robotics team in a co-ed environment; they didn't want to be seen as "nerdy." Even at my all-girls' school, a supposed "safe space for women in science," acting differently from the mainstream image the vast majority of students emulated wasn't entirely accepted. People like the characters on Big Bang Theory are fun to make fun of, but nobody actually wants to be them. I agree that the women in tech groups that we have now are a stopgap solution to a larger problem--the fact that women are schooled to be pretty and social and not-nerds, and the pervasiveness of the "nerd" caricature. Programs that try to get women into computing only work so far as to get us to look at and learn something we might not have bothered to look at otherwise, but realistically this could apply to most everyone who hasn't looked into it for whatever reason. What they don't fix are the stereotypes attached to choices people make.

let's welcome people who come late to the party

Anonymous's picture

I'm sure you did not mean for it to be interpreted this way, but parts of your article came off a bit like: "If you haven't been programming since you were in the womb, you don't belong." Girls and boys who do not code or tinker at a young age can (and do) develop problem solving skills in different ways. In fact, I know many women who are getting into hacking in their 20s, 30s, or even later. We don't do any harm by being open to this, and recognizing that although their childhood experiences may not be "typical," they can still be valuable members of the community.

I do agree with several points: I am not a fan of girls-only classes, and that it's pointless to analyze the role (if any) of gender in specific situations (most of the time). However, if you were to take 1000 women and 1000 men and somehow were able to measure how often they were on the receiving end of "bad" behavior, I'd bet that the women will have more of those experiences. Maybe we can find a middle ground between ignoring the problem and over-analyzing/over-correcting?

Oh and for the commentor that asks, "What's with everybody learning from their boyfriends?" My boyfriend learned from me :) Actually we teach each other a lot, and I think it's great that so many people have the experience of sharing their interest in hacking with their significant others.

I didn't read it as "If you

Anonymous's picture

I didn't read it as "If you haven't been programming since you were in the womb, you don't belong.", not at all - I just think the point that a lot of hackers are made young is a valid one. It takes time to achieve excellence, and once you're older, you have a lot of other things competing for your attention - work, family, obligations - that don't give you the one-eyed focus that youngsters have.

I played a lot with tech when I was younger, was in a computer club and so forth - I don't recall my gender being even remotely an issue. I think there were other reasons I didn't pursue tech at the time - I have eclectic interests.

Returning to computing in middle age I found most communities very welcoming, with a couple of small incidents - one particular distribution having a very toxic forum environment, but that included being toxic to anyone not part of their ingroup - but otherwise was regarded as a peer, even with no programming skills, because I was able to use my critical thinking and communications skills to help the project in other ways.

Thank you!

Suzanne's picture

This was wonderful to read. I'm a 26 year old female that has just been offered a job as a junior software engineer at the company I've been at for 2.5 years. An engineer took interest in my enthusiasm for coding 7 months ago and decided to mentor me with the end goal of helping me join the company's technology team. I've never been more excited or passionate about anything as I have been about learning to code.

People keep saying things like "way to represent women in a male-dominated field!" but my goal wasn't to do this for women, it was because I really freaking like it. Of course I want to empower women to be seen as equals in the workplace, I mean that's never something I haven't wanted as a woman. But I've also never felt as accepted or comfortable in my job as I have felt with our Engineering team (with zero sexual undertones, which is something I can't say for the rest of the company or even my current boss). I've been working in a male-dominated environment since I graduated from college, but only now that I'm joining the technology team does it seem to be brought up as a relevant topic ALL the time. I started wondering if it was something that should matter to me since it seems to matter so much to everyone else, and I didn't really understand what the big deal was.

Anyway, I really liked hearing your perspective and it makes me feel more comfortable with mine. Thanks for sharing!

You said it for me

Vicki Brown's picture

Thank you for writing and publishing what I've been thinking.

I was the little girl who took a vacuum cleaner motor apart (and put it back together, and took it apart again) at age 5. I played with LEGOs. I helped my Dad do projects around the house. I knew my way around a hammer and screwdriver. I took my first programming class in HS (FORTRAN IV and punch cards). I never felt out of place around programmers (hackers). I dress in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers because they're comfortable.

When I started reading the articles and seeing the push for "Women Who Code" or (shudder) "WebGrrrls" I saw discrimination, steretoyping, and exclusion. I hate that.

If two people are talking to each other at a conference, and you don't like their conversation, stop eavesdropping. If you feel you must cut ion (perhaps they mentioned a name), talk to them directly. Don't take a photo to web-shame them and get one or both fired.

Perhaps the reason that there aren't more women in programming is because that's not what they want to do. Teaching girls that they are too silly or brainless to work with the boys is the wrong approach, whether we do that in a programming class or a macrame class.


KatjaLov's picture

It's wonderful what you wrote ! I'm so happy to hear your amazing story.
I loved the PCs in the school, but exactly because of the opinion of the sossiaty that it's nothing for girls , I through all my talent in math, technic and PCs and got a physician

Brilliant save for one 'graph

Lex Corvus's picture

This was brilliant; I hope one day we'll reach a point where someone can write an article like this without including a paragraph like this:

There aren't very many girls who want to hack. I imagine this has a lot to do with the fact that girls are given fashion dolls and make-up and told to fantasize about dating and popularity, while boys are given LEGOs and tool sets and told to do something. I imagine it has a lot to do with the sort of women who used to coo "but she could be so pretty if only she didn't waste so much time with computers". I imagine it has a lot to do with how girls are sold on ephemera—popularity, beauty and fitting in—while boys are taught to revel in accomplishment.

I imagine it has virtually nothing to do with any of these things. If you've ever tried to sell anything to anyone, you know that it's hard enough when they want the product, and nearly impossible when they don't. This suggests—strongly—that the above paragraph simply inverts causation. People give dolls to girls and tool sets to boys because girls tend to like dolls and boys tend to like tools. I fully support giving tools to girls who show an interest in tools and dolls to boys who show an interest in dolls, but we must acknowledge that these cases will generally be exceptions to the rule. Humans are not blank slates; in a fair society that encourages people to pursue their interests, there is no reason to expect anything approaching gender parity in every field of endeavor. In particular, anyone with two eyes and a brain can see that geekiness is (as a biologist might put it) effectively a sex-linked trait.

Although her parents' support was crucial to her development as a hacker, I'm confident the author of the article is sure she would have been a geek even if she'd been given dolls instead of Slackware—and she's right. (She would just have been a less happy and less accomplished one.) This is because, for the most part, geeks are born, not made. For the health of all geeks, both female and male, it's time to stop imagining otherwise.

Thank you for injecting reality back into the discussion

Wes Peters's picture

As a son whose mother was brave enough to give her 3-year-old son a much-wanted doll (in a high chair no less) for his third Christmas, I can't agree more with what you've said. Somehow I still managed to grow up a geek -- electronics tinkerer, ham radio operator and builder, and open source coder for quite a lot of years now.

Parents who encourage their children to grow and develop create successful children no matter where their interests lie. I'm now privileged to have a daughter who is her class valedictorian, diver, marine biologist, and runs a successful fashion business on Etsy. Tell her how dumb blondes should stick to fashion and you may find yourself invited along to meet some of her toothy carcharhinus friends.

changes ...

Cyth's picture

Interesting ... Back in the day, when I was still part of the crowd, we (the girls in software) were somewhat concerned that programming was going to become a "women's field" like nursing and teaching, and that pay rates would drop accordingly. The software field was much less heavily tilted toward men than were, for example, chemistry, physics or engineering. I speak from experience; this was before I was told (after child) that I was too old to get back into development :-D

Thank you...

beauzero's picture

As a father of two girls, I really appreciate this article. To me it is very helpful advice on how I can get them involved more with technology. I do find myself falling into the "stay off the internet" to try to keep them from losing a bit of their innocence. You have given me a lot to think about and absorb.


Anonymous's picture

I would submit sir that innocence is not something to guard jealously. Excessive effort will only lead to painful naivety. Supervise access but do not restrict it unduly.

37-year old NOOB (and yes, I am STILL a girl)

Anonymous's picture


My dad was an electrical engineer, back before they even HAD computer science degrees. I was his side kick and loved to wander the hardware store with him. I really don't think he noticed that I was a girl.

My mom kept insisting that boys don't like smart girls and that I would never get married. I loved to take things apart, but got in trouble for doing so. Legos were boys toys. You get the picture.

I grew up with a VERY mathematical brain, which LOVED puzzels. It wasn't until I was 30 and in college that I was forced to learn programming. Until that point, it didn't make sense.

I really feel that imposter syndrom very strongly, and I'm only familiar with the world of Microsoft. I want to branch out, but I'm not sure where...I hear about Linux, but don't know anything about it. Suggestions on where to start??

Boys *do* like smart girls, and a recommended distro

Sum Yung Gai's picture

Actually, boys *like* smart girls. Given how many of 'em were focusing on "OMG!! Ally McBeal!!", I would've loved to meet a geek girl in high school. You know, someone with some substance. Didn't start meeting those kinds of girls until college. The "OMG!! Ally McBeal!!" types just did not get my attention in a positive way. But, "Dude...did you check out how that ablative armor helped the USS Defiant put the smackdown on the USS Lakota last night? How would you design that?" Now, *that* would get my attention. Or, "hey, that proof for the Method of Variation of Parameters? Got an issue with this step of it, what do you think?" HELL YEAH, I was interested in that kind of girl! I *wanted* to date science and engineering majors and such. Unfortunately, the Americans were feminists, so I dated foreign science/engineering students and was seriously considering marriage to one (she had to move back home, and I hadn't graduated yet). Fortunately, I met another such woman later on, and we have a great relationship. We both love tech. So, yes, if they're smart, and nice, we're interested.

As for which distro to start with, I used to be an MCSE, totally all about Microsoft, so I've been where you are. I've been using the latest Ubuntu with GNOME Shell, and I'd recommend it for you. Turns out the new GNOME 3 is pretty good for newbies. It's easy to use, and stuff's pretty intuitive. Didn't take me too long to figure out where everything was. It's *WAY* easier than this new Windows 8 interface from Microsoft. It's almost as easy to use as a Mac, and that's saying something. Plus, all the power of GNU/Linux remains there under the hood. Think of it as Windows PowerShell, done right.


You're quite welcome. :) The

Susan Sons (HedgeMage)'s picture

You're quite welcome. :)

The best place to start with Linux is to install it. :) Xubuntu or Ubuntu is probably the easiest distro to start with, as it will auto-configure a lot of things for you. I'll give a nod here to Slackware, my first distro, especially for being thoroughly, clearly, and even obsessively documented. I'm not sure it's the obvious choice for a first distro any more, though, despite my love for it. Distrowatch maintains a very comprehensive list of what Linux and BSD distributions are out there, but for a beginner I tend to think it's wise to stay with something that has a big community so it is easy to get help when needed, at least until you get your feet wet.

Grab an IRC client (hexchat is decent for a beginner) and connect to the Freenode IRC network ( or's where most of the open source nerds congregate. You can find me under the nick "HedgeMage". I hang out in a bunch of channels, or you can private message me by using the command

/msg HedgeMage Hi there!

...if I'm at the keyboard and not working, I'll answer, though it's helpful to tell me who you are so I don't assume I'm being spammed. I'd be happy to help. And remember, everyone has impostor syndrome at some point...except me, I actually suck and you'll become wise to my pretense of competence any day now. </sarcasm>

Thank you!!!

Ark-kun's picture

Thanks a lot for this article. It's like a breath of fresh air for me.

Everything was mostly fine in our cozy little programmerhood. But 1-2 years ago I started to be bombarded by the "women in tech" stories. This was very depressing, since, as a sane person, I'm a proponent of equal rights and oppose discrimination. Yet, there was something "toxic" in these articles. After reading more of them some patterns started to form in my head. What I noticed is that most of those "women in tech" weren't programmers (which prompted me to make a new term - "women DOING tech"). Another pattern was twitter profiles and feeds. There were clearly two distinct clusters: "women in tech" put "woman" first in their profiles, the twitter feed was mostly about women and no code/tech info was posted anywhere; "women doing tech" didn't emphasize their gender (apart from the profile photo) and just wrote about tech and everyday things.

Every sentence of your article felt right.
I hope that more female hackers join wonderful world of tinkering, hacking and programming.

"I'm told that deep in my

not brave enough to show name's picture

"I'm told that deep in my female heart I must really love make-up and fashion. It's not that I'm a geek who doesn't much care how she looks."

I can relate to that. I find it irritating when I read this interpretation first time (someone from ADA initiative wrote that). Apparently, it is not me finding my natural environment nor me being happy I can just put jeans and t-shirt and be done with it.

Apparently, it is supposed to be me hiding my true self, desperately wanting to hit stores for hours, but I'm too weak to dare to do that when there are men around. Because that is how "real women" are supposed to be. It is kind of irritating not to count as "women".

There is supposed to be bro macho culture, but what I see is bunch of introverts scared to initiate communication.

Tolerance of quirky people are one of the things that I liked about IT. You can afford to have a quirk or unusual hobby without having to hide it. I believe this tolerance made IT community better - you can wear wrong cloth and be forgotten so to speak. You make communication mistake and be forgotten too.

I do not want it to be lost. I do not want to import intolerance and uniformity from outside to here.

It is just a thought, but sometimes it seems that those who bullied nerds in high schools grew up to bully nerds again. Your clothes are wrong (cause that is the most important thing right), your hobbies are wrong (I'm supposed to talk "girly things" instead of games I like) and he has slight asperberg so he should never ever be employed again - hahaha look at him he talk in an unusual way that nerd hahaha.

"I'm told that deep in my

not brave enough to show name's picture

"I'm told that deep in my female heart I must really love make-up and fashion. It's not that I'm a geek who doesn't much care how she looks."

I can relate to that. I find it irritating when I read this interpretation first time (someone from ADA initiative wrote that). Apparently, it is not me finding my natural environment nor me being happy I can just put jeans and t-shirt and be done with it.

Apparently, it is supposed to be me hiding my true self, desperately wanting to hit stores for hours, but I'm too weak to dare to do that when there are men around. Because that is how "real women" are supposed to be. It is kind of irritating not to count as "women".

There is supposed to be bro macho culture, but what I see is bunch of introverts scared to initiate communication.

Tolerance of quirky people are one of the things that I liked about IT. You can afford to have a quirk or unusual hobby without having to hide it. I believe this tolerance made IT community better - you can wear wrong cloth and be forgotten so to speak. You make communication mistake and be forgotten too.

I do not want it to be lost. I do not want to import intolerance and uniformity from outside to here.

It is just a thought, but sometimes it seems that those who bullied nerds in high schools grew up to bully nerds again. Your clothes are wrong (cause that is the most important thing right), your hobbies are wrong (I'm supposed to talk "girly things" instead of games I like) and he has slight asperberg so he should never ever be employed again - hahaha look at him he talk in an unusual way that nerd hahaha.

"I've also come to realize

thinkingfish's picture

"I've also come to realize that I have an advantage that female newcomers don't: I was here before the sexism moral panic started."

This is very much my experience. I started programming early enough (but in a different country) so that it was a rare thing first and foremost, not a guy thing. And by the time I land in San Francisco amid the current SV culture, I'm already too comfortable and too fond of what I do to let sexism take over.

But I do want to, and am trying to do something to change the environment for those who are coming along just now. Personally I want to steer clear of any gender charged arguments beyond "girls can program (or do whatever) if they want to". The female part in being a female in technology is utterly irrelevant, *people* should be learn to program and be tech-savvy because that's world we'll live in, period. In my opinion, what keep girls in the trade, and remain so when they grow up to be woman are two things: 1) genuine interest in what they can potentially do; 2) a community they can participate in. If we can focus on what works instead of what doesn't, the girls today stand a better chance getting in.

In IRC only your words matter

rw's picture

Your story reminds me of how much I dislike more and more forms of communication harping on pictures, ages, genders, etc.

Upload your picture to complete your profile!!

Is your webcam broken?! We can't see you!

Couldn't work out if this

Anonymous's picture

Couldn't work out if this article was satire or not.


Anonymous's picture



Anonymous's picture


my daughter wants to make things pink

Ted Sbardella's picture

I have been going through "3D Game Programming for Kids: Create Interactive Worlds with JavaScript" by Chris Strom with my son and he and I like it. I am not a programmer but I do support programmers and software at my job as tech/network support. Anyway my daughter got interested in it but one of the first things was she wanted to make her Avatar pink she also wanted to do all the typing - I was typing for my son who is 13 he makes a lot of mistakes. She is 11 1/2 I was thinking of this topic. It is a very positive topic. She was very proud of making her ball and changing the variables. I could see how she thought differently from her brother. She wanted to show her stepmom and I was really happy. - sorry for being so scattered I am exhausted. I am so grateful that she brought home this book. I mean I love my wife but this one thing bringing home a programming book has really been a very positive thing for me and my kids I am so grateful to her for doing it. Anyway next weekend I have them we are going to focus on the programming as some daddy daughter time - as well as some family walks. I like that better than suffering through "what not to wear" on netflix. I appreciate this article and what you have to say.

"Social justice warriors" as

Anonymous's picture

"Social justice warriors" as they're called are a cancer, as you've found out. The hypocrisy is staggering; they say they want equality, but they then want to be put on a pedestal as a 'great victim'. Case in point: The people telling you that you aren't 'woman' enough to be counted. Original feminists would laud you as the goal of the movement, but SJWs? Evil 'oppressor' (that word has no meaning anymore).

My sentiments exactly

Caleb Cushing's picture

great read, love it, everyone should read it. This applies, IMO, to race and gender divides.

So if I'm a twenty-one year

Anonymous's picture

So if I'm a twenty-one year old woman, is it too late for me to learn how to code or mess around with computers? As someone who has felt all of those things (uncomfortable around people talking about things I'm unfamiliar with, etc.) when my programmer boyfriend helps me mess around with whatever language, this also felt kind of disheartening. While it's a great article, am I mistaken in thinking that it is discouraging me from ever even trying to pick this up because it's "too late" for me?

Of course not

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely not. Many of the best programmers I know picked it up later on (mid 20s). It's about systemic thinking rather than syntax or tools.

No, it is not too late. I

Anonymous's picture

No, it is not too late. I began learning to code my junior year in college, and decided to switch majors from history (I was definitely one of those liberal arts gals) to cs. This took me an extra couple of years to graduate, but I am so happy that I decided to make the switch. I do remember frustrating points when I thought that I had made a horrible mistake. But now that I'm more confident, I love building new things every day. And one of the amazing things about coding is that there are so many free online sources open to help you learn.

I do feel like I'm playing catch-up to my colleagues who have programmed throughout their lives, but I have managed to learn a broad range of technologies over the past several years and am confident in my skill set. I'm currently fully employed as a software engineer and loving every minute of it.

One thing that I did have to learn was how to admit when I needed help understanding something. I never realized how important it is to be honest when you need some help. It goes a long way.

While I believe it's probably

jonatan's picture

While I believe it's probably true in many cases, it's definitely not true in all cases. A good friend of mine started to program when he was 20-something, and is now working as a professional programmer. I don't think you should feel discouraged. As long as you enjoy it, just keep doing it and you *will* get good at it.

I never said that

Susan Sons (HedgeMage)'s picture

I never said that 20-something is too late to pick up coding. I specifically mentioned that any kind of making, tinkering, building, or fixing could create the precursors to hackerdom, even something as simple as fixing a pencil sharpener.

I'd be shocked if you have the level of obsession to become a great coder without having ever built, fixed, or tinkered with anything in childhood. It may not have been a computer, but I bet you had a good experience with some form of do-it-yourself at some point, even if you don't think to link it to your coding interests.


Anonymous's picture

I agree, this is almost certainly the key discriminant of character involved. Both of my parents are technically minded and my brother and I grew up making things which led us to choose technical careers. My sister never had this interest and while quite comfortable with technology has no desire to pursue a job involving it. Given that I was taught to fix cars by my mother it's not like she lacked role models, she just has no interest in it.

Same situation here.

rach1823's picture

GO FOR IT! Why? let me introduce myself. I'm Rachelle, 21, just starting to learn how to code(from my boyfriend). and I was NEVER into technology and stuff before. I started mid October 2013 and stopped in November, then just began to learn again last december 2013.

Before my boyfriend introduced me to html, I was a complete noob. No. Worse. I knew totally nothing. I used the computer mainly for MS office, and photoshop. (and skype as I'm in a long distance relationship). Its way worse than disheartening when my boyfriend is being mean(on purpose and sometimes because i'm just super slow) but he keeps supporting me even though sometimes i feel like i'm never going to learn it deeper because of my background(Im from arts btw so you can be sure that i have never coded or programmed in my life).

Dont care much if pros are being mean, they're supposed to be the beginners critics. Of course they're going to say something, specially if they care. Everybody(if not 99%) starts with trial and error. And its better to hear every disheartening stuff from your boyfriend because he will say stuff but he still be there to support you anyway(or i suppose). "real friends tell hard truths" and so as real boyfriends.

PLUS, you know theres a lot of people at our age and above thats just starting to learn how to code? and with a year or two they've got part time/full time jobs. it just depends on how hard you work for it and how much you want it. You've got everything you need. Your boyfriend for the programming and stuff, internet, and your machine. I say, its all up to you.

I'd really love to share some useful stuff with you if you're going to pursue. if you like you can contact me on mytwitter. Ive got tasks and stuff about learning how to code but i haven't got to properly fix my site (check out my twitter, link is there). Feel free to ask me about anything though.

Up till the mid? 60's many,

ajb44's picture

Up till the mid? 60's many, if not most, programmers trained at that age, as new graduates recruited by computer companies. Somewhat oddly there was a greater percentage of female programmers back then (my mother was one).

It's never too late for you

Helski's picture

It's never too late for you to decide you're interested in learning how to code. That is EXACTLY what is needed - for girls & boys, women & men to freely choose to learn to code & receive support to build upon their natural curiosity. However University age is the wrong point in time for educators to start to try and persuade women that the field of technology is right for them. By age 22 most people are already pointing in a specific academic direction, that can feel like a lot to give up just to join the next cohort of the CS class as the most inexperienced student. Aiming for a degree in a STEM discipline is usually something worked towards from a young age, backed up with years of tinkering and self-directed learning.
It doesn't matter what age girls/women get interested in technology as long as they do so out of their own curiosity and not because they're being advised to. That's how creative happy programmers are created.

No it is not too late. I

Anonymous's picture

No it is not too late. I became a programmer after I hit 30. You have to work at learning how to code, read lots, practice coding often and contact other coders but you can learn to code at 21, 31 and older.

But it is easier to learn when you are younger. Keep at it please.

Of course not! It's never too

Anonymous's picture

Of course not! It's never too late to learn something fun! Though it cannot be denied that children are quicker learners in some ways, you can compensate for that by knowing what you want and being more disciplined.

At 21 you're still very young, and your brain is still very very very flexible (compared to 20 years later, I tell you from experience :-) , and even then it's still not to late to learn new thins, it' just a tad slower).

The only thing the auther states is that if you want to get people to pick up a time consuming hobby 21 is rather late, because they'll have a lot of other hobbies already. And they'll probably not really looking to joing a group of people who have been at it for years.

But this is ofcourse just a problem from the educating side. If you *are* the person who wants to learn something, the whole problem does not exist!