Last night, I went to a gala fundraiser for a documentary called Code (www.codedocumentary.com) about women in technology by director Robin Hauser Reynolds. It was held at Pinterest headquarters, located in what has become a tech forest encroaching San Francisco’s formerly seedy south of Market district. The interior of this venue – monumental ceilings embroidered with a mezzanine for offices and a gleaming concrete floor – was festooned with paper lanterns and a huge screen, where the director showed a teaser for the film, basically talking heads stating the obvious: few women, little diversity in tech jobs.
Megan Smith, VP of Google X, was asked to speak after Reynolds gave Google dubious credit for having been the first to make public its poor record in diversity hiring. Smith said the problem wasn’t the “fault” of technology companies. Rather, it was a historical condition, and one, that she, “a card carrying optimist,” was sure could be remedied.
The director is not a coder, which is OK. She’s a documentary filmmaker. But except for Megan Smith, a former coder, and Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, a former coder who was also present, I didn’t encounter a single coder in the voluminous crowd. However, all were enthusiastic about the film and the need to encourage women to code.
OK, as I told the filmmaker, I used to code Fortran – which you had to learn on your own because there weren’t comp sci classes at Reed College in the 60s – and found it useful but tedious. Maybe it’s because there weren’t apps in those days, so my coding just helped me do regression analysis to prove a central point in my senior thesis, that Senator Wayne Morse, who had been one of two senators to oppose the Vietnam War (specifically, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution), would get reelected anyway because voters cared more about state than foreign policy issues. Turns out, I was wrong, but not because of the coding.
In the 70’s, I oversaw a project at the University of California, where I worked in the Office of the President, to computerize a directory of all employees, including professors, in the UC system. Although I didn’t do any coding, I worked with a coding architect, and learned from that experience as well. It was far more exciting to edit obituaries of university professors, which was also part of my job as assistant editor.
When I joined a small software company in the 80s as marketing director, I asked the CEO if we could hire at least one female programmer. Our team, of course, was all male, except for the receptionist, an international sales director, and myself. So I placed an ad with a local community college, and we hired a woman who graduated in comp sci top of her class.
The first thing Melody did was place a deodorizer on top of her Macintosh to let the programmer sitting next to her know she didn’t like his body odor as well as the wafts of rancid pizza on top of his Macintosh. Within a year, Melody quit, and the downstairs programmers’ den reverted to testosterone status.
In the 90s, I started a networking group for women in tech called Gracenet, named after Grace Hopper, who wrote COBAL and was the first woman admiral of the U.S. Navy. We didn’t necessarily want more women to code; we just wanted women to receive equal treatment and opportunity in tech firms. And with our DisGraceful Award in Advertising campaign, we wanted the media to stop portraying women as tech ninnies.
I had lunch with Larry Page in 2000, and he wrote a check to help support Gracenet and to encourage women to apply for jobs at Google. His mom, he told me, had taken up comp sci after his parents divorced, and he wanted to have at least half his technical staff be women. I think he’s done better with the AI goals he mentioned to me then than with achieving gender parity among his staff.
OK, now it’s 2014, and nothing seems to have changed. Women are still not into coding but there’s a resurgent effort to make women want to code. My question is, why would women – or men – want to code? I asked this at INFUSION, the monthly lunch I host at Berkeley Repertory Theater, when Ali Partovi spoke earlier this year about Code.org, which is promoting the universal acquisition of coding skills in early education.
I’ll admit, several professional coders spoke about the power and joy computing gave them. They sounded like some soccer fanatics I know, although instead of a ball, they move bits. So there can be pleasure in the task itself, but that’s not the main argument Code's director would argue: by 2050, we’ll need lots more coders, so women should get into the field.
Taking this argument backwards, there were lots of jobs for engineers in the 50s, so should women have become engineers? Or miners in the late 19th century, when mining jobs were plentiful?
From my personal and professional experiences dating and working with programmers (respectively), I don’t find them the happiest people in the world. In many cases, it seems like a fallback profession for smart people who can’t find a job doing what they’d really like to do, like building machines, or running a company, or shooting a documentary film.
OK, I get it. Coding is a way to make money. But why would a woman want to code?