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Programming Needs Women, and Women Need To Program

Shehzadi Aziz

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In a world where our everyday surroundings are increasingly more dominated by coded algorithms, computer programming has become one of the most sought after skills for us to learn. In fact, in The Industries of the Future, American tech policy expert Alec Ross argues that computer programming and being able to speak a second foreign language will be two of the most essential skills for human beings in the future. Not only is coding a vital skill for controlling and programming technology, but research suggests it is also highly beneficial for the development of metacognition, creativity and logic. In other words, it is an excellent means for training us how to think. Nevertheless, in America and other Western countries, women continue to be very underrepresented in many fields that involve coding and programming. Whether it's in computer science degrees, data science roles, or the "brotopia" of coded technology - Silicon Valley.

It is not that women's talents and virtues aren't needed in the world of programming. In fact, women are more needed than ever. For instance, take the issue of Big Data (which is a field that is changing how we extract and analyze information about the world around us). Big Data is seen as providing a sense of objectivity that has never been seen before. However, a criticism of Big Data's supposed "objectivity" is that there remains the limitation of algorithmic logic - programmed and coded by people, and primarily programmed by men. Therefore, the interpretation of data is still likely to be subtly androcentric, and when this androcentric data is then applied to the real world -- to policy, design, media and more -- that is when the progress of women is inhibited. We need more women to be proficient in coding and writing algorithms to prevent this from continuing.

"When we exclude half of humanity from the production of knowledge we lose out on potentially transformative insights." - Caroline Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019)

On an even more serious note, the rapid development of technology in our time and the governance of coding in our lives has meant that cyber-security will only grow as a concern for well-being. Cyberattacks are the fastest growing crime in the USA, and although men in some cases have been found to be easier targets (due to a comparatively lax attitude to cyber-security compared to women), the manner in which women are threatened by cyber crime remains very frightening (such as sexual harassment online, stalking, hacking devices and accounts to find personal information and identify victims). What would proficiency in coding and programming do for women in this respect? Well, it's the fact that if more women have greater computing literacy, then more tech tools are likely to be developed in favor of women's cyber security.

Unfortunately, the occupational segregation of computer science also makes room for over-simplified and sometimes even pseudoscientific explanations for why women may be less "suited" for careers related to programming. However, when looking at the history of computing as well as the representation of women in computing that exists in some other countries, it's very hard to believe that mere "human nature" is the main reason for this segregation. Believe it or not, in Britain, computing in the 1940s was dominated by women and this aspect of the workforce had undergone significant masculinization as a result of particular government policies. Obviously, there are multiple factors that play a part in causing this underrepresentation, ranging from the unconscious biases, the conditioning of women themselves and discrimination.

What can we do to change this?

Needless to say, there have been various actions taken in an attempt to alleviate the gender gap in programming and computer science, but these efforts have not been very effective. In fact, in some cases participation in tech-related work, internships, or after school programs was negatively associated with persistence in coding and programming roles for students in general, whereas learning programming during school was one of the best predictors of future involvement in programming.

In a 2006 report in Armenia, the gender pay gap in computer science degrees was found to be almost nonexistent, and perceptions of women in the field were more favorable than for women in the USA. One of the reasons for this, according to the researchers, was that women who were examined in this study did not see the computer science sector as any more discriminative than other fields. Perhaps it is important to avoid cynicism when discussing the role that women currently have in programming. While it may not be enough, it is possible that emphasising the lack of women may actually reinforce this gender gap.

Ultimately, the requirements of government and social policy for increasing women's current involvement is complex and there is a large scope for debate in terms of what actions are likely to truly work. It's up to you and me to decide whether we would like to learn programming ourselves.

Advice for learning programming:

Programming is undeniably an intimidating skill to learn. Even those who understand its importance may be reluctant to actually commit to learning code. Nevertheless, if you are among the group of people who would like to know how to code, but are fearful of the process - the first step is to adjust your mindset. This is because programming is not just about learning how to code, it's about failing. It's a skill that requires immense persistence and perseverance.

While there is an abundance of resources online for learning to program, too often people give up due to taking syntax errors too personally. When learning Python programming, it's easy to get stuck on a task and tirelessly spend hours trying to fix it, only to find out that the problem was as minor as a small punctuation error. Experiences like this can be stressful and demoralizing. Equally, I believe that since a lot of research suggests women are more likely to be perfectionists than men, the experience of failure that can entail coding and writing programs, combined with the male domination of the field, is likely to make us want to give up even more.

Once you've adjusted your mindset, it's important to choose a good resource for learning how to program. Lucky for us, there are tons of e-resources - many of which are free - for learning. Some of the most popular tools are CodeAcademy and DataCamp. Meanwhile, if you would like a certificate to prove your skill, Coursera, Udemy and edX also offer a variety of courses. On the other hand, never underestimate the value of YouTube videos when it comes to practicing.

Shehzadi Aziz is an undergraduate student majoring in Cultural, Media and Political Studies at Warwick University in the UK. Follow Shehzadi on Medium (https://medium.com/@shehzaziz) or connect with her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/shehzadi-aziz-b99a54191/).

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