Why don’t girls code?

This is a translation of Saga Raippalinna’s (@sagamaraia) article Miksi tytöt ei koodaa? posted on 7 June 2016 on the website Wau.fi. Some examples of Saga’s professional expertise are a moderator for social sites, a trainer for user experience, and an illustrator.

Today I read what Juhani Mykkänen (@mykkanen) wrote (http://nyt.fi/a1464142470859) about so few women coding today. This certainly is nothing new in of itself, but that it is still the current situation, makes it worrisome. He writes,

“Our company has been very visible in media. And yet no female coder has made it to our job interviews. Not one.

“I hear the same story from others, too. I talked to the CEO of one of the largest programming companies in Finland. Among the coders applying for a job with them, less than one in a hundred is female.

“Less than one. In. A hundred.”

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. Then the gender roles were the norm; it was a time for liberal upbringing and girls could wear shorts, too, but still it was moms often living for homemaking and dads having a work life. Women were pretty and guys chucked beer.

Girls were fascinated by animals, dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, a teacher, or a hair dresser whereas boys were to become construction workers, carpenters, or researchers. Math, physics, and chemistry were for boys and biology, language studies, and arts for girls. In music classes it was the boys playing the guitar and the drums, girls were left with the piano and singing. Beauty and strength worked together, both from their sides.

Therefore it was nothing surprising that nerds quietly climbing out of their holes were considered freaks. A stereotypical nerd was overly slender, tall boy with glasses and bad skin. He knew computers and everything about math, physics, and chemistry. The kid  was even enthused about them, what an outlandish thing. No sane person would know so much about those things, but it is good to have someone to copy answers from in an exam.

The society worked in harmony: nerds to be despised and abused, jocks with good looks and finally girls in varying decrees of beautiful – those that where to be helped by the boys in anything more difficult or strenuous.

An exaggeration, I admit. Not far from the truth, however. Math has always been a specialty reserved for boys and if you are good at it, you are a geek. Geeks can be mocked, well because they are smarter or something. Weaker for sure. And for some reason worthy of despising.

 

I myself was a girl who always answered that my favorite color was read and that I loved animals, even though that wasn’t what I felt. They were everyone’s answers that were used for a lack of better ones.

I bought pink glitter and note books decorated with puppies and butterflies because cars really weren’t that interesting. The gifts I got were flower shirts with hearts all over. Lots of pink, cuteness, and frills. As my eighth birthday was coming up, my dad asked what I’d like for a present. “A computer,“ I said. I had always wanted a computer.

When I got a computer, it was – like for so many other internet vets – the turning point. We learned to play the games in English. We had to learn English so we could do more. Games were made so you could have them work the way you wanted.

We were the first ones and we would sit in front of a screen of text and write random command words just to find the right one. We played a game a thousand times over and more just to hone our skills and score. We sat enjoying music when a game was loading, sometimes a good fraction of an hour.

We were the original internet revolution, before it was a revolution. We geeks became the ones who made information a cool thing. We changed math from a memorized multiplication table to a tool of art and conquered the world by experimenting, building, and doing.

 

We are living a stage when a computer is no longer a focal point of embarrassment but a necessity of every household. A computer, a smart device, internet – this all is owned by everyone and girls as well as boys are wholly engaged in it. We all can be what we truly are, whether it is glitter or not, whether you want to be a hair dresser, researcher, or a mechanic. Gender is no issue.

Or is it?

In today’s world boys continue to be those who want to code. Who apply to work in coding. Who know the lingo, hang out with other coders, are the kings of the lan parties. Girls have slowly started appearing in hacker assemblies and cons and are gaming hardcore more than ever, but rarely do they code themselves. Even more exceptional is a woman coding for work.

Apollo lead software engineer Margaret Hamilton

Lead flight software designer Margaret Hamilton for NASA Apollo flights. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The gender roles are alive and well in our societies, girls are girls and boys being boys, each group with their own physical characteristics and separate interests. Why such a difference?

 

I see it as primarily due to these roles that are so much talked about.

Math may be more popular than before, but it continues to be implied that it’s boys’ domain. Girls eventually figure it out that one either knows math or one doesn’t and somehow that has to do with gender generalizations.

“Girls can do this and this better, but this is for boys and therefore something I can’t be good at.” If biological traits are brought in the discussion, it may well be that girls are more prone to think in a different manner so that the general teaching may be a hindrance or an advantage.

If teaching is adapted to male thinking, female thinking can’t perform the same. I, for one, am a synesthete, meaning that I think everything as images, colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. Combined with a twist of ADD, I ended, after nine years of math in school, with third grader skills, regardless of computer skills.

Additionally, it is worth considering that even if we were talking about a girl excelling in math, she might think that it is not possible to make it her profession, let alone be specialized in something that sounds as boring as coding. You only sit in front of a computer drinking energy drinks, that’s what it would be like, definitely not for me!

 

“Coding is the language of the future, and every girl should learn it. As I’ve learned from watching girls grow and learn in our classrooms, coding is fun, collaborative and creative.” A quote by Reshma Saujani (@reshmasaujani), a lawyer and politician who founded of the organization Girls Who Code (see a FastCompany article about the ‘movement’).

 

And how interesting coding seems is one of the most important aspects when considering one’s future career in that field. If you don’t ever know coding as anything else than through the predominant nerd stereotype, you can’t see that it is much more than a computer, a screen, and bunch of zeros and ones.

Just think how many times this week you have heard talk how the real life is outside the screen and how computers are the ruin of us.

Girls are taught to obey, follow the rules and act cute. A good girl is not treading dangerous paths, and someone inexperienced doesn’t venture out unless forced to or actually has adventure in their blood. Girls must be given a chance to understand coding as an instrument of art, as a building block and as something else than an empty, passive activity that is only a turnoff to their friends.

After they are through with school they are let out into the great world – and it is led by those old hippies and the parents of us internet revolutionaries. They if anyone have point of views about the world and the roles it sets us in.

The conservative view is that man knows and woman is to be helped. This thinking is practically broken, but it surely continues to affect the subconscious of each of us, to varying degrees. The enlightened can recognize these thoughts and erase them whereas many others follow what they just feel seems right. A woman stands by a door and I open it for her. A man stands by a door and I expect him to walk right through.

A woman’s problem in the coding market is to be taken seriously. How do I present myself as a capable employee without additional proof to cancel out the negative impression due to my gender? How can I avoid a situation where my attractiveness sets the overall tone for the interview?

If I stay after hours, will I be faced with a slimy creep that will climb up my skirt? Will my coworkers be decent, will they include me, and will I be an equal? Will I be there to fill a personnel quota or will I hired because of my talents?

 

Everything at work depends on you being taken seriously. Whether it’s the coworkers who (unwittingly or not) treat you differently because you are a woman or a boss who either gives you a special treatment or the cold shoulder based on your sex. These are matters that are continually discussed but not really internalized. Women are so used to it that they don’t even notice the extra validation they project, and men, on the other hand, don’t see how much more they should change in order to make women feel accepted.

Please, understand this: equality is not going to be achieved by talking about men and women. Even with the exception that the shiest girls need special support so they would dare to measure up. Just as the most unruly boys must be restrained so that others could have their say.

When a job announcement is written, it is reads a coder not a male coder. When the office spaces are set up, they are made for everyone to enjoy with no genderization. When we are working together, we allow each person to be as irritating as they happen to be – whether it’s a collection of coke cans or a small explosion of glitter in one’s cubicle.

Pink Rhinestone Keyboard by Crystal Case

Detail of Crystal Case Pink Rhinestone USB Keyboard

Let’s break the conventions. Let’s treat people based on their interests and not their sex drive.

 

If I was leading a programming firm and if people were a little more playful in general, I would task them to genderize others the opposite for a day: to treat men as they treat women and vice versa.

In this way there might come some revelations how differently we treat each other – starting with the topics of discussion.

I would have those who consider themselves slow talk to and listen to those who are ridiculously complex in their talk, and I would let everyone be themselves. I would let them have their fun during the working hours: fun creates trust, trust builds strength and power – and strength awakens creativity, learning and, for a lack of a better word, mixing.

In addition, I would start a coding school and I would invite all kinds of people to enroll. As the internet revolutionaries we are not to teach coding, per se, but rather show why we code. What is a coder achieving and what is the code good for?

By increasing the appeal, positive experimentation, and participation we would have a future in front of us where the code isn’t bound by ancient rules of segregation, preconceived notions, or generalizations.

When the question “Why girls don’t code?” is posed, let as also present an answer. Girls don’t code because coding is not yet owned by everyone. And

 this isn’t some feminist propaganda. This is a matter of generalization, classification, of segregation. We spend all too much time focusing on the non-issues here.

Coding should be for everyone, available to all, understood by all. Also by those who don’t do it for a job.

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The ideal woman of commercials

Translation of one of Jari Parantainen‘s two compositions written in the spring high school graduation exam in the subject of Finnish language in 1980. The exam is also known as Matriculation examination. He was 18 years old at the time. Parantainen published this writing on his blog Pölli tästä on April 14, 2014: Mainosten nainen ja todellisuus.

Suomen Kuvalehti awarded this together with five other essays with dictionaries. These six were shared national second places; the best essay was given a monetary award by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which Parantainen had set his sights to.


Photo of a 1948 television commercial.

When a single mom sees the supermarket girls talking and giving advice and incentives on the television, her impression may be far from feeling commercialized. In a real supermarket the mother is hardly able to find the apples quite so shiny or those ham slices shown without the white rim of lard. To finish off her shopping she gets a scolding from the cashier for not weighing a bag of fruits herself. Those rosy-cheeked cashier ladies do not really exist, their cheerfulness and helpfulness being a product of large swaths of money: each minute of commercial costs 60,000 marks (Finland’s pre-euro currency).

For the commercial to pay itself back it must excite even the unmovable Finnish lumberjack – and soon there is a waft of that blue aftershave by the tree line. The advertisement worked, because it created an association in the mind of this woodsman that connected a certain aftershave with a beautiful young lady driving a sports car. That woman is far-removed from the what he encounters in his own kitchen. His wife is all too familiar to him and usually doesn’t really electrify his imagination anymore. A new scent on his cheeks doesn’t, of course, change any of that; it is but a glimpse of the Great World which the advertizing company has piece by piece created on a drawing board.

The best kind of a lie is one with a hint of truth, for in this way the lies disappear like trees in a forest. The panorama offered by the commercial is well-planned and its ingredients are carefully shifted. One woman may have beautiful cherry lips and another a charmingly narrow waist, but when these features suddenly come together with a half a dozen other appealing characteristics through a diffusion filter, it is no accident.

When professional choreography and acting, Miss Universe, consumer psychology and a talented producer are crammed into the same studio, the result is a very manipulating (often unawares to the viewer) synthesis on film. It depicts a perfect woman in a romantic or sporty environment. She is part of the elite with impeccable teeth. There may be around her typical signs of high-end living, like two doberman dogs and a pool. The stay-at-home mother watching the commercial is implanted with this model of living, of being such a successful beauty. And she is now offered the very key to this new world: obviously it is this night creme!

The husband, for his part, would like to see in his life a glance of that alluring elite lady from the commercial, so he quietly hides a small jar of that anointment among the Christmas presents. All happiness doesn’t come through when it is discovered that the concoction has a disturbingly strong odor of daisies – and that it smears the bedsheets pink.

Many products besides cosmetics are advertized using feminine wiles. Even the advertizing industry has become aware of the unrealism of the successful beauties in commercials. The ad agency has now planted the product back on earth: in the home. The camera focuses on an ash-grey bathroom and a desperate hand-wringing old cleaning lady. An appropriate contrast is given in the form of a young wife who with a single sweep removes the grime. But she is using a brand new power cleanser that is sold in a plastic bottle that has a new impressive shape. The sweat becomes associated with “the other cleaning agents” where as the broad smile and shortish skirt become one with the new wonder cleanser. However, cleaning a toilet is always work regardless of the brand of the used solutions.

Commercials are not lauded by feminists because they propagate gender roles that have now become old-fashioned. The woman in an advertisement stands by the stove cooking frozen fish for a dinner for her husband and is depicted happy in that role. These kind of roles are also treated with sarcasm in modern advertizing but more often a woman is still shown as some kind of charming servant for the man.

The woman in a commercial is a fantasy as she is pleasing the man with her mere existence. This doesn’t go unnoticed by other women. Young female consumers set that picture from advertisements as their objective, but unfortunately that woman is only a fictional character. The image presented by advertizing industry is as if captured from a spinning kaleidoscope. The studio manager has whisked it together, creating a magnificent scene that is captured before it collapses again. This snapshot is what is present as if it were something stable and within everyone’s reach.

In reality, even the model from the commercial blows her nose after the shoot and then takes the subway home and after a brief rest starts on her own house chores.