Knitting? Coding? Women’s Work? ;-)

Woman’s Hour today covered a topic that I thought only I would ever be interested in. Back in the seventies, soon after I became a programmer, it occurred to me that even though only a minority of my workmates were female, the task was certainly not necessarily particularly suited to males. One of the problems with men is the way “they” are attracted towards great glorious power gestures, whereas programming involves taking great care over lots of little details.

[A couple of nice images here]

I stole this image from http://blog.studentadvisor.com/computer-programming-women/ as an example of computer-programming-women, and then wondered what sort of code she was working on.  But nothing on her screen or papers looks like code.  I almost never used a desk calculator when programming, and she's got one in pride of place right near her hand.  And when I did, I'd be engrossed in summing tricky test data totals or something, and it would be some time before I could produce a smile like that.  But I'd guess she wasn't a programmer anyway because she looks just too much like a stable extrovert.  I've heard it said that good women programmers were unhappy girls.  Programming requires intense use of the frontal lobes, where you control the handling of models, but normally people only think hard like this as a last resort.  Nature reasons that when thinking hard you must therefore be desperate, so it informs others around you by slapping a worried look on your face.  The faces of people who do a lot of hard coding-style thinking hour after hour, day after day, even if they like it, customarily get screwed up into a frown (walking down the street thinking hard often attracts a merry "Don't worry darlin'!  It might never 'appen!").  So when a face bears no hint of ever frowning, you know what to guess.  It's not so much to do with the face you were born with, because even pretty hard thinkers at least tend to have a lingering haunted look lurking in the background.  I'd say Marilyn Monroe's smile was revealingly slow and thoughtful; not a coder but probably a worried introvert.  That would have helped coding, but being unstable too, might only be expected to help creativity.  (Mental illness doesn't help productivity, but not staying content for long really does encourage novelty.)  Maybe a thoughtful coder will slap some "for show" smile on the front, or a hint of jokey craziness perhaps like Steve Wozniak, but a look of pure warm happiness would be rare, wouldn’t it?  Maybe this doesn’t work for Zuckerberg or Gates, I suppose. Lower down this page a thoughtful Grace Hopper helps my argument; Marissa Mayer doesn't of course.  But I'd claim that if you looked hard enough at her perhaps very practiced smile, you might still sense something - maybe the tightness of the eyes hinting at "At Last!  I've got the bloody thing working... after three sodding weeks!!"

I stole this image from http://blog.studentadvisor.com/computer-programming-women/ as an example of computer-programming-women, and then wondered what sort of code she was working on. But nothing on her screen or papers looks like code. I almost never used a desk calculator when programming, and she’s got one in pride of place right near her hand. And when I did, I’d be engrossed in summing tricky test data totals or something, and it would be some time before I could produce a smile like that. But I’d guess she wasn’t a programmer anyway because she looks just too much like a stable extrovert. I’ve heard it said that good women programmers were unhappy girls. Programming requires intense use of the frontal lobes, where you control the handling of models, but normally people only think hard like this as a last resort. Nature reasons that when thinking hard you must therefore be desperate, so it informs others around you by slapping a worried look on your face. The faces of people who do a lot of hard coding-style thinking hour after hour, day after day, even if they like it, customarily get screwed up into a frown (walking down the street thinking hard often attracts a merry “Don’t worry darlin’! It might never ‘appen!”). So when a face bears no hint of ever frowning, you know what to guess. It’s not so much to do with the face you were born with, because even pretty hard thinkers at least tend to have a lingering haunted look lurking in the background. I’d say Marilyn Monroe’s smile was revealingly slow and thoughtful; not a coder but probably a worried introvert. That would have helped coding, but being unstable too, might only be expected to help creativity. (Mental illness doesn’t help productivity, but not staying content for long really does encourage novelty.) Maybe a thoughtful coder will slap some “for show” smile on the front, or a hint of jokey craziness perhaps like Steve Wozniak, but a look of pure warm happiness would be rare, wouldn’t it? Maybe this doesn’t work for Zuckerberg or Gates, I suppose.
Lower down this page a thoughtful Grace Hopper helps my argument; Marissa Mayer doesn’t of course. But I’d claim that if you looked hard enough at her perhaps very practiced smile, you might still sense something – maybe the tightness of the eyes hinting at “At Last! I’ve got the bloody thing working… after three sodding weeks!!”

In fact, I characterised programming as being a sort of cross between knitting, gardening and talking, at which there’s no reason to suppose that females have less talent. I myself had asked to be taught to knit not once but twice, since I soon forgot after the first time; as a child I was sometimes attracted to things that might not seem terribly fun but might at least be interesting.

Hail to the Goddess of Cobol (Grace Hopper) via Wikipedia

Hail to the Goddess of Cobol (Grace Hopper) via Wikipedia

It was nice to know that I could knit, even though it was clear there was more to it than I could understand at that age. Now I think with a couple of weeks’ diligent study I could probably master it to the point of being able to invent my own jumper, though I won’t because with the same effort I could also make some progress with my other “special” projects :-).

Now I would go as far as to say, yes, women are better suited than men for programming. Care and patience is not something they are just as good at – they’re better at it. And this still applies even if we call it “programming”, implying pre-planning, design, and testing, rather than just “coding” where you might knock out a quick ad hoc script in half an hour. [Actually I can’t write in any “script” languages 🙂 .] And also, these days, the likes of Paul Graham, the Stack Overflow folk, and all that lot, stress the importance of co-operative communication within programming teams, and I’d say women were actually better at that too. Actually programming wasn’t invented by the woman Ada Lovelace, since Joseph Jacquard preceded her, but his programmed loom does highlight the connection with knitting!

Annie EasleyAnd let’s not end without remembering Annie Easley (still with us!), mentioned by Ashley Nelson-Hornstein:

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