Women Can Do Everything

Including Code.

Feb 16, 2019 About a 12 minute read

In my eyes, women can do everything. Especially when it comes to creativity, a vast majority of those who inspire me are all female.

I’ve been very fortunate to work as a software engineer for over 15 years. If I had my wish, there’s one glaring detail about the field I would change more than anything else. No, not threading or floating point arithmetic. It’s how few women are on my teams, especially as programmers.

Writing code has long been male dominated for reasons of stereotype, opportunity, bias — never a worthy one. Certainly not skill or ability. My sister, in seeing the privileged life technology created for me (most notably the ability to take my MacBook and work from any coffee shop in the world), shared how she wishes she had the confidence or direction to learn the craft years ago. It just wasn’t on her radar, and I know she’s not alone.


Two recent experiences convinced me it’s finally time I acted on my wish to do something about it…

The first, I was watching the NHL All Star Skills Competition a few weekends ago. To everyone’s surprise, when Nathan MacKinnon (a fellow Nova Scotian) couldn’t complete in the fastest skater event due to injury, Kendall Coyne Schofield from the U.S. Women’s National Team took his place.

No woman had ever participated in the event. So as she flew around the ice competing like any other star it made the hair on my neck stand up. Not only were the results there — she was faster than possibly 75% of NHL — the positivity and respect demonstrated by the male superstars, from Sidney Crosby to Connor McDavid, was incredible to watch.

As for the second, the crux of own personal journey around North America is that I fell in love with Canada and Nova Scotia. Knowing immigration to be immensely intimating, I subsequently spent half a year trying to talk myself out of it and find a replacement. I never did manage either of those, so dating all the way back to October I’ve been doing the work to make my dream a reality.

As part of my immigration package, in addition to establishing a business in Nova Scotia,1 I’ve become even more excited about a foundation I’m simultaneously launching alongside — called WomenCanCode.ca.


As with optimizing software performance, you don’t proceed without first understanding the numbers. What I found matched my perception, and moreover, motivates me substantially.

“Women compose 50% of Canada’s workforce, but only 22% of science, technology, and engineering jobs.” 2

That figure is just scratching the surface. Let’s gander at a survey from GitHub, the largest host of source code in the world:

The gender imbalance in open source remains profound: 95% of respondents are men; just 3% are women. 3

What’s going on at the prominent tech companies?

At Google, women make up 30 percent of the overall workforce, but hold only 17 percent of the company’s tech jobs. At Facebook, women possess 15 percent of tech roles. At Twitter, while non-technical jobs have a 50-50 split, technical jobs are a dismal 10 percent. 4

Worst of all, the numbers for women in tech are actually declining. De-clin-ing. In such an explosive and profitable field, that’s practically inconceivable.

Computing has the dubious distinction of being the only STEM field in which women’s representation has steadily declined throughout the past few decades. Now, just 12 percent of engineers and 26 percent of computing professionals were women. 5

Women in the computing workforce will shrink in the next 10 years unless we take action now. 6

Similar STEM fields are not experiencing this. The American Association of University Women reported in 2013 more than half of the biological scientists in the U.S. were women, compared to 42 percent in 1990. So, other top fields are growing while tech is falling backwards.

It’s not due to a lack of demand:

In 2015, there were half a million new computing jobs — and less than 40,000 new computer science grads. 7

Software Development ranks number one in The US News and World Report’s 100 Best Jobs. This is throwing into comparison salary, unemployment rate and stress.8 Not a day goes by when I take my career for granted. Anyone — no matter gender, color, background — should have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Numbers and facts speak for themselves. We can prove without a single doubt the gender gap exists. That’s the easy part; the harder one is explaining why numbers are what they are.


It Starts (But Doesn’t End) With Education

Give a woman a fish, and you’ll feed her for a day. Teach a woman to fish, and you’ve fed her for a lifetime.

That’s my updated Chinese proverb.

Back to my own situation for a second, one of my company’s weakest assets when it comes to appealing to Canada is that I currently do not possess a large need to hire anyone. I’m primarily a one person shop and I, thankfully, can accomplish everything I have a need to.

Following this proverb, I personally believe empowering others is more advantageous to the community. Should I spend the resources employing a single person, already skilled, or encourage 20 more down the road?

Should I spend the resources employing a single person, already skilled, or encourage 20 more down the road?

Using my sister as the example, it was only until after she saw my career well established did the realization come, “I would have liked to learn this. Maybe I could have.”

Coding wasn’t anywhere to be found on Mallory’s radar, and I know it’s not in sight of many girls and women. The door has to be open for someone to see what’s inside. How wonderful would it be if a single woman realizes a hidden passion for this type of creative work, one that was otherwise dormant? This one woman, after all, could change the world (or at the very least will her own).

This one woman, after all, could end up changing the world (or at the very least will her own).

I’m going to start by hosting and personally teaching free Introduction to iPhone app development workshops. Two of my best friends in the world already volunteered the most beautiful setting.

I know I can amaze everyone with how lucky we are to hold the development tools we do, and how little permission we need to create and distribute an idea in the modern world. The apps, podcasts, and websites made by individuals prove it.

I believe in how much a single person, of any gender, can accomplish.


Heroes that look like us

When we look up to heroes and inspirations everyone deep down craves to see someone who looks like themself. In hockey, young players in Philadelphia want to see a Wayne Simmons with their skin color; kids in Switzerland admire Roman Josi, one of few players from the country in the NHL.

It was easy for a child like me to be casually referred to as “The Next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs” when we’re younger. Such a comparison, no matter how realistic, truly did make me feel special and confident. What would a girl in my position be called? Would there be any heroic comparison that comes to mind?

It’s easy for a child like me to be casually referred to as “The Next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs” when we’re younger. What would a girl in my position be called?

When I was struggling with anxiety and depression I would consistently seek out notable figures and celebrities who did. It’s so easy to feel like you’re the only one.

This has again been proven in studies:

…a third said that they felt extremely isolated at work. In the same study, four of 10 female engineers and computing professionals reported lacking role models, while about half reported lacking mentors 9.

While we work to create new such heroes, there already exist plenty to admire. On WomenCanCode.ca we’re going to have fun highlighting many of the female visionaries people of all genders should know about.

How about my first choice? Margaret Hamilton.

Back in 1961 she led the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which was given the contract by NASA to develop the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to a stack of Apollo Guidance Computer source code. (MIT Museum)

President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The highest civilian award granted in the United States.


The Confidence Factor

I’m on record insisting you cannot do anything in this world without confidence.

Jacquelynne Eccles has spent over 35 years studying confidence and career choice. She’s proved women are less likely than men to enter computing because they have less confidence in their math and physical science abilities:

Female engineering students were less likely than their male counterparts to feel a strong sense of fit with the idea of “being an engineer” 10

Further:

Study after study finds that women have ability, good grades, and high test scores in STEM subjects, and yet women are turning away, or being pushed away, from engineering and computing fields.

A theme that overarches much of the research on this topic is that women often feel as if they don’t fit or belong in these fields. 11

This means blindly trying to just recruit isn’t enough:

Simply trying to recruit girls and women into existing engineering and computing programs and workplaces has had limited success. 12

I know what it’s like to lack confidence in a professional setting. It took my entire 20s in the industry to feel like I belonged. (Let alone all 35 to get there personally).

My lack of self-belief was for a different reason, one not nearly as dire as gender. Every single skill I possess in technology is 100% self-taught. I always felt like an imposter and was consistently intimated by developers at the large companies (Google, Apple, etc) or those with PhDs (well, even computer science degrees) hanging on the wall.

It was only after ten years of reading books on compilers, low-level languages, algorithms, and working for free on large, respected open-source projects did I amass the experience and a portfolio where I finally felt deserving to be where I was, let alone voice an opinion.

Much more so than my situation — gender, color, or background are the most artificial and unfair reasons to lack confidence. They don’t mean a thing, but somehow they’re allowed to feel like they do.

Having been through such emptiness, regardless of the reason, I have ideas to help. In the words of the legendary hockey broadcaster Mike Lange, you’d have to be there to believe it (or know what it feels like).


It’s Time For Stereotype To End

It is fascinatingly theorized stereotype developed as a human trait because it was cognitively efficient — categorizations avoid examining and considering new information.

Just like mental health however, pre-conceived notions are powerful and oppressive. As I’m trying to demonstrate with the former, the world is missing out on so much due to stigma.

If you take only one detail from here, be it this:

A person does not need to believe a stereotype to experience negative effects.

Individuals must only be aware of a stereotype, identify with the group stereotyped, and care about succeeding.

People simply fear they will confirm a negative stereotype about a group they belong to.

There’s a term for this: “stereotype threat.” It was coined in outstanding research by Claude M. Steele at Stanford University.

He and colleagues demonstrated in study after study the more knowledge participants had of a bias “in the air,” the more impaired performance, anxiety, and slower output due to re-checking and doubt.

I translate this more simply to say — it feels like a bullseye on your back.

The AAUW summarized an excellent overview of these studies if you’d like to read more.

If academic research isn’t enough, in the real world a study of GitHub discovered:

Acceptance rates of women exceeded those of men in every programming language. When women’s profiles didn’t contain information on their gender, the acceptance rate was 72%. However, if they identified themselves as women, this figure dropped to 62%. 13

Women are better programmers than men, and their code, gets accepted more often. However, it happens only when they are not identifiable as women as found in recent research from GitHub. 14

Finally, bias was proven15 to exist and affect both hiring and salary:

The results were unequivocal. Scientists, both women and men, viewed the female applicant as less competent and less hirable than the identical male applicant and were less willing to mentor the female candidate

Faculty members also indicated that they would offer less money to the woman than the man.

Since the truth is right side up, we can tackle this just the same as mental health — starting with awareness.


Biology is not an argument

Let’s take down one last pillar which, sadly, comes up with regularity.

Such as a leaked memo inside Google:16

“The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes, and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Neuroticism​ ​(higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

I won’t waste bytes on the utf-8 characters for this person’s name. He was fired from Google, however we’ve naive to believe these are isolated thoughts.

We also have the sickening “Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far:” 17

Mr. Altizer is part of a backlash against the women in technology movement. While many in the tech industry had previously dismissed the fringe men’s rights arguments, some investors, executives and engineers are now listening.

Mr. Altizer, 52, said he [and now many others] had realized a few years ago that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.

I had to look at the two words “Men’s Rights” a few times. That’s a new one.

The widespread argument is, due to biology and natural predisposition, women are more prone to anxiety, are innately less competitive, and lack assertiveness. And so on about engineering and math…

Since said argument is scientifically and factually wrong, why waste a few more paragraphs responding intelligently? Let’s just call it Fucking. Bull. Shit.

Just like my biology for having a flawed brain — one that needs several medications in order to properly function in the world — our biology is not who we are, nor what we’re capable of.

Our biology is not who we are, nor what we’re capable of.

End of story.


Let’s Get Started

Technology is really good at reinventing itself.

I personally do not dream for a new programming language, another cloud service from Amazon, or Web 3.0 — I want the opportunity to work with, learn from, and work for women to be the next-big-thing.

Just like Kendall Coyne skating around the rink in an NHL event, it shouldn’t look out of place for any number of women to have that high level front- or back-end engineering position.

This entire mission isn’t one to make myself look good, nor do I pretend to have all the answers. Quite simply and selfishly, starting with my Mom and sister, the majority of people who really amaze me in the world are female and I crave to work with you so much more than I currently do.

Just like I put my own personal confidence back together, it’ll be one step, one person, one conversation at a time we can do this. The keyboard is mighty. You have to start small no matter how lofty the goal — the first iPhone didn’t even have copy and paste after all.

Education. Heroes. Confidence. Stereotype. Stigma. Salaries. There’s no stopping us.

~ Murph

PS – Reach out if you’d like to become involved.

A Song & Book

Music and reading inspire everything in my life. Here's two recommendations for you related to this entry…

Brave by Sara Bareilles

"Everybody’s been there,
everybody’s been stared down By the enemy
Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty"

Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles

Sara's my foremost inspiration in life. You don't need anything more than video I linked in the first paragraph to see why. Until I read her autobiography I thought everything she accomplished came flawlessly.

I went through over a hundred pages of research to write this article. The more I discovered, the more I want to change it all.

Footnotes

  1. The name of my company is Shining Tree Creative, Inc (Registered in Nova Scotia). It comes from my favorite plant in nature, the White Birch tree.

    Our word for birch is derived from the original Ojibwe language which translates closest to Shining Tree. When hiking in Nova Scotia, they certainly do amongst all the other evergreens. 

  2. Adapted from reports by the McKinsey Global Institute 

  3. Source: https://opensourcesurvey.org/2017/ 

  4. Sources: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/google-discloses-workforce-diversity-data-good and https://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/07/23/twitters-diversity-report-women-make-up-30-of-workforce/ 

  5. Source: AAUW analysis of U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014b 

  6. https://www.accenture.com/us-en/cracking-the-gender-code?src=JB-11540 

  7. https://www.accenture.com/us-en/cracking-the-gender-code?src=JB-11540 

  8. https://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/how-us-news-ranks-the-best-jobs 

  9. (Hewlett, Buck Luce et al., 2008) 

  10. Eccles Parsons et al., 1983; Eccles, 1994, 2007). 

  11. Erin Cech, Brian Rubineau, Susan Silbey, and Carroll Seron at Rice University 

  12. Catalyst https://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem 

  13. https://peerj.com/articles/cs-111/ 

  14. https://peerj.com/articles/cs-111/ 

  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22988126 

  16. https://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320 

  17. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/23/technology/silicon-valley-men-backlash-gender-scandals.html