We’ve all seen him in television and movies: that guy who’s a programmer and nothing else. The genius of superhuman talent that effortlessly solves difficult problems and who dedicates so much of himself to his field that he doesn’t have a life outside of programming.
The image of the asocial programmer is the scourge of the programming community in more ways than one. First of all, it’s completely false to imagine that successful programs are written by prodigies sitting alone in basements, scrawling out code as if possessed by some frenetic muse. Second, the image is deeply tied to traits we have been socialized to treat as masculine and therefore serves as a menace to gender equality in computer science.
The notion that raw ability to solve puzzles and riddles is somehow indicative of programming skill is a historical accident. When programming was first being adopted by the corporate world, there was no such thing as a computer science major. Companies had no idea who would be qualified to program these newfangled computers.
So they started handing out personality exams. Over time, the exams caused it to be accepted that good programmers were rugged individualists who obsessed over their puzzles. Nevermind that the programmers that served as the baseline for the exams were the ones who had been hired already and thus demonstrated biases already inherent in the corporate culture.
The idea was, in many ways, self-fulfilling, as the results informed companies’ hiring practices, and those who were already programmers began to get comfortable with their newly assigned persona. The stereotype persists to this day.
In reality, the general consensus among the computer science community is that a lone programmer just hacking away on a problem is a great way to quickly produce software that will become unusable the instant a bug is discovered. The programmer writes working code, but this code is nearly impossible to understand and entirely impossible to modify.
And so it turns out that ability to work with a team to produce carefully compartmentalized and readable code is a much better indicator of a successful programmer. Needless to say, team coordination and ability to communicate how a piece of code works are both fairly social skills.
Yet we never see the social programmer on TV or in movies. And some sociologists would say that this is a contributing factor to the abysmal underrepresentation of women in computer science and programming.
In “The Anatomy of Interest,” a paper about an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon who interviewed a series of male and female computer science students once per semester starting with their admission, the image of the asocial programmer completely absorbed in his work turns out to be a major cause of attrition among female computer science students.
Many of the women leaving the computer science program expressed the feeling that somehow they were inferior computer scientists because they had hobbies outside of the field or because they were not tinkering with computers from a young age. Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher, authors of the paper, speculated that while these disparities do exist to some degree, much of the difference was exaggerated by males in the program.
Ultimately, Margolis and Fisher recommend that computer science programs extend their curriculums to place greater emphasis on the social aspects of programming alongside the technical aspects.
If you’re not convinced that a technical emphasis versus a social emphasis is a gendered divide, well, you’re right.
Margolis and Fisher note that they interviewed several male programmers that do not identify with the purely technical computing ethic, and that these programmers did not feel nearly as discouraged as their female counterparts (because, of course, there are quite a few barriers for females in computer science).
Still the responses of the women leaving the program cannot be ignored. In a perfect world, whether or not a field is social would not produce a split along gender lines. But we do not live in a perfect world, and it’s time to stop pretending.
If society is persistently going to portray a hacker alone in a basement as male, than maybe it’s time for the programming world to start taking its image more seriously.