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The future of women in computer programming

[Updated: Minor edits.]

Due to an accident involving a black hole, the National Reconnaisance Office, and the Verizon Wireless switching network, I found myself talking on my cell phone with my great-great-granddaughter, Chayya Mushka Sunshine Gordon. As soon as I realized that I was hearing a voice from a century in the future, I wanted to ask her for the point spread on next year’s Super Bowl, but forced myself to make some small talk first.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a computer programmer. My company develops networked applications for intelligent textiles.”

“Cool! That’s what I do, too.”

“They had intelligent textiles in 2004?”

“No. I mean, I’m a programmer.”

“Oh.” I could hear the wrinkled nose in her voice. In the background, a bus door opened and closed, and other passengers babbled to each other. “What’s it like, being a male programmer?”

“You might as well ask what it’s like to drive a car with an internal-combustion engine. Most of the programmers I know are men.”

“Oh,” she said, without the wrinkle this time.

“Do IT managers in 2104 discriminate against men?”

“Sex discrimination is illegal nowadays. It’s just that men don’t have, you know, the temprament, the right way of thinking, to be good programmers.” Her tone became more animated. “Where I used to work, there was a man on my team responsible for the database design, and it was the most incredible mess. To do the simplest thing, I had to spend days trying to figure out where the information was, or how to add something to one table without screwing up five others. I was venting about it to a friend of mine, and she said, ‘If you can’t get a man to put the toilet seat down, how can you expect him to normalize a database schema?’ —No offense.”

“None taken.”

“So most of the programmers in the 20th century were men? No wonder they had so much buggy software. Why didn’t women look for programming jobs? Discrimination?”

“I assume that’s one of the reasons. Also, I suspect a lot of girls were turned off to computer classes because they associated programming with math.”

Math?! You have to make up your algorithms and data structures from scratch and prove that they work?”

“Most programmers haven’t had to deal with that kind of thing since the 1970s, at least. But the news hasn’t filtered down to the sixth-graders yet.”

“That’s just crazy! Programming is all about communication. You have to communicate with the customer to learn about the problem they want to solve, with your co-workers to make sure that all the pieces will building will work together, with the programmers who come after you so they’ll be able to maintain what you did…”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“And women have always been the communicators in society. That’s why men always tease us for talking so much. That’s why women have always been concentrated in jobs that involve communication: teaching, library science, human resources, secretarial work…”

I cleared my throat. “Funny you should say that about secretaries—”

“Oy, I have to go.” The doors opened again. “It’s been great talking to you, but I have to get to my other job now.”

“Other job?”

“I work the second shift at the Holiday Inn reception desk. You don’t think I could pay the rent on a programmer’s salary, did you?”

“Some things never change, I guess.”

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