Photo: Pauline Narvas

It’s not teaching women to code that creates problems, it’s blinkered attitude

Why I think the Guardian article misses the mark

I read the Guardian article “We can teach women to code, but that just creates another problem” last week with a certain amount of disbelief.

I am a teacher on a women’s coding course so I am bound to be a little biased, but then I have also worked in tech for a long time in many different set-ups and guises. There seems to be a lot of strange and misguided conclusioneering (a word I’ve just made up) throughout the article, so I’ve decided to address the main points in turn.

Conventional wisdom says that the key to reducing gendered inequality in tech is giving women the skills they need to enter particular roles. But in practice, when more women enter a role, its value seems to go down more.

I don’t know anyone who champions women in tech who is under the illusion that women entering particular roles reduces gender inequality - for pay at least - unless those roles are management, finance, HR etc (i.e not specifically tech-related and by people who have a say in wages and budgets). In any case there’s a lot more to gender inequality than just the value of a role. The problem of women being undervalued at work isn’t specific to tech, however you try to justify it by hiding it behind role types, so I don’t know why connecting this to women learning to code has any real point. I don’t think it even begins to cover the reasons why these code schools were set up.

The real reason we want and need more women in tech is that diversity makes for better tech - it’s simple: the more different voices are heard, the more rounded our solutions will be, and the more we can be sure of the pertinent problems being solved. Gone are the days when tech for tech’s sake is enough, or that you can get away with pushing out products that don’t suit the real world; consumers are tech-savvy and demand an experience that works for them.

I have heard of (and in some cases experienced), tales of tedious meetings where nothing much gets achieved because the majority can’t hear another opinion, the tiresomeness of being the sole woman, being asked to take the notes, getting talked down to, talked over and ignored, of ideas being dismissed in favour of weaker ones, or more annoyingly, in favour of someone else saying what you said 20 minutes before. I have observed that some of the worst offenders become easier to work with when a meeting has a more diverse range of participants.

I personally would also love all of my career to be engaging and innovative! Working in a room full of the same sort of people can stifle creativity and change. There have been times when I’ve had to push so hard for people to take a different approach, even when my different approach has been proven to sell more! It can be very draining and disheartening at times. When you have diversity in the workplace, it forces people to look outside of their own confines and ways of doing things.

Back-end developers often attribute front-end expertise not to mastery but to alchemy, wizardry or magic. Its adepts don’t succeed through technical skill so much as a kind of web whispering: feeling, rather than thinking, their way through a tangle of competing styles — in other words, those soft fuzzy things that women are supposed to excel at. That’s not true, of course; nothing on a computer is any more or less logical than anything else.

The problem here isn’t about just about gender, it’s about tech putting back-end development on a pedestal when it isn’t as hard as people think. It’s also not the priority in the modern world. “Functionality is more important,” I hear on a regular loopback as if I’m working with a gaggle of mindless robots pushing cassette buttons in their stomachs when they want to speak. Well, no, it’s not, as complainers of complex, clunky, time-consuming and difficult-to-use software would assert. Back-end developers may well dismiss front-end as some kind of alchemy but this is because they don’t understand it and presumably don’t have the inclination or time to try. Users don’t care either way, they just expect it all to be good; we’d all do well to remember that.

Get-girls-to-code initiatives aim to fix tech’s gender imbalance — but they may help reinforce it. Women are generally cheaper, to other workers’ dismay. “Introducing women into a discipline can be seen as empowerment for women,” Ensmenger says. “But it is often seen by men as a reduction of their status. Because, historically speaking, the more women in a profession, the lower paid it is.”

Well here empowerment of women might lead to men’s status being reduced, but a lower male status doesn’t preclude women being empowered, so I’m not sure what point we’re trying to make exactly. Women can still be empowered when men’s pay is reduced. Women can still be paid better than in other disciplines, even if the pay is lower than it was before. Women lowering the pay across the profession could be regarded as levelling out the gender pay imbalance if everyone is paid the same. I’m not saying lower pay is a good thing, but suggesting that it reinforces imbalance isn’t technically correct.

I’m not sure why we need to stop women’s coding initiatives to protect men’s statuses either. It doesn’t mean I want to put others down but, lowered status? We’re not sending them to the gallows here. My heart doesn’t bleed over anyone worrying about their status being lowered — it probably does them, and the rest of society, some good! Arrogance never serves anyone well. The reality of coding is that it’s a service industry like anything else — coders are not gods or heroes or geniuses, they are servants.

As a result, an influx (modest though it is) of women into the computing profession might be helping to push developers to make distinctions where they didn’t exist before. “As professions are under threat, stratification is very often the result,” Ensmenger says. “So you take those elements that are most ambiguous and you push those, in a sense, down and out. And down and out means they become more accessible to other groups, like women.”

I think it’s laughable to imply that the influx of women is currently enough to make that much difference in the big wide male world of tech. It’s nice that you afford us that much power though! I don’t think back-end developers necessarily push these elements down and out because they want to distance themselves from women either, I think they want to make the distinctions so they can focus more on certain areas and not spread their brain power as thinly. There’s also the pressure from managers to finish more items on the to-do list (complete more ‘stories’ in the Agile methodology), aka the ‘feature factory’ approach. Having to think about the front-end slows developers down in this box-ticking exercise and makes them look like poorer coders, so of course they are going to try and shake off any ‘unnecessary’ padding around what they do.

The elements in question are not ambiguous, they’re just not well understood. As the design-first approach becomes more prevalent and necessary, these elements are becoming more valued and in-demand. At my workplace, we are crying out for back-end developers who can understand and apply the knowledge of these elements well. Eventually we will probably have to fill that shortfall by employing front-end people (I actually think it’s a bit crazy that we don’t already). More front-end people in our company means less back-end, so by all means make those distinctions, but eventually you will do yourself out of employment.

Let’s be clear here as well that it’s not the profession itself that’s under threat, it’s the male stronghold of the profession. That’s not the same thing and it’s not something that’s worth saving.

The computing historian Marie Hicks can’t stand it when people tout coding camps as a solution to technology’s gender problem. “I think these initiatives are well-meaning, but they totally misunderstand the problem. The pipeline is not the problem; the meritocracy is the problem. The idea that we’ll just stuff people into the pipeline assumes a meritocracy that does not exist.”

This may be the case in America, but in the UK there is a pipeline problem!

The Tech Nation 2017 report states:

The turnover of the UK digital tech industries was estimated at £170 billion in 2015. This is a growth rate of 22% (or £30 billion) in five years. Over the same period, the total number of UK digital tech businesses grew by 28%, more than twice as fast as non digital businesses. In London, a new tech business is formed every hour.

How will we meet this demand if we’re determined to ignore half the population? Particularly post-Brexit, but let’s not go there.

Tech Nation 2017 (Image used with permission)

The Government’s Digital Strategy recognises that “Digital businesses need a supply of employees with the right digital skills if they are to flourish.” It also recognises that women make up almost half of the workforce but only 17% of the tech sector, and that this gender imbalance must be addressed.

The Guardian article rather unhelpfully doesn’t state how we are expected to solve the meritocracy problem. However, a series of research studies at the University of Colorado showed that:

The odds of hiring a woman were 79.14 times greater if there were at least two women in the finalist pool.

Thus concluding that the pipeline is actually hugely important for meritocracy to be enabled.

I would also speculate that having women in front-end roles will make companies more open to hiring women for back-end roles, as the concept won’t seem as alien. Seeing more women in the tech workplace will also make it easier for new female graduates to see themselves in back-end roles, or indeed any tech role, and encourage more to apply.

Ironically, Hicks says, these coding initiatives are, consciously or not, betting on their graduates’ failure. If boot camp graduates succeed, they’ll flood the market, devaluing the entire profession. “If you can be the exception who becomes successful, then you can take advantage of all the gatekeeping mechanisms,” Hicks says. “But if you aren’t the exception, and the gatekeeping starts to fall away, then the profession becomes less prestigious.”

I’ve already discussed how we need coding initiative graduates to enter the market in the UK and how market demand is outstripping supply. The talk of prestige seems quite old-school and a last bastion of a male-dominated society. Working in tech is great because you get to do ‘cool stuff’ and you can make things that transform people’s lives and add value to society, not because you get some kind of ego trip from being told how you’re better than other people.

Talk of failure itself is a bit simplistic (and defeatist). We don’t talk about university courses being failures because their graduates go on to do other things. Coding isn’t for everyone and that’s ok. The women we teach on Code First: Girls are extremely capable self-starters who learn that technology can be used a tool to amplify their goals, rather than it being just a goal in itself. We teach courses in front-end and back-end, but really what we are teaching is that they can make their ideas a reality. So even if our students don’t end up being coders, they learn how to harness technology for bigger things, and if they don’t want to do it themselves, it means they have a greater understanding of what is possible and how to ask someone else to carry it out.

Code First: Girls graduates come out with so much more confidence because they have pushed out of their comfort zone into an area they’re not supposed to do well in, and succeeded admirably. They are excited and enthused for the new scope their ideas have been given and they learn that there’s nothing to stop them carrying them out. We teach them that they have value and that their voices should be heard, we teach them to know that the treatment outlined in the Guardian article isn’t good enough. This doesn’t sound like failure to me.

My students are always so excited that they’re “learning to code” when I teach them HTML and CSS, the basic building blocks of web pages. And I’m happy for them; it’s exhilarating to see, for the first time, how the web is built. Increasingly, though, I feel the need to warn them: the technology sector, like any other labor market, is a ruthless stratifier. And learning to code, no matter how good they get at it, won’t gain them entrance to a club run by people who don’t look like them.

The argument in this section is once again a little circular. If all labour markets are ruthless stratifiers then women might as well be in tech as anywhere. Teaching women to be defeated before they even start is not going to change the status quo. What are you suggesting? That we all stay at home and do the cleaning? Stop being such a nuisance? Stop spoiling it for men? Forget that! Keep doing what you’re doing, do it loudly and with confidence. The tide will turn eventually! In the meantime, apply for the job, or start up your own thing - with your fresh approach, broad skills base and all-encompassing attitudes, you will knock the socks off these entitled, old-fashioned status protectors!

If you want to increase your chances of ‘getting entrance to the club’, check out my article “Tips for Getting a Job in Tech”.

In case you need any further convincing, here’s a link to an article from Beverley Newing, Code First: Girls alumni: ‘One Year On From My HTML/CSS Course’, and some quotes below from my latest cohort of students and student ambassadors. (Student ambassadors are alumni who come to give support to the students). If you want to join a course, visit the Code First: Girls website.

(8 weeks of 2 hours contact time per week)