It’s Not “Too Late” for Female Hackers

Are individuals who learn to program in college too far behind to make an impact?

You’re probably familiar with Paul Graham’s infamous The Information interview by now. Nitasha Tiku excerpts segments of Paul Graham’s interview with Eric P. Newcomer to highlight the sexism displayed by one of the Silicon Valley’s most influential players. Many are defending Graham, saying that his words were taken out of context or merely reflect reality. However, they don’t recognize that Graham is exacerbating discrimination in the tech scene by claiming that it is “too late” for individuals who discover computer science in high school and college.

From Paul Graham’s perspective, there are two groups of individuals in the field of computer science:

(1) Hardcore hackers. These are the hackers who discovered a love for programming at young age, around 12 or 13. They spent their teens hacking away, so that upon reaching young adulthood, they have a decade’s worth of knowledge to use to start a company. These are the individuals that Paul Graham likes to invest in and the ones who most commonly create successful startups. This group is predominantly white and male.

(2) Everyone else in the industry. This second group is diverse, but is united by a single commonality: they began programming in high school or even in college. Most women are in this group, as are most minorities and most individuals from a low socioeconomic background.

Paul Graham’s typical portfolio company does not include founders from this second group. Indeed, Paul Graham’s opinion on the future success of these individuals is quite bleak:

[I]f you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now. It’s already too late.

Admittedly, Paul Graham’s comments about computer science education are quite reasonable. It is a fact that more boys than girls pick up computer science at a young age, and that this phenomenon is a major cause of the gender discrepancy between men and women in the field.

More importantly, Graham’s words reveal a common bias against individuals deviating from that pipeline, a path typically taken by white, middle-to-upper class males.

I’ve heard startups say that they did not like to hire people who had only started programming when they became CS majors in college.

The fact is, most women and minorities are currently entering the field in high school or college. And yes, this is a problem. But it certainly should not be a death sentence for entrepreneurial aspirations. When the head of Y Combinator, arguably the best and most selective tech startup accelerator, claims that “it’s already too late” for those who began hacking past middle school to ever start a company, he is no longer critiquing CS education. Instead, he is emulating Silicon Valley’s deeply-held bias against a group of people typically composed of females and racial minorities: those who do not fit the stereotype of the “typical hacker.”

It is not “too late” for coders who did not start in middle school. By telling women and minorities that they should have started coding ten years ago, Paul Graham is exacerbating the problem. Imposter Syndrome is rooted in the belief that one is always behind—Graham is merely validating the fears of those who picked up computer science later than the stereotypical hacker.

We can’t make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook, because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years.

Instead of deeming the current generation of female and minority coders a lost cause, Paul Graham should project a different message. He should be telling women and minorities that “Yes, you started behind, but that does not undermine your future ability to succeed in the field or to start a company.” He should be bolstering the confidence of women and encouraging them to explore the startup world, not lamenting the current lack of female founders and deeming the status quo unfixable for the current generation of female hackers.

This bias is again seen later in the interview, when Paul Graham is asked about women in the startup world:

It used to be that all startups were mostly technology companies. Now you have things like the Gilt Groupe where they’re really retailers, and that’s what they have to be good at because the technology is more commoditized….It’s a combination of startups moving into different domains, that whole software eating the world thing, and infrastructure being more available so you don’t have to be such a hardcore nerd even to start a startup, like you used to have to be.

Here Graham contrasts “technology companies” with “commoditized” companies that are “really retailers.” The distinction is legitimate; online marketplaces that connect buyers and sellers use technology as a tool to further their business, and really only rely on basic web programming skills. In that sense, the infrastructure these startups use is “more available,” and indeed requires less in-depth knowledge to adopt.

Yet, why should the realm of what Graham considers “technology companies” be solely restricted to the stereotypical “hardcore nerd”? Instead of trivializing the potential for women and minorities to ever start a company solely focused on technology, we should focus on empowering them to explore their interest in software now, regardless of past history.

Telling women to focus on commerce-centric startups is a slap in the face to female hackers. Most females in computer science are, like a majority of the female population, not interested in high fashion and not passionate about commerce. Making such a general statement about an entire gender reveals Paul Graham’s bias towards females in tech.

Many women I know are already leaving computer science because they compare themselves to peers who have been programming since childhood. Paul Graham is exacerbating the problem by claiming that these women will never catch up to their peers. Through all the controversy, the only solution proposed is to start educating children about computer science. By only focusing on one aspect of the problem, Graham effectively marginalizes the group of individuals who have already passed that age, who cannot go back in time and start learning earlier. Pushing early computer science education is a fantastic start, but by no means the only solution to the problem. In the meantime, we must focus on keeping women in the field and empowering them to explore their passions in computer science.

Instead of criticizing Tiku for throwing flames onto a sensitive issue and unnecessarily waving around the buzzword “sexism” to gain attention, we should focus on the problems that are evident in the interview she brings to public attention.

It is not “too late” for the girl who discovers a love for hacking at age 18. Instead of focusing solely on the stereotypical white male hacker, Paul Graham should keep an open mind towards those who discovered a passion for coding later in life.

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