We Have Always Coded

Why are there so few male programmers? Evolution. A brief history of women’s work in the field of computing

Recently, mother of RSS and part-time philosopher Michal Winer caused quite a stir on the Internet when she suggested that evolution might explain why we have so few male programmers. The brutish cries of “misandry” from the hyper-vocal masculist set were tragically predictable.

Certainly, their panic is understandable. In the face of an increasingly digitized world, men see their influence slipping away. They feel left out and worry at being abandoned on the wayside of the information superhighway. Though efforts to encourage more men into the field are admirable, it’s time to face facts and admit that these are uphill battles.

Programming has always been women’s work.

The discipline was founded by a woman, after all. When humanity took its first halting steps into the Information Age, it needed a feminine touch. While recent revisionist efforts by masculists have emphasized the work of Charles Babbage, the reality is that he supplied only brute manipulation of matter with his mechanical device. And it didn’t even work! Babbage’s failures set the information age back by a century. It was Ada Lovelace who supplied the code.

When the Information Age finally dawned, it was (inevitably) thanks to women’s industry. The transition from textiles to text files began with punch cards and Marie Joseph’s Jacquard loom. Those same punch cards echo through history to the traditional 80 character line limit today. Weaving is deeply embedded in code, and the fine motor skills needed to work thread have simply never been a masculine trait. The ancient Romans understood this; it is the goddess Minerva who watches over both weaving and philosophy.

Women, not men, wove the core memory that landed men on the moon. This is not to diminish the clumsy heroism of the boys who risked their lives on the journey itself. They too had their contribution to make to history. But they were simply passengers, and the real triumph was getting them there at all. That honour goes to women.

It is all too easy for masculists to forget that the first computers were literally women. As more and more of that work became automated and subsumed into machines, it was natural that women — whose intuitions had been tuned to a ‘computer’ way of thinking — would be the fastest to grasp the principles needed to weave great code.

Men may have had a place in those early days, but their fate was unfortunately sealed with the rise of bitmapped screens. Drawing on centuries of knowledge from working with pixel-like display technologies such as crochet and tapestry, women simply left their male colleagues in the dust. Though the side effects of this disruptive transformation continue to resonate today, impeding progress was never a viable alternative. Perhaps now, with the rise of retina displays which produce pixels so fine as to be effectively invisible, men’s adaptation for continuous line mediums like painting will no longer be an impediment.

Though the clear division of labour that leads to a computing field dominated by women seems natural today, it is worth pausing to consider why. After all, was it inevitable that women be the first computers? Why did Babbage fail where Lovelace succeeded? Why is philosophy and weaving so closely linked in myth?

The roots of this division are sadly rooted in humanity’s pre-history. On the plains of our ancestors, male hunters roamed the savannah, chasing down prey, while women remained home to nurture families and gather berries. The males adapted for big movements and fast action, while the women adapted for slow, methodical searching. The traits that made women expert bug-huntresses in the dust have carried forward and given them an advantage at hunting bugs in code. Men simply aren’t adapted to that kind of patient searching. They live for the thrill of the chase.

It is no coincidence that many women have compared weaving code to instructing a child. With both kids and computers, you must carefully think through what you want them to do, and then carefully phrase your commands. The infinite patience of motherhood that allowed a woman to keep a stubborn toddler alive in the wilds imbues her with the wisdom to step through a stubborn application’s infuriating error messages. Men have never been nurturers and unfortunately this makes them prone to giving up in frustration before they can complete their task. Weaving code takes a degree of care that is beyond most men.

These gaps in inherent capability have only been exacerbated by the rise of the Internet. It is well known that women are better at communication than men. To effectively hunt their prey, men needed to be silent and self sufficient, while women worked communally. The first social networks evolved between mothers, their children, and their neighbours, which is why today’s paradigm of deeply internetworked computing is so difficult and confusing for men. Similarly, today’s programs are massively complex, too much for any single person to hold in their head. Today’s programming is deeply collaborative and communal, characterized by enormous teams and sometimes far-flung collectives as exemplified in the Open Source movement. Affinity for this way of working was selected for in women and selected against in men.

Women, living in the relative safety of home communities, evolved to be more curious and greater risk-takers than their male counterparts for whom any mistake could mean a slow agonizing death alone in the field. We see this division echoed in our own deep mythology. It was Eve who first ate the Apple of Knowledge, while Adam hesitated in fear.

This has naturally made women better business leaders in these times of fail-fast start-ups. Women sail forth confidently, knowing their peers will always be there to pick them back up, should they fall. Held back by millennia of aversion to error, men falter in the face of high risk, high reward endeavours. These emotional disabilities are unfortunate, but pretending they don’t exist doesn’t help men.

While it’s true that the lack of male programmers is troubling, we do ourselves a great disservice if we ignore the very real and very powerful forces that underlie this division. While some masculists want to hide their head in the sand and claim that variation within genders far exceeds variation between genders, we can’t simply ignore evolution. If we’re going to approach these issues head on, we must do so with open eyes.

The plight of men depends on it.

With apologies to Cara Ellison, Kameron Hurley, Gloria Steinem, and Nellie McClung. With thanks to Terri Oda for the bell curve presentation. With thanks and apologies to Sarah Jeong whose tweets sparked the idea and offered the initial list.

CC Image by David Monniaux