I know I belong in CS, but sometimes I wonderFebruary 13th, 2011
Sometimes my Compilers professor will introduce a topic saying, “Who knows what lexical analysis is? No one? What, don’t you guys do this constantly in your spare time? All right, I’ll show you …” I know he’s just joking, but every time he does this, it reminds me of one of the barriers to women in computer science that I am particularly sensitive about: wondering whether or not I really belong in programming because I don’t program all the time.
If my CS experience were limited to my college, I wouldn’t be very worried – I go to a liberal arts college where no one has only one interest. In the first few weeks of my freshman year when we’d ask what other people wanted to major in, it was always, “Classics and chemistry” or “Neurobiology and art history” or another pair of an art and a science. In my social sphere, everyone has broad interests, so it shouldn’t worry me that I like cognitive science, philosophy, Japanese, and knitting in addition to programming.
However, in the past few years, I’ve met more students who study CS in engineering schools. When they talk about how they live to program and never leave the lab, I feel like I’ve been wasting time by having other hobbies when I should have been keeping up with my competition. I worry that my skills aren’t up to snuff because I’ve been knitting or reading Japanese books instead of programming and reading compiler books.
I’m certainly not alone. In Unlocking the Clubhouse, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher cite this effect as a reason that many girls decide not to stick with CS. In their study of CS students at Carnegie Mellon, they found that men tended to glorify the long hours spent in the lab, while women worried that that they would lose balance in their lives.
The rub for women in computer science is that the dominant computer science culture does not venerate balance or multiple interests. Instead, the singular and obsessive interest in computing that is common among men is assumed to be the road to success in computing. This model shapes the assumptions of who will succeed and who “belongs” in the discipline. [source]
I also know, of course, that programming in “the real world” doesn’t mean programming night and day, and that kind of lifestyle is actually very harmful to both men and women. StackOverflow agreed last October that being expected to work 50-60 hour weeks on a regular basis is unacceptable, and none of the programmers I met during my internships worked very much overtime (when they did it was only to fix last-minute bugs before the release date).
The rational part of me knows that the thought that I don’t belong in CS is ridiculous. While I don’t live to program, I do love to program. I’ve been successful in my classes and my internships and I’ve already had a few job offers for post-graduation work. I love making a program work, and coding makes me feel strong. I should feel pretty validated, but the irrational part of me still worries that I won’t be able to compete when I get out of college. At least I’m aware that it’s irrational.
I anticipate comments urging, “If you’re so worried, program more!” Well, in the next semester, I plan to. For my senior project, I’m making a Google Maps-like app for college campus which I’m really excited about. In general though, I’m not going to give up time from my other hobbies for the sake of programming more. I, like the women surveyed in Unlocking the Clubhouse, am proud of my diverse interests and believe they make me a great person to have on the team, even if it means I have less hand-written code and more hand-knit sweaters in my portfolio.
Edit (2/20/11): Several people have commented that I am asserting a gender issue where none exists, or that I am implying that men do not desire to be well-rounded. This is not what I mean. The culture around coding glorifies the coders who do nothing but code, which (as cited above) “shapes the assumptions of who will succeed and who ‘belongs’ in the discipline.” When my interests don’t line up with the dominant culture, it makes me wonder if I really belong there. According to the research I cited (and even some of the comments I got), this is a roadblock to entering computing fields that affects women more often than men, despite the fact that being a well-rounded programmer can be very beneficial.
In my own opinion, a positive step toward reducing this effect would be for high school and freshman-level CS professors to emphasize interdisciplinary potential in their classes, so they can show students majoring in other fields how useful learning to program can be for them even if they also want to pursue other studies. This approach would be beneficial for not just the girls, but all students: as many people have commented already, being well-rounded is desirable and even prized by employers.