[Marxism] How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’
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Sun May 19 15:58:56 MDT 2013
NY Times Op-Ed May 18, 2013
How to Be a ‘Woman Programmer’
By ELLEN ULLMAN
I WAS an ordinary computer programmer. I wrote code that ran at the
levels between flashy human interfaces and the deep cores of operating
systems, like the role of altos in a chorus, who provide the structure
without your taking much notice of their melodic lines. I made realistic
schedules and met my deadlines. Those were decent accomplishments.
But none of it qualified me as extraordinary in the great programmer
scheme of things. What seems to have distinguished me is the fact that I
was a “woman programmer.” The questions I am often asked about my career
tend to concentrate not on how one learns to code but how a woman does.
Let me separate the two words and begin with what it means to become a
The first requirement for programming is a passion for the work, a deep
need to probe the mysterious space between human thoughts and what a
machine can understand; between human desires and how machines might
The second requirement is a high tolerance for failure. Programming is
the art of algorithm design and the craft of debugging errant code. In
the words of the great John Backus, inventor of the Fortran programming
language: “You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to
generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover
that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you
find one that does work.”
Now to the “woman” question.
I broke into the ranks of computing in the early 1980s, when women were
just starting to poke their shoulder pads through crowds of men. There
was no legal protection against “hostile environments for women.” I
endured a client — a sweaty man with pendulous earlobes — who stroked my
back as I worked to fix his system. At any moment I expected him to snap
my bra. I considered installing a small software bomb but understood,
right then, what was more important to me than revenge: the desire to
create good systems.
I had a boss who said flatly, “I hate to hire all you girls but you’re
too damned smart.” By “all” he meant three but, at the time, it was rare
to find even one woman in a well-placed technical position. At a
meeting, he kept interrupting me to say, “Gee, you sure have pretty
hair.” By then I realized he was teaching me a great deal about
computing. It would be a complicated professional relationship, in which
his occasional need for male dominance would surface.
So, on that day of my pretty hair, I leaned to one side and said, “I’m
just going to let that nonsense fly over my shoulder.” The meeting went
on. We discussed the principles of relational databases, which later led
me to explore deeper reaches of programming, closer to operating systems
and networks, where I would find my real passion for the work. My
leaning to one side, not confronting him, letting him be the flawed man
he was, changed the direction of my technical life.
Over the 20 years that followed, I found that being a woman put me at
one remove from the general society of programmers. I resented that
distance, but I liked to think that it was in some way fortunate — that
my standing back gave me a clearer view of our profession and its
effects on society at large.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 29.4 percent
of people working in “Computer and Software,” a subcategory of
“Commercial Equipment.” Since this broad (and vague) designation might
include everyone from system designers to office assistants, it tells us
nothing about the participation of women at the deeper technical and
theoretical levels. By “deeper” I mean computer science, hardware and
software engineering, the creation of operating systems and deep
algorithms — in short, the levels at which the future of technology is
I touched those fundamental levels as a software engineer but never
plumbed their depths. Yet I could see that, at the deeper reaches, it
was as if some plague had specialized in the killing of females. I
looked around and wondered, “Where are all the other women?” We women
found ourselves nearly alone, outsiders in a culture that was sometimes
boyishly puerile, sometimes rigorously hierarchical, occasionally
friendly and welcoming. This strange illness meanwhile left the female
survivors with an odd glow that made them too visible, scrutinized too
closely, held to higher standards. It placed upon them the terrible
burden of being not only good but the best.
Women today face a new, more virile and virulent sexism. The definition
of success has somehow become running your own start-up. And venture
capitalists decide who will get funding, who will get a chance for that
success. Venture capitalists are all but explicit in their search: they
want a couple of guys who can write an app over a weekend.
If hired by start-ups, younger women find themselves sorely
underrepresented. One woman told me that in her growing, 24-person
company there were four women, which is “considered a good ratio.” And,
as always, our ranks thin at the deeper technical levels. We get stalled
at marketing and customer support, writing scripts for Web pages. Yet
coding, looking into the algorithmic depths, getting close to the
machine, is the driver of technology; and technology, in turn, is
driving fundamental changes in personal, social and political life.
The question is how we react to this great prejudice against women. The
rule of law and social activism certainly are crucial. But no matter how
strong the social structure, there is always that cheek-slapped moment
when you are alone with the anti-woman prejudice: the joke, the leer,
the disregard, the invisibility, the inescapable fact that the moment
you walk through the door you are seen as lesser, no matter what your
I have no guidance for women who want to rise through the ranks into
technical management. I have led a peripatetic life, moving on when a
project was done or the next thing intrigued me.
And I am not advising younger women (or any woman) to tough it out. You
can lash back, which I have done too often and which has rarely served
me well. You can quit and look for other jobs, which is sometimes a very
But the prejudice will follow you. What will save you is tacking into
the love of the work, into the desire that brought you there in the
first place. This creates a suspension of time, opens a spacious room of
your own in which you can walk around and consider your response.
Staring prejudice in the face imposes a cruel discipline: to structure
your anger, to achieve a certain dignity, an angry dignity.
Ellen Ullman is a former software engineer and the author of the memoir
“Close to the Machine” and the novels “The Bug” and “By Blood.”
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