Feminism / Internet / Technology

Programming in Pink: Why Feminizing Code Doesn’t Help Women

You don’t really need fancy statistics to tell you that there aren’t enough women in programming, but just in case, here are some numbers. Out of the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines that make up the umbrella field known as STEM, engineering is the largest, but only one in seven engineers are female. More generally, only 24% of people working in STEM fields are women, an issue that even the President is aware of.

According to Code.org and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the year 2020 will see 1.4 million new computer science jobs, and only 400,000 qualified graduates to fill them. How many of those will be women? That’s a scary number to think about, but efforts have been made in the past few years to brighten the future of women in tech by encouraging, promoting, and supporting women with careers in STEM and the women and girls who plan on pursuing one.

The most recent of these efforts is Google’s Made With Code initiative, a $50 million dollar program aimed at attracting more young women to the tech industry.

The Made With Code pitch video is a montage of systems, diagrams, and enthusiastic young women doing science-y things, while several girls explain the importance of STEM fields and women’s place in them. It’s a valuable point to make, and the video makes it well, but scroll down through the program’s trendy Web 2.0-looking site, colored with shades of soft pastel and dotted with fun shapes, and you might find yourself struck by a distinct lack of code.

Instead of an introduction to coding basics, or any kind of reading material on the amazing interaction between humans and machines that computer programming allows, Made With Code offers tutorials on creating custom bracelets and decorating selfies. Because you know. Girl stuff.

Becky, how many more bracelets are you going to code? You're freaking us out.

Becky, how many more bracelets are you going to code? You’re freaking us out.

I understand completely that Made With Code‘s target demographic is young girls, and that the goal here is to spark an initial interest, not necessarily cater to an existing one. Check out their beginner tutorials, and you’ll see they’re taught using a graphical, web-based language called Blockly, little puzzle pieces that you connect together to create functions and define values. This is fine – it helps generate an understanding of fundamental programming concepts without overloading the learner with anything too abstract.

I’m not saying Google should try to school girls on advanced algorithm theory or low-level memory management right off the bat. It’s fine that their goal is to generate interest, to reach out to young girls and say, “Hey, have you considered programming?” But good intentions aside, the question still remains: Why bracelets? Why selfies?

If I were a young girl again, looking at this website, the message it would be sending me is that girls can’t program unless it’s distinctly “girly.” The same way toy marketing told me I couldn’t play with Legos unless they were pink, and I couldn’t play a video game unless it was about Barbie trying on clothes.

The "p" stands for "pretty"!

The “p” stands for “pretty”!

Google is missing the point about why there aren’t more women in programming. They’re suggesting that it’s a problem with the discipline itself being “unfeminine,” rather than the fact that the industry is largely hostile towards – and consequently intimidating for – women, and that American culture still holds very sexist beliefs about women’s innate capabilities and interests. The very same sexist beliefs that, ironically enough, allow a programming initiative aimed at girls to use pretty jewelry as bait.

It feels a lot like the Women in Gaming luncheon at the Game Developers Conference last year. During an event known for its free swag – attendees can expect to leave the expo hall with a backpack full of free pens, business card holders, lanyards, notepads, journals, USB sticks, and other practical items for professionals attending a business conference – Microsoft decided it was fitting to hand out mini nail files, chapstick, and a compact mirror at their women-only event.

Google doesn’t need to address the exact reason why there aren’t enough women in STEM fields in order to take the initiative in changing that, but what they do need to do is realize that packaging an overtly “feminized” brand of programming and trying to sell it back to the young women who will help shape our country’s future is insulting to them. Not because being a girl is insulting, or that there’s anything inherently wrong with traditionally feminine things – there isn’t – but when you begin to imply that the reason girls aren’t into code is because it doesn’t cater enough to the stereotypes of their gender, then we have a problem.

“CODE IS CREATIVE. GIRLS ARE CREATIVE. EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST LOGISTICS,” reads one of Made With Code‘s many taglines. It’s true that code is creative, but with all I’ve said in mind, even this is a way to subtly hold onto the idea that women are more “artistic” and men are more “logical,” and to package the idea of programming with those labels slapped on top. Instead of helping to close the gender gap, to bring women and men in STEM together as equally capable colleagues with mutual interests, it starts to create a harmful distinction between “programmers” and “girl programmers.”

This is something we’ve seen happen in the game industry in the past few years as well, and as someone who cares deeply about giving young girls the chance to chase their interest in computers at a young age – something I never had the opportunity to do – I don’t want to see the same mistakes being made.

I learned how to iteratively and recursively reverse a linked list and all I got was this stupid bracelet.

I learned how to iteratively and recursively reverse a linked list and all I got was this stupid bracelet.

You might ask, “If culture is learned, then isn’t hypergendering code for girls a good way to reach young women who embrace traditionally girly things, and who might never give code the time of day if it isn’t catered to them?” Maybe. But you also have to ask yourself if perpetuating those same harmful ideals about what is and should be “traditionally girly” is the right way to combat this, especially when that is the root of the problem in the first place.

The solution is not to feminize coding. It’s to demasculinize it. Coding should not have a gender, at all. We need to make a more clear effort to teach girls that it’s natural for them to be mathematical, logical, analytical; that it’s okay to pursue interests that let them take advantage of those qualities, and that they’ll be accepted there. And that they can wear a dress while doing it, if they want, but not because they’re expected to.

This is why the only part of the Made With Code site I really appreciate is the Resources page, a letter written out to parents, mentors, and educators about why encouraging the young girls and women in their life to code is important. It has always been our culture’s sexist beliefs that drive women away from certain fields and interests before they’ve even had a chance to decide for themselves. The idea that women don’t want to be programmers is taught. If we can begin to teach girls from the start that they can program, because programming itself is useful, and interesting, and profitable – not just because they can make bracelets – then we’re off to a good start.

If you have young women in your life who want to learn programming, or if you are one, consider using CodeAcademy.com or KhanAcademy.org.

For a similar initiative that helps young girls break into another male-dominated industry, while offering substantial courses, learning material, and opportunities and not overcorrecting all over the place in the process, check out Girls Make Games.

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3 thoughts on “Programming in Pink: Why Feminizing Code Doesn’t Help Women

  1. Why does it matter if women aren’t very interested in programming? No one is stopping them from pursuing these majors, they just don’t find them appealing. Men and women have different interests, that’s not a problem.

    • Yeah, only that’s not how it is at all. If boys and girls* would not be told into what is okay and what not for their respective genders basically from the day they were born that might be true. But girls are told that they don’t like computers and programming and tech and science from a very young age by almost everything and everybody, including media, society etc.

      *Let’s not get into why society only accepts two genders or why we have to choose one anyway here.

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