Sunday, October 26, 2008

Join the Systers Mailing List

I belong to a mailing list called Systers:
Systers is the world’s largest email community of technical women in computing. It was founded by Anita Borg in 1987 as a small electronic mailing list for women in “systems”. Today, Systers broadly promotes the interests of women in the computing and technology fields. Anita created Systers to “increas[e] the number of women in computer science and mak[e] the environments in which women work more conducive to their continued participation in the field.”
This list is very well moderated to ensure that messages all members get stay on topic (less relevant conversations often continue off-list). There are so many different topics, ranging from "help! my supervisor hates me!" to "anyone know of a good job in web programming in this state?" No matter what is on your mind, you can be sure that there are nearly 3000 technical women willing to listed and help.

To give you an idea of the kind of thing you'll see on Systers, I would like to share this little tidbit that appeared there -- it is being shared anonymously with the permission of the author. She provides a really interesting analysis on the state of women in computing and how it has changed over the last few decades.
I started in computer science in the late 70's. Back then, about a third of the kids majoring in CS were women. I worked as a programmer at a hospital in the summer - all the programmers were women. They tended to work carefully, spending a lot of time on planning, talking to the users, and documentation. They all had children and left promptly at 5 to pick up the kids from babysitters.

Sometime in the late 80's, the field really changed. Everything became more male oriented. A cowboy culture started prevailing - the hero image was the lone gonzo developer who code frantically all night, but couldn't communicate with anyone. The ability to write and communicate seemed to be less valued by managers, whereas the ability to work long into the night became a way to score points. At my last job, many developers didn't show up until mid morning, but worked well into the evening. It was a real problem for me and the one other female developer - we both had kids and needed to leave by 5.

And now I have come full circle and am back doing healthcare development. But now, the hardcore developers are all men (the project managers and business analysts seem to be women though). And they can't write or communicate, and they brag endlessly about working until 3am.

So in short, I do think women are self-selecting out, but I don't think it is due to the nature of working with computers. The authors of that study are ignoring the fact that there used to be a lot of women in computer fields. I think that as the culture became more hardcore "male", women got out, starting a vicious cycle. The things that women often do well, writing and communicating, are now less valued, encouraging even more women to leave the field. Yes, I know we give lip service to the ability to work in teams and communicate with users, but the reality is that the developer who can bang out lots of code fast is always seen as more successful than the developer who can document designs well, or who is a careful tester.
I hope you'll consider joining Systers to discover the benefits of reading and contributing to topics like this one.