Women, men, and the culture of computer programming

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Is it okay to work 60 hour weeks? Apparently a lot of the women in computer science reject it as a career because of the perception that it involves long hours and therefore an unbalanced life. And yet my ex-girlfriend, and 2 other close female friends of mine, all thought it was natural to work 100 hour weeks so they could become medical professionals (2 became doctors and 1 became a nurse practitioner). Their hours were, if anything, more extreme than anything in the computer profession. I am having trouble getting my mind around this. Clearly, in some professions, women are willing to work extreme hours. But the women who are drawn to computer science seem to reject extreme hours? That is what Carolyn is suggesting.

Carolyn writes:

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).