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February 13th, 2011

In Philosophy


Women, men, and the culture of computer programming

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

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).


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February 17, 2011
12:09 pm

By Carolyn

Thanks for the link to my blog! I never thought of this perspective, and it’s a very interesting contrast. I’ll have to see what my pre-med classmates think about their impending long hours, and why that would affect women differently in one field than from another. I suspect it has to do with the stereotype that programmers spend all their time programming *at the cost of doing nothing else,* while the long hours of learning to be a doctor don’t come with that stigma. Learning to be a doctor also means a lot of face-to-face interaction, while being a programmer stereotypically means sitting alone in a lab (though it’s not necessarily true, it is the stereotype).

Link to a relevant paper on what keeps women out of CS, that talks about the fear of being stuck in front of a computer all day:

February 17, 2011
4:36 pm

By lawrence

Thanks, Carolyn. I’ve been collecting information on this subject (the gender disparity in tech) for several years now. I find there is a misleading myth in the question “What chases women out of tech?” If you ask that question, you get one set of answers. If you ask other questions, you get different answers, I think.

For instance:

Women receiving advanced degrees in computer science in the USA peaked in 1989 and has since retreated. So a different question would be “What chases women out of tech in 2011 that did not chase them out of tech in 1989?”

Or, women in Israel receive degrees in computer science at higher per capita rates than in the USA, so another question to ask is “What chases women out of tech in the USA, but not women in Israel?”

Another incident that was interesting (posted on my old blog):

February 17, 2011
4:38 pm

By lawrence

Carolyn, you make an interesting point about stigma of unbalance that attaches to the computer profession, but not being a doctor. Doctors lead unbalanced lives for several years (literally 80 to 100 hour work weeks, sleeping on a cot in the hospital several nights a week) while in school, but they can look forward to a day when they can have a schedule more to their liking. Perhaps it is that future expectation that plays a large role.

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