Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An appeal for unremarkable women

Today across the blogosphere Ada Lovelace will be honoured by writing about her and other remarkable women in technology. But today I prefer to appeal to and for the unremarkable.

At the day job we've been hiring people continuously for a year for programming jobs. My entire team of 12 is all men, and in the last 12 months we've interviewed two women. Looking into all the candidates who've sent in an application, men overwhelm women with a ratio of 24:1. Even if we just hired people randomnly the chance of hiring a woman would be tiny.

I find this situation tragic. We've hired with blindness to the age of our employees or their backgrounds. In a team of 12 there are people who hail from Mexico, Northern Ireland, Greece (via Canada), and Poland. But not a single woman.

And yet I've known women who love these implacable machines as much as I. I've talked to women programmers about the deepest guts of computers, about algorithms and problems to be solved. Many of those women have recognized something that people outside the industry overlook: much of computer programming is a craft.

The people who made the smart phone in your hand, or built the system that waits patiently in your car for an accident to happen so it can fire the airbags in the right order, or made your web-based email and your music player, or built the software on the Voyager 1 spacecraft that keeps it looking longingly back at Earth as it leaves our grasp: those people are incredibly creative.

They have made beautiful things: beautiful things that everybody sees, and beautiful computer structures hidden out of sight but playing a part in all of our lives. They have struggled against constraints of time, space and resources, and they have made. Although software may seem ephemeral because it has no physical form, these people, men and women, have sculpted electricity to form numbers to form programs and make software that touches the physical world.

So, my appeal when thinking about Ada Lovelace is to all the women who, like me, will never be a world famous genius, who will never look like computer engineer Barbie, but, like the men I've worked with in the computer industry, love what they do. Don't think that computers are just for men to program and debug, but come place your fingers on a keyboard and share with me the joy of making.

And, perhaps, one day, I won't remark a woman in a team of computer programmers, because she'll be unremarkable. Or at least I'll only remark her because she's remarkable for her ability, not her missing Y.



Blogger Sean T. McBeth said...

Nice article, just wanted to point out one thing, her name was "Ada King, Countess of Lovelace", not "Ada Lovelace".

1:21 PM  
Blogger Priscilla said...

Great post. That's one of the most moving ones I've read. Thank you for it.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Miss Tinky said...

I loved this--and I hope your wish comes true.........

Sean, if you read this, she is apparently now known as Ada Lovelace. I'm not sure why--maybe some egalitarian instinct?


5:53 PM  
Blogger Michael Saunby said...

Perhaps you're paying too much!!

It's an odd thing, but where pay is lower there's usually no shortage of women and minorities. Low(er) pay has transformed teaching and public sector work. It may not be sustainable, but it's an interesting side-effect.

10:41 AM  

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