On Changing The Image Of Programmers

Gah!! This is exactly what I was talking about - it's pink, it mentions shoes, and it's about as patronising as you can get.

Would the chart be different if your possible outcomes were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Linus Torvalds? I bet for a start it wouldn't mention Jimmy Choos or choice of handbags. And it probably wouldn't be in baby blue either.

Which leads me nicely onto the next subject I have strong opinions on: Role models. Why do we need them? Do we need them?

If there is any good to be salvaged from that horrific infographic, it's that it gave me what I've been trying to research - some female role models in technology. Unfortunately it hit the other button I was ranting about earlier - they're all very presentable and polished. I don't doubt their value as role models, it's great to have people like that to try and emulate. But surely there must be IT women out there who look like real people? And how many of them started as programmers? I know there's a wider issue around women in technical professions, and women at the top of organisations in any business domain, but I'm trying to keep focused on the issues faced by girl programmers specifically.

Do we need role models?

I feel almost a responsibility to be a role model. I joined ThoughtWorks because I felt it would give me a better platform for greater visibility, so I could show that girls could do this job. I feel passionately that the industry desperately needs excellent role models to overcome the stereotypes kids are absorbing (in our western society) about what it means to be a programmer(/developer/techy).

My friend Mazz feels quite differently. She doesn't see why she should have a greater responsibility to be a role model simply because of her gender. It wouldn't be expected of her co-workers. She suggests that by making a career in programming an option for all, or worse, by targeting specific groups (e.g. women) we're devaluing the industry. Surely we're stronger if we only attract people who are interested in the first place?

During a week long trip to Vegas (it's a hard life), Mazz and I realised we actually agreed on fundamentals:

  • Mazz doesn't believe we need female role models to tempt women into programming
  • I believe we need more diverse role models than we currently have.

If Mazz doesn't want to be a role model because she's perfectly happy getting on with doing her job bloody brilliantly, then that's totally cool - after all, if minorities are expected to do stuff which distracts them from their day job, it's going to make them less appealing to employers.

My aim in being a role model was not specifically to get more girls into programming, but to show to the world that we're not all speccy asexual white boys. Some of us are speccy white girls. And this shows the ridiculousness of trying to encourage girls to be role models - you've only changed one dimension. And having a token bisexual black disabled older lady is only going to narrow the field you're appealing to.

So what do we need to change?

Back to the question that started this off - "what do we need to do to encourage the girls?". The answer, it would seem, is not to roll out the girls, dress them up and parade them around. After all, we got here with no female role models. And we may very well have been put off by role models like us - a teenage Mazz and a teenage Trish would probably not identify with the heel-wearing blonde I've become, despite my all-round awesomeness.

When I worked at Ford they used to tell us a story about marketing. They told us that Harley Davidson understood that to market something, you had to market it at the person your customers wanted to be. A Harley is a statement, a lifestyle choice. They focused on promoting that lifestyle, promoting the image of the Harley biker, all leather and macho attitude. They knew that the majority of their customers were CEOs, lawyers, doctors. Guys who'd made it in life and had the cash to spend. But if they'd marketed Harley Davidson directly to the stereotypes of these guys they would have lost their market. These men did not buy a Harley as part of their CEO persona. They bought them because they aspired to be the leather-wearing macho guy.

I don't know how true that story is, but I do know Harley Davidson revitalised their failing business by focusing on creating a community around their brand.

So back to the question: How do we get more girls into programming?

And the answer is: We're asking the wrong question.

The real question is: How do we attract more than just the "typical" geeks into programming?

And when you ask that question, you realise it's absurd to assume that attractive female role models and women-centered events are going to fix the problem, or even make any significant headway on it. You're narrowing your field of appeal instead of broadening it. You're being exclusive instead of inclusive.

Where can we find appropriate role models to represent us?

We have diversity amongst geeks. We've got diversity along the typical dimensions (age/race/sexuality/gender etc etc). But in addition we're all individuals and we're going to appeal to other individuals. I might appeal to someone who likes shoes. I might appeal to someone who likes photography. I might appeal to someone who thinks Java developers should give a toss about the user experience. I might appeal to someone who is massively OCD about the names of their variables.

We shouldn't care what little boxes those people tick on the dimensions that make absolutely no difference to their ability to program. In fact, if we focus less on this and more on our general awesomeness as geeks, we might find so-called minorities are happier to represent us.

Even with diverse role models we might have trouble getting the media to let go of their stereotype of the geek programming in their bedroom. But we might not - I did a search for "geek" on The Sun's website, and I found a lot more references to geek chic, and celebrities claiming to be geeks, than to stories of the lonely computer programmer who went crazy and killed everyone.

It is the time of the geek. Let's ride the wave and bring other people to the party.

So who should our role models be?


All of us.



  • Trisha Gee

    Trisha is a software engineer, Java Champion and author. Trisha has developed Java applications for finance, manufacturing and non-profit organisations, and she's a lead developer advocate at Gradle.

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