In the debate over the dearth of women in technology—just 11 percent of startup founders that take venture capital are women, as an example of one of the many lopsided statistics—one solution inevitably comes up: get ‘em while they’re young. While there are outliers, most of the tech greats got into technology early. Bill Gates went to one of the only high schools in the country that had a time sharing computer in 1968, for example.
As guest columnist Sarah Kunst wrote on Betabeat, women need to get into the pipeline in order to get to the top. This idea, often raised during debates over the gender ratio in tech, makes Stuyvesant High School an interesting case study. All students at Stuyvesant are required to take a year of computer science. As it turns out, the advanced computer science classes skew mostly male anyway. But for a year, boys and girls get exposed to computer programming together.
We asked Mike Zamansky, the head of the computer science program, to share some stories from his female students. They did us one better. Eight students sent in first-hand accounts of what it’s like to learn computer programming as a teenage girl.
Check out these stories of learning computer science as a high school girl. Special thanks to student Ellie Abrams, who coordinated the project.
"My mother found my computer science homework printed out at one point, and asked if I was planning on robbing a bank. It took a little explaining to get out of that one. Still, in a weird way, my mother's considered the 'tech-y' person around the house; she handles the computer problems, but for anything major she calls my uncle.
"I didn't know what computer science really entailed until Stuy. I've never really chosen between science, math, and the humanities, instead vacillating between the two, mostly dipping into humanities because that was what was interesting. Even at Stuy, I didn't truly choose, because the options have always been open for both. At the moment, computer science is most interesting of the offers, and that's what I'm focusing on, to hell with the lack of girls in the field."
"Before taking the mandated Intro class last year, when I heard 'computer science,' I pictured nerdy boys, who turned into nerdy bearded men, slouched over huge computers and click-clacking out codes that meant nothing to me. There’s nothing wrong with nerdy boys, comp sci just didn’t seem like something I would ever be interested in.
"This image was quickly shattered in that first intro class. Computer science started to resonate with me when I worked on my first project, creating a simple animation of a string quartet using Netlogo. It was while I was working on this that I realized comp sci isn’t about nerdy boys sitting at computers and coding out nonsense that turns into violent video games and complicated math problem solvers. No, comp sci isn’t this at all. Comp sci, as I have found in my classes at Stuy, is a medium for expression, a place for creation and creativity."
"I've always thought of myself as kind of equally suspended between humanities and math/science, and I think that's why I found computer science so appealing. Clearly, it involves math and science, but it's also a language with structure and style. I am still pleasantly surprised when I read a chunk of code and actually understand what it does—the same as when I understood French passages in French class. And writing a program is almost like writing a story (cheesy analogy, I know). There are many ways you can structure it but you have to find the best way, and then when you're done you have a product that actually does something and you created it. And it's probably one of the most gratifying feelings in the world."
"I grew up with computer science around the house, and O'Reilly 'animal books' everywhere, so there was always a bit of interest in the back of my mind. I remember my dad teaching me bits of code at times when I was very young, and while I found it interesting, I never considered it as something for me. What took me a while to realize, and what Intro eventually taught me, was that computer science is much more creative than I expected--it's not just crunching numbers--and this problem solving was something I enjoyed.
"I've also always been a math and science person. Before computer science, the major I was seriously considering was engineering. Both of my parents are also strong in math and science, so I was brought up with learning my multiplication tables in the summer when I was six.
"Despite the growing idea that women can succeed in tech, many women just don't feel in the field. Stuy has an extremely encouraging environment, and in an AP Comp Sci class of 30 or so, there are still only six or seven girls. Last term, most of us were all sitting together in one part of the room, so there was this distinct separation."
"Ever since I was old enough to understand, I was interested in the sciences and technology; I was always the one fixing computers and such for my family. However, understanding science to a deeper level is easy with some Internet access, while understanding technology and programming requires actually getting one's hands dirty. It takes a combination of practice, experience and knowledge, something that was facilitated by the computer science teaching staff at Stuy. I truly believe I would not be able to have gotten such an understanding of computer science if I'd gone to school anywhere else. The teachers I've had are really interested and established in their fields and show enthusiasm that makes us all want to learn. As far as being a girl in the field, I didn't even really notice the difference between women and men in the tech field while at Stuy, because the department makes it so comfortable and commonplace for young women to program.
"I have an uncle that I recently found out majored in computer science and took a Java course when he was an undergraduate student and mentioned to him that I'm taking Java programming in school. Upon learning this, he demonstrated genuine surprise and started a conversation with me about Java protocol and things of that nature; he was again surprised by the intuition with which I responded. I asked him why he was so surprised and he said he couldn't believe that at a high school level we had a program in which were given such a good background in Java code, and that it was open enough for a teenage girl to be visibly comfortable with the language."
"As a student taking both AP English and AP Comp Sci, gender stereotypes are very apparent; females are the majority of an advanced humanities course, while males dominate a computer science class. I was significantly superior in math and science compared to my peers in middle school, but before the Intro course, I had never considered entering a profession that was not humanities-based. The majority of the time when I mention that I am interested in computer science, people tend to be surprised, or even disgusted! One girl's immediate reaction was to say 'ew.'
"Now that I know about the potenial of comp sci, I am considering taking it in college. However, I do not want to abandon the path I have been interested in pursuing for a long time. Ideally, this would mean double majoring in English and computer science. Unfortunately, some universities with muliple colleges house these two subjects in different schools (ex: UPenn, Binghamton), making double majoring in a liberal arts course and an engineering course almost impossible. Due to this issue, I am very conflicted as to which path to take in life—or even which specific colleges to apply to within larger universities!"
"Gender was the last thing on my mind when I signed up for AP Computer Science at the end of my sophomore year. My intro class had been divided pretty evenly, and I hadn't paid much attention to the demographics—I was too busy being confused (and then later fascinated) by Scheme and Netlogo, the languages we tackled. As it turned out, I was good at making turtles and buttons, so it felt logical to continue with the course. I imagined designing games bigger and better than the glitchy version of Mario Cart I had programmed for my final project, and I was thrilled when I found out I'd been enrolled in the class.
"Excited to start my career as a game designer, I left class on that first day simultaniously excited and confused—it seemed that AP CS was not what I had imagined. What I had glimpsed on that first day and would begin to understand as the weeks wore on wasn't the pretty, interface-based language of Netlogo—it was grittier, uglier, and so much more interesting.
"And, of course, the class was much more male-oriented. First term, there were maybe seven girls in my class of about 28; we're in second term now, and I am one of six. It's something that is impossible not to notice and it's certainly something that intimidated me for the first few weeks, but it honestly isn't a big deal. Our teacher doesn't acknowledge it and niether do my classmates, so gender divisions within the Stuyvesant CS family has become something of a non-issue. I wouldn't consider myself better or worse off than my male counterparts—not because of my gender, at least."
"'What is that?' I asked my sophomore friend in chorus what the jumbled letters, numbers, returns, spaces, indents, and parentheses on her failed test meant. She shrugged and responded, 'It’s comp sci. I can’t understand it—this is all bullshit.' The only other sophomore friend I had was a boy, and he told me computer science was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. With only these two views on computer science to refer to, I entered my intro course clueless and under the impression that computer science was for boys.
"A few weeks into the class, there was a moment where I finally understood recursion. It felt so satisfying that my next thoughts went something like: 'Wow, that's awesome. I like that. I think I like computer science.' I had begun to notice at the beginning of my CS semester that it seemed like some of the boys already knew everything. The class discussions were often male-dominated, and they’d give complex, informed answers to questions that many of my girl friends and I couldn’t wrap our heads around. To put it simply, the reason for this comes down to video games. Boys are expected sit in their dungeons of junk food and fiddle with their PlayStations and computers (I can’t even think of a popular video game to mention). Girls would write, draw, and shop. The clearly enforced stereotypes of childhood have long-term effects—as girls, we are not expected to know how to write code, or have any sort of passion for computer science. Even the idea of a math-science person vs. a humanities person is often applied to boys vs. girls.
"The culture at Stuy in the CS department is, to some extent, affected by this predetermined distinction. First of all, there is a slight separation within the CS classes—most if not all of the projects I’ve seen were either coded by girl partnerships or boy partnerships, seldom mixed. In the one girl-boy project I knew of, the boy told me after that 'she didn’t do anything—I coded the entire program.' The stereotype is so subconsciously internalized that sometimes I was genuinely surprised when I saw that I scored higher on CS exams than the boys around me.
"As I continued on into AP Computer Science, I think my female friends and I gradually felt more comfortable. The girls who stayed with the subject became a sort of community--we complained about geeky boys in our class, relied on each other for help or clarification, and felt as though we were all on the same boat. Our teacher, Mike Zamansky, provides an open, good-humored, and gender neutral social environment that has encouraged many of us to stay a part of the 'CS Family' for the rest of our time at Stuyvesant. I don't know if I'll continue to study computer science in college, but I'm happy to have gained so much experience in such a unique environment throughout high school."
How early does the gender divide start?