Rewriting the Code

Sarah Khan took a deep breath and strode into the hallway of her first tech job out of graduate school.

“Hey, look!,” she remembers hearing someone say. “There’s a girl over there!”

This type of attention was what had kept her away from computer science in her early college years.

“When I was in undergrad, I tried out a computer science minor for a few semesters, and I was so intimidated by the mono-culture — I was so often the only woman in the class — that I figured it must not really be for me.” Khan said. “My advisor even encouraged me not to do it. When I ended up dropping, it was kind of an ‘Aha, I thought that’s what you were going to do’ moment.”

After attending graduate school at UNC to study library science, she was again drawn to coding by the allure of its real-world applications.

Though major technology companies like Google have recently started programs specifically aimed at attracting female coders, Khan said many women are still treated as outsiders in the field.

“I’ve worked places where I was the only woman in the entire company,” she said. “We haven’t made as much progress as we think and hope. There are so many men in the field right now, and I think there’s the sense that, with so many trying to enter the field, of ‘this is our thing, no one else can come in the clubhouse.’”

Khan decided to found Girl Develop It, a nonprofit to provide women with a supportive, comfortable environment for learning the basics of web and software development. She said she hopes that by creating communities that encourage more women to code, programs like Girl Develop It can eventually change America’s collective mental image of what type of person becomes a coder.

“I do think that there is an engraved cultural idea of what a coder looks like,” Khan said. “People think that coders are men — specifically white, geeky men with glasses who play videogames and may or may not be socially awkward.”

Khan, who also works as a senior UX designer at Deutsche Bank, isn’t alone in defying this stereotype. Betsy Hauser Idilbi, a UNC-CH graduate and co-founder of Tech Talent South in Raleigh, has faced these problems many a time.

“I don’t look like what people typically think of as a coder,” Idilbi said. “I’m blonde, I wear dresses — it’s not what people expect.”

Khan said this has led to some less-than-favorable situations.

“When we first started up this company, at every meeting I would go to, people would assume I was just a tech recruiter and that my male partner was the boss,” she said. “I was even rejected from one meet-up because they assumed I was an HR person and not the co-founder.”

Kevin Jeffay, the chairman of UNC’s Computer Science department, calls himself a “numbers guy.” But there’s one ratio testing his computing abilities.

“Computer science obviously has diversity issues,” Jeffay said. “The statistics are unmistakable. If you look at participation of women in computer science, even when compared to other hard sciences, the numbers are dismal.”

Nineteen percent of computer science majors are female at UNC, a poor proportion made more obvious on a campus where women comprise 58 percent of the total student population.

Jeffay said he has witnessed the intimidation factor — where women feel marginalized by the “mono-culture” — in his own classes.

“Female students come to me all the time with concerns about their abilities or about not fitting in. It happens way too often. I just try to boost their confidence,” he said.

Jeffay said many women who decide to leave the department do so because they’re worried about their grades, even when they’re carrying a 3.6 or 3.7 GPA. For men, he said it’s common for them to stick it out with something closer to a 2.8.

“There are lots of differences between boys and girls,” he said. “And a common difference that I see is that if a guy has a problem in a class, his first reaction is to say, ‘The professor’s a real asshole.’ A woman has the exact same issue, and they think, ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong with me.’ So it’s a perceptual thing.”

Lack of confidence isn’t the only thing Jeffay is trying to overcome to improve the UNC computer science department’s gender ratio. The issue is multi-faceted, he said, with its roots in societal perceptions that go as far back as adolescence.

As a senior majoring in computer science, Maegan Clawges has spent her time in the department combatting the homogenous perception of coders.

“In high school, (computer science) had this stigma where it was associated with people who were sort of geeky, and I think that stigma pushes a lot of girls away from it at an earlier age,” she said. Then she paused.

“I think the thing that people are really missing is that being able to code is like being able to speak another language — actually, a lot of other languages — and it’s a universal way to communicate with the world.”

Students talk about the gender divide in their classrooms during the January meeting of the Women in Computer Science club.  Photo by Johanna Ferebee.

Students talk about the gender divide in their classrooms during the January meeting of the Women in Computer Science club.
Photo by Johanna Ferebee.

Two years ago, Hannah Kerner started Women in Computer Science, or WiCS, to promote solidarity for female students trying to overcome the intimidation factor and establish a new, more inclusive image for the coding community.

At WiCS’s January club meeting, group members spoke about the need for community and an academic support group to combat what Kerner calls the “bro-gramming” culture.

Kerner was met with nods of agreement as the group spoke about feeling uncomfortable in their classes.

“I always make sure I have my statements entirely thought out before I raise my hand, because I know that whatever I say is going to be torn apart and so intensely scrutinized by some of the guys in the class,” Kerner said. “As a girl, it kind of makes me a target. It’s so much harder to earn respect.”

The women at the meeting also spoke about the resentment attached to their minority status, saying their male classmates often complained that women in the field are guaranteed jobs because of their gender, and that only men have to seek employment based on their own merit.

The only male in attendance, Morgan Howell, spoke against this, saying it’s harder for females to find support because of their minority numbers and the tendency of males in the department to exclude them. Howell said this may be an intentional choice.

“I think a lot of guys in the program — speaking as a guy myself — it’s like a competition for them,” Howell said. “When they walk into a computer classroom it’s like a parallel to them walking into the weight room. Everyone has this big ego, and they want to show off.

“There’s this really bad mentality, especially among males, where they feel like they have to be better and they have to compensate. And I see guys using females who are maybe new to the subject as a way to vent that.”

But the members of WiCS see things changing. The fact that Howell was even present at their meeting shows that.

Jeffay has a plan.

It’s simple enough: He’s rolling out a new, introductory computer science class taken straight from a group of innovators at Harvey-Mudd University. The class is application-focused to make it appeal to non-traditional majors who may not think of themselves as overly technical.

“The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” the class is called – BJC for short.

“So I’m shopping this around campus saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea to increase diversity,’ and a lot of female faculty, they just kind of blanched at the course name,” Jeffay said.

“I guess it sort of makes it sound like you have to make it cute in order to attract women.”

Other entities have tried to glam up computer science, with similarly unsuccessful results. Barbie-making company Mattel produced a book entitled “Barbie: I Can be A Computer Scientist,” as part of their career series for the doll brand. In it, Barbie dresses well, leaves all of the coding up to two of her male friends, and then breaks the computer. While the book has since been withdrawn amidst outrage and eye-rolling, the stereotypes it portrayed are more persistent.

Despite the new course’s cutesy moniker, Kerner still thinks it will encourage people to see the creativity and real-world uses of the coding language. She’s co-teaching the course with Jeffay this semester.

A complete overhaul of the department isn’t in the budget, but the hope is that incorporating classes like this will promote a more inclusive department and attract students who don’t see themselves fitting in with the traditional stereotype.

Coding, after all, isn’t just a niche skill anymore, Jeffay said. With such wide access to smartphones and computers, coding is becoming “more like a utility” — like gas, electric and water — and people need to be trained in the skills needed to provide this utility and continue innovating.
And it would be unwise for such a large group to be out of the equation.

“We’re potentially losing half of the brilliance of the country, because why should we believe that all of the brilliance is just in the males?” Jeffay said. “The point is that there’s an opportunity cost for the lack of diversity, and people are starting to quantify this opportunity cost.

“The industry realizes that in aggregate in the U.S. we are not producing enough high-tech graduates. The industry is motivated to see these numbers go up, and what better way to do that than to encourage women.”