Young ladies and the Sciences (including Computer Science)

Software Development is a passion of mine, and one I’m glad I’ve helped my wife discover (even if she is playing catchup on the Math — more about that later). It’s always great to take an idea and give it form, and we live in an era where that is almost trivial to do, assuming you get the right instruction.

Not too long ago, our friends over at Mattel decided to give Barbie the software engineer/computer scientist treatment in the new book Barbie is a Computer Engineer. There are several flaws with this book, ranging from the arcane (Computer Engineers design the hardware, not the software, and are more focused on gates and registers than they are on data structures) through the sexist (Barbie doesn’t actually write code, let alone build computers, and she manages to get her and her sister’s computer infected through poor computer hygiene). Many commentors on the Internet have panned this book, but Casie Fiesler took it to the next level. Instead of complaining about the book, she rewrote it, telling the real story of a game developer who happens to be female.

One big challenge facing women in STEM is the perception that they somehow are bad at math and science. Poppycock. Math and science use structures of the brain that are unrelated to one’s sexual identity, and there are plenty of women out there who can integrate a function or solve a differential equation just as good as the guys. The only reason women tend to fall behind in math is poor teachers who do not work with them enough to push them as young girls. Math is like a building. You start with the foundation (simple arithmetic, followed by basic Algebra and Geometry), build on that to build the walls (Trig, Calculus), then eventually finish with the roof (DiffEQ, Stats, etc). As the Romulan construction ship says in Armada I and II, a strong empire begins with a firm foundation, and so it is true with math. T was unfortunate enough to not get that strong foundation, but it’s not because she’s a girl. It was because teachers were impatient with her when she was young, and didn’t drive her to that next level of understanding.

Only 10 years later, after she had that worthless Art degree, did she discover that there was a whole world of creativity out there, driven by 1s and 0s. She saw my computerized world, and after some due thought and diligence, decided she wanted in. It was challenging for her. She had to learn a whole new way of thinking, of breaking down complex tasks into simple bits, of analyzing data structures, and learning how to mix up the if elses and case selects and whiles and untils to make her idea take form in a computer. But she did it, without the help of her gradeschool teachers. And nothing about her body or genetics stood in the way of that goal. She finally made it, and got through her CS degree and Masters degree, and now she’s working on her Imagine Cup project.

The Hacker Manifesto is itself an interesting document, and speaks to what it means to be a software engineer. Here’s it, slightly modified.

“We explore. We seek after knowledge. We exist without skin color, without gender, without nationality, without bias, and YOU call us criminals. You build bombs; you wage wars; you murder, cheat and lie to us every day and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals. Yes, we are criminals, and our crime is curiosity. Our crimes are judging people for what they say and think, not what they look like. Our crimes are that of outsmarting you, something you will never forgive us for. We are hackers, and this is our manifesto.”

Though the original didn’t include ‘without gender’, it’s pretty clear that even gender is meaningless before the power that is the modern Net with everything that comprises it. That makes far more sense than the stupid original Barbie book.

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