Gender and technical talent: what women need to know
Along with disciplines such as music and athletics, programming is commonly seen as the domain of the talented; there are those with a head for technology, the thinking goes, and there’s those who will always struggle. The central figure of the “talented programmer” story is invariably a man: perhaps a little socially awkward, but intelligent and respected.
This lack of representation, along with a host of other influences, often discourages girls from becoming actively interested in technology at younger ages. Of course, some of them do eventually discover a passion for software, perhaps in a university course or when exploring career options; however, it can be intimidating to not only be in the gender minority, but to also be several years behind male peers in terms of experience. When classmates and colleagues seem to already know the answers and the message that “girls just aren’t good at programming” has seeped into the culture, a young woman might begin to doubt: what if they’re right? What if only men get the technical talent?
As it turns out, there is increasing evidence that talent is not something bestowed on the lucky few, but an accomplishment accessible to anyone. Research by psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that we can limit ourselves if we see our intelligence as something immutable, rather than a potential that can grow with time and effort — what Dweck has termed “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. If you believe that you have a certain quantity of ability in a certain area — that you either “get” computers or you don’t — then practice seems pointless, and struggle is an embarrassing sign that you don’t measure up. On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset understands that she can improve indefinitely through persistence, reflection, and constructive feedback. Knowledge and abilities are obtainable, and setbacks are merely part of the learning process. Over time, those with a growth mindset will often surpass seemingly superior peers with a fixed mindset, as they continue to expand their skill sets and courageously take on fresh challenges.
While it can be frustrating to feel behind peers, having some patience with yourself as you build foundational skills pays off. Programming, just like playing soccer or the violin, is complex and demanding. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes approximately ten thousand hours to master a skill — and that goes for all of us. Those who seem to possess “natural ability” may have gotten a head start in childhood, or have been lucky enough to find supportive mentors early on. But in the long run, perseverance and effort is what makes a master, and a later starting line shouldn’t be cause to forfeit the entire race.
My own career in tech had a late start. I had always been comfortable as a user of computers, but the idea of learning to program had simply never occurred to me. I finally got curious about it in my late twenties, trying out some online exercises on a whim and becoming quickly hooked. Eventually, this led to a return to school for a career-switching second degree as I entered my thirties, with an expected graduation date a year from now. I approach my coursework as something to be practiced and reviewed regularly, and I don’t expect to immediately understand it. I’ve learned how to break down concepts into manageable chunks, when to ask for help, and what really mastering a topic feels like (and I’ll be honest: the process itself is often humbling and uncomfortable, although worth the result). My efforts have paid off, and during my studies so far I have earned the top mark in the first year programming class, co-authored a research paper, maintained an outstanding GPA, and landed a summer internship at Tasktop, a well-regarded software company that helps organizations transform software development and delivery. I would not have achieved any of this if I had expected to coast on my pre-existing “talent.”
While I have the benefit of self-awareness that comes with age, I see many of the women who are entering the computer science program straight out of high school struggle with this. I have been a teaching assistant for the first year programming course for several terms, and more than once a female student has admitted to me that while she intends to major in computer science, she’s not sure she has the knack for it — especially when her male friends keep telling her it’s so easy for them. Whether or not these friends are merely grandstanding, these women are reconsidering their career path based on the misconception that they have a fixed amount of ability. In fact, what matters most is that they have enough drive to meet the challenge, and the belief that practice works; if they can figure out how to strive through the difficulties, they’ll succeed in the field, and may outpace the men who once thought it was easy and who thusly did not learn to push their boundaries.
For women learning to program, or even those of us who have been programming for years, this point of view can be liberating. New tools and projects are opportunities to grow, and we can celebrate our progress rather than comparing ourselves to others. Those who try to shame others for their lack of experience become inconsequential. More than that: when we do arrive at success, we can claim it as our own, the accomplishment rightfully earned through effort, improvement and determination.
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