Girls Haven’t Been Hacking for the Last 10 Years

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One female technologist’s response to the brouhaha over Paul Graham’s recent comments.

By Taylor Rose (MIT Student)

On December 27, tech blog Valleywag released an article titled “Paul Graham Says ‘Women Haven’t Been Hacking for the Past 10 Years.’” In it, writer Nitasha Tiku analyzes an interview between The Information and Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley accelerator known for its high success rate. She insinuates that Graham is an ignorant sexist, full of nostalgia for the days of the hardcore nerd’s reign over startups.

Tiku is wrong. Graham’s comments don’t indict him as some ignorant sexist. He never says anything directly misogynistic nor is YC more gender-biased than other Silicon Valley companies or accelerators. He’s pointing out a long-existing issue in the technology sector. It’s the national lack of female participation in the tech world that’s a problem, not comments made during an interview. Rather than creating flame wars over questionable statements, Silicon Valley should be focusing on how to get young girls to hack from age 10 and how to ultimately, even the playing field.

Since women in tech, particularly women in tech-based entrepreneurship, is such a hot button topic, it’s no surprise that The Information asked Graham a number of questions on the issue. After all, the problem is rather glaring: women are 40% less likely to receive venture capital funding (according to a Wharton, MIT Sloan, and Harvard Business School study) and the number of women majoring in computer science (a field that easily lends itself to entrepreneurship and the Silicon Valley startup scene) has declined from 37% to 18% since 1984 (NCWIT). Female participation in STEM fields and in entrepreneurship deserves priority status for Silicon Valley elites and tech journalists.

It is worth noting however that despite these setbacks, women are not insulted or belittled by the technology industry at every turn. Every comment regarding women or discrimination is not inherently misogynistic. Nor is every article calling someone a sexist unarguably true. As issues gain popularity in the mainstream, more content regarding those issues crop up across blogs, newspapers, and magazines. It is then that we must begin to determine the signals from the noise. As more and more people recognize that sexism is prevalent throughout the tech community, the noise regarding female participation is also increasing. It has become an all-too-easy formula to gain Twitter attention: call a Silicon Valley man a sexist and see followers flock.

This has diverted people’s attention from the important questions of why girls don’t have an interest in technology at an early age and how to increase levels of female participation in STEM fields at all ages. Instead, the media highlights the wrongs being done to women. Few solutions are offered, but there sure are a lot of complaints about the industry and noise being made about sexism.

When asked whether YC discriminated against female founders, Graham responded,

I’m almost certain that we don’t discriminate against female founders…the people who are really good technology founders have a genuine deep interest in technology…If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us.

Tiku and hundreds of others seem to believe that this comment insinuates that Graham believes women don’t have “cred” as coders and that “men like this” are the reason women don’t enter tech. Yet Graham is not stating that he’s biased against female founders. He is however explaining that women don’t have the same experience as men in many cases and that it is this lack of experience that lessens their “cred.”

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. It therefore makes sense for an investor to focus on founders who began hacking on computers at a young age. Those are the people who are most likely to have completed their 10,000 hours of practice and can now be called “experts.”

Unfortunately, there are statistically fewer women who have been hacking for at least 10 years when they are at founding age (early-to-mid 20s). About 30% of people with exposure to computing choose to major in computer science or engineering and about .3% of high school senior girls selected computer science as their intended field of major. If we do some basic math, we see that less than 1.5% of high school girls have serious exposure to computer science (numbers from Girls Who Code). Boys significantly outnumber girls in this sense. At the Academy for Software Engineering, a new public New York City high school that accepts students based on interest alone, boys made up 76 percent of the first class. And boys are significantly more likely to play video games, tinker with machines, and take math and science classes at younger ages (Slate). The boys in America are racking up their 10,000 hours to coding expertise while girls don’t even receive basic exposure.

Paul Graham recognized this problem while discussing gender disparity with The Information.

It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that.

Graham suggests something that many throughout the education and technology sectors have advocated. Let’s target the problem at its roots: a lack of early exposure regarding computer science. Middle school classrooms are a great place to start working on this.

Graham continued and announced his lack of insight to the world saying,

God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.

Despite the efforts of non-profits, governments, and academics, no one policy has emerged as the clear victor in the race to encourage participation, by both boys and girls, in computer science. Effectively increasing exposure to computer science is a complex problem with an array of moving parts. There is no simple answer. We should applaud Graham for acknowledging that he did not have an answer to this problem. Tiku, on the other hand, felt differently.

Here is a hacker hero—the figurehead behind Hacker News!—and he has no clue how to get girls to care about tech. Because using and building and enjoying and obsessing over technology is just that anathema to their biological nature.

For one thing, Graham never said, or even implied, that coding is “anathema” to the biological nature of women. He simply stated that he does not have a plan to get more girls involved in coding.

Secondly, Tiku is adding more flames to an already raging fire rather than suggesting ways to quell its destruction. It should come as no shock that sexism is a buzz word that’s thrown around in the tech world more often than Republicans’ threats to repeal Obamacare. There’s a fair bit of noise regarding sexism, making it difficult to discover where the signals lie. Tiku’s anger against Graham only contributes to the mass of embittered comments reagarding the problem of sexism while entirely ignoring any possible solution set or cause of the problem. Adding yet another claim of sexism to the growing pile in the technology sector does nothing to help the problem. It only contributes to the noise, making it more difficult for us to determine where the signals lie.

Rather than calling out men for sexism, whether warranted (like this TechCrunch Disrupt display) or unwarranted (as in Graham’s case here), let’s have women sit down with men in the technology sector and discuss ways to increase exposure to computer science and other STEM fields for young women. Let’s forget about which man insulted which Go Girl group and have them discuss their concerns together. Let’s focus on how to get girls to hack from young ages instead of ranting about the people who note that there currently aren’t very many females in computer science.

The great thing about startups is that they can make real change, really fast. Entrepreneurs don’t dwell on the problem. Instead, they develop solutions to the problem. Let’s apply the startup mentality to girls in STEM fields, particularly computer science, and see if we can shift the direction of the industry through new companies, corporate policies, and augmented education efforts. Graham is right—women have not been hacking for the last ten years. Now is the time to change that.

This post originally appeared on Medium. Photo credit: Nandor Fejer via Flickr

What’s your response to Paul Graham’s comments?

39cf37cfcddd32b702cb83442f236948About the blogger: Taylor Rose (@rosetaylorm) is a native New Yorker and MIT student obsessed with startups and good coffee. She is an intern at Mimo and  the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.