I’m afraid that women may fall into the trap of thinking that it is harder than it actually is and thus approach it with an expectation that they can only scratch the surface and cannot go deeper.
By Jane Wang (Hacker, Hacker School)

Why you ask?

David Albert, a co-founder at Hacker School, a program that is targeting towards 50% female enrollment, says software engineering requires less pedigree than other competitive professions, because a degree says less about how good someone is as a programmer than his or her code.

It’s hard to argue with good code. True to the Hacker Ethic, software engineering is a field for real meritocracy.

This makes it a great profession for women to pursue, because there’s a clear and demonstrable way in how someone can judge your work. If you do good work, you will get a lot of respect from other hackers.

Yet Coding is Hard.

Coding is hard like playing a sport is hard. I’m afraid that women may fall into the trap of thinking that it is harder than it actually is and thus approach it with an expectation that they can only scratch the surface and cannot go deeper.

I am particularly wary of this mentality because numerous published psychological studies have shown that our attitude and confidence level when approaching a new task can have unproportionate effect on the final outcome. If women approach learning to code with the idea that it is intractably hard, then the belief would likely fulfill itself and they would likely give up on it too soon.

Change the Attitude by Creating a More Leveled Playing Field

Here’s where the question of gender equality comes in. When you, as a woman, see a lot of women in a profession, it tends to validate a belief that it is a profession where you belong. When you see very few people like yourself in a profession, then it often raises the question of why are there not more women in this field? And if you are unsure of your own ability – as any beginner would – then it creates an unnecessary anxiety that makes you feel like an impostor. I am not saying that every woman would feel insecure, but when you are inexperienced and see a lot of people who are incredibly experienced and are not similar to you, it can be intimidating and it can raise doubts.

Hacker School, Etsy, Yammer, 37signals among others have been making a tremendous effort to be inclusive of women and to foster gender equality by providing grants to women to finance their living costs during the three month batch sessions. Some may feel that these grants are unfair towards men (as reflected in the recent comments on the Hacker School post on Hacker News).

But if we were to believe that the ultimate goal of attracting women into this profession can be achieved, then the long term benefits – more talent to meet the shortage of qualified developers in the industry – exceeds the short term cost – unfairness. Since software engineering is expected to grow at 30% per year until 2020, it benefits everyone in the tech industry to attract more talent in this field.

A Hard Look at the Numbers

Women have been outperforming men in college enrollment and retention rates according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the graduating rate of women in computer science majors in U.S. has been dropping since the mid-80’s and now less than 2 in 10 computer science degrees are awarded to women, much lower than other developed nations.

To note, software engineering has not always been a field of few women. When the field was just beginning to become commercialized, software engineering was even promoted as an interesting and hip career track for women (see The Computer Girls article here). Yet, this positive trend was reversed as programming became defined as a scientific discipline with the stereotypical male hackers.

Women, when faced unwelcoming stereotyping, left the profession. The participation rate for women in software engineering has been dropping since, with only some slight improvement in recent years.

At the moment, women may have had a dearth of resources when entering the field but as more and more women participate, the resources will likely to grow. I’m optimistic that software engineering is becoming more accessible as an increasing number of women move into the field and serve as role models to newcomers.

Lastly, I would like to highly encourage any female hackers who are passionate or think they can be passionate about programming to apply to Hacker School’s fall session with grants sponsored by Etsy (as it has been an incredible and self-discovering process for myself) and to dive in with both feet into the wondrous world of programming.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest bloggers? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Jane Wang is a hacker at Summer 2012 batch of Hacker School and the founder of Parkit Labs. Formerly, she worked as a product manager at financial tech startup and an investment banker. She is a strong supporter of female hackers and entrepreneurs. In her free time, she blogs at Isometric Cube and makes things with brackets, numbers and paint. Follow her on Twitter at @janeylwang.