My own personal Ada

When I was first old enough to realize my mother had a job, she was employed at JPL, processing images returned by the space program. Later she worked for a think tank coding complex simulations of geopolitical conflicts; then for a major aerospace firm, where she rose to the highest rank available to technical employees. In our household, it was my mother who talked at the dinner table about ARPANET and modems, about version control problems and root passwords getting into the wrong hands. It was my mother who taught me my first lessons in science, who set up the telescope on camping trips, who explained why candles burned or how to view an eclipse, who gave me graph paper and taught me how to plot a function when she thought math class wasn’t challenging me enough. I first heard of the world wide web from her, when it was still more of an idea than anything else.

When I was a kid, I had dolls and books and art supplies, and a play stove that Mom made (at my request) out of cardboard boxes and contact paper. But I also had a train set and blocks, a building toy with gears and motors, an electronics kit, a microscope, a fossil and mineral collection, plastic boxes for collecting bugs, a computer and training books about how to program it… No one in my family ever suggested that some of those things were somehow less appropriate toys for a girl than others.

It is, I think, because of my mother that I start out startled (before moving on to irritated) when I read some sexist joke about women and programming, or when I meet someone who assumes I must be frightened by math and code when they know nothing about me but my gender. I know that my mother had to deal with a lot more of this than I ever have — with overt and unembarrassed prejudice, with blatant decisions to underpay the women on her team.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but I have my mother to thank for the fact I find those assumptions so alien: the first programmer I knew was a woman.

23 thoughts on “My own personal Ada”

  1. Wow. A sexist joke about women and programming probably would fly over my head completely. I know way too many women in many major programming companies whose positions and programming roles far outclass my own.

      1. Wow. Almost read that as “the ladies are going to pwn him in programming.” Or something. For me good women programmers are a given and almost standard as much as the skies are blue. Something that I just assume is true and everyone knows it. So I think there isn’t a need to say it.

      2. I was kidding.

        Yep. I saw the disclaimer the first time around, but “ha ha just kidding!” doesn’t make the remark less problematic. If anything, it communicates that you know you’re saying something that is untrue and damaging, but you don’t care. Because if it’s a joke, how is it funny? It’s only funny if it appeals to and triggers a moment of identification from the person reading that says, “ho ho, yes, female programmers, how hilarious a notion that is!” If you take away that stereotype then there is no joke, only a deeply incomprehensible remark.

        I have nothing but respect and love for capable coders of any gender.

        Great! I’m glad. If that’s true, I don’t think this comment of yours was worthy of you.

        I understand fully that by saying this, I am asking you to give up saying something you think is funny, to serve the comfort of women you don’t know. I can only say that it may seem like a small thing to you, but that even for skilled, confident women, the anti-women-in-technology stereotypes can become a harmful background radiation, causing pain and red anger every single day.

      3. So, if a joke might hurt someone’s feelings then it should not be uttered? Is that what you’re saying? If so, then you’ve got a pretty unique sense of humor. I’d love to hear some jokes that you DO find funny.

        I expect folks to be adult enough to handle jokes about all topics. If they can’t, that’s not my problem. My answer? Lighten up, it’s only a joke. Grow a pair. Ooh, I couldn’t resist. ;)

        I wonder if you’d feel the same way about jokes cracked against republicans or democrats.

      4. I spent some time and thought through why the joke is funny to me. Perhaps sharing that would help you better understand it.

        It’s not that I expect anyone to have identification with that statement you made (which, by the way has it’s own gems of humor, ho ho!):

        “ho ho, yes, female programmers, how hilarious a notion that is!”

        What triggered the joke in my mind was the fact that the original author was going out of his way to avoid saying “he” when referencing coders. In my reckoning, he was attempting to avoid appearing sexist at all. It had the stink of PC writing all over it. That was the initial thought that brought the joke to mind.

        Secondarily is the fact that there’s such a ridiculous stereotype in the first place. I’m making fun of the stereotype and the fact that folks such as yourself are so sensitive about it. I love offensive griefing as a form of humor. It makes me happy. But it is never mean-spirited.

        I’m sure there’s a similar percentage of dumb men and women. Let’s not be discriminatory here. Dumb asses abound on either side of the gender aisle. However, the fact is that there are fewer women in computing than men. By a wide margin. Is this because they are inferior? Of course not. In fact, it’s likely because they reject the notion of sitting on their asses all day inside working with a machine. Can’t fault them for that! I wonder if that contributes to why women live longer than men?

        I’m not going to apologize for offending you, because offending you was my goal. Not because you’re a woman programmer… but because you’re an intolerant reader. :)

      5. Thanks to your explanation, I now understand (a) that you thought it was funny and contemptible for Bret Victor to write in a way that overtly challenges sexist stereotypes; (b) that it also amuses you whenever anyone objects to sexist comments; (c) that you derive pleasure from causing people discomfort, but (d) you expect those you intentionally hurt never to call you on your actions, since (e) should they do so, they’re “intolerant,” “sensitive,” not “adults,” and, of course, lacking in testicles.

      6. I don’t know if it’s worth noting that at his own blog, when challenged on the joke, Mr. Nichols freely admitted that it was obviously sexist. (He also seemed to be unable to understand the use of quotation marks, which gives me some doubt about his coding skills.) At the blog of a woman who is challenging him on the joke, he is claiming that it’s some sort of double-bank shot mocking of the stereotype it exploits.

        So whether he owns his sexism depends on whether he’s on his home turf or directly addressing a woman. I call that cowardly.

  2. More and more childhoods like yours, and the world can do a lot of healing :)

    It does make such a big difference, the way we’re raised. I was raised almost entirely by my Mom and my great-grandmother, and most of the great lessons of my life have been from women: teachers, colleagues, best friends. My gaming group (traditional pen-and-paper RPG stuff) is usually mostly women. One of the nicest implied compliments I ever got from a gamer was when a guy … a childhood hero of mine, in fact … asked if his wife could play with our group (which he was a part of). She’d never tried gaming before, and he thought my group would have the best chance of _not_ scaring her off :)

    But I think a lot of that comes back to what an importance force my mom and great-grandmother were. So, yay awesome moms :)

  3. My mom has less space cred than your mom (weirdest playground insult ever), but she did learn FORTRAN back when everything was punch cards and ping pong balls, and this makes me happy.

  4. Thanks for sharing this Emily. My 6-year-old daughter plays with Scratch now & then and has a budding interest in science. These stories and testimonials are tremendously important to her (and to me). If anyone needs to understand why Ada Lovelace Day and other feminist STEM efforts are important, they only have to observe the troll chorus, mansplainin’ about irony and tolerance because they failed to get a laugh for some belittling sexist comment. (And I normally HATE the word mansplainin’. But sometimes it just kinda fits)

  5. We still have a long way to go, as a culture.

    A couple of months ago, a big Dutch technology web site started a features about women in computing, in order to break through stereotypes that are still quite powerful. A laudable idea. They went on to call this feature “Babes and bytes”… apparently completely oblivious to the fact that “babe” is not the best word choice if you want to give women the idea that they are taken seriously. When I pointed this out, most people on the website thought I was making a fuss about nothing (though to their credit, the website editors changed the title almost immediately), because, for instance, they had a female colleague who didn’t mind being called “babe”. I found these reactions rather shocking, because I wasn’t aware that so many people just don’t get what the problem is.

  6. I had a similar experience, and still have a similar reaction to the sort of sexist bullshit that’s out there about women and science/programming.

    My mom has a PhD in microbiology and worked as a researcher. When I was maybe 5 years old, my dad was driving me and a friend past the lab where she worked. According to my dad, I told my friend: “Do you know what that is? It’s a laboratory. Laboratories are places where women do science.”

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