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Coding problem

Teaching girls to code may be worsening gender imbalance in the tech sector

By WITW Staff on March 15, 2017

We know all too well that the tech sector has a problem with gender parity. So you would think that the recent upsurge in women-friendly coding workshops and the numerous TED talks that have been posted online that encourage women to get into tech could only be a good thing. Surely, the more women acquiring the requisite skills to enter the industry the better?

Well, apparently not. In an article for Logic, a new magazine about technology (re-published in The Guardian), Miriam Posner, a digital humanities teacher at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that the more women enter a role, the more its value appears to decrease. As such, she suggests, what we have seen emerge within the tech sector over the years is a “distinct gender hierarchy between front-end and back-end development” with women typically confined to lesser paying, front-end roles. Where front-end developers design and put in place what you see when looking at your web browser, back end developers are the ones creating the programming behind the scenes. Developers who do everything are referred to as “full stack.”

Although this gender stereotype isn’t set in stone developers have, Posner says, told her it rings true more often than not. Where women, surprisingly perhaps, formerly dominated the tech-realm, web work began to stratify as it professionalized. Developers who had computer science degrees (often men) tended to take up back-end roles, self-taught coders filled in the positions at the front.

And what has aided this gendered division of tech-labor? A good old-fashioned stereotype of the “tech genius” — bearded, unkempt and fiercely intelligent — rendered synonymous with the back end world of programming, says computing historian Nathan Ensmenger. This stereotype emerged then in order to push women out of programming to make way for the men. And it was quite effective, too. In the 1980s women accounted for 37 percent of those working in computer science. That figure has fallen to just 18 percent today.

The problem now, Ensmerger told Logic, of getting more women into coding is that the labor market generates a circular logic. Because front-end jobs are easier for women to obtain, more women occupy these roles and they subsequently become feminized and ascribed a lesser value. As get-girls-to-code initiatives attempt to address the gender imbalance in tech by getting more girls coding, what they may actually be doing, he says, is promoting the developers to create distinctions where they weren’t before, devaluing the roles girls take on.

A chicken and egg scenario if ever there was one …

Read the full story at The Guardian.


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