Coding isn’t just for white male geniuses with glasses.
It seems silly to even have to argue this obvious truth, but a new Gallup poll suggests that popular stereotypes of computer scientists as white male geniuses with glasses may be keeping other (non-white, non-male, non-glasses-wearing) students from getting into the field, and holding us back, as a country and as a global society, from realizing our economic and technological potential.
The Gallup poll, released this week through Google Services, found that American students perceive coders in the media as mostly white, male, and wearing glasses (see Figure 6 below). While this media stereotyping hasn’t been proven to be the direct cause of gender differences in computer science programs in US schools, the same poll did show that male students were more confident than female students in their abilities to learn computer science, and in their likelihood to do so in the future (Figure 7). Moreover, most students believed boys are more likely to be interested and successful in learning computer science than girls in general (Figure 8). Most students also believed that a person must be “very intelligent” to succeed in computer science (Figure 11), though most students polled did not consider themselves “very intelligent.”
While it’s not clear how these perceptions influence the actual likelihood of, for example, African-American, Hispanic, and female students from learning to code, the reality is that computer science is still a white male dominated field. These charts of AP Computer Science test takers in California, for example, show very clearly that males were much more likely to take the AP than females, and that Latino and African-American test takers were highly underrepresented compared to their overall prevalence in the school system at large.
While many people may assume that these demographics and perceptions arise from a reality in which white males (with glasses) are simply better suited to computer science than are females and other minority groups, we at FVI would argue that this is not the case. In fact, some of the most revolutionary computer scientists in history have been quite far outside the lines of this modern stereotype.
Computer programming was literally invented by a woman. In 1843, at only 28 years old, Ada Lovelace wrote an algorithm for a primitive computer that hadn’t even been assembled yet. This algorithm, which was intended to calculate Bernoulli numbers, is now widely considered to have been the world’s first computer program. Ada was the world’s first computer programmer. She was also a visionary computer scientist, being the first to recognize the potential of computers to do more than just crunch numbers. She wrote, in the mid 1800s:
“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
The first IBM personal computer, the first gigahertz microprocessor, and the first color PC monitors were all developed under the leadership of African-American Computer Scientist Mark Dean. If you’ve ever used a PC or a color monitor, you know how important this man was in the recent history of computer science.
In a recent interview with engadget.com, Dean commented: “I personally believe most of the industry [doesn’t] understand the benefits of a diverse workforce (awareness of societal norms and biases, cross-sectional innovation, diversity of leadership styles, out-of-the-box thinking, brand strength across all parts of society, better understanding of emerging markets — domestic and international).” We at FVI agree.
We need coders of all shapes, colors, and sizes. The US Department of Labor estimates that by 2020, there will be over a million unfilled coding jobs in the USA due to lack of trained coders. If we are to fill those jobs and reach our economic potential, as a country and as a global society, we need women and minorities to get involved as well; not just for pure strength of numbers, but (as Mark Dean pointed out) for diversity of viewpoints and thinking styles as well. We must therefore begin to dissolve our popular stereotypes and broaden our horizons. We must cultivate an understanding in our society — especially among students, parents, and teachers — that coding isn’t just for white male geniuses with glasses.