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Girls Gone Coding: New Media Stereotypes from the Computer Guy to Changing the World

by Chris Parsons

parsons-01-webI’m not quite sure how the opening to the story goes. “I was looking at the woman in the clearance bra but was distracted by an article about teen girls coding.” Or maybe, “I kept trying to click away the ad in the middle of my article before remembering I wasn’t reading news online.” Maybe: “Popular article connecting to my academic interests serendipitously rewards me for not flipping directly to news about Michigan’s Final Four run.”

No matter the story of the encounter, on April 4th, 2013, the Detroit Free Press ran an article called “Group looks to get more teen girls into computer programming” by Megha Satyanarayana, a staff writer. Initially stunned that such a column was not syndicated from a national source, I found that an event in Detroit this coming July (put on by the nonprofit Girls Who Code) prompted the local coverage. Most strikingly, at least at first, was the layout: the article unfolds like a waterfall, wrapped around a Macy’s advertisement.

parsons-02-webThat design-quirk noted, the article contains a history of the organization, quotes from the founder, scary statistics on women and coding, reasons for the Detroit camp, and information on signing up.

I became interested in gender stereotypes in new media after I spent some time researching the crisis rhetoric around boys and literacy that started around 2000. Amidst stories of “wars on boys” and “women leaving men in the dust,” came pedagogical recommendations that sounded like pop songs (“Make’em Laugh,” “Let’s Get Physical,” etc.). One stereotype-cum-teaching strategy that popped up now and again went something like this: “boys don’t like reading” but “boys do like computers” so “boys should read (and write) on computers.” Basically, it seemed to me, some were reacting to stereotypes (and, to be fair, test scores) about boys and literacy by trying to offer some sort of pedagogical portmanteau in the sense that Wikipedia says Lewis Carroll first imagined portmanteau: put boys, reading, writing, computers, and maybe some violent video games into a suitcase and shake like hell.

I suggested that this idea might serve to strategically, hegemonically leave female students out of the new language / technology of power. If the supposed new media, high-tech economy gendered stereotypically male, then women might be stuck enjoying the subtlety of Great Books while being systematically kept away from great jobs. The Free Press article points to the stats: the sex distribution is nearly 50 – 50 on jobs in medicine and chemistry, but “in computer science as a whole, women made up 25% of the work force…, 23% of programmers, 20% of the software developers and 34% of web developers.” In the world of stereotypes, I can’t help but wonder if that is partly because people envision the holders of those jobs like Nick Burns, “your company’s computer guy,” from Saturday Night Live.

Most interestingly of all, at least to me, is how the article (and perhaps Girls Who Code as an organization) tries to recast existing stereotypes to address the original stereotype. Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, is paraphrased by the article as saying, “The issue…is women’s perception that the field is made up of white males often working alone.” Stereotypes about computer science jobs certainly seem to be a motivating factor for the organization. The response? Further layers of stereotypes. The article refers to the event this summer as a “boot camp” and suggests that teen girls want jobs that “change lives.” As Cinda Davis, director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program at the University of Michigan, suggests, “Girls want to help people.” A former participant in the program notes that she “bonded with the other girls in the group.” Oddly, the essentialized ideas are not even gender consistent: a boot camp to help people seems to index a drill sergeant screaming that your candy ass better collaborate on some ideas to help those orphans or you’ll owe 1000 lines of code.

To what end these comments? In a certain sense, I’m trying to react as honestly as possible to an article I recently stumbled across. I certainly have no aim of presenting a solution to complex problems like sexism in the workplace or over-stereotyping. I do, however, mean to point out a possible problem in accepting one stereotype (women are more caring than men) to solve the problems created by another one (men know about computers). A more thoughtful solution might involve interrogating the basis of these stereotypical assumptions while still understanding the very real work gender essentialism does for people. Girls Who Code, for example, seems a likely source for beginning to narrate a counterstory to computer science as a male domain. Nothing grinds at exclusive stereotypes like active, discovery-based participation. To be sure, the group immediately challenges the image of “white males…working alone,” but, at least as presented in the article, tries to call on the same binary-based stereotypes that helped to start the exclusion in the first place. Still, my hope is that Girls Who Code represents a still-forming sentiment of awareness and advocacy about access issues. That sentiment might be taken-up and enacted at a more local level by teachers, parents, school clubs, community groups, whoever. It really might be something as simple as the AP Computer Science teacher thinking hard about why no female students take (we’ll say) her class. The distant stereotypes will still exist, but, like the article eroding the edges of the Macy’s ad, local work can make an impact on distant ideas.

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