L-r, Andrew Garfield, Joseph Mazzello, Jesse Eisenberg and Patrick Maple in Columbia Pictures' "The Social Network."
L-r, Andrew Garfield, Joseph Mazzello, Jesse Eisenberg and Patrick Maple in Columbia Pictures' "The Social Network."

Why Are There So few Female Mark Zuckerbergs?

Male tech bloggers speculate that women's brains can't handle coding

I’ve seen The Social Network enough times to know that computer programmers tend to be skinny, anti-social twerps, who occasionally get punked by the cool kids before getting rich by stealing great ideas from their taller, more socially adroit counterparts. Oh, and they’re all dudes.

The last part of this cartoonish stereotype is actually true, and in a Larry Summers moment yesterday, a well-known entrepreneur sparked a big, angry interweb debate when he posited that the reason this boy’s club exists is that women are genetically predisposed to suck at coding.

It all started when Jason Pontin, editor and publisher of the MIT Technology Review, posted on Facebook about the “den of brogrammers” that lives above the Review’s offices, and how there are “zero women” there. He went on to say that most companies function better when they have male and female employees.

But when Dave Winer, a software entrepreneur and tech blogger, joined the fray, things got a little bit heated. “You got problems with men?” he asked commenters on Pontin’s Facebook thread. “Why don’t you like men acting like men?… People often jump to the conclusion that [the lack of female programmers] is the fault of men, because basically that’s our job, to be wrong and at blame.”

So what does Winer think is the reason for the lack of women employed in computer science?

“There’s something about programming that makes many women not want to do it,” he writes. “Programming is a very modal activity. To be any good at it you have to focus. And be very patient. I imagine it’s a lot like sitting in a blind waiting for a rabbit to show up so you can grab it and bring it home for dinner. There is specialization in our species. It seems pretty clear that programming as it exists today is a mostly male thing. Which also raises the obvious question that perhaps we can make it so that it can better-use the abilities of the other half of our species?”

To be fair, Winer does say that he wants to work with more women, and he specifically invited female readers to comment on his theory. Which they did. En masse. To the point that he closed the comments on his site. But not before some real hardcore “brogrammers” joined the fray. “The reason people are reacting this way,” one commenter writes, “is because men are not supposed to have opinions on gender questions, or if we have them, we’re not supposed to express them where women can hear.”

Of the hundreds of comments that flooded his site, one of the most popular is from a female programmer who points out that scientifically, men’s and women’s brains are not that different. Meaning yes, women can easily channel the patience to hunt if they so choose. And men are innately caring enough to cook a nice dinner for their children. It was a pretty smart, thought out thread, especially for the Internet.

It was so smart and reasonable, in fact, that Winer walked back from his theory. In the meantime, the term “brogrammer” is here to stay. And it still refers to these guys.

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