Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Girl's Guide Programme

Programming has long been regarded as a male preserve.  Perhaps it's the tradition of locking oneself away in a darkened room with only soft drinks and unhealthy snacks to keep you going that has deterred the fairer sex.  Or maybe it is the Hollywood image of geeks with bad skin - probably assisted by that unhealthy diet - that promotes the concept.  The reality is that traditionally females are in the minority in the computing world, and in programming especially they are under-represented.  In fact in computer science studies only 12% of students are female.

It would be easy and cheap to make unfair comparisons at this point, but the reality is that there are no known reasons why women can't maintain parity with men in these areas.  Female mathematics graduates achieve as good as results as their male counterparts and studies of intellectual capability shows no distinctive differences based on gender.  Yet in many countries, including liberalised western cultures, the number of females entering computer science and mathematics studies is disproportionately low.

I suspect much of this is down to good old fashioned stereotyping and social pressures.  I've a fairly straightforward approach to employment - if given the same opportunities and access to skill training a person can do a job as well as his or her peers, regardless of gender, race, belief system etc then that's all I care about.  Yet here we are in the Twenty-First Century and still we find a significant group under-performing in the area of computer science recruitment.

It's not as though guys invented programming.  I have a personal hero - he was grumpy, obnoxious and by all accounts a curmudgeon, not unlike myself.  He did differ in a number of significant areas, one in that he was a very wealthy person and the other is that he was a really smart cookie.  For those who haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about Charles Babbage.

Babbage had an eventful life that could have been filled with his periodic run ins with Robert Peel - the guy who founded the London Police and was Prime Minister for a while.  Babbage and Peel didn't see eye to eye on many things but especially on one of Babbage's pet inventions.  Babbage was intrigued by the concept of mechanising the calculations that were needed to make Admiralty charts and to support the many endeavours Britain was steaming ahead on.  So he produced the Differential Engine which was a mechanical calculator that nearly worked - some analysts believe it needed only about £500 worth of funding to complete it after the government had already paid £17,000 and Babbage himself £6,000.  But Babbage's teddy was well out of the cot by this time and he had a new idea - the Analytical Engine.  This was to be a project that would consume him for the rest of his life and one he wouldn't finish, but in designing it he laid down the cornerstones of a programmable computer, ideas that would be lost and reinvented about 80 years later quite independently.  The Analytical Engine depended on programming cards and the general honours attributed to the first ever computer programs to be written are believed to belong to the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, herself an accomplished mathematician.

So the girls were first in programming, but have lost some ground since.  So it was refreshing to hear about the results of  a programming competition called Hackathon that had been entered by numerous male teams and one female, Jennie Lamere.  Jennie won best in show for a program that identifies TV show spoiler text on the internet to prevent you inadvertently stumbling across information that would spoil your enjoyment of a TV show you had recorded to watch later.  She beat 80 guys to the award and is now in a whirlwind of interviews and offers of internships.  Good luck to her, I say.

But more importantly I hope that Jennie acts as an inspiration to all who want to follow a path and are put off by the sociological pressures associated with it.  It's not about gender, it's about ability and Jennie has shown that to be the only thing that matters.  Ada would have been proud of her.


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