Can gaming close the high-tech gender gap?

To close the high-tech gender gap, “encourage your daughters to play video games,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Dana Goldstein.

. . .  childhood gaming and hacking experience has motivated many computer programmers to enter the field, including Sandberg’s boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The leap toward more advanced computing comes not only from playing games—today, 94 percent of girls are gaming, compared with 99 percent of boys—but in becoming curious about how they work and then beginning to tinker with code in order to modify game results. Boys are still much more likely than girls to explore this type of simple computer programming, and not every young girl who is curious about how computers work has an encouraging parent at home or the hardware she needs.

So it’s not just the gaming. It’s the tinkering. My nephew just got hired (first paying job out of college!!!) by a company that makes “pink market” fashion design games.  Girls might learn about fashion design, but I don’t think they’ll learn programming. That’s Alan’s job. (He may know less about fashion than anyone on the planet.)

K-12 educators are trying to hook girls on the “computational thinking” that makes programming possible, writes Goldstein.

The Academy for Software Engineering, a public school whose curriculum will be built around computer programming and Web development, will open in New York City this September. Just one-quarter of the incoming freshman class is female, but the school’s founders, who are closely tied to the New York tech community, have ambitious plans for pairing female students with women mentors working in the field, in order to tamp down on attrition, direct girls into meaningful careers, and recruit more female students to the school in future classes.

In Pajaro Valley, Calif., south of Santa Cruz, researcher Jill Denner launched a program that teaches low-income Latina girls and boys, in gender-segregated classrooms, to create their own computer games.

I’m skeptical that mentors or “pink” games will turn girls into programmers, but I guess it’s worth a try.
About Joanne


  1. They just don’t give up, do they? As a mathy girl who had a TRS-80 back in the day and saw the difference between how she and her Aspergery brother played with/used that computer, I have no problem accepting that boys are more likely as a group to enjoy the nitty gritty of programming. Why is this so hard for some people to accept? My brother even got me into programming as an adult. I stuck with it for less than a year, then I decided to go to law school so I could interact with PEOPLE.

    If some people are so concerned with equity, why don’t they look at the gender imbalance in HR departments these days? Those poor men aren’t being encouraged to go into HR enough!

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I wonder when the world will become concerned about the lack of men in nursing or elementary ed. Why aren’t they attempting to correct the imbalance there?

    • You do realize that anecdote does not equal data. Just because YOU personally were turned off from “nitty gritty” of programming while your “Aspergery” brother enjoyed it does NOT mean that this result generalizes to all women and men.

      And even if it was shown that more men than women enjoy “nitty gritty” programming, that does not mean it is inherent or hard-wired to be that way. It could be socialization. Now, I am not saying it necessarily is. In reality, it is probably more complicated… I’m just pointing out that your personal experience/anecdote proves nothing of the sort.

      • Yes, I do realize that. However, my anecdote is powerful evidence (to me, at least) that socialization is not the reason for my brother enjoying and excelling in computer science while I got bored with it. We had the same opportunities and tools, but he genuinely got into all the boring details (in fact, he filled our limited floppy drives with all these annoying “.db” files that didn’t do anything fun, and we didn’t understand why he got upset when we siblings deleted them to make room for our games) and didn’t seem to find them boring at all.

        Asperger’s is present in boys approx. four times as often as girls. Asperger’s traits–specifically intense focus on narrow subjects, repetitive actions, and less desire to seek shared enjoyments with others–lend themselves to the activity of computer programming. Thus, logically it is to be expected that you will find more boys than girls willing to delve into computer science.

        I don’t believe in discouraging girls from becoming programmers. But we don’t need to keep pushing them towards it so energetically, either. My father pushed my older sister to become a programmer. She graduated in CS, worked for a year or so in her field, then decided to stay at home with her children. She has since complained that she would have been better off studying something like nursing or child development, as those subjects were more useful in her adult life. Give girls good information and opportunities, then let them make their own choices in life without getting bothered about the lack of a 50/50 ratio in selected fields.

  2. I don’t think it’s nice to encourage young people to follow careers that will make them unhappy.

    My husband does hobby programming that brings in some royalties, and the stuff he does requires a very “special” mindset. You have to be totally detail-oriented, perfectionistic, and fanatical about the project, because it requires endless tweaking of programs that are 99.99% correct. I just can’t make myself care that much. Certainly, there are girls who would enjoy that sort of thing, but, the vast majority of them who are smart enough to program well would prefer to be doctors or something equally lucrative with more human contact. Also, there’s the whole outsourcing thing–it would be pretty miserable to qualify for a career 1) that you hate and 2) that just left for India and 3) that you still owe student loans for.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Phillip Greenspun addresses this a bit:

      “These women are confronting the facts that your article failed to address: Intelligent people with PhDs are working as C programmers; The average engineering career lasts seven years, pays average, and doesn’t justify an MIT education that costs $120,000; anyone smart enough to make it as a computer scientist can make it with less work and risk as an MD, MBA, or JD; there has been so little progress in programming environments, systems, and computer languages in the last three decades that programmers in India and other Third World countries are perfectly capable of taking over the majority of American computer science jobs.

      Your January issue asks ‘Why are there so few women in computing?’ Maybe you should do another issue asking ‘Why are there so many men?'”


      “I’ve taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my ‘medical school recommendations” directory.'”

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Philip Greenspun is wrong, wrong, wrong about JDs. Less than half of this year’s law school graduates are getting traditional legal jobs. Unless a lot of law schools close down, or cut back considerably, the surplus of job-seekers over jobs will never end–and may well get worse. Law school tuition is generally high, and there isn’t a lot of financial aid. Unless you love the law or are joining your father’s practice, going to law school is probably a bad idea.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          If you click through the link you will see that he wrote the first post in 1995. Not this year.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Also, the students he’s talking about probably aren’t going to have too much trouble.

  3. My experience in the field is that if you want to give your girl a good chance of becoming a programmer, teach her to knit. It requires much of the same mindset as Amy P. lays out and I don’ t think I have ever met a good female programmer who didn’t also knit or crochet.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Do you work with many Indian and/or Chinese female programmers?

    • Bullsh*t. Seriously. Your knitting “hypothesis” doesn’t deserve a more detailed or critical analysis than that.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Did you forget your meds again today, jab?

        • Shouldn’t you be knitting, Stacy?

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Thanks for the reminder. I’m just finishing a special sweater that keeps me warm and defends me against the cold comments of race baiters. It’s sorta like wonder women’s magic bracelets except cozier with pockets

  4. The ed world is doing its best to pretend boys and girls are the same, despite the whole of human history proving otherwise. They may be equal but they’re not the same; my old maid ES teachers and my DH’s ES nuns understood this and accommodated the differences; today’s ES-MS teachers seem to see boys as defective girls (medication often required). There’s also the issue that many of the current instructional practices actively work against boys (and all ASD kids); groupwork, journaling, emphasis on feelings, artsy projects, the choice of reading materials and the intrusion of non-math into math work (verbal discription vs. “show your work”) etc.

    As far as majors/careers are concerned, men and women tend to make different choices, both in choice of career and within-career choices. For example, it is unusual for women med school grads to choose surgical specialties. Just because one CAN do something does not mean they will be happy doing it, as was said earlier; I have several close family members who did very well in their college major fields, only to change careers later.

  5. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I like networking a lot more than straight programming. I always saw programming as a part of doing something more interesting. I know many people (mostly men) who see the beauty and elegance of computer code, but for me it was always just a means to an end. Probably why I didn’t stick with it.

    I’m tickled by the idea that all those urban poor who are wasting so much time with computers are more likely to become programmers according to this logic.

  6. Cranberry says:

    It’s just the modern version of “make your daughter play with trucks.”

  7. Interesting how negative some of these comments are about programming in general. In my household, programming is just another way of making something happen, of achieving a desired result. We all program, just as we all cook or do math or logic puzzles. Sometimes my husband or I do so as paid work, or part of our paid work. Programming is not really associated with one gender or the other for us or our kids, I don’t really understand why it is for other people.

    • It’s an unusual family that does logic puzzles. Not weird and certainly not a bad thing, but hardly typical.

    • Well, the longer you hang around here, you realize more and more of the peanut gallery long for the simplicity of the 1950’s with assigned gender roles.

      • Are you a female US programmer with a lucrative and enjoyable career that is secure from outsourcing? If not, I’m not sure you have any insight into the issue that the rest of us don’t have.

        (My husband hopes to teach programming to both of our kids, as it is one of his hobbies. When he’s feeling too tired for real work, he can sit down and program. The knitting analogy upthread is actually rather interesting, because I’ve made the comparison myself–the work is a peculiar mix of mindless and very finicky. Off and on over the years, he’s made some very nice moonlighting money on royalties for niche programs, but I’m glad it’s a windfall rather than our bread and butter.)

      • Oh, and to get back to the original post, thinking that there is a strong connection between gamers and programmers is a bit behind the times. While a large percentage of programmers undoubtedly loves gaming, the number of gamers today who love programming has got to be only a tiny fraction. The risk that your daughter will waste huge amounts of time on gaming and harm her academic future is far greater than the probability of her learning to love programming from gaming.

  8. Cranberry says:

    Look: it’s a simplistic recommendation which has no connection to the supposed problem.

    99 percent of boys game. 94 percent of girls game. You can call me nostalgic for the 50s if you like, but a 5% gaming gap doesn’t translate into an 80% CS degree gap.

    Gaming has also changed. When computers were in their infancy, users learned to program because they had to. Early computer programming courses were Basic. A toddler can play Wii or Xbox today. Games have become user-friendly.

    It woukd be much more effective to include courses in computer programming in the high school curriculum. Make the sequence Bio, Chem, Physics, Programming. That would be a curriculum for the 21st century.

    • My comment on the 50’s wasn’t directed at you.

      And yes, I completely agree with you that the gaming gap does not have anything to do with the CS degree gap. As you point out, gaming today is not the same as it was in the early days of computing when it involved more hacker & programming skill. Today, students can play games all day everyday and not learn a damn thing. It’s as if they said more driving would make you a mechanical engineer. The ease of use and reliability shields most people from ever having to think or make connections (and that is not necessarily a bad thing… I have no interest in cars apart from the fact that it is a reliable mode of transportation).

  9. Cranberry,

    We had computer math when I was in high school (1978-1981), and we learned how to program in both BASIC and FORTRAN on the school district’s UNIVAC or a CDC Cyber at the local university. While computers are more prevalent on campuses these days, I don’t know what adding computer science to a school’s coursework is going to do for the students, unless they’re actually going to take the AP Computer Science examination (for college credit).

    Most college CS programs (4 year) will require at least a year’s worth of programming (2 courses) in either C, Pascal, Java, etc (which when I went to school, were consider weed-out courses). If you couldn’t make it through the 1st/2nd years, there would be no way you’d handle Systems Programming, Data Structures, etc (or as my old instructors would say, just follow the trail of dead students around) 🙂

    Of course in my day, we spent many a night locked into the computer lab from 9:00PM to say 4 or 5 AM getting assignments and stuff done (the good ole days) 🙂