Invisibility or the spotlight?

Our first actual guest post! Melissa Draper may well have been the first woman on the planet, well, Planet Ubuntu. She is a web developer by trade, and has more F/LOSS hats than she cares to admit. Her regular blog can be found at

These days, most girls and women in westernised societies get to choose her own destiny, and there is little doubt that this is a far cry from the world of only half a century ago.

As a broad and sweeping generalisation, people these days are not dictated in to or out of certain careers based on the number of X chromosomes their DNA profiles have. In sufficiently balanced legal systems there are even laws to provide justice for when certain interpretations of sexual discrimination occurs.

One could easily be led to believe that this taboo on sexual discrimination eliminates all obstacles.

With this perceived fair playing field, we often find ourselves asking how we can get girls and women to choose to be involved in fields which are perceived as “historically male-dominated”. One field that this question is often asked of, is that of software development.

Sadly, we are asking the wrong question.

We are failing to recognise that historically, computer languages and software development were female-dominated.

Asking this question, in this manner, inadvertently highlights one of the obstacles which girls and women still face in spite of the applauded taboo on sexual discrimination. It highlights that many of the potential role models for girls and women today, the women pioneers of computing history, are invisible.

Invisibility does not limit itself to history either. The founder of the Free Software movement, Richard Stallman, has previously failed to identify women that have played important roles in the GCC project.

This feminine invisibility (including the “honorary guy” culture) is hurting our budding female software developers. It is robbing them of their inspiration, and creating an atmosphere in which they feel even more like an anomaly than they deserve to.

Because these women of computing past are invisible, the women of modern computing are often put in the spotlight in an attempt to fill the motivational void. Women in software development do not become ‘just a software developer’ like the male super-majority do, they become software developers who must carry the extra burden that being a role model brings, simply because they are so rare.

This spotlight is not always a flattering one. It can draw additional attention, and opens women up to a level of scrutiny that men are generally not subject to.

Being in this spotlight is akin to walking into a saloon in the old west and having every eye turn to watch you. It is like having someone watch over your shoulder as you type. In some cases, especially for women of low self-esteem, it can be as intimidating as having someone follow you into the bathroom to watch you pee. It is an extra pressure, it is an extra stress, and for some women, it is too much.

Women in software development can choose to avoid the spotlight, and many do. Women can avoid the spotlight by assuming a neutral or male identity. Women can avoid the spotlight by telecommuting or avoiding face-to-face events such as LUG meetings where their femininity will be obvious.

Women can avoid the spotlight, by not being women.

Women can choose to be a women and a role model to the girls and women who will follow in their footsteps — at the risk of extra pressures. Alternatively, they can choose to lose part of their identity and the ability to claim credit for what they achieve.

For women, it is not as simple as choosing to develop software, or deciding to be interested in software development. Women must also choose how they will be represented.

Or, they can just not bother.

7 thoughts on “Invisibility or the spotlight?

  1. Mackenzie

    My first thought was of when someone was “the first woman to _____ in Ubuntu” and someone (forget who now) posted a blog post like “OMG there’s a girl!”

  2. jadelennox

    We have to stop internalizing this belief that we have no past as geeks, too. Last night I was talking to my mother about technology (prompted, in fact, by me telling her about a discussion on this blog last week), and she told me that she only fell into computers by accident in about 1979.

    When I asked her, “When we you doing all of that punchcard programming, then?” she responded, “Oh, that was back at my first job, in 1960.”

    As a teenage girl and a school dropout, she was programming punchcards by day and taking calculus and trigonometry classes at night,and she doesn’t think that was programming.

  3. Naraht

    Do you have evidence beyond Ada Lovelace for computer languages being historically female-dominated? I had always had the impression that she was the exception rather than the rule.

    1. Mackenzie

      All 6 ENIAC programmers (Betty Jean Jennings, Betty Snyder, Fran Bilas, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman) were women. My laptop is named Betty after two of them. COBOL and compilers were invented by Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.

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