I Could Never Do What You Do: Well-educated ladies’ perceptions of computer science

When I was asked to speak at a recent Girl Geek Dinner here in Saskatoon, I immediately said yes. I love public speaking. The trouble was I had no idea what I was going to talk about. Knowing that the audience would come from diverse backgrounds, I didn’t want to discuss a highly technical software topic that would be applicable only to a handful of the attendees. At our previous dinner, we had watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk about why there aren’t more female leaders, which seemed to be well-received. But I wanted to discuss something more personal.

In the month that led up to my talk, I attended several social functions at which, invariably, people’s professions became topics of discussion. On one evening, in particular, I noted that a gentleman who was a complete stranger to me prior to this event took quite an interest in what I do and asked me a string of questions despite having little domain knowledge. I was surprised by the level of curiosity he showed. Often, when I discuss software development, people shut down, ask very few questions, or utter the phrase, “I could never do what you do.” And, while I don’t keep a record of people’s reactions upon learning of my occupation, I can anecdotally report that women have been less likely to ask me questions, and more likely to utter the aforementioned phrase.

This is a generalization, to be sure (and, in my case, strongly impacted by the fact that most of my male friends are software developers and/or engineers), but I couldn’t help but begin to wonder what it was people and, more specifically, my academically accomplished, successful female friends thought it was I was up to at work. So, I decided to ask them.

This is how my talk took shape. And, while it focuses primarily on the female perspective, I’m curious to discover whether I might have received similar responses from men (it’s possible that gender plays no role, at all). To this end, I’ve created a generalized version of the questionnaire discussed. If you’d like to provide feedback (be you male or female), please feel free to do so.

While not everyone is suited for every profession, it’s always okay to be curious and learn about what others do. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s always okay to share your own professional experiences with those close to you. As I learned, they’re probably a lot more interested than you think.

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4 thoughts on “I Could Never Do What You Do: Well-educated ladies’ perceptions of computer science

  1. In my courses and work I’ve always seemed to find a reasonable mix of males and females. Perhaps it is a more recent trend, but I am seeing that there has been an increasing number of women that I’ve interacted with in school and in a professional environment.

      • I don’t see why it shouldn’t. I mean, geek is the new sexy, right?

        I think that the trend has been that computer related professions have been increasingly viewed as positive for individuals from both sexes.

        On a side note, I’d like to add that although continuous math (i.e. calculus) isn’t used all the time in a day to day programmer’s life, I think that discrete math is used quite often.

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