Code is the Language of Women

The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.

Ada Lovelace, Mathematician, Writer and Poet
We have created generations of young people who want to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, yet do not know who Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Katherine Johnson are or what impact their work has had on the world. These three women preceded Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg in the design and language of the computing technology we use every day.

We wouldn’t have computer programs like we do today if it wasn’t for Ada Lovelace. The language many programs are based on wouldn’t be as close to English, rather machine-language if it wasn’t for Grace Hopper. And NASA would have taken longer and with less precision to get to the moon if it wasn’t for the work of Katherine Johnson.

This poor awareness in our society of the impact of women in computing programming has much to do with how we think and educate about coding as hard “science and technology work” ~ as STEM. It also has to do with how we socialize coding as more the work of men than women, as too technical a language for girls and as largely anti-social as a male trait, according to computing historian Nathan Ensmenger.

For generations, male and masculine gender stereotypes have been embedded in advertisements about technology, in how educational programs are designed and in the hiring practices of coders and developers. Even the academic research work on technology development and use is led and authored by a mostly male professoriate. All this has had a profound effect on masculinizing coding from being the domain of ‘computer girls’ to ‘computer geeks’ and the profession of computer programming being overwhelming male.

That is despite its origins.

We have been socialized to believe that coding is not the work of women and code a too technical language for girls. This is inaccurate, untrue and misleading.

We have created an entire sector and workplace that is not gender equal in composition, culture or gender neutral in the products and learning programs they deliver. Not having gender equity in the workplace creates a more masculine computer culture and discourse, with a hidden gender bias in the development cycle of most technologies. This has impacted the prioritization of coding as a hard technical science or skill over the softer skills of storytelling, design and creativity and the social issues we are often designing for.

There is the possibility to recreate this. A way that reframes coding as equally the work of women as well as men; as drawing on people’s soft and hard skills, as well as masculine to feminine ways, equally. The way is to embrace the writing of code and the development of digital experiences as an art form in the craft of language.

It is a language that draws on multiple literacies from multiple disciplines to create multiple narratives in hypermedia form. A language that combines creating with numbers, symbols, written word, as well as with images, audio and video content. A language that in its logic is embedded in storytelling and the social design of our world. A language that is creative and social as much as it is technical and analytical.

This is to embrace the mindset of what Ada Lovelace referred to as ‘poetic science.’

The first computer program is generally dated to 1843 when Ada Lovelace wrote and published an algorithm to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. It was intended to be carried out by the Analytical Engine (The First Computer) that was invented by Charles Babbage. Now Ada Lovelace is regarded as the first computer programmer or coder, ever.

The impact of her work laid the foundation for Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg amongst others to do their work. She was an English mathematician and also a writer and poet. Her interest in mathematics and logic and her education was influenced by both scientists as well as writers such as the author Charles Dickens. Much of this influence came from her mother, Lady Byron, with the reputation of being a fine mathematician and her father a famous poet.

In the describing of her approach as ‘poetical science,’ Ada drew on linking the beauty of “engineering and humanity to technology” as well as “poetry to processors.” Ada developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching, a vision that valued imagination, intuition, and metaphysics as much as it did mathematics as tools to explore “the unseen worlds around us.”

Her mindset of poetical science led Ada to ask questions about the Analytical Engine that neither Babbage or his predecessors did. She adopted more of a social vision that examined how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool, not just as a mathematical or scientific engine. She married the social and creative with the scientific and technical and in doing so, she created the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. Her work at the origins of computer programming, a field of work largely regarded as the work of men, was actually invented by a woman.

It is in this reframing of coding as a language we all live and work in, and as an art form that we use to create the world around us that we can begin to evolve how we see coding as the work of women as much as we do men. We can begin to step beyond the hidden gender biases, the masculinization of technology workplaces and the products they produce and position coding and technology programs in schools and colleges as truly interdisciplinary.

If we do not embrace this possibility to recreate the future of coding as a human language and art form, we risk continuing to exclude over 50% of the world’s population, girls and women not just from job opportunities, but also contributing to a worrying decline in their societal influence.

From its origins coding has been the language of women as well as men. It is a poetic and scientific language of people with which the augmented reality of our world in its full technicolor and slipperiness is being crafted and shared.