By Olga G.
Picture this: 1986. At the Belarusian Polytechnic Institute in the Robotics Department. Majoring in Applied Mathematics. First year, second semester, first day of the class called “Theory of Algorithms. “The professor walks in, takes one look at us, and utters, “Where is our science going?” Our class consisted of three boys and 47 girls.
Let’s forget for a moment how awful that sounds from the high horse of the twenty-first century United States. I don’t know why he was surprised. This wasn’t anything new in the Soviet Union. I worked for six months between graduation and moving to the US, and almost all the developers at my job were women.
I was in Israel recently at a vendor’s site, and it looked like at least half of the developers there were female. In the US, back in the 40s and 50s, many mathematicians and early programmers were women. So, what happened?
Here is my guess. It’s about having a choice. When was it that kids here in the US started being told to follow their passion? How many girls actually dream of becoming mathematicians, programmers, or engineers? I know if I was told as a teenager to follow my passion, I would have tried to become a writer, not a programmer. I can’t think of anyone in our group who was even remotely passionate about what we were studying. And now, as I look at my son studying statistics at UCLA, I understand implicitly that STEM is hard. You have to like it. Otherwise, it is so much easier and more fun to go for psychology (everyone’s favorite major) or political science, or other liberal arts. Sure, girls can do math, but do they like it enough?
Here in America, they have a choice. In the Soviet Union, we didn’t — not really. What were our options? Engineering, teaching, accounting, and medicine – that’s about it. A few people got to do pure science. Even fewer pursued various creative stuff. With teaching and medicine being something not everyone can do and accounting being intensely boring, if a girl could be an engineer, she became one. In India, girls go into IT because it is a ticket to middle class. And remember those female software developers in Israel I mentioned earlier? Almost all of them are Orthodox girls.. Did they all go into it because they have a passion for coding? Or is it because it is one of the few vocations that allows them to support their families (they are sole breadwinners) while still maintaining their Orthodox lifestyle ?
We did have a choice of engineering specialty and, when it came to that, the more hard core the field, the fewer girls. We had a robotics major in our department and the ratio of boys to girls was exactly the reverse of ours. I went for applied math because it was one major in the entire school that (I figured) would have the least amount of physics. It was one subject I just didn’t get. Studied it three times – at school (albeit with an awful teacher), with a tutor in preparation for the BPI entrance exams (still nearly failed that one), and then again at the BPI (couldn’t avoid it completely). I didn’t have a problem with mechanics and optics, but electricity – that was beyond my comprehension, no matter how hard I tried.
When I started my one and only Soviet job, my boss handed me a photocopied dBase manual and my first task, and went on a business trip for two weeks. When he returned, he was shocked that I made progress– I had no idea that I wasn’t actually expected to do anything. Then I wrote a piece of functionality that he made everyone in the group copy. He also offered me to follow him to the co-op he was about to organize. He later told my mother, who asked him for a reference letter for me, that I wasn’t just good, I was “talented.”
I am not sharing this to brag. I want to make the point that just being decent at something is not everything. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. It helps that I work in entertainment, and there is a lot of variety in what I get to do. And I like coding and design — I like it a lot — but it doesn’t give me the kind of buzz I get from writing or acting. Aptitude can only get you so far. It was easy to be “talented” when dealing with dBase – a simple, straightforward language. When I encounter something abstract and non-linear, I struggle, I feel like a fraud, and while I succeed eventually, I have fallen well behind on technology. When you are in IT, you have to keep up with new things, usually at your spare time – you’ve got to love it to want to do it. And then you have kids and even less spare time. There is no way I am spending my precious little me-time reading a programming book – unless I need a cure for insomnia.