Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Where Is This Female Programmer?

I have been reading a lot of articles recently about women in IT, sent to me by various people. They all relate to the same general question: why aren’t there many female computer science students? It is a question that is getting closer to home with every day, and I have spent a fair number of hours pondering this question as it relates to me.

In high school I picked classes that were highly specialised according to my teachers. My final year was an intense blend of mathematics and computing. I learned to program in several languages and I learned enough high level mathematical skills that there is very little in my life that I am not able to calculate if I need to.

After finishing school, I went on to complete a BA with a major in creative writing. My other units were in literature, linguistics and philosophy. I took this further a few years later and completed an Honours year, also in writing. Aside from coding a basic website for myself over a few weeks one summer, I haven’t touched programming since.

Looking back with the vantage point of a few years, I am surprised that I didn’t complete a double degree in computer science and art. It would have been the logical choice given my interest and skills. My two main interests would have been combined, and I would have been able to follow a very different career path where I suspect I would have excelled in both fields.

The problem with retrospective insight, such as this, is that the awareness now was not available then. My first round university selections were all in various business fields: accounting, economics, marketing, etc. The only reason I enrolled in the degree that I did was because on the final day to change our preferences my former drama teacher mentioned her surprise that I had not selected a creative writing degree. I didn’t realise such things even existed, so I went home and put down the first one I could find as my first preference. I didn’t have the time to research degrees, because I literally had a deadline of two hours to do the work and the website was prone to crashing. My academic future changed instantly as a result of a 3 minute conversation.

I didn’t understand what the options were that I could follow. Computer science had always been an area that I saw as hardware, not software. I could build a computer from component parts without help, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do all day. I didn’t see a future career that involved cutting myself open on circuit boards. Programming was absent from my mental list of possibilities.

Now that I am in my early 30s, and I am aware of how many women are making choices similar to my own, I question if it was the right choice. I am certainly young enough that I could go back to university – I’ve done it a few times before – and correct the career mistake that I made. It would be an opportunity to gain a qualification that makes sense, I could complete my family with no time out of the workforce, and I would be young enough that I would still have a long career ahead of me.

I am also old enough to understand that there is more than one way to achieve a goal. Programming tutorials abound on the internet, and I know enough programmers that I could get help with any problems I encounter if I teach myself. Do I want to learn this to balance the numbers in a grand feminist statement, or do I want to learn this for myself? I’m all for promoting the sisterhood, but I’m just as happy to live my life and save a ton of money in the process.

This week I decided to follow the path and see where it takes me. I relearned HTML on Monday and I picked up CSS on Tuesday. Wednesday saw me move onto JavaScript, and that will probably take me the rest of the week to nail, possibly part of next week too. I will have picked up three coding languages before applications for next year’s computer science degrees close. Am I missing an opportunity by leaving the degree to the boys? Possibly, but I don’t have three spare years to waste while I get ready to start something new.

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Where To From Here?

My partner and I are in a predicament. He is currently completing his PhD in physics, and expects to submit his thesis early next year if everything goes well. At that point, he plans to find a job doing a whole lot of stuff that I don’t understand. It could be work with particle accelerators, it could be work with semiconductors, it could be work with energy research (is that the same as semiconductors?), or it could be some additional science field that I’ve probably heard of but already forgotten. This means he wants to have a new job in 12 months.

In the shadow of his future career path is my own. I am able to work in two careers at present: writing/editing and administration. I am highly skilled in these fields, and I know that I could walk into a job doing either of them tomorrow. These jobs would pay well, and my financial worries would be over the moment I put on a suit and walked into the office. The trouble is that I never want to put on a suit and walk into either of those roles again. The issue here is not the suit. To do anything else will require retraining.

Our predicament? He is unable to tell me which country we will most likely be living in. We are looking at the global job market, and if you have ever looked at the requirements between countries you will appreciate how unpredictable they can be. I could spend an expensive year here learning something, only to arrive at our next destination and discover that my efforts are not recognised and will need to be repeated. Alternatively, I could spend a year waiting to migrate before studying only to see him secure a job here in Canberra.

We had initially focused our research on countries where the official language is either English or German. Both of us quickly eliminated the USA as an option, because it is too dangerous a place to live. (I’m sorry, dear American friends, but your country is insane and I sincerely hope that you are never shot by a lunatic while taking your children to school or going to work.) As his research continued, additional countries that officially speak neither English nor German were added to the list.

Now I not only need to train in a new field, but I probably also need to learn a third language. Learning German isn’t too bad, because I know that it’s on the list. But our third language? Short of picking up a few key phrases in every European language, I have no idea where to start. I assume I’ll have several weeks to begin once we know where we are moving to, but those weeks will include packing up our lives in Canberra and shifting them to another country.

The internet tells me that French is the third most common language behind English and German, with 24% of Europeans speaking it. Portuguese is fairly far down the list with only 3% of Europeans able to converse in it, but if we moved to Brazil it would become rather important. Dutch is a possibility, but only 1% of Europeans speak it as a second language; as with most of the likely languages, it is essentially spoken only in its native regions.

For the next year, we are potentially trapped: he won’t know which jobs are possible until he has written his thesis, and I won’t know which path to follow for my own life until I have a better idea of where we will be living. Without that information, I can’t look up professional requirements, and I would not be able to navigate a job interview in the local language. There will be an obvious and satisfactory answer out there about what to do for the next year, but at this point I’m stumped and can’t see it.

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