Lady Lovelace was the first computer programmer.

When I was a young girl and learned about Lady Lovelace, the first computer programmer, I found it deliciously ironic that someone who defied gender stereotypes would have such an absurdly feminine and alliterative name.

The name “Lady Lovelace” was similar to that of a 80s cartoon character I liked when I was younger, “Lady Lovely Locks”. Lady Lovely Locks was beautiful because she had long, blonde hair, and the wicked villain was a girl with black hair. (As an Asian girl with short, black hair, Lady Lovely Locks was only one example of children’s media that communicated to me over and over again that blondes were more beautiful, and that I was ugly.) I amused myself by imagining that Lady Lovelace looked like how her name sounded, having long, flowing, blonde hair and wearing lacy dresses with heart designs, while computer programming.

What is interesting is that even at a young age, I was already aware of the stereotype that computer programming was a male domain. Some people who offer hypotheses about why fewer women go into computer science treat 18-year-old adult women like tabula rasae who have never been exposed to the idea that computer programming is for men, and attempt interventions right when women choose their university majors or accuse such late interventions of being “social engineering”.

Unfortunately, even as a young Asian girl, I was constantly worried that I might be biologically incapable of understanding computers due to the mental limitations of my sex. When I first tried programming, I showed a natural aptitude for it without any prior knowledge—it is like logic—yet I felt burdened by the stereotype of the “computer whiz” being a male genius. Being too young and undereducated to understand basic genetics, I was more easily swayed by the possibility that there may be a “computer whiz” gene that existed only in males, and which I did not have.

Male privilege protects male geek children from seeing the “computer whiz” stereotype in a gendered way. Adult cisgender male geeks can look back to their childhood and not see a barrage of cultural messages suggesting that they had hard-wired mental limitations due to their sex. When they look back on their childhood experiences, they perceive these years of gendered cultural messages as mountains of evidence showing that girls cannot be good with computers.

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9 Responses to “Lady Lovelace was the first computer programmer.”

  1. thewhatifgirl Says:

    I know you don’t usually get personal but you don’t have to answer, of course: what made you finally try computer engineering, and what made you decide that you COULD be good at it without being a guy?

  2. Restructure! Says:

    At first I wanted to be a biologist, but I sucked at chemistry. I also I wanted to be a writer, but then my English teacher in my last year of high school was biased against me (when I had good experiences with English teachers before that), so I thought, “eff that subjective grading crap.”

    My first two options were closed, but I wanted to go to university, so I decided to play to my strengths. I didn’t go into “computer engineering”, but I went into a program connected to computer science.

    I don’t think I ever “decided” that I could be good at it without being a guy. When I did my courses, I was *always* questioning my abilities. When I had difficulties, I became hyper-conscious of my sex, and of letting down my gender. When I got good grades on some assignments or tests, I thought that maybe they were giving me extra sympathy marks because I was a girl (this is absurd, because the marking scheme is well-defined, and there was even automated computer grading). Only after I graduated, then it sunk in that I am somewhat competent in some things.

    But then I was unemployed, and again worried that I was a failure and would not amount to anything. Then I got a job as a programmer. But at the beginning, I was worried about making my gender look incompetent, since I was new and the only female, and any stupid thing I did would reflect on my entire gender. It was completely nerve-wracking, because it was not just about keeping my job, but my whole identity was at stake. On the first or second day, the person who was training me assigned me to figure out how this set of functions worked, which was written by some former employee years ago, and the code was disabled for the current project. I had to understand it by sight/reading, because his problem was that he didn’t know how the code used to interact with the code of the rest of the project, and it was currently broken.

    I didn’t understand it at first in the first thirty minutes, so I panicked and took a “washroom break”. I locked myself in the stall and started deep breathing and wanting to cry. (Wait, maybe I did cry a little.) Then I thought to myself that if I fail at being a programmer, then it’s not so bad, because it’s nothing compared to stuff I suffered in the past. So I loaded up on caffeine and went back to work, pretending to be normal, etc. Then I figured it out, and I was relieved that I passed what I took to be a test of whether I deserved to have been hired.

    After that, as I acculturated, I realized that other people are worse programmers than me. They don’t refactor the code, they have redundant code, etc. They don’t care about the aesthetics of code; they just code some temporary fix. It’s like they don’t give a crap, and had enrolled in computer science only because it was the profitable thing to do during the dot-com boom.

    Anyway, I feel there is a macho culture within computer geek culture, so showing any kind of insecurity becomes some kind of indication that you are not up for the job, especially if you are female. I think other female geeks hide their insecurities when making public statements, because most people who would be listening in would be male. I also didn’t admit it even to myself that I felt that way during my undergrad, because I thought insecurity and not understanding something instantly meant I was stupid and didn’t belong there.

    Yeah, the association of computer competency with being a “genius” is really harmful.

  3. urbia Says:

    Thanks for your story, Restructure, and grats for achieving despite of it.

    Personally, I would say that the insecurity can definitely be shed once the individual realizes that she’s working against white male privilege and that other people have an advantage – compounded with the knowledge that CS is very broad and that she can’t possibly have the answers for everything. In that sense, getting an answer ‘wrong’ doesn’t necessarily you’re stupid or can’t do that job. You might have been simply given a problem you’ve never encountered before, or haven’t thoroughly studied a specific chapter because there simply wasn’t enough time for you to do that (or, in the case of being self-taught, weren’t told how something applied to programming because all learning was self-directed).

    I remember being in a video game development course where a fellow white male student responded to me derisively when I asked him for help on a homework assignment. That’s where it sort of clicked. As I was seeing the problem for the first time, I couldn’t have known the answer – just like everybody else – but it was his conscious decision to respond like that. After experiences like that, it’d be possible for a female developer to rationally recognise the biases and even develop a contempt for such responses at her. Then it’s like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, one can do anything and not care what other people think, like a weight has been lifted. It’s the feeling that you can get away with doing anything that patriarchy tries to prevent you from doing, and it rocks. :)

    But the barrier is (and I think it’s been mentioned in a blog post somewhere on another site) the fact that a lot of female CS students don’t get to study feminist vocabulary so it’s harder to define and recognise biases when they happen.

  4. urbia Says:

    I forgot to add: To me, a bigger source of insecurity, if you could even call it that, is not internal but from the external world.

    The question isn’t, “Can I do it?”


    “Will these privileged people believe I can do it? I’m completely self-taught. Am I going to absorb all these programming books sitting on my shelf, each one averaging around 500 pages, and waste the time and energy I devoted to studying because of workplace discrimination?”

    Then it’s just a matter of being optimistic that all hiring managers can’t be like that.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    Personally, I would say that the insecurity can definitely be shed once the individual realizes that she’s working against white male privilege and that other people have an advantage

    Yes, I think when I understood that the men were more confident because of male privilege, and that I was insecure because of internalized sexism, then it relieved me from a lot of my self-doubts. No matter what your accomplishments are, if you keep interpreting them in a sexist way, then it won’t help your confidence.

  6. urbia Says:

    A useful benchmark for me was early acceptance into a Gifted program in high school for mathematics, amongst other subjects. As a result, I don’t think I really suffered from internalized sexism. I was simply made more conscious of bias when I encountered it.

    I think a good way of promoting a meritocratic society is to test all students for giftedness at an early age. At least if they encounter systemic obstacles later on, they can fall back on this earlier benchmark and recognize that there’s something wrong with the system and not themselves.

  7. thewhatifgirl Says:

    Thank you for sharing, both of you. It is good to hear other people’s stories.

    Though my field isn’t computer science and has actually had a major influx of women in the past 30 years, it is still a science and there is still that sense of questioning whether a woman can actually do it properly or not.

    Personally, I think it could be good for men to be questioned the way that women and people of color so often are – even when we are right.

    Urbia, don’t you think there could still be problems with that as well, though, based on studies that have shown that children of color and poor children are assumed to have learning disabilities at much higher rates than white children and rich(er) children? Much as I would like to think that I was just gifted from an early age, the fact that I’m white and my parents were well-off enough for a long time to teach me certain learning habits, a desire for knowledge, and middle-class ways of acting makes me think I didn’t get there all on my own.

  8. urbia Says:

    You bring up a good point, thewhatifgirl. I haven’t delved into those studies because I didn’t ever see it as a problem from my perspective (I’m Chinese-Canadian and middle-class). I got into the Gifted program through standardized testing. However, I’ve also heard of lower-income students not having nearly enough time to study because they’re forced at an early age to work.

    Let me rehash my previous post instead to this – even if no system currently exists to enable people to discover their talents at an early age in a fair way, I hope one will be implemented. In the process of growing up, it helps to be able to look back and know you have the natural ability to do something, even if society repeatedly tries to tell you otherwise. This alone will not eradicate -isms in the workplace, but at least it might stand against internalized -isms from being developed.

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