Check it out:

Emma McGrattan, the senior vice-president of engineering for computer-database company Ingres-and one of Silicon Valley’s highest-ranking female programmers-insists that men and women write code differently. Women are more touchy-feely and considerate of those who will use the code later, she says. They’ll intersperse their code-those strings of instructions that result in nifty applications and programs-with helpful comments and directions, explaining why they wrote the lines the way they did and exactly how they did it.

The code becomes a type of “roadmap” for others who might want to alter it or add to it later, says McGrattan, a native of Ireland who has been with Ingres since 1992.

Men, on the other hand, have no such pretenses.


What I find interesting here is not that men and women write different code. Well, duh… coding is a linguistic enterprise, and humans are going to very dramatically in how they do it, with a gender-related overprint that will be pretty visible. Like with all linguistic enterprises.

What I find interesting, rather, is the way this is described. Oh, Emma is a female but I’m not sure if she’s going to get the Feminist of the Month award on this one.

Here women are depicted as touchy-feely when what they are really doing is what everyone who writes code is supposed to do. The men are fucking up, ignoring their training, doing it wrong, for no good reason. The women have a pretense, but the men do not. So doing the right thing is a pretense that the men are spared of.

But you have to read the original piece to be fair (to Emma). She is being paraphrased here by a journalist who may not be representing her properly.

There’s a big need to fix testosterone-fueled code at Ingres because only about 20% of the engineers are women, McGrattan says. (Most of them are in jobs involving quality assurance or adapting the product to a new locale, she says, and not the “heavy lifting” of writing code.) She’s on a mission to get more women interested in computer-programming careers. But “it’s proving very challenging,” she says.

Why am I missing the imagery of the steroid-popping iron pumping geeks writing perl scripts….

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    June 17, 2008

    I did computer science at university.

    We were given an object lesson on the importance of writing code that others can follow when a coding assignment we did in the first year was handed back to us in the second as a new assignment to modify the code to meet a new requirement. Now this differs in that we got the code we originally wrote back, but I defy anyone to remember why they coded something the way they did twelve months on. I know I couldn’t, but then I was already pretty well trained and had lots of comments in my code explaining why I did things the way I did. I was also trained to use meaningful variable names, with prefixes indicating the type of variable.

  2. #2 Kevin W. Parker
    June 17, 2008

    My experience is that the biggest difference is between those who have formal computer science training and those who don’t. The former are careful to document and organize their code; the latter just throw something together and beat on it until it works.

  3. #3 daenku32
    June 17, 2008

    It does sound sexist. Women are naturally better at writing proper code? As Kevin stated, it’s the education. I self-thought and barely made comments because I never needed to considering someone else actually reading the code I ended up writing, which was mostly for my own use. But once I took an actual class, the commenting was something I really got into, partly because it was part of the grading.

    I do remember that one Java GUI manual I bought that was written by about 5 authors. All of them women. I would use that to show unmotivated women that they can indeed get motivated and excel at programming.

    Ironically, I’m now moving away from programming.

  4. #4 Karen
    June 17, 2008

    I started writing software in the mid-80’s, without much training (my degree was EE) What little I’d been taught about commenting code was not all that helpful. I learned to add copious explanations to code when I worked at the same company for several years, and had to go back and re-engineer my own code. After many hours of poring through old notes and wondering, “WHAT was I thinking?” I adopted a habit of writing down what I was thinking in the code files themselves.

    I wonder if there is a statistical difference between male and female programmers for the amount of time worked at any one company. If you change jobs often enough, your code may never come back to bite you.

  5. #5 Alan Kellogg
    June 18, 2008

    The real difference lies in how to handle errors, women repair, men fix.

  6. #6 Who Cares
    June 18, 2008

    Guess I’m one of the exceptions to the rule then.
    That said I had a very good example of how not to do it when I was on the internship that would determine if I would graduate.
    No comments in the code, documentation that was either not existent or wrong. And that for code so jumbled as to give spaghetti coding new meaning; Small things like gosh I can’t get to the private parts of this class let’s create a meta class that has access to the internals of all classes used (and that for a program that had some many classes a diagram consisting of just names and arrows barely fit on A3 in 4 point font). Only took me 4 months to write bare bones documentation for that.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    June 18, 2008

    I write only documentation, and no code. That way I know EXACTLY what the program is supposed to do, where, when, and in what order. If it had code.

  8. #8 Becca
    June 18, 2008

    Interesting. I wonder if there’s any formal linguistic analysis of laboratory notebooks, and if any gender distinctions in them follow a similar pattern as for coding.
    The few almost-comprehensive-enough lab notebooks I have seen/used have all been written by women. The majority of lab notebooks I have seen have been pretty useless because of how much detail they omit (I’ve seen both genders write this type of notebook). Though, in fairness, many of the writers of those notebooks could explain to me what they’ve done, using the book as a guide (I’m mostly surrounded by competent people, thankfully).

    As far as truly comprehensive, easy-to-use notebooks? Still looking for an example.

  9. #9 lylebot
    June 18, 2008

    Well, I’m about to finish a Ph.D. in computer science, and my code is thrown together and beat on until it works. I don’t have time for comments, I’ve got research to do…

    I always regret that attitude when I have to work with code I wrote a year earlier, of course. That’s how I end up with 24 different perl scripts that all do basically the same thing.

  10. #10 James Igoe
    June 18, 2008

    I’ll have to plead guilty to minimal documentation, and the only defense I can offer is that my naming conventions are to some degree self-documenting. I work primarily with VBA and SQL, so my variable names include both the type of variable and purpose, e.g., strFullPath_ZIP would be a string variable that hold the full path to a ZIP file. Modules and functions are named similarly, such that the function name defines its purpose, and to some degree how it will execute. To my credit, a fellow developer recently marveled at organization of my code.

    Also, so people can get away from simplistic generalization; my background is both academic computer science coursework and extensive reading on techniques, as well as best practices. Although I know the value of documenting code, I work as a RAD developer, and pressures/deadlines…. Well, we all know the excuses.

  11. #11 Ian
    June 23, 2008

    There seem to be two examples of sexism at large here. The first is in what McGrattan is claiming, based, apparently on a limited sample, namely that women are better than men at providing programmer-friendly code.

    The second is your comment which evidently echoes McGrattan’s sentiment, to the effect that program code has a “gender-related overprint that will be pretty visible”.

    I’m curious as to the scientific (versus anecdotal) underpinning for that claim.

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