If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of geeky prestige. However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. Additionally, the child’s gender affects how much the parents are willing to financially invest in the child’s computer education. If parents in the 1980s think that it is unlikely their eight-year-old daughter will have a career in technology, then purchasing a computer may seem like a frivolous expense.

Because of systemic racism, class differences correlate with racial demographics. In the Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, Latoya quotes a researcher’s exchange with an African American male computer science (CS) undergraduate:

“Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.”
— Undergraduate CS Major

Those “other guys” in CS are those white, male geeks who brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at their Commodore 64s as young children, where successive posters reveal younger and younger ages in order to trump the previous poster. This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently. However, CS departments—which tend to be dominated by even more privileged computer geeks of an earlier era when computers were even rarer—also assume that early computer adoption is a meritocratic measure of innate interest and ability.

CS departmental culture is described in the section “Culture of a Computer Science Department” of AAUW’s Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (pp. 59-60):

Departmental culture includes the expectations, assumptions, and values that guide the actions of professors, staff, and students. Individuals may or may not be aware of the influence of departmental culture as they design and teach classes, advise students, organize activities, and take classes. Margolis and Fisher described how the computing culture reflects the norms, desires, and interests of a subset of males—those who take an early interest in computing and pursue it with passion during adolescence and into college. Margolis and Fisher point out that throughout the life cycle “computing is actively claimed as ‘guy stuff’ by boys and men and passively ceded by girls and women” (ibid., p. 4). This pattern of behavior is influenced by external forces in U.S. culture that associate success in computing more with boys and men than with girls and women and often makes women feel that they don’t belong simply because of their gender. In an interview with AAUW, Margolis explained: “There is a subset of boys and men who burn with a passion for computers and computing. Through the intensity of their interest, they both mark the field as male and enshrine in its culture their preference for single-minded intensity and focus on technology.” Within that environment this particular male model of “doing” computer science becomes the measure of success; however, because young women and men often have different experiences with computers and different motivations to study computer science, this model can alienate women.

Many young men in computer science report having had an immediate and strong engagement with the computer from an early age. That engagement intensified in middle and high school and led the young men to declare a computer science major. On the other hand, many women who are interested in computer science and have similar talent do not report a similar experience. Many of these young women report a more moderate interest in computer science, especially early on, that builds gradually. Distinguishing between an interest in computer science and an interest in computers and technology is important. Historically girls had less interest in and experience both with computers and in computer science. Today women and men are interested in and equally likely to use computers and technology for educational and communication purposes (Singh et al., 2007), but the gender gap in the study of computer science remains.

About three-quarters of the men that Margolis and Fisher interviewed fit the profile of someone with an intense and immediate attraction to computing that started at a young age, in contrast to about one-quarter of the women in their study. Fisher explained, ‘There is a dominant culture of “this is how you do computer science,” and if you do not fit that image, that shakes confidence and interest in continuing.’ According to Margolis and Fisher (2002, p. 72), ‘A critical part of attracting more girls and women in computer science is providing multiple ways to “be in” computer science.’

In other words, at least 75% of male CS undergraduates had parents who were affluent enough to be able to afford computers at a time when computers were very expensive. Clearly, enrollment in CS is a social product of class privilege, not innate ability. Furthermore, this implies that computer geek prestige is an indicator of class privilege, in addition to being connected to technical proficiency.

A child’s gender modulates how her parents invest in their child’s education, as mentioned earlier. For example, girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15. Note that age 19 is no longer high school, but university, when undergraduates have already chosen their major. If women typically receive their first computer as adults, and boys typically receive their first computer as children, then of course there is going to be a gender gap in CS enrollment.

Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.


Update (2010/07/30):

Before commenting, please read “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it.

147 thoughts on “If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

  1. Melissa Terras

    Great post! but dont overlook the roles that schools had to play in providing access to computers – my class first had a BBC Micro when I was 10, that I was allowed to tinker on when I had finished other things early. So it also depends on the forward looking nature of the school you were in, and whether the teacher saw it just as play, or as a useful skill to be doing…

    1. Jayn

      Financial privilege can also play a part even if you went to a “forward looking” school. My schools certainly had some inclination towards teaching computing skills, but they weren’t exactly able to stay up to date on the technology–I was learning touch typing on Windows 3.1 in 2001, for example.

  2. vass

    Many of these young women report a more moderate interest in computer science, especially early on, that builds gradually.

    Yes! That’s my experience exactly! And I was using it as a reason to tell myself that I couldn’t pursue a career in computing.

  3. jfpbookworm

    Back in 1995, my university used the intro CS course as a way to “weed out” people that couldn’t handle the work. What it did, though, was weed out people who hadn’t already had lots of exposure to programming (which typically meant going to an affluent high school that offered programming courses). There was no “stepping stone”–the only other CS course that didn’t require that “intro” was a course for nonmajors that taught computer operation but not programming.

  4. attie

    Fifteen?!?

    Um, excuse me, I have a knapsack to investigate. I started using computers at age 2 and had my own by age 5! (There was an old computer that no one was using any more before that, but it was command-line only and thus a bit too difficult to use when you’ve not learned to read yet… I knew how to get to the collection of functions my father had programmed and make it draw colorful curves, but that got old relatively quickly.)

    My parents definitely weren’t rich enough to buy it for me, but I guess having friends rich enough to give you their old broken computers to repair and use as you wish is a form of class privilege as well. They definitely were outdated (I had a Macintosh Plus up to ’98), but there were always enough games from the period to go along with it. I suppose that now that computers are widespread kids would talk about their games at school and an old computer would come out poorly in comparison, but with no outside contact to tell me what a current computer looked like and could do, it was fine.

    Also, I’m glad my parents were both constant computer-hogs and never thought twice about whether I ‘needed’ one!

    1. D W

      I honestly can’t recall a time there wasn’t a computer in the house growing up. It wasn’t (directly) financial privilege as described, but there was definitely privilege: it was due to my mother’s position teaching math and computing for a local college and a bit of managing their administrative systems. She had these on loan from her employer to do remote work. The college treated old computing equipment like other old office equipment, which is to say as without value. I ended-up with a TRS-80 model 4 and a good set of disks plus documentation for it this way.

    2. Addie

      I think it’s fun for a lot of us who have been using computers since childhood to reminisce on when we first fell in love with computers, but I think you’re missing the point. “Rich” is a subjective term; even if you may not have interpreted your family as rich, having access to a computer does imply some degree of privilege.

      Restructure, this is a great post and something we often overlook in our personal geek narratives. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

      1. Addie

        Gah, re-read your comment and, to clarify, I do see that you recognize that having access to friends’ old computers was a sign of privilege; that said, my “missing the point” is in reference to using the comment space as a place to reminisce on our own early exposure to technology, if we had it.

        1. Restructure! Post author

          He (I think he’s a he, because he compared his starting age to “15”) also said “I have a knapsack to investigate”, which is a reference to the metaphor of privilege being an invisible knapsack.

        2. Addie

          Thanks for pointing that out – the reference definitely didn’t click with me.

      2. attie

        Uh, sorry if that came out self-centred. What I actually meant to say, though, in extrapolating from my own experience, was that I was wondering whether nowadays the ‘hand-me-down’ approach to computing would (does?) work better (since computers and internet are far more pervasive nowadays) or worse (since the outdatedness would be so much more apparent). I keep seeing people (and companies) throw out 3- to 5-year-old computers, which are still totally serviceable, and could be used to set another fledgling geek on their path the way it did me.

        (And I’m actually female, but got hung up on the number 15 because I was aware that I got in a little earlier than my female friends, but not that I got in so damn early overall. As for my interpretation of “rich”, we were on state support at the time (slightly better than US welfare).)

        1. Mackenzie

          My 10 year old cousin has her own computer because I rescued it from the trash and gave it to her. She doesn’t care that it’s a 5 year old machine. She’s just stoked that “OMG I HAVE A COMPUTER!”

  5. Jennifer

    I totally agree with this post. I didn’t get my first computer until I was 18 and in college and I had to pay for it myself. All throughout my grade school years I lived for the computer lab days and constantly visited my one friend who had a computer. I quickly caught up with programming once I had my own machine. My exboyfriend laughed at me when I applied to be a C/C++ teaching assistant, he said I would never get the position because I wasn’t in CSci (I was in computational chemistry, explosions and supercomputers what could be better?) and I hadn’t been programming since I was 6. I got the position and was begged to come back for the next year by the professor. If more people had equal access to computers when they were younger I am sure we would see more females in computer science.

  6. Bookann

    I had a computer in the mid 90’s… not the 80’s. I was 8, but I never got exposed to any sort of programming till college. I was fortunate to have the computer (my mom won some extra cash through the lotto and she wanted it to play games and stuff on) though and my dad actually had open minded concepts about me learning computer hardware and how it worked as we eventually over the course of 7 years upgraded the harddisk and RAM a number of times.

    However, I did some basic HTML taught at the high school (I know this isn’t a programming language) – through self taught modules. Our school was also not affluent enough to afford to teach actual programming. Instead I was doing administrative tasks and creative uses of a computer instead of programming anything…. but I was tagged as a problem solver and that’s usually square one with anything programming.

    I was actually more immersed in the creative side of using the computer than the programming that eventually came later. I did rely on a support system to help me through the years of the programming. I decided to go through programming to really round out my education doing web design and development and it definitely helped. Any guy that started spouting off at me about me not belonging… I tended to give the middle finger to. I would like a world where I wouldn’t have to do that, but most don’t try after the couple of times.

    “A critical part of attracting more girls and women in computer science is providing multiple ways to “be in’ computer science.”

    I really agree with this last quote. There are many societies within university for women that are in technology to help show them that are different ways to be involved within the field. They have also started going around to Junior High and High Schools to show that girls do belong. I think this a definite positive step. I hate the fact that for women to succeed in this field that we have to prove that we belong in some form and have to often. With men it’s more assumed.

    To be honest, I think where I may have landed may have been very much a lot of support, open minded from parents and being lucky enough to have a chance to use one.

  7. meep

    I would be interested to know how many of those kids had parents working in Computer Science in the 80’s. Yes, there is a certain amount of privilege , but I don’t know anyone who was just given a brand new fully assembled personal computer in the 80’s. Quite often, their dads (or in a few cases moms) brought home parts from the office. I think that might also be part of the issue, that for a middle class family, computing was more like car mechanics or electronics, because of the assembly and maintenance required. That would have made it even more of a “boy’s thing”. I’m female and a bit younger than the demographic mentioned here, and I got my first computer in 1995 at 12 because I needed it for school and everyone else I knew whose parents were not either very restrictive or rather poor had one as well. But by that point just owning a computer was kind of removed from some of the computer science aspects. I did take a CS 101 course in college because I wanted to take some Computational Linguistics courses. But I ended up dropping it, because all the students with tons of CS experience kept dominating the class by accelerating the pace and making esoteric joke with the prof. Those of us who were inexperienced just got pushed aside.

  8. Mary

    I take Addie’s point about not derailing the thread with my privileged personal experiences, so a generalisation along the gender dimension: I think computers, when even affordable, are seen by parents/carers as an investment in a boy’s future technical career, but in a girl’s future non-technical career (ie, they are likely to imagine her to use it developing “computer skills” in the sense of being able to use office suites and similar). A boy’s interest in gaming or hacking feeds into this image of him, the future technical man, but a girl’s interest in gaming or hacking is a distraction from her developing career-related “computer skills”.

  9. moose

    First of all, I am offended at how this article implies that to be a “computer geek” you have to be a programmer. It’s just that kind of “code or you’re nobody” attitude that keeps many women from being recognized for their work in the computing fields.

    I come from the days before personal computers. My first computer experience was in 1977. My high school, and 4-5 others, banded together to purchase and maintain a DEC TOPS-10 system. Anyone in the honors math classes was required to learn to program in BASIC. We accessed these computers with DECWriter [similar to this: http://www.tpsoft.com/museum_images/DecWriter%20III.JPG%5D and an acoustic coupler modem that ran at 300 baud. The phones had to be manually dialed [rotary dial phones] and then, if you were able to connect, placed in the “coupler” of the modem [similar to the ones here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_coupler%5D.

    A few of the kids in the maths class went on to learn more than the little required by the class itself. They were all white males, if I remember. Two that I recall strongest went on to learn languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. I remember one talking about making $35/hour coding for a bank — as a high school junior in 1979. The teacher hooked him up with the job.

    Back then the women who took things like honors maths classes were considered odd, even by the instructors. There was a real “sink or swim” attitude. If you couldn’t cut it, too bad. My senior year I tried taking an offered Calculus class. When I had terrible problems and asked for help from the teacher, the head of the math department, I was told, “Why bother? It doesn’t matter, you’re a girl, you don’t need to know maths or sciences.” Another of my classmates wanted to study architecture at University. She had to go to the school board to be allowed to enroll in the Junior and Senior level drafting classes offered by the “shop” teacher. And even then there was talk of what a “waste” it would be if she took all those classes and never used them.

    However, honors classes were offered to anyone who had the grades to be admitted. I can clearly recall some of the other women in the honors maths classes with me. I can only recall three, possibly four minority women, all African-American, in the honors maths and sciences classes with me. There may have been more, but our (total) student-class size was about 200 people, and I cannot recall what percent was non-white. There was usually two honors class for maths or sciences offered in a day, so we’re talking about maybe 60 students total. About 20 were women, and of those, three were minority women. And this was the late 1970s.

    How many of us stayed with maths or went into computing? Best of my knowledge, I (eventually) went into computing, one woman became an accountant. I’d love to find out about the rest.

  10. the15th

    Wow, thank you so much for this. I also picked up computer science relatively late in life — applied to CS grad school as an undergrad math major after a professor suggested that I apply not to a math department but to a department where I could use math. I knew that I hated chemistry, biology, and physics, so CS seemed like the best option even though I’d had only two computer science classes in college. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

    And I actually did have a Timex Sinclair at age 5 and a Commodore 64 at age 8. But all that privilege wasn’t enough to overcome the intimidation I felt from the hacker boys’ club until I got a little older — far older than is generally considered acceptable for a “rock star” “hacker” to start a career — and more confident.

  11. Jubal

    Interesting analysis. Be aware of its US-centric bias, though, situation in Europe (especially in former Warsaw Pact countries) was quite different.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      I’m from Canada, but I’m interested in what you mean, because I have no idea about what the situation might be outside of North America. How was it different?

  12. Snarky's Machine

    This post was fantastic. As a person who doesn’t benefit from race, but does benefit from class, I can attest to much of the class bias as it relates to computers. I had access to computers (at home and in school) since elementary school and I went to elem school back in the stone age where my computer was powered by steam until we could power it Fred Flintstone style. I definitely observe a lot of privilege flaunting in many geek communities – irrespective of focus (comix, sci-fi, etc) – and the message I get is very much, “Lack of access to these things suggests something is wrong with YOU” rather than denoting the presence of some level of privilege. It’s pretty much why I avoid geek communities like whoa. Very marginalizing to folks who haven’t benefit from race or gender, the way many within those communities have.

  13. Meg Thornton

    I got my first exposure to computers via my (male) cousin, who got an Amstrad machine when he was about 15 or so. The first computer in our household was ostensibly purchased for my younger brother (the Christmas before he turned 15) but I was the one who got the most actual use out of it (I was turning 18 that year, and in my first year at university). Of the two of us, I was always the one who was more interested in the programming side of things (I can remember trying to figure out how to code up one of my “fighting fantasy” games in BASIC), and in the “making the computer do practical stuff” side of things.

    I was also the first out of the two of us to purchase my own PC for private use, the first to get onto the internet, and the one who has since gone on to actually work and study in the IT field. But to be honest, the high-school class which was the most help to me in the computing field was the introduction to typing class – I learned how to touch-type, and as a result, while I may have to spend a bit longer waiting around for the ideas to click together in my head, once they do, I can type up the program a bit faster than the rest of the gang in class.

    (Another note on the US-centric note of this particular article: I get the strong impression that the Australian experience is different again, since our culture does place a heavy emphasis on sporting prowess over intellectual ability.)

    1. Restructure! Post author

      I’m from Canada, but I can accept there being a North American bias. I wasn’t aware that Australia may be even more anti-intellectual than the U.S…?

  14. russ nelson

    My daughter had Tonka trucks (the good ones), and Lego blocks. She showed no interest. We had a computer in the house from her birth. No interest. She’s quite comfortable with computers, but has no interest in programming them. We tried, but it didn’t take. What’s a feminist to do??

    1. Restructure! Post author

      Not every girl given a computer will become interested in programming. My sister grew up in similar circumstances to mine, and she is not interested in programming.

    2. Kite

      Feminism – isn’t that a lot about promoting choice? It seems your daughter, given the choice by your good self, chose something else she enjoyed. Which is good, positive and fine (assuming of course, she wasn’t extremely negatively influenced away from it by outside socialisation once she hit school age, but there’s only so much a parent can do).

  15. Kite

    Great article, and really good points. Who tended to get the resources and sheer amount of time left alone as kids?

    My story, which I hope is not derailing – I did have a bit of access to computers in the 80s – there was two at my (state) primary school. However, I remember not feeling very proficient at it in the rare amount of time I got on it, and I do remember the boys taking it over whenever possible. So I thought I wasn’t very good at computer stuff. High school was a girls’ only state school, and there were computers there – for learning typing on, ladies! I can touch type real fast now. I was bullied so much, that I retreated to the computer room’s Apple IIe’s. I played Zork and then eventually picked up some BASIC by osmosis, though I could never save anything for the next lunchtime. My parents eventually bought a computer half way through my last year of school, which was a marker of wealth, and which was soooo much quicker for doing essays on, but it got me more interested in programming. However, in uni I enrolled in Physics, and it wasn’t until I failed or nearly failed all my subjects due to life stuff, that I found I was at least eligible for Computing next year. (And nearly got kicked out twice before completing my degree, I felt so alienated there which definitely did not help. So many of the men had prodigious rarefied backstories to their geekery, like the article above suggests. Almost all the other of the few women were overseas students and openly said depressing things like, girls’ brains aren’t as good as boys’. Though they were wealthy, I don’t think these women tended to have an attachment to computers growing up, I think from what they said was that their parents mostly encouraged/enrolled them because it was a solid money-earning career, a slightly different relation to technology in E Asia from Australia I think? Which is so much about the sporrrrrrrt. I hope things are shifting. Computers are much more affordable now, too, so I want to hear about some really young hackers from non-trad backgrounds emerging. And are there really 1 in 14 people in the world actively using Facebook now?? )

  16. gin

    YEP! I skimmed the report (on your recommendation, thanks) and that was the bit that really hit home to me. I bought my own second-hand computer, to write my Uni thesis on, age 22. I wasn’t going to write 20,000 words out by hand! I’ve always wondered if I’m geeky, hardcore, enough? But, yes, I have to remember about privilege, feminism and straighten my back up. Hopefully there’s a place for me in this industry when I graduate…

    Note, I’m curious when this situation will change. I’m GenX. I doubt half the CS class in high school would be given typewriters (literally) to practice on today. And it was a wealthy school, late 80s, Australia. Mobiles (US=cell phones) are prevalent now, and essentially computers. No-one at school had one, I bought my first mobile/cell after Uni, a few years after my first computer.

    Our (Australian) government is now giving tax breaks, subsidies(?) to buy computers for kids, hopefully GenY and Z won’t experience this. Something to ponder as I bring up my own 2 little girls.

    1. gin

      P.S. I’d like to recognise that at my Uni, UTS, most of the (not so young) (majority male) lecturers narrate their first experience of computers as being when they were adults. They’ve discussed the clumsy introduction of computers into work places circa. late 90s, and the accompanying problematic social dynamics. They’ve discussed when the Internet really hit (it hit the Aussie media 1994/5, by my reckoning), and they’ve discussed retraining later in life.

      For me, more than the younger students in the class, these off-hand stories have been really important.

    2. Daniel Martin

      Yes, most current students will have grown up at a time when computers were more ubiquitous. (most current university students were age 8 sometime after 1995, right?)

      However, with the ubiquity of computers you have to balance their importance. Let me disassemble the TI-99 in 1984? (when I was 8) Sure, why not? It’s primary use was games anyway. Let me program it at a low level? Why not? That’s almost the only way to program it. Besides, even if I do screw it up it’s nothing turning the thing off and on again won’t fix.

      Now, let your eight year old mess around at a low level with the family computer that is important for things like tracking the finances, keeping in touch with the outside world, and needed to do word processing for older sibling’s schoolwork? Not so much. Accidentally breaking things and/or reconfiguring them so that other people have trouble using the computer is way too easy to do. (Plus, my parents never had to worry about me downloading malware/viruses onto the machine since the only way to trade programs was on audio tape with the few people who’d bought exactly the same model – and again, off-and-on reset everything)

      1. Restructure! Post author

        There is also a massive difference between a family computer and a Computer Of One’s Own. My family had an IBM PC when I was little (a marker of class privilege), which I was allowed to use in limited ways but not tinker, because it was my STEM parent’s work computer. I assume that “receive your first computer” ages mean a Computer Of One’s Own, and not a family computer.

        Do children these days typically each receive a Computer Of One’s Own? I doubt it, but I’m not a parent.

        1. Daniel Martin

          While a sense of personal ownership might be important, I think that the “can you mess around with it” distinction is more directly relevant. The TI-99 wasn’t “mine”, but there was no question I could do whatever to it because a flick of the physical on/off switch and everything was reset exactly as it was when it came out of the box. The only issue was allocating time.

          Modern computers are too useful to others in the family (or too necessary for things like schoolwork even when they are One’s Own) and too fragile (in terms of the whole software ecosystem a modern computer needs to function) to indulge the “sure, do whatever” attitude in the same way, unless one has the privilege to have one or more essentially disposable devices explicitly for that purpose. Ever have to re-install a modern machine from bare metal after it’s gotten infected by who knows what malware that’s broken it too badly to even boot? Not fun, if it’s even possible to find all the relevant original disks and whatever.

          I’ll grant that the “can you mess with it” answer becomes “yes” more often when it is One’s Own.

          As for what typical children receive these days, I’m not up on that but what my 6-year-old daughter gets is a login to the family computer. (This is the result of us working through the first two pages of the book “Hello World”) I have a coworker who just gave his 8-yr-old daughter a hand-me-down desktop that’s kept in the family room but with the expectation that she will do whatever to it. (i.e. it isn’t important for someone else, and her parents can restore it to a working state if needed, so she has explicit freedom to explore) However, those are two moderately class-privileged (and heavily “early exposure to CS” privileged (*)) examples.

          (*) Seriously, this concept needs a better name. “geek privilege”?

        2. Kite

          I shared the computer with 3 siblings and think that’s not much obstacle in itself to messing around with a computer a lot. You just take it in shifts, like at night. The main obstacle for me was not having much time to be on it at all, study included, because parents made us sisters do all the cooking/cleaning and some of the business’ sewing. My brother (now doing an IT course) was the one who was left alone with the computer the most (he was “incompetent” with cleaning/sewing), and these days my mother leaves him in there for basically days at a time with the computer, feeds him. Definitely gender stuff going on there.

          I remember from uni days strongly feeling (compensatingly/reassuringly) that women often had more going on in their life than hackery, whether that was obligations or recreation, whereas the guys who were into hackery, tended to be all-consumed by it.

        3. Mackenzie

          There’s a middle point between family computer and Computer Of One’s Own too. That’s the family-computer-but-I’m-the-sysadmin. My family trusted me to do stuff to the computer (install software mostly, and take it apart when I got older) because I was the only one willing to sit down and at least give it a go and that eventually (through much trial & error) meant I learned what I was doing. As long as I didn’t let the Magic Blue Smoke out, it was ok.

  17. Daniel Martin

    There needs to be another term for “introduction to CS at an early age” privilege. It’s not exactly class privilege – though it would certainly be correlated with it. I suspect that these days it depends strongly on having a parent in a STEM field. I got my introduction that way, but asking around my co-workers leads me to believe that that (having a parent in a STEM field) is rare among people in my age cohort, becoming much more frequent as I ask people 10 or more years younger than me, and tending towards near-universal among the interns.

    This privilege may be a bit harder to deal with than other privileges (gender-based, class-based) because it affects – so far as I can tell – only one academic department at the university level and so may not get as much attention as privileges that have a more widespread effect. Not that the situation is hopeless, just that it probably requires active actions by people whose academic training is in CS, and not in some field that would naturally incline them to look at issues of privilege in the world around them. I would like to highlight one hopeful bit from the linked report: (the bottom of page 61)

    As a result of Margolis and Fisher’s work, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon implemented several changes that helped create a more welcoming culture and improved the recruitment and retention of female students. The proportion of incoming female students increased from 7 percent in 1995, the first year of the study, to 42 percent in 2000. Retention of women also improved during that period (Margolis & Fisher, 2002).

    The report gives several recommendations after that hopeful paragraph; the one I’d heard reported most before (and that I’ve heard mentioned by other CS undergraduate-level instructors) is the last one: don’t make years of pre-college CS experience the default assumption or prerequisite to a CS major. This requires very little in the way of formal changes to the first few major courses – mostly, it requires instructors committed to the idea of deliberately guiding students through the initial conceptual hurdles of putting together a program and not taking the easy way out of jumping straight to the “interesting stuff” with the portion of the class that walked in having already written several programs on their own.

    1. Kite

      While I think my course was pretty sucky, one good thing it did was to knock the wind out of the sails of those guys who’d been programming for ages – by starting us on an obscure functional programming language called Miranda (oh did it ever raise a whole lotta grumbles from the boasters). Only after that did we do procedural stuff like C, and then onto C++. Mind you, the whole course seemed determined to be as academic and un-real-world as possible, so C++ was probably the most career-relevant thing we got out of it! Java? Two lectures in passing. Forget any internet app programming. /OT

      1. John

        A well-known UK university did that for a while, using ML as the introductory programming language, specifically to wipe out the bad habits people learn by teaching themselves using BASIC etc.

  18. Amy

    I would like to call out the ageism inherent in this essay — you are applying what happened in your era (1980s) to children who grew up in the 90s, and erasing their experiences. You are also being very US-centric, as the prices and economy of computer-uptake varied in a huge way during that.

    Specifically, I am a girl who grew up poor, with a single parent, in the 90s. I had access to the shared family computer (in fact, I was the only one who knew how to use it), that was always second hand, and very much past its use-by date. The first was an ancient 286, then a rebuilt (time and time again) 486, followed by a Pentium. My first personal computer was a very old Pentium 2 laptop, at age 13 (in 2005).

    I speak of personal circumstance to indicate your erasure of this generation, for whom computers may have been present, but were not an indicator of material wealth and privilege. It is rather like the distinction of having only a small CRT TV compared to having a massive plasma — it’s a rather huge difference in income and thus class.

    1. Annalee Rockwood

      I grew up in the nineties too, in a family with one income, three kids, and a disabled veteran. The computer in our dining room was a hand-me-down from a relative. I faced a lot of obstacles that other people didn’t, as I’m sure you did. These obstacles are real, and they’re not fair.

      That doesn’t change the fact that having a computer in the house growing up is a privilege.

      Unlike me, my neighbors–who’d come to the United States to escape the violence in war-torn El Salvador–didn’t have grandparents in the states with extra computers to hand down.

      Privilege is relative. Having a computer in the house is not the same as living in a mansion with a new computer in every room. But it’s also not the same as living in a homeless shelter, or living in your cousin’s spare room, or living in a run-down apartment building where things get stolen all the time. It would be ridiculous for me to say that I had the same obstacles to learning computers as people who grew up in those situations. And the point of the article is, it’s also ridiculous to assume that someone isn’t or can’t become good at computers just because they didn’t have one at home when they were a kid.

      Home computers may have been more common in the nineties than the eighties, just as they’re more common now than in the nineties, but that still doesn’t mean that everyone who grew up in the nineties had one in their home, and was encouraged/supported in using them to learn programming on them.

      1. Amy

        Home computers may have been more common in the nineties than the eighties, just as they’re more common now than in the nineties, but that still doesn’t mean that everyone who grew up in the nineties had one in their home, and was encouraged/supported in using them to learn programming on them.

        Of course not. The point is that having access to a computer (even in the 1980s) cannot be seen as an indication of class privilege. “Access” may be defined in a multitude of ways, and the sweeping generalisation that people “…are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. ” is offensive, and a comment of erasure.

        I understand and even accept the article’s point that some people have barriers to entry to CS. I do, however, think the wording of said article leaves much to be desired in terms of the above sweeping generalisations.

        I wasn’t debating that there is a gender and racial gap in computer uptake, but I am debating that computers and access thereof be used to distinguish class. Class is far more than what you own, or even have access to.

        1. Amy

          Not only that — and when I said “access”, I meant for computer access in general — whether it be an a library, or at home, or even at a friend’s house.

          (I’ll not emphasise how US-centric that meme is, but suffice to say, it is.)

          Class is about income, but it isn’t only about it — geography, and race, and education factor into it.

          The point of my comments is that exposure to programming at a young age cannot be used as a marker of class privilege, and this is obviously where you and I disagree. I see it as definite first-world privilege (but that is changing as third-world countries industrialise) and more than likely (in the case of male geeks), male privilege, but not as a marker of being middle-class or higher.

    2. Addie

      I think you make a good point. The barrier to entry for people to use computers has lowered significantly, not just because computers are getting cheaper but because second-hand computers are more plentiful and easier to acquire, and public-use computers are pervasive in places like libraries.

      I think there’s still a lot of privilege inherent in being able to be exposed to the aspects of a computer that allow one to get interested in programming, though. Internet access, for instance, can be really expensive. And I suspect tinkering is heavily discouraged in poorer families where the family computer is an extremely valuable commodity and there is no way of replacing the machine if things go wrong. Finally, the gendered socialization re: who is best with computers seems as strong and pervasive as ever. There may be more computer users of both genders, but I catch people falling into the idea of the “super-user” as masculine quite frequently.

      I definitely agree that there are going to be cases where “Look at how hardcore about technology I was as a kid” doesn’t correlate 1:1 with “Look at how privileged I was to have access to technology as a kid.” I think the barrier to entry is a lot smaller now, but the general case still holds – that most people who had early access to technology did so because they were part of a privileged class.

      1. Jayn

        “Internet access, for instance, can be really expensive.”

        I would personally amend this to “Decent internet access can be expensive.” My parents still can’t get anything better than 56k where they live without shelling out for satellite. And a lot of sites these days (and even way too many in the 90s) aren’t designed with low-bandwidth users in mind. It’s one thing to wait a half hour for YouTube to load–that’s expected. It’s another to wait that long for a bank website or something else that can be equally functional without choking the intraweb toobs.

  19. Jen

    I recently splurged on something I’ve wanted for a long time – my own virtual server to put my cgi scripts on. It is awesome, it’s the most fun thing to play with ever, and having it means I can do lots of things I couldn’t do before. (I used to use a free service, Heliohost, and it’s pretty good when it works but there’s so much downtime it’s hard to get anything done). I’m a student so it’s purely something for me to play around with rather than something I use for work, and even though I can afford it, since I’ve been working over the summer, it took a real effort of will for me to tell myself that it’s worth spending £13/month on this. I really noticed how it took a confluence of two kinds of privilege – both having the money, and having the confidence to decide to invest in myself, in order to do this.

    1. Kite

      Good for you mate! :D I used to use a host called Jooster to play around with scripts (no shell but cPanel with PHP/MySQL/cron jobs), if anyone else is interested, they are very cheap, they have a bit more downtime than the more expensive ones but worth it for playing with.

  20. DrNI@AM

    I think you’re right. I was fortunate that my father was working as a programmer back then, so it was only indirectly a matter of wealth, actually it was simply the tool for his (not too badly paid) job.

    The good thing about all of this is that this will change in the future. Not only have computers become rather inexpensive, the computers of today won’t produce any geeks any more. They have become handy and they do what most people want without any need to learn programming or system configuration.

    There is no doubt that lady geeks can be equally talented compared to boy geeks. In the course of study which I’m advertising as a part of my job, namely a computational linguistics program, we constantly have about 50% female students doing equally well than the males. Having studied in this program myself I found the half-half climate much more relaxed than the almost-only-male climate I had found in a CS program before.

  21. Vornaskotti

    Hmh. I think this has a lot to do with the culture and the country. Here in Finland a lot of my pals from working class families had a computer in the 80’s. I had a C64 in early 80’s and my family was perhaps lower middle class.

    1. Addie

      I don’t actually think you’re refuting Restructure’s point. She didn’t make any explicit statements about a particular economic class and their access to technology; she just spoke about how access to technology is a privilege, and it is. The fact that poor families in Western nations can get access to technology is in itself indicative of the privilege of living in Western nations – poor families in many third world and developing countries will not have the same opportunity.

  22. freedom lover

    This is a simple matter of the educational system leveraging on the investment already done by their parents. Everything else is inefficient and a complete waste of resources.

  23. Gilmore

    This is ridiculous. I grew up dirt poor drinking powdered milk, eating government cheese, wearing clothes from Goodwill. I got my first TRS-80 at age 9 for christmas. It cost $150 (cheapest model available) and I had to split it with my brother. My parents couldn’t really even afford that $150 but they made it work because they knew it would be good for me. Later I upgraded to a C64 out of my own paper route savings.

    I guess I’m lucky I was upper class, right? Had all the advantages just handed to me, right? Whatever.

    1. Addie

      I’d check out Annalee’s comment from earlier up in the thread. Privilege is relative. I don’t see Restructure! arguing that all lower-middle-class or poor families don’t get access to computers – I think that’s a conclusion you came up with on your own. It’s absolutely possible to be privileged in some ways and completely disadvantaged in others. The two can coexist.

      1. Gilmore

        How is it meaningful to define ‘privileged’ so broadly as to mean ‘privileged to have parents who cared’, or ‘privileged to want to buy a computer with your own saved-up lawn mowing and paper route money’? What is the usefulness of such a definition of ‘privileged’ in talking about…well, whatever the original point was? The original point seemed to be that poor black kids are locked out of being geeks because their parents couldn’t afford computers. My own example and that of many other geek kids I knew growing up obviously puts the lie to this. So where are the goalposts being moved now?

        It upsets me to hear someone saying I didn’t become a power geek because I wanted to or because I had the talent for it, and relegating it to a mere product of a completely imaginary ‘white rich privilege’ that I definitely don’t recall having. It’s a nasty streak in left-wing thought that in my opinion degrades humanity and reduces us all to mere automatons programmed by our social class.

        1. Russell Nelson

          Ow. Less honesty please. Have you tried lying to spare our feelings? It’s much more important that we feel good about ourselves than that we actually perceive the world as it really is, warts and all.

        2. gin

          I don’t think anyone wants to downplay your determination, skills or talents. Also, weren’t your parents great?

          However, I think the point was, when you meet someone (possibly female/black/both) who hasn’t been programing since forever, and doesn’t appear totally geeky, don’t leap to the conclusion they’re:
          a) dumb; or
          b) lazy

          before also considering the possibility that actually:
          c) they’ve had limited access/practice .

        3. Mary

          As an addendum to gin’s comment, this isn’t a straw man/person/object/thing. There are arguments from geeks that “hey, the resources are there, anyone not programming/hacking/geeking/earning money has made an active and totally free choice.” Some of them even argue from their own not-totally privileged childhood. (It’s safe to say that no one having this argument on the Internet would win the Oppression Olympics.)

    2. Daniel Martin

      Well, congratulations in that you got early access to computers despite having neither male privilege or class privilege. (Though your username is gender-ambiguous, I assume you wouldn’t be so crass as to completely ignore that the original post is as much about male privilege as it is about class privilege, right?)

      Hey! There exists a counterexample! As we all know, all sociological analyses rely on strict rigid categories and a single counterexample makes any sociological statement invalid. Clearly by your example there’s no significant difference in how hard it was for your parents to afford a computer and how hard it was for mine, so later when we see that more kids that grew up in my home zip code end up on the top of the techno-geek pile than kids who grew up in the zip code you grew up in, that’s not at all a reflection of any class privilege and purely a reflection of innate talent and how much parents cared.

      [/sarcasm]

      I understand that it hurts when someone makes statements that appear to erase your life experience; I’ll admit that I haven’t found a good way to deal with those feelings beyond taking a deep breath and stepping away from the keyboard for a few hours. Fortunately for me, possessing the default identity on the internet – white straight geeky male, I have enough places on the internet validating my identity that it doesn’t come up too often. When it does though, I try to ask myself why the author would say that, and then I often notice that the author hasn’t made anywhere near the complete and total blanket statement that my defense mechanism triggered on initially. I don’t know, but I suspect that you may be triggering on the word “privilege” as it is used here and be under the impression that “class privilege” is something binary that you only enjoy if your parents bring home more than $BIGINT per year. Therefore, you see the statement “However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness.” and interpret it as “anyone who had a computer in the 1980s was living the life of Richie Rich” when the statement’s meaning in context is closer to “The use of ‘I was programming at a younger age than you’ as a way of gaining cred in geek circles ties cred in geek circles to class, because a computer in the early 1980s was not something everyone just had around, and most computer geeks are oblivious to this”. (when you see the word “ties” in that sentence, think increasing the correlation coefficient, not a binary proposition)

      Now, you might well still dispute that statement, but hopefully without the “you’re saying I don’t exist” defensive reaction.

  24. Vornaskotti

    Actually, as an acquaintance slightly bluntly put it: “Tagged as: Blog makes a sweeping generalization that applies only to USA.”

    1. gin

      And Australia.

      That’s half the interest, isn’t it? Finding out about how it was in other countries/generations/social groups…

  25. Ellen Spertus

    My husband and I noticed that our nephew Shawn hogged his family’s aging computer, even putting a label on it that said “Shawn’s computer”. For Christmas, we gave his sister a brand new computer all her own on the grounds that her brother already one. :-)

  26. Lindsey Kuper

    I’m a 28-year-old white female American computer scientist. My parents, and their parents, are many things — farmers, small business owners, political activists — but they definitely aren’t computer geeks. Growing up, our family shared a middle-of-the-road computer, nothing special. I was allowed to do more or less what I wanted with it, but when I was in middle school and high school in the 90s, I didn’t really come in contact with any programmers, and my rural Iowa public school didn’t offer any programming courses, so that option didn’t occur to me. In high school, I lived for choir and band and just tried to tolerate everything else.

    I was going to just major in music in college, but I took a CS course on a whim after my first-year roommate said she was going to take a CS course for nonmajors . I thought that if she, who had a professed hatred of computers, could take CS for nonmajors, then I, who had no particular aversion to computers, could take intro CS for majors. Within three weeks, I was hooked. So I started programming at 19, in my second year of college, in class alongside a bunch of guys who’d been programming for much longer than I had. One thing I appreciated about my first programming course was that it was taught in a relatively unusual language that the guys who had been hacking since they were sixteen or twelve or eight were unlikely to have used. That leveled the playing field for me. In fact, I was at an advantage to some of the guys, because I was a blank slate while they had a lot of assumptions to unlearn. I got my degree in 2004, worked for a few years, then started my Ph.D., which I’m now in the third year of. To this day, I’m still reaping the benefits of having had a Lispy language as my first programming language. I recommend it to everyone I can.

  27. ANdrew

    I wrote my first computer program before my parents could afford a computer by reading books on computers. But this article basically says no-one should be proud of anything they did as a kid because it was merely a product of circumstance. Which is utter tosh.

    1. Jayn

      The point isn’t that you can’t be proud of your accomplishments–it’s just that being able to say that you wrote your first computer program at age, say, 8 doesn’t make you better than the person who had to wait longer because of lack of access to computers, computer-related materials, or any one to teach computer skills.

    2. Kite

      God, no one’s saying having privilege is this totally bad thing, or totally cushioning thing. Privilege enables. It gives choices, or makes choices easier. Ideally no one would have more or less opportunities than anyone else (what they do with it is up to them), so the inequality aspect of privilege wouldn’t exist. I’m not dissing Newton for his achievements in Physics even though he got heaps of opportunities, he’s still an utter genius who worked hard, but what about all the people who never got a chance to? No one should assume the working classes or women of history were just stupid drones because they didn’t accomplish like he did.

      Anyone who thinks talking about privilege simply reduces people to automated players is missing the point about enabling/choice/individual factors. As is anyone who thinks it’s an Olympic sport with a nice gold medal for the winner.

      Also, occasionally someone heroically defies all the odds, and is often promoted/paraded by more right-wing/level-playing-field minded people as proof that privilege is no factor to success. Yeah… the exception doesn’t prove the rule.

      1. Kite

        *that was Eurocentric of me, I also mean no one should think people from less technologically knowledgeable societies of the time were stupid or lazy either!

      2. Russell Nelson

        Talking about privilege bothers me, because the likely next step is to talk about equality. Let’s take away his privilege because someone else doesn’t have the same privilege. This guy runs great, but that makes the slow runners feel bad, so let’s hobble him. This other guy programs great, but that makes the poor programmers feel bad, so let’s make him type in binary.

        Everyone has attributes which make them better at one thing or another, but shouldn’t we be treating everyone as individuals, not as members of one race, or one class, or one gender, or one height, or one attractiveness? Supposedly black people can jump, but not my brother-in-law. You might want to say that he’s the exception that proves the rule, but no, he’s just an overweight lawyer. Perhaps it’s true that black people can jump higher than white people on average, but what does that tell us about black individuals? Not a thing.

        Having a computer in the home, or having your own computer *might* lead you to programming as an interest. In the case of my daughter, it didn’t. Instead of having her own computer, she has her own spinning wheel and sewing machine.

        In the end, all this posting is saying is: life is easier if your parents support you. Not exactly an incisive observation.

        1. Jen

          Wow, let’s play, ‘spot the false assumptions’!

          False assumption 1: When we talk about privilege, it means that we want to take away privilege from those that have it. “Let’s take away his privilege because someone else doesn’t have the same privilege.” No-one said anything like that in this thread, or in any other feminist blog that I’m aware of. If anything I’d say feminists want privileges such as access to technology should be made available to those who currently don’t have them, not be taken from those who do.

          False assumption 2: If you talk about privilege it means you have to ignore individual differences between people. “…shouldn’t we be treating everyone as individuals, not as members of one race, or one class, or one gender, or one height, or…”. I think most people would agree that things like gender, race and class are important in making us who we are, but that we at the same time we are individuals, and our race / class / gender identity is only part of who we are.

        2. Jayn

          “In the end, all this posting is saying is: life is easier if your parents support you. Not exactly an incisive observation.”

          No, but certainly one that needs to be pointed out from time to time, especially when talking about early interest in hobbies that require expensive pieces of equipment. I was very fortunate to have parents who were very supportive of my interests, and lenient when it came to letting me explore my own hobbies (I know both sewing and carpentry). But we were towards to lower end of the local socio-economic spectrum (working class), especially before Mom had a paying job, so I wasn’t able to have a lot of the toys my peers enjoyed. We didn’t have a computer in our home until I was ten–a used C64 with lots of floppies and no manuals :/ Compare that to my cousins who at that point (mid 90s) had had multiple computers at home for years, and I think the point becomes clear.

          (In the case of my cousins, it was pure class privilege–I’m not sure my aunts and uncles knew how to turn the things on)

      3. Russell Nelson

        Kite, the exception always proves (tests) the rule. Too many exceptions and you need to revise the rule.

        Think of the use of “proves” as in “galley proof”.

        1. Kite

          Wow, dude. There aren’t too many exceptions. This is actually for a reason. But some people parade the exceptions as if there are no rules, to suit their agendas. Like I said, level-playing-field types, which abound in the geek world I’ve noticed. This article is about that culture. Sure seems to have ruffled some feathers.

          Your ideas about identity politics are…. laughably retrogressive, to say the least. Jen said it better.

          By the way, I programme and have a sewing machine and a spindle. This is not a contradiction. They are not opposites.

  28. Bubba

    Are you trying to rewrite history to fit with your views?
    This article is ignoring a lot of issues which explain the situation in a way which doesn’t fit with your agenda.

    In my case, I got my 1st computer in 1981 at the age of 12 – it cost £50 / $100 new. While I was asking my parents for this computer, my friends were getting racing bicycles which were worth about the same money.

    As a 12 year old in the 1980’s what would you prefer as a Christmas present? A plastic box which was hard work, or something you could have fun on? It was only when the computer games came out that the market place started getting bigger – and boys and girls were interested!

  29. tabiji

    RE:
    jfpbookworm
    July 27, 2010
    Back in 1995, my university used the intro CS course as a way to “weed out” people that couldn’t handle the work. What it did, though, was weed out people who hadn’t already had lots of exposure to programming (which typically meant going to an affluent high school that offered programming courses). There was no “stepping stone”–the only other CS course that didn’t require that “intro” was a course for nonmajors that taught computer operation but not programming.

    This is the best comment. 1st year math is also a ‘weeder’ course. At my school, there’s 4 first year math courses (all full year).

  30. Ben Alabaster

    I have to say, there are scenarios that don’t fall inside your cut and dry model of privilege. My own situation for instance:

    It was 1984, my mother had kicked my father out of the house for various reasons, not least of which she was sick of working her fingers to the bone while he was smoking and drinking the family income away. Now she was a single mother of two kids under ten, a secretary of an aspiring entrepreneur in the import/export business working 12 hours a day to support us. She barely had money to keep the roof over our heads, my father was fighting on the child support front and let’s just say, life wasn’t so comfortable. Not that my Dad is a scumbag, they were both young and made a lot of mistakes, just like many young couples. I don’t think life in my Dad’s household was so comfortable at the time either. But that’s another irrelevant story…

    I guess for a while, my mum and been scrimping and saving and saw a potential way out of the hole – she bought home this shiny black Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K with grey rubber keys. With it she brought home a book called BBC BASIC in 30 hours. Obviously, being a kid, and seeing the kids of privilege around me, I wanted games for this glistening beauty – but there’s no way my mum could afford those. For Christmas instead that year, she bought me a book about programming computer games and I read it from cover to cover, fascinated. I set to work. I spent hours poring over that book, and days plugging the code into the computer. We had no way to save the code, my mum couldn’t afford the tape player to save it, so once I got bored with the game, I unplugged the computer and set to work coding the next one. Some of them took many hours, a few of them took days of which I had to keep a watchful eye over the device to make sure nobody unplugged it and lost all my code.

    I’ve been hacking away at computers ever since, and now I code for a living.

    I was privileged in the sense that my mum bought the computer and I paid nothing for it, I didn’t go shopping for it, or have to throw a tantrum in the computer store to get her to buy it for me. In fact, she didn’t buy it for me at all, she bought it for herself so she could learn to program and find a way to a better income and a better life. Of course, my inner geek thrived at the opportunity that fell in my lap. I still thought I was hard done by compared to the kids around me whose more affluent parents could afford games and could afford all the fancy accessories like joysticks, tape players and later on disk drives. I do however, have the added satisfaction that I could make this dinky toy of a computer do far more than they could with their much more impressive Amstrads, BBC Micros, Acorn Electrons and Commodore 64s

    1. Snarky's Machine

      I have to say, there are scenarios that don’t fall inside your cut and dry model of privilege. My own situation for instance:

      All your comment proves is that you are unfamiliar with the concept of “privilege” and unable to locate resources to explain it to you. If your google’s broken you can use mine.

  31. David Fisher

    Something about this article made me feel uncomfortable and I can’t place my finger on it.

    I’ve had a C64 since I was two- rather my father did. My mother bought it for a birthday present for him when I was two. It wasn’t for me, but I quickly learned to use it and I’ve been able to type longer than I could write.

    Yet I never saw myself as being privileged in this respect. We all make choices. My mother made a choice to buy it for my father. She knew he’d always wanted his own computer and the C64 was one of the first affordable computers. My parents weren’t rich, and I’d be shocked if they were breaking 25K/year at that point.

    Yes, I’m a white, middle class, christian raised male. Doesn’t get much worse than that does it? And yes, I do love talking about the 80’s and 90’s computing with my like-minded friends. We made the choice to use computers. Other of our friends wanted to do sports. Guess who felt more popular and ‘in’ in middle/high school?

    Yet my sister, three years younger than myself, has never lived in a house without a computer. She had her own computer from a really young age. My parents never shunned her from going into computers, and they encouraged her to use it as much as she wanted. They bought her hardware and software that she needed. Additionally we always had computers and various forms of internet access in school.

    My sister went into social work. I went into music and computers. My parents didn’t push either of us in those directions. It isn’t due to me being a privileged, white person that I’m doing this and she isn’t. Its about choice. She has had the ability the entire time, yet hasn’t done it.

    She’s 1000x better with people than I am. I’m better at computing than she is. I think many would say I’m at the disadvantage here. People are what matter in life, not computers.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      My parents weren’t rich, and I’d be shocked if they were breaking 25K/year at that point.

      Yes, I’m a white, middle class, christian raised male. Doesn’t get much worse than that does it?

      I’m sorry, but my sarcasm detector is broken. I don’t know if you really mean what you say.

      In 1985, the average household income in the U.S. was a little bit below $25k. http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/1984-85.pdf So yes, you were middle class.

      But when most people talk about “class privilege”, we are talking about middle class and higher.

  32. Brad King

    Wow – I just found out that growing up in Appalachia, raised by parents who scraped by and saved everything in order to provide a few tools to their children — I’m a privileged class warrior. Riiiiiiiiiiiight. The science may be good (although this seems hardly worthy of calling it definitive) but the subject is definitely link-bait + doesn’t have any relation to the specifics of this. Instead, it appears to use a small finding as proof of a pre-determined thesis.

  33. Björn

    Are you saying I should feel guilty for being intensely interested in something? And how is it the fault of geeks if girls only get their first computer with 19? It seems to me if anybody, parents are to blame, or the girls didn’t show much of an interest at age 15.

    I must say, I think your attitude is seriously fucked up. Just build a female computer lab somewhere, if you think it is necessary, and quit whining.

    1. Mary

      “Are you saying I should feel guilty for being intensely interested in something?”

      If she was, the post was awfully unclear, and should contain the sentence “If you’ve been hacking since age 8, you should feel guilty.”

      Since it doesn’t, let’s move along. What she’s saying is that if you had access to and interest in programming young, and you happen to be in a conversation with someone who says that they, say, started at age 30, once their kid started school, then it’s not correct to think “wow, I am 22 years more intrinsically interested than this slacker, if this person gets nowhere in their technical career its their own fault.”

      Portrayed like that, it sounds like a fairly silly thing to think, but there are lots of geek bonding rituals around gentle “I was a teenage geek” “oh yeah? I was a pre-teen geek” “oh yeah? I was rocked to sleep on a printer” one-upgeekship, in which “I just started last year” falls rather flat, and there’s a fair bit of serious insider preference too based partly around privileged access. (Hiring bias against people without university credentials or with non-technical majors, ageist bias, non-participation in user groups or Open Source…)

  34. oscar

    Mmm interesting read. Think it certainly has to do with interest. But I live in The Netherlands, and I’m from ’73 so I can imagine a time there were no computers. Got my first one (Amiga) in 86. When I grew up it and even when I was 18-20 years people still found it was embarrassing and ‘nerdy’ to talk about computers. Especially women. So that maybe relates to the fact girls get a computer at a later age.

    But like some other people said, if you rather play outside, with LEGO then getting square eyes behind a screen. I can’t call others privileged because they can make great paintings and I can’t just because my parents never gave me good (and expensive) brushes etc.

    And for now, in The Netherlands at least, everyone is able to sit behind a computer, they are everywhere. If you’re interested enough you can work on your skills, if you rather play games, feel free to do so. But having an PS3 at home instead of a PC won’t help your hacking skills.

    1. JBH

      A person’s “interest” in something is socially constructed based on what he or she knows/has been exposed to. If a girl did not have exposure to computers at an early age, then there is no way she can develop an interest in it. If a girl’s parents, peers or teachers always told her that computers were for boys, then she won’t develop an interest in it.

      And, in the ’80s many girls did not get such exposure and were frequently told those things, as Restructure! points out, because their parents didn’t think technology was something girls SHOULD be interested in. (Notice, I said *many*, there are of course exceptions). That attitude has changed a little as computers became more pervasive and ubiquitous.

      Our idea of what is interesting and what is not is shaped by society. Everyday we see and experience things that shape who we want to become. Sometimes it is subtle, like the fact, that on the boxes of toy construction kits, there are usually only boys pictured playing with them; and sometimes it is more harsh like the user who couldn’t believe I actually worked on the helpdesk and didn’t just answer the phones because I was female.

      A young boy is much more likely to be asked to help his dad repair the car than a girl. And the girl is much more likely to be asked to help sew a button on. That’s how “interest” is formed.

  35. PJ Eby

    My parents couldn’t afford a computer when I was a kid, so I read books and magazines from the public library, wrote programs on cheap paper, and played them out in my head. I learned enough to get odd jobs involving computers, and saved up to buy one of my own.

    Parents and privilege didn’t have anything to do with it. Interest and dedication did.

    Oh, and the library and jobs in question were in a third-world country: specifically, a tiny Caribbean island. So, first-world privilege isn’t really an issue here either.

  36. temperus

    As a white girl who’s sick of all the whining and finger-pointing, let me just say that I love my father for pulling long hours just to buy me an Atari 800XL (which he almost never used himself). We couldn’t afford games or anything.. just issues of Compute! magazine. While all my friends were busy playing sports, chasing guys, or just avoiding doing work, I was learning BASIC before I learned Calculus.

    We are, in North America at least, privileged beyond our comprehension. I am privileged to have a father who was willing to slave just to take a long shot on his tomboy daughter. When I got into high school, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were several “privileged” kids in our shitty school, each of whom had been time-sharing Unisys Icons or other older crap computers, and had similarly learned how to program. The two of them (white male and black female) had “contests” to sharpen their typing skills, math skills, and so on.

    So while I can still love me some white-male-bashing as much as the next girl, this kind of propaganda is self-serving rationalization. Dream on. Unless you were UNDER privileged, meaning you lived in slums where computers weren’t affordable at all to ANYONE (schools or libraries) you really have only yourself to blame for not being interested. But then I can’t blame you.. who would want to learn how to compute? It was nerd-cred at a time when being a nerd made you the lowest-ranking member of your social click, even up to college.

    Women aren’t in computing for two main reasons: they don’t want to be, because it’s equally cut-throat, cruel, and lonely to everyone. And they simply haven’t been raised to like that sort of thing. My mom and dad broke the mould, and helped me get into computing.. and THAT is the real privilege. Bad parenting and lack of desire to slog through the shit of the industry is not something you can conveniently pin on white males.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      So while I can still love me some white-male-bashing as much as the next girl, this kind of propaganda is self-serving rationalization. Dream on. Unless you were UNDER privileged, meaning you lived in slums where computers weren’t affordable at all to ANYONE (schools or libraries) you really have only yourself to blame for not being interested. But then I can’t blame you.. who would want to learn how to compute?

      I find it fascinating that people jump to the conclusion that the only person who could write this post must someone technically inadequate, someone who considers herself not privileged, and someone grinding some personal axe.

      My public primary school didn’t have any computers when I was 8 and years after that, and the public library only had library catalogue computers. I was not living in a “slum”, but maybe you went to some exceptionally well-funded school that had the funds to purchase computers for children. This was not the norm where and when I grew up.

  37. feydr

    “This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently.” — where did this hate come from?! then you digress into ‘receiving’ — I NEVER ‘received’ a computer — I snuck into as many computer labs as possible back in 94 –> 98 before I was able to BUY my own computer

    this is kinda stupid — I am white, I am privileged — I understand that much — but guess what? I NEVER got to use the computers present at my rich dad’s house until right up before I graduated high school in 2001 — I worked during the summer mowing lawns and then later at a programming job until I could buy my own computer — this I would take to my mother’s house and abuse the phone line (which quite a few people had during this time period, rich or poor)

    other sources of being able to use the computers were me going to the comp. sci. lab at the local university (as back then they had guest acct logins)

    suck it up — those of us that have been hacking since age 8 were the ones that REALLY like to hack — if you weren’t maybe you don’t like it as much as we do — how about giving us some space — there are female only events (to exclude white males) — maybe we should have ‘only ppl who have been hacking since age 8′ events…. just my 0.02

    1. Restructure! Post author

      other sources of being able to use the computers were me going to the comp. sci. lab at the local university (as back then they had guest acct logins)

      Most people don’t live next to universities. And how did you know that there was a comp sci lab at the local university when you were 8, and that you could use it?

  38. /b

    I’m of an age where many of the (male) peers I met in college doing CS had a similar story: at some point in the mid or late 1980s, mom and dad bought a computer (usually a commodore or something like that) “for the family” for christmas or whatever winter holiday. After the other members of the family realized that reality wasn’t what they saw in the TV commercials and there wasn’t terribly much they were going to do with the thing, the young boy took possession and, determined to do something interesting with it, discovered the BASIC manual, or the BASIC listings in the back of a magazine like 3-2-1 contact. And thus an 8-year-old programmer was born.

    People with this experience fall into a small age bracket; a few years older, and computers were way too expensive for this to have happened. A few years younger and they got the type of computer that didn’t come with a BASIC manual or any kind of simple programming facility. This means that (like me) their first really deep computer knowledge came in the form of an intricate understanding of the use of Windows or MacOS, rather than any sort of programming.

    I find these stories interesting because they revealed to me that what most people would consider advantageous was in fact disadvantageous: I grew up in a household with a parent and older siblings who knew how to use the computer and weren’t put off by it. At that time, nothing ever drove me to figure out how to use the computer, because I had people around to show me. And what they showed me was how to put in a disk with a game on it and start the game. The idea of programming it yourself was never even broached.

  39. Niels

    I’m a CS PhD student at a European university. The first computer is our house was a Mac+, we got an 386sx/16 when I was twelve, which opened a whole new world to me. I spent the better part of six years after that glued to the screen writing mostly demos, at great expense to my social life. My sister got interested in computers around her mid-twenties with the advent of the internet, social networks, and so on. She blames me now for ‘always hogging the computer’ and tells me that I’ve deprived her of an opportunity. Looking back on it now, I think she’s full of shit on that one – she was fourteen at the time and just didn’t show interest, being preoccupied with going out, boys, and all those things that normal fourteen year-olds do.

    My girlfriend has a beautiful mind, with master degrees in communication and sociology, and a knack for beta subjects too. She has the capabilities, but simply lacks the interest. Her brother in an experimental physicist, her father works for an IT company. It’s not like she hasn’t had a nurturing environment in that respect.

    Was I privileged to have a computer at all? I would rate our family as a middle-class one, and I was never in want. Most kids on my block had at least some form of computer – one of my best friends growing up was from a working class family with five children and they at least had a c64 that we used to play games on. These things boot into a programming environment, mind you.

    Why did I become a geek and not my sister or my girlfriend? Maybe I played with legos and they with dolls. My sister liked horses, I liked my little BMX bike. She takes more after my father, I take after my mother, whose family has a lot of engineers in it. I suppose it’s a function of many things; culture, personal interest, talent, class, gender expectations, social mobility.

    On my floor here at the uni we have several women from all over the world – Romanian, Indian, Greek, Italian, Persian, Chinese. They make up perhaps 10% of the total population, but they are respected as equals for science is a meritocracy, as I believe it should be. Talking to them is like talking to any other engineer or scientist who is passionate about his/her job, and it’s fantastic.

    That being said, I don’t see an increase in female CS students, and I wonder why that is. I don’t think it’s because of privilege because the students we get are about eighteen, so when they were eight years old in 2000, they must have had a computer in their house growing up or at least have had access to them either at school or at the library. Maybe it’s related to why we see so little CS students and PhDs from the middle east, as they are more likely to go into law, business, or medicine, a profession often held in higher regard by their parents. Career choices are made at a young and impressionable age and I believe expectations play a much greater role than privilege.

    Finally, countries like Romania, India, and China are overrepresented in fields like CS and math, simply because they are cheap to teach. For math you only need a blackboard, and you can teach programming on a ten year old computer just fine.

    I’d love to get more women into CS, if not only because we could use the extra manpower (no pun intended). But if we want to accomplish this I believe we should improve its public image and tackle gender roles that are still deeply embedded into todays western society.

    Just my $0.02

  40. Dan

    Since others have already been shouted down with “counterexamples are meaningless!”, here’s the exact statement I’m replying to:

    However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness.

    “Fact”, eh? So the fact that I was asking for a computer since the age of four, and my parents had a habit of asking everyone in sight if they knew how to get a computer on the cheap, and eventually bought me a used Timex Sinclair 1000 for something like $50, equates to class privilege? Despite my parents having no tech/science background whatsoever, living in a trailer park, and receiving food stamps? As someone else said, I guess my “privilege” is having parents who cared, right?

    I’ve never bragged about this, never saw the point of bragging about who you happened to be. In fact, the only time I ever bring it up is to “explain away” skill differences when others are expressing admiration. But whatever, call a huge group out for class privilege because a bunch of adolescent-minded dudes on an internet forum hurt your feelings.

    I suppose I can see where you’re coming from with this silly generalization. Without it, you’re left with the uncomfortable question of what really factors into a child’s interest in technology, and the uncomfortable reality that gender also makes a difference. But wait! That difference possibly translates into future income disparities, so it just can’t be real! La la la la!

  41. deaky

    Like temperus says above, it’s all sour grapes unless you were so underprivileged you didn’t have ANY access to computers. Those who WANTED to learn at a young age could, either at school or at a library when a bit older. I remember staying late at grade school with my parent’s permission (since they were at work, and teachers were always around at school). I would be coding up little games and things, which my other friends would then test for me. Was I rich? Hell no. It’s not like I was chilling in a air-conditioned room being waited-on hand and foot while coding on a top-model system. Was I privileged? Yes, of course. We’re all privileged compared to the next social tier beneath us. Suck it up. I was a lower-class North American white girl, living in a multicultural area known for being dirt poor.

    The real issue here is people who aren’t willing to partake in opportunities in front of them. And as temperus says, that’s NORMAL for a kid. I was the weirdo, learning to code at 11. And now I’m proud that I did, and I have a right to be a bit proud.. because rather than squandering all my time playing schoolyard games, watching TV, or earning the latest meaningless trophy or badge, I managed to get myself a scholarship and a job at a young age. And you know what? Because I had fought tooth and claw to get online access and meet people “in the bizz” at a young age, I knew EXACTLY what I was getting into. All the hell, and all the tears.

    So don’t be whining now, if you didn’t seek the opportunities. Feel free, if you tried but couldn’t find them. But if you just frittered away your time like any other normal kid, let us geeks and nerds get some recognition. Otherwise it’s continuing the bullying we got as kids. We didn’t do it because it was “cool”, but because it was cool to US. If you ever hear us say we’ve been hacking since age 8, it’s not because we were spoon-fed everything on a silver platter. It’s because we feel entitled to point out that we’ve been working hard since we were kids. Taking that away from us is selfish and arrogant, because very few of us are doing it out of spite or malice, but simply because we’re a bit proud.

    There are always going to be some cases of people who WERE truly privileged. But don’t be generalizing away the many people who aren’t. I know many white men who busted their asses harder than I did, and they command respect when they say they’ve been doing something since they were a wee tot. Writing them all off as arrogant rich pricks is your fantasy, not nearly the reality. I’ve found it’s often the management types who were the TRULY privileged ones, not the hackers.. they only brag about money and connections, not skill.

    1. Restructure! Post author

      So don’t be whining now, if you didn’t seek the opportunities. Feel free, if you tried but couldn’t find them. But if you just frittered away your time like any other normal kid, let us geeks and nerds get some recognition.

      What the shit is wrong with you people? Are you so desperate to dismiss the post that instead of reading the content, you think it’s some kind of personal, jealous rant by a non-geek?

      Like temperus says above, it’s all sour grapes unless you were so underprivileged you didn’t have ANY access to computers. Those who WANTED to learn at a young age could, either at school or at a library when a bit older. I remember staying late at grade school with my parent’s permission (since they were at work, and teachers were always around at school). I would be coding up little games and things, which my other friends would then test for me. Was I rich? Hell no. It’s not like I was chilling in a air-conditioned room being waited-on hand and foot while coding on a top-model system. Was I privileged? Yes, of course. We’re all privileged compared to the next social tier beneath us. Suck it up. I was a lower-class North American white girl, living in a multicultural area known for being dirt poor.

      We didn’t have public access to computers (other than library catalogue computers) while we were growing up until the mid-90s. You seem to be Canadian. I am too. I’m Asian and I grew up in an area that was majority children of immigrants or immigrants, and majority people of colour. Was I privileged? Yes, especially compared to other people in my area. But I think your school was better than mine.

      1. Waquo

        When you use the word “privilege” in anger, most people will get defensive, so there is really no surprise here.

        “you’re so privileged” tends to be read as “go away”, “shut up” or “go stand in the shame-corner”, and it’s often misused an attack, but privilege itself is something that people should not be blamed for. Look at the end of this article for an example: http://geekfeminism.org/2010/07/09/geek-feminism-as-opposed-to-mainstream-feminism/

        In order to reach those who are new to issues of privilege, try to provide non-hostile conclusions.
        Being more welcoming to those who didn’t start early, because many never had the chance to? Good.
        Calling it disgusting to tell stories about their childhood that they are genuinely (and IMHO legitimately) fond of? Bad.

        >>”it means you’re privileged, not geeky”, the “not geeky” part is not my contribution, and I don’t agree with the extra “not geeky” assertion.<<
        Well, in that case you shouldn't write things that are easily interpreted as such: "Clearly, enrollment in CS is a social product of class privilege, not innate ability."
        My suggestion:
        – not
        + as (well|much) as

        Tread lightly around privilege, unless preaching to the choir is good enough for you.

        1. Restructure! Post author

          You are unintentionally being a concern troll and derailing the discussion to become about the author’s (my) tone. You are also expecting this to be a safe space for the people who are privileged, where people who have less privilege are supposed to bend over backward to make the privileged feel comfortable, simply because the privileged people have more systemic power. Privileged people expect this, because people with less privilege do cede to privileged people most of the time, because of power imbalance.

          See this Privilege 101 link.

        2. Waquo

          Restructure,
          I was just trying to respond to an issue that you raised.

          You can ask again and again “What the shit is wrong with you people?” or you can make it more difficult for them to misunderstand you.

          I’m not expecting anyone to bend over in any way, but as long as your articles are full of aggressive undertones, you are going to see a substantial number of readers that are whiny and defensive and not “reading the content”.
          Live with it (drive them away with pitchforks if you wish), or fix it by becoming more persuasive.

        3. Restructure! Post author

          Waquo,

          I have updated the post with the link to what privilege means. If you had read it, you would understand that the defensive reaction when someone talks about privilege is very normal and not a reaction specific to my post.

        4. Waquo

          Restructure,

          I actually did read that, but I still believe that your post provokes an unnecessarily strong defensive reaction.

          Also, once you have triggered a defensive reaction, they pretty much stop listening, so the privilege-link at the end of the article might not be very effective.

          I think it’s time for me to shut up, to avoid further derailment and such.

        5. Kite

          Translation: Me and my type are not going to come here and listen to you and your type talk about how we behave to you, until you can be nice and polite about it.

          You’re being hostile!

          Classic case of concern-trolling, congratulations mate. So boring & repetitive!

  42. gin

    Seriously guys (and I am talking more to the male than female commenters in this topic),

    Bull sh*t! Your defensiveness, your stories about your sisters/daughters/girlfriends who showed no interest in computers despite having the “same” access as you…
    just demonstrates Restructure! has hit a nerve.

    There are clearly a lot of people in IT who base their self worth on early coding experience, and use this to maintain a world view that subtly but surely excludes *many but not all* women.

    It’s so convenient for the ego to confirm (US/Western) cultural stereotypes as “truths,” based on biased reporting of your own personal story, rather than absorbing the message of the academic studies this post is based on.

    1. Russell Nelson

      Hehe, yes, she hit a nerve, but only because class is bullshit. And as we learned from Usenet, the best way to get discussion is to post something outrageous. It’s called “Trolling”, and even the best of us can get sucked in. Time to unsubscribe and let this posting sink back into the muck from which it arose. I have hacking to do….

      1. Kite

        Sheez, thinking about it being “first world privilege” rather than “class privilege”… I’m just thinking about the underclasses that make up over a third of my first world Australian state. I really feel fucking privileged like I never did as much before in a wealthy city. There is so much overcrowding in houses, moving about, homelessness, theft, gangs, violence & vandalism, joblessness, grog and ganja use, that computers are really, even in 2010, a rare and difficult thing to own. That’s ignoring the culture that has different values for entertainment and occupation, and pressures those who seek middle-class occupations to come back into the fold. Kids play out on the streets, as well, and often don’t go to school, literacy is low. Also, there are no handy places to access computers, except closer to the inner part of the big city where there are libraries, which are of course crowded. Education resources are appalling, English is not always understood, racism and mutual suspicion hamper possibly beneficial interaction with the middle classes, and so on. If you’re going to get a hacker out of this environment, they are a rare and lucky person indeed. I mean, jeez. My mother grew up in a large poor Irish family, 5 girls to a bed kind of deal, but she wasn’t working class/underclass in the same way, her family had genteel values, (and bonus white skin) and I do think that made a big difference to where she, and I, ended up. Class privilege isn’t just about material wealth, though of course it can’t be ignored. I have been on welfare for most of my adult life, for one reason or another, la la la join the queue at the local branch, and I can’t say I lack class privilege!

        Also, screw “zero-sum game” thinking about privilege. There’s enough fat to share around.

        1. Kite

          How did my response end up here? I clicked on the reply link at the top of the page. Ah scripts. NVM.

  43. Liz

    This is a great post!

    I did have a C-64 and it was a big deal for my parents to buy something so expensive. They talked about it in front of me as a sort of investment so that I would grow up and have a career maybe in computers. So it was something I had to try to live up to.

    Having it was a great opportunity but no other girl I knew had a computer. guys who had them still closed ranks and would not share the information they had.

    It was a huge class privilege, and I have noticed over the years that merely *mentioning it* makes men act like I’m in some kind of secret club with them.

  44. Lindsey Kuper

    The title “If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.” has hit a nerve with a lot of people. Many commenters are responding along the lines of “That’s not true, because my experience is different.” It’s a provocative title, but that’s just good journalism. Strictly speaking, the title “If you were hacking since age 8, it’s likely that you were privileged” would have been more accurate. But to argue about this is to miss the point.

    So what do I think the point is, then? Well, taking the contrapositive of the title’s implication, we have something like the following: If you belonged to an underprivileged group as a kid, then you are less likely to have had hacking opportunities.

    And that’s the point: that many people don’t have opportunities for hacking when they’re young, and such people are disproportionately likely to belong to underprivileged groups. When they do get those opportunities later in life, it’s easy for such people to question whether they are deserving of such opportunities — so it’s really reassuring to realize that sure, we deserve them, because other people have had them all along.

    Finally: as far as I can tell, every “That’s not true, because my experience is different” response has been a personal anecdote. As geeks, surely we know that the plural of anecdote is not data. I’d welcome a comment citing peer-reviewed academic research that contradicts the peer-reviewed academic research that Restructure! is citing.

    1. Addie

      Lindsey, such a perfect response to all of this backlash! I’m kind of shocked by the number of people who clearly feel their entire geek identity has been threatened by this claim.

      I had access to computers from a very young age, and I recognize this as a sign of my own privilege, but that doesn’t make my geek narrative any less interesting or valid. It means I had some cool opportunities as a kid that helped shape who I am today. Those are opportunities a lot of other kids don’t get, and isn’t that too bad?

      I suspect a lot of this has to do with a misunderstanding of the concept of privilege, and a lack of compassion.

      1. Kite

        Hell, I’m proud of my early hacking attempts, even though I fully realise I had access to opportunities that so many didn’t get. But I feel proud next to those who had those opportunities and didn’t get geeky like I did. Teaching myself BASIC at 14, and then teaching myself machine language so I could rewrite programs via a debugger as they operated, was pretty damn cool :) But if people didn’t do that, I’m not going to get snobby, because there’s so many reasons why they mightn’t’ve, and besides, I’d rather focus on what people are actually good at now, rather than blokey geek-substitute-for-macho-ness one-upmanship. For instance, women got better marks than men (this was confirmed) in my course, despite a whole lot less hot air, and less childhood hacking.

    2. Niels

      It’s not so much that people are trying to disprove a general rule with personal anecdotes, I think you’re either grossly misunderstanding them or are purposefully trying to pervert the meaning of their responses. The point of the fact is that for privilege to be the main reason for there being few women in CS, 1) the majority of the population would have to have been so underprivileged as to not own a computer, 2) this would have to have affected women more than men, and 3) women growing up in the ninetees and two-thousands would have felt this effect much less as computers became affordable for everyone.

      The personal anecdotes make the logical problems of the original poster painfully clear. Some illustrate how they had (cheap, second hand) computers even though they were poor (1). Some explain how they grew up with a female sibling who had the exact same opportunities (in terms of computer access) as they (2), and as I’ve explained myself, the number of first-year women CS students has not risen noticeably when computers became available to everyone (3). Reasoning like this I can see that each response illustrates a clear problem in the reasoning of this article.

      People are just not buying this. The problem is so much more complex, and reducing it to ‘white males in the eighties were privileged’ is doing a huge disservice to anyone actually willing to improve the situation, because it directs attention away to the real issues.

      1. Kite

        Hallo Niels! I think you’re missing the point of the article, it *isn’t* to explain why there are so few women in IT, although it provides a few clues. The article is more about class than gender issues, about people not starting from the same position but how that’s not acknowledged enough in geek culture, and it’s only part of a big picture, y’know, part of the “real issues” you and we are all so concerned about.

        1. Niels

          Hi Kite. I disagree, the does article focus strongly on women in CS, arguing for example that women were at a disadvantage in the eighties as their parents would not buy them an expensive computer. The quoted article, ‘why so few’ is strictly about why there are so little women in engineering professions. For an example of ridiculous misinterpretation of facts:

          “A child’s gender modulates how her parents invest in their child’s education, as mentioned earlier. For example, girls, on average, typically receive their first computer at age 19, as opposed to boys at age 15. ”

          The given factoid does nothing to support the argument of the author – perhaps by the age of 18 girls enter higher education and need the machine for writing papers?

          I live in the Netherlands and work at Delft University of Technology. University over here means a single track, bachelor plus masters degree, and it is free and open to anyone who has finished high school at the appropriate level. First-year students coming in are eighteen years old, so they were eight at the turn of the millennium – a time at which surely everyone would have had access to some form of computer, at least over here. There are strong class equalisers over here, including extra funding for students whose parents are unable to pay for their books and daily expenses, and cheap state-owned loans at low interest rates for those who still can’t afford it.

          With all this in place, the male/female ratio among students in this city is 80/20. The only faculties that approach a 50% female rate are architecture and industrial design. All the others, applied physics, electrical engineering, applied mathematics, aerospace engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, etc. are dominated by men.

          Another thing I see on a daily basis is that CS is not a bastion of white people. I’d say an ivy-league university these days has about a third Indian, a third Asian (mostly Chinese), and a third white researchers working for them. The other day I was reading an interesting article from an Indian women from Harvard, and that’s not uncommon anymore. Like I said, science is a meritocracy.

          I fail to see how privilege would affect womens’ ability to study, say, applied physics. I fail to see how not everyone in this lovely little welfare state of ours would not be able to study whatever they pleased. It’s not the eighties over here and it’s not the USA either. Still, only 10% women on our floor.

        2. Kite

          I see. You’re not really concerned about the “real issues” because you don’t believe there genuinely are any. Why are you here?

      2. Lindsey Kuper

        Niels, I don’t see where you’re refuting the point that I’m drawing from the article, which, again, is: “If you belonged to an underprivileged group as a kid, then you are less likely to have had hacking opportunities.”

        “Privilege is the main reason for there being few women in CS” was not the conclusion I drew from the article. Honestly, it’s kind of funny that you think that that’s what I said. It reminds me of one of those SAT reading-comprehension questions, where you read a short passage and then you’re asked to choose between several statements about what it said. Typically, the correct answer is the one that doesn’t make some kind of sweeping generalization.

        1. Niels

          My first reply was to your post, and especially the last paragraph, where you write:

          “Finally: as far as I can tell, every “That’s not true, because my experience is different” response has been a personal anecdote. As geeks, surely we know that the plural of anecdote is not data.”

          I was merely saying that even though I obviously agree with you that a handful of personal anecdotes doesn’t make for a compelling data set, there is real value in them, as they illustrate problems I see in the reasoning of the article. Therefore I extracted three key points that I found interesting.

          My second reply was to Kite.

      3. Restructure! Post author

        Some explain how they grew up with a female sibling who had the exact same opportunities (in terms of computer access) as they (2), and as I’ve explained myself, the number of first-year women CS students has not risen noticeably when computers became available to everyone (3).

        I’m a female programmer, and my sister grew up with very similar opportunities (in terms of computer access), and she is not a programmer. Your anecdotes don’t prove anything. Also, when I visited my female friends’ houses and they had brothers, the brothers tended to hog the computer in a way that I found unnecessarily patronizing (so that’s an anecdote to add to the guy who claimed that he sister blamed him for hogging the computer but he believed he wasn’t). Also, there was a UK study that showed parents who had a boy and girl are more likely to put the family computer in the boy’s bedroom, but I can’t find the link anymore.

        The second (third) point has been addressed upthread.

        1. Niels

          Hello. I am not saying that no-one ever grew up with a brother that kept them from using the family computer, nor was I trying to extrapolate my personal youth experiences to the general public. Also, the study as you describe it merely shows correlation, not causality. If they actually asked the parents why they moved the computer into the boys room – then we’d have something to work with.

          What I am saying is that even if you keep everything else the same; class, opportunities, race, I believe you’ll still see that girls are less likely to be interested in computers at a young age.
          Why this is I don’t know, although I’m sure that ‘math class is tough’-Barbie isn’t helping our case.

    3. PJ Eby

      “If you belonged to an underprivileged group as a kid, then you are less likely to have had hacking opportunities.”

      The point of my anecdotal rebuttal was that you have to be underprivileged enough to not have access to a library, paper, and pen, for that to have actually *stopped* you from learning, provided you had sufficient interest in your subject.

      The Caribbean island where I lived in the early 80’s was not a rich place, by any means. But every single child, be they male or female, no matter what part of that island they lived on, whether in a one-room shack with a dirt floor, were in walking distance to the same library with the same books.

      One local boy, my best friend during those years, would walk many miles to school and the library to study every day, then many miles back home UPHILL to get to the unfinished concrete structure that was his home. He grew up to become a physicist at USC, and has appeared in various History Channel and Discovery Channel shows, and has his own Wikipedia page. He’s also known as “the most highly cited black professor of mathematics or a related field at an American university or college,” and has won the Maxwell Medal and Prize.

      Recently, on his blog, he describes being asked to speak at a local Baptist church, and discovering to his horror that many black people in the US don’t realize that they’re *allowed* to use the same libraries and museums as everybody else.

      Anyway, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the MOST important privilege is not your personal or familial economic standing, but your *attitude* towards learning. While parents buying kids computers may have some benefit, the REAL gift that parents need to give their kids (of either gender) is encouragement.

      For what it’s worth, neither my friend nor I were discouraged by our parents on the basis of gender, and I have no idea how bad that must feel if you were. (When my wife tells me about the advanced math teacher who discouraged her interest in mathematics, I want to strangle that person!)

      At the same time, however, my friend’s parent and my own parents still tended to complain about the time we spent on computers and physics as a waste compared to finding a “real job” or studying to be a priest. So, we still didn’t have the “privilege” of having parents who actually *encouraged* our interests.

      Really, most people will have to deal with parental discouragement when their aims or interests don’t mesh with those of their parents. That doesn’t mean I don’t empathize; I just think it’s disempowering to focus on the things we can’t change (e.g. discouraging parents, socioeconomic differences) instead of the things we can (e.g. our own individual effort and attitude.)

      In general, the people who focus on what they can change, accomplish more than the people who are focused on what they *can’t*.

      1. Restructure! Post author

        I just think it’s disempowering to focus on the things we can’t change (e.g. discouraging parents, socioeconomic differences) instead of the things we can (e.g. our own individual effort and attitude.)

        You are looking at change from a very personal and individualistic perspective, but as responsible members of society, we need to look at systemic change. For example, there are some great suggestions in the earlier comments about how to even out the playing field in the intro CS course, such as making students do coursework in an obscure functional language that few people would have prior experience with.

        In general, the people who focus on what they can change, accomplish more than the people who are focused on what they *can’t*.

        I think when most anti-oppression activists talk about privilege, we are trying to change how things are done, but then there are those who resist change and say “that’s just how it works,” thereby halting progress.

      2. Lindsey Kuper

        Anyway, I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the MOST important privilege is not your personal or familial economic standing, but your *attitude* towards learning. While parents buying kids computers may have some benefit, the REAL gift that parents need to give their kids (of either gender) is encouragement.

        I think you’re absolutely right about that. When I say that underprivileged kids are less likely to have had about hacking opportunities, I don’t just mean having a computer around the house (or having books down the road at the public library). I’m also talking about being in an environment where hacking is encouraged.

        Your story about the professor “discovering to his horror that many black people in the US don’t realize that they’re *allowed* to use the same libraries and museums as everybody else” reinforces a point I tried to make in my upthread comment: “When [underprivileged people] do get those opportunities later in life, it’s easy for such people to question whether they are deserving of such opportunities.” I have no hard evidence for this, but I posit that it’s not just a matter of physical access, or of legal permission — it’s that even if you’re technically allowed to do something, sometimes it’s just hard to believe that it’s really okay for you to do it. In my experience teaching CS, given a female and a male student who do equally well with the course material, the female student is more likely to question whether she’s got the chops to be in the class. I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is. Maybe the Geek Feminism bloggers know of research that’s been done on it.

  45. Niels

    Kite, what makes you say I don’t care about the real issues? The reason I’m here is because I’m interested in the subject, I just think the reasons that there are few women in CS are many and diverse, but that privilege is just not one of them.

    Am I not allowed to take part in open and polite discussion, simply because I don’t agree with you? I believe I’ve tried to build solid a argument, not just rant randomly, so feel free to offer your views on them or show me where you think I’m wrong.

    1. Kite

      Niels, if you believe that privilege has nothing to do with the lack of women (and let’s be silent about other “minorities”, hey) in IT, then I do not feel at this time like engaging with you, as you’re radically giving my personal experiences the finger. Why are you on a Geek Feminism blog, except to give the feminism the finger? C’mon, invoke the tone argument on me. You’re so reasonable!

      1. Niels

        Kite, I’m sorry if you feel that I am giving your personal experiences, and feminism in general, the proverbial finger. It was certainly not my intention to offend. I will not invoke the tone argument, as I doubt it will further the discussion.

        I will however ask you to try and be more open to other peoples’ opinions. This is the internet, if you’re going to post an opinion piece, expect comments. Not everyone has the same background as you, and not everyone has the same ideas and opinions. We can only come together through intelligent debate.

        1. Kite

          I think you’re full of shit, so much I’m not bothering to engage in”intelligent” debate as I’m not seeing it from you, so don’t presume to lecture me on being “open to other people’s opinions”.

        2. Jen

          Just wanted to agree with Kite here. Niels’ comments here come across to me as a textbook example of concern trolling: despite the extremely polite tone, the comments are actually dismissive and condescending.

          Also, I’m not an admin here, just a reader, but in my opinion people who honestly believe that privilege is not a factor in the low numbers of women in STEM fields should find a different blog to read. Seriously, it’s like a member of the Flat Earth Society participating in a blog on Keplerian dynamics, all you’re going to is bog things down and get in the way of people who want to have an interesting conversation.

  46. Nolan G

    Wow, bitter much? There’s not much hacking you can do on a Commodore 64, except for a bit of basic programming, but very few of the people who are nerds now used it for that, they mainly played games. When the web came around in 1997, a 386 was a measly $200, and places like EasyHome could rent you a computer for $10/month if you were desperate for your kid to get their hands on a computer. Parents should take every opportunity to share advantages with their child, yes, but that racial income divide has been on its way down for a long time, definitely about even in the 90’s, when programming was something that children could (in theory) understand.

    1. Waldo

      “There’s not much hacking you can do on a Commodore 64, except for a bit of basic programming, but very few of the people who are nerds now used it for that, they mainly played games.”

      Getting off topic, but this is a very obtuse thing to say. That exact computer model you name may well be the single most hacking-inspiring machine in history. It’s probably responsible for the recruitment of one half of all programming professionals from that generation of children worldwide. It was the one machine that finally brought “computing to the masses”. In 2008, 26 years after it was released, there were still people discovering _new_ ways to hack it.

      Also, “a bit of BASIC programming” goes a long, long way towards teaching a child computer science.

    2. Daniel Martin

      Wow. I have no idea what to make of that statement.

      I’m guessing you didn’t grow up with a computer of that vintage. I had a TI-99/4A, not a C-64, but I’ve always thought that computers of that era were much more inclined to produce people who started programming than more modern machines. (By “modern” here, I mean everything after, say, 1990)

      Back in the 1980s, there were these things called “computer magazines” which you can still find descendants of online in a few places. Anyway, if you were willing to shell out enough for a monthly fee, these things would arrive in the mail and would be full of BASIC programs that you would then type in. Usually, these programs would have variations for the different basic dialects out there – C-64, TI/99, TRS-80, etc. They’d also have ads for different mail-order places that would sell computer add-ons or other things, and reviews of upcoming games.

      And the thing was, if you typed in those programs you got games that weren’t that far different from the professional games of the day. Sure, the pro. games had more polish, better music, and usually more levels, but you could see that, yes, you really were doing the same thing the pros were – they were just doing more of it.

      And you had done it. Sure, someone else wrote it initially, but you had typed all the code in for hours, and so saw under the hood how it all worked. You might even tweak a bit here and there to see what happened. (Or maybe not intentionally, as typos happened, and you had to track them down)

      These days, the gulf between what you can put together as a beginning non-professional and what you can play in your browser as a flash game (let alone the difference between what you can do yourself and, say, any Wii game) is just so huge, I don’t know how kids are able to stay inspired. When I started my daughter with the book “Hello World”, which uses the pygame library to make some of the things at the end of the book, her first reaction on seeing the graphics was to wrinkle her nose and say “Dad, those games look really boring and stupid”.

      And she’s right. Compared to what she’s used to, compared to what’s thrown in the bargain bin routinely, they do. I don’t understand your implication that it’s easier for children to start in programming on a modern machine at all.

  47. Jayn

    You know, given all these ‘against all odds’ stories, I’m pulled back to the point from the initial article about girls tending to have their interest build more gradually. The person who’s really, really, REALLY gung-ho about learning computers may well find away (although even those stories tend to have some aspects of privilege to them–try them in a rural area and see how well it goes), but the person who’s just so-so isn’t going to put as much effort into it. Some people dive right into things–others test the waters, then find more things they want to learn about and go from there. Unfortunately, computers (especially in the 80s and early 90s, far less so now) aren’t something that lend themselves to that second type of person. And if girls fall more into the second group…well, you can figure it out.

    It’s also worth remembering that different people have different learning styles, and for some people reading about computers isn’t going to do them much good without having a machine handy to play with.

  48. John

    I grew up when hardly anyone had computers at home (born 1963, so hobbyist systems were beginning to appear, but still very rare, in the second half of my teens) but my age group seems to have about the same ratio of women in computing as the more recent ones.

    Computer geek culture generally ignores issues of class privilege and male privilege when it comes to computer access, upholding a ranking system that mistakes the social privileges of affluent white males for inborn geek inclinations.

    This seems an odd point at which to end — is there an implied suggestion for something to do about it, that I’ve missed?

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