Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering
Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering Lara Swimmer

Why don't women code? The response to this question depends on who you ask. If you poll Mike Pence, he might say it's because women are too busy gestating to waste brain cells on man stuff. Someone with slightly more feminist leanings, on the other hand, might tell you it's because women have been historically oppressed and are still discriminated against in society, which prevents them from taking computer sciences class in the first place. And if you ask Stuart Reges, he'll tell you something else all together.

Last week, Reges, a lecturer at the University of Washington's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, kicked over this particular hornet's nest by publishing an article entitled “Why Women Don’t Code,” on the website Quillette. Reges, who has been on the UW faculty for nearly 15 years and has worked in tech for over 30, has a long history of mentoring women in the field, and in his article, he argues that it's not systemic oppression that has made tech a boys' club. Rather, he says, women don't code because they don't want to.

Reges’s argument echoes that of James Damore, the pilloried former Google employee who wrote an internal, and now infamous, memo about diversity in tech. Citing research on universal sex differences (meaning, across cultures), Damore argued that women are generally more interested in people than ideas; more prone to neuroticism and less tolerant of anxiety; and that women have a higher drive for work-life balance and less drive for status. He also argued that Google exists in an “ideological echo-chamber,” and that intolerance of differing viewpoints will ultimately hurt the company. This did not go over well. After the memo (sans citations) was published on Gizmodo and quickly went viral, Damore lost his job along with his reputation. In a companywide email, Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, said Damore advanced “harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace” and that was the reason for his firing.

This deeply concerned Reges, someone who has faced backlash for holding unpopular opinions himself.

In 1991, at the height of the federal government’s War on Drugs, Reges was fired from a teaching position at Stanford two months after he wrote a letter to then-federal drug czar Bob Martinez admitting (or bragging) that he not only used drugs but carried them on campus. And, before that, he came out as openly gay in 1979, even though it nearly cost him his chance at a teaching career. The reaction to the Damore memo reminded him of what can happen when one stands apart.

"When I tried to discuss Damore at my school," he writes in his piece, "I found it almost impossible. As a thought experiment, I asked how we could make someone like Damore feel welcome in our community. The pushback was intense. My question was labeled an ‘inflammatory example’ and my comments were described as ‘hurtful’ to women. When I mentioned that perhaps we could invite Damore to speak at UW, a faculty member responded, ‘If he comes here, we’ll hurt him.’ She was joking, but the sentiment was clear.”

Reges does not say that women are any less capable of working in tech, but he does argue that while women have historically been excluded from some workplaces, the days of systemic oppression determining what women can or cannot do are long over. So, today, the reason we don't see more women entering tech (or, at least, entering the technical sides of the industry—there are plenty of women in design, project management, HR, etc.) is for multiple reasons, including the fact, as Damore wrote, that while males are more fundamentally interested in things, females are more fundamentally interested in people. And there is some evidence that interest is ingrained: Studies of monkeys, for instance, have shown that males show a strong preference for stereotypically "boy" toys (i.e., things with wheels) and females show greater variability in preferences, suggesting that differences are more hormonal or biological than cultural. Of course, humans aren't monkeys... but we are primates.

Another study, this one published in February 2018, found that in societies with higher levels of gender parity (i.e., the U.S., the U.K., Scandinavia), girls are actually more underrepresented in technical fields than they are in nations with less gender equality. In the U.S., 30 percent of science, technology, engineering, and math degrees go to women. In Algeria, 41 percent of STEM degrees do, as Olga Khazan pointed out in The Atlantic. "There," Khazan writes, "employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands." This may suggest that women in more equitable countries don't go into tech not because they aren't able to, but because they are free to go into the fields where they actually have interest.

Diverging interests isn’t the only reason Reges thinks women are underrepresented in the field: Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, he writes, "Computer science has gone through two major boom and bust cycles in the last 40 years. The idea that men drove women from the field is not supported by the data. There has been no period of time when men have been increasing while women have been decreasing. In 48 of the last 50 years, the trend was the same for men and women with the percentage of women going up at the same time that the percentage of men went up and the percentage of women going down when the percentage of men went down. But while the trend has been the same, the magnitude of the response has differed significantly. In both cycles, men disproportionately reacted to the boom part of the cycle and women disproportionately reacted to the bust.”

Whatever the cause, because tech is one of the most lucrative fields, the lack of women employed is not without cost. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, "Women with STEM jobs earned 35 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs—even higher than the 30 percent STEM premium for men." So, to me, it seems like the answer isn’t that women should force themselves to go into tech when they’d rather go into, say, teaching; the answer is to pay teachers as much as we pay engineers, as I’ve argued before. Of course, state and local governments determine teacher salaries while the market determines engineers’ salaries, but my point is, we should value "women’s work" as much as we do men's, especially if, as Reges concludes, “Women can code, but often they don’t want to."

(For the record, like all debates that are fundamentally about nature versus nurture, I think it's likely a mixture of both: Men probably are more drawn to engineering than women, but discrimination and societal expectations do exist, in schools, work, and at home. Plus, human experience tells me that being an outlier is uncomfortable. When girls walk by computer science labs and see only boys, they may, on some level, feel like they don't belong and go into medicine or journalism or something else. This is how I feel when I walk onto the basketball court at the Y and see only guys—and it's always only guys—shooting hoops: Maybe I should just stick to the ellipitcal instead.)

Reges' article did not go over well, both in and outside of the college. Leilani Battle, a postdoctoral researcher in the Allen School, told GeekWire, “As a black woman scientist, I have seen first hand how discrimination shuts the door on people, but also how diversity programs can change people’s lives dramatically and for the better." Others were less diplomatic, calling Reges, the internet's insult du jour, “trash.”

Soon after the outcry began, the school issued its own response on Twitter:

As the school noted, they are not allowed to consider things like sex or race in admissions because affirmative action is prohibited in Washington state, but the school's failure to disavow Reges certainly didn't pacify all. Many observers called for his immediate dismissal from the school, alleging that his opinion makes him unqualified to teach female students and that his classroom must, by virtue of his beliefs, be a hostile environment for women.

One of his former students, however, says hostility was not what she experienced in his class. In a blog post, Kasey Champion, a software engineer and computer science teacher at Franklin High, wrote that initially, she was appalled to see her former lecturer attached to an article that she assumed must be sexist.

“I found myself staring at the title of Stuart’s article, afraid to read it,” she wrote. “The mounting stress in my brain compelled me to dismiss the entire thing as ‘sexist nonsense’ and just move on.”

She did read it, however, and while she has plenty of criticism (she thinks his definition of “diversity” is too narrow and that he relies too much on his own limited observation, among other things), she doesn’t conclude from reading his piece that he’s either a sexist or an apologist for sexism. Rather, she writes, Reges “does not argue that women are any less capable of being successful in tech than men are. Instead, he is deeply interested in understanding the nuances of a very complex problem.”

Still, Champion wishes Reges had considered the repercussions of his article, if not for him, than for his students. “If this article really gets a lot of traction, from now until forever, it's very possible that when I introduce myself as someone involved with the University of Washington's introductory program someone will ask me my thoughts on this article,” Champion told me. “While I count myself very lucky to have above average self-confidence and thus will likely be less affected by these questions I really do worry for my younger students and some of my other colleagues for whom this is a very undue burden and stress.”

The public response, Champion says, was entirely predictable. “The backlash to me is exactly what Stuart expected and exactly why he wrote the article because he feels his views have been ignored and he wanted to incite conversation.”

She’s right. As Reges told me, "Many inside academia seem to be saying, 'He has to be punished for saying this.' Many outside seem to be saying, 'Men and women are different? Who doesn't know that?' The strong response indicates that people are very interested in the question of what you are allowed to discuss on college campuses."

And that, more than a burning desire to become a social pariah, is why I suspect Reges wrote and published this piece. Yes, he cares about diversity in tech, but the reaction to James Damore's memo was a lesson in viewpoint uniformity, when an unorthodox opinion (even one with a basis in science) was considered so damaging, so hurtful, that it could not be tolerated at all. To Reges, a certified member of the Heterodox Academy—an organization for academics committed to both the free expression of ideas and to ideological diversity—punishing those who express unorthodox or unpopular ideas is the very definition of totalitarian.

As for the university’s response, Reges is pleased that he hasn’t been punished… at least not yet. “Most of the students and faculty seem to disagree with me, but many are willing to listen and consider what I have said,” he told me. “Several faculty have offered to go to lunch with me in small groups to discuss this further.”

Still, he continued, “a small group of faculty and students have been deeply offended by my article. Some people have argued that I should not be allowed to continue to teach because of this article. It leaves open one of the main questions I posed in my article: Is there room for someone like me in tech? I hope so.”