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Halloran: Women, millennials who code face tough road

Sara Halloran, Columnist

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Recently, tech developer Mili St. John penned an excellent takedown of her father, prominent tech personality Alex St. John.  Alex St. John’s misogyny and disdain for young people shines through almost immediately in this presentation about recruiting young coding talent. He paints a landscape of software engineers helpless to the whims of their domineering wives and girlfriends, acknowledging “NOT male engineers” only when backhandedly praising their “stronger social skills.” Alex St. John also warns against hiring the “wage slave,” or young people who “see their job as WORK that they need to do in order to pay their bills.” In the process of discrediting her father’s insulting claims, Mili St. John makes a series of cogent points about the numerous challenges women and young adults in general face in their paths toward technical careers.

I am one of the “girls who code” who, like Mili St. John mentions, almost slipped through the cracks. Growing up with liberal arts-inclined parents who knew absolutely nothing about computer science, coding was never even a thought as a child. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the minority of American public high schools that offers AP Computer Science, yet even with my aptitude for math, I was never once encouraged by teachers or counselors to try it out. In fact, I had never met anyone from my town, the poorest of my high school’s sending districts, who had taken a computer science class — the students on that track were almost entirely white, male and unknown to me. Accordingly, I entered college completely ignorant of computer science, intending to declare a mathematics major. It was only after my freshman year at Northwestern, investigating my reluctance to spend even more money to earn a master’s in math in the future, that it occurred to me that picking up some coding skills could be a good career move.

One year later, I am completely immersed in coding and interning this summer at the very same company where Mili St. John works. I am probably not the model female coder: I can’t claim to be naturally talented at computer science, and it is still too early to tell whether it is my passion. I also don’t possess any sort of exceptional social skills, which Alex St. John argues are the redeeming quality of women in tech. All I know is that I enjoy coding, and by the time I graduate, I’ll be employable. I feel slightly uneasy adopting this money-minded, slightly apathetic attitude toward my postgraduate plans, but my top priority is making enough to pay off my student loans.

I have plenty of reasons to be discouraged about my choice of study: I have very few female peers, I entered computer science so late it will be extremely difficult for me to complete a math-computer science double major within four years and, above all, computer science is time-consuming and hard. But if I decide to drop coding, suddenly I’m succumbing to my “victim complex” — something a man who decides to pursue other career paths doesn’t have to worry about. To be clear, I have no intentions to abandon coding, but I understand why women in similar situations to mine do.

According to Alex St. John, I am not planning on entering tech for the right reasons, which is why Mili St. John’s article resonates so strongly with me. If I end up obtaining a technical position, I, too, will be concerned about my paycheck — god forbid! No matter how much I enjoy my job, it will still be work, and I may just be average at it. Yet I am far from a coddled “wage slave.” In fact, any woman who has persisted in obtaining a computer science degree can hardly be called sheltered. I can be relevant without being some engineer’s “wife or girlfriend.” In two years, I, just like every other recent college graduate, will simply be trying to make a living; if that makes me one of “the useless” programmers that Alex St. John denounces, then so be it.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at sarahalloran2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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