Female Programmers: Are they special?

Last week, at lunch with two Microsoftie-friends, we got into a discussion about why there aren't many women in Computer Science. I've heard so many theories, but all we really know is that there are so many factors and some of them date back to childhood.

"So how'd you do it?" Jim asked, as though there was some huge obstacle I had to overcome, what with my being a woman and all. "Well, much the same way as you", I replied.

I applied to Engineering school. I was accepted. I did my homework. I took exams. I interviewed for internships. I got offers for some, I got rejected from others. Jim and I - we did the same thing. Was it harder for me to correctly prove that p is prime in discrete math? Do I deserve special recognition because I was able to do that proof despite my having an X chromosome where Jim has a Y?

My mother studied Electrical Engineering and no doubt, she had actual obstacles: people who would actually say "Kathy, I'm not sure Engineering is really for you. Perhaps you'd want to consider something more suitable for you, like fine arts?" Although you'd never hear her say it, women probably did have to fight professors to get into class, or to find an employer who would consider hiring a woman. But look at where we are thirty years later - no one's ever told me "go away - you're a woman."

Instead, we have so much special recognition that it's as though there are two types of programmers: regular programmers and then female programmers. Does it really help encourage this latter type if we give them a special attribute?

I'm not saying there aren't subtle ways which make women less likely to pursue Computer Science. A quick comparison of the United States to other countries tells you that that must be the case. But, by and large, society does not actively push women out of technology - women just aren't getting drawn into it as much.

Is that a problem? Yes, it is. Let's try to fix that.

Was it harder for me to get here because I'm female? No.

So that's all I'm saying - while various cultural issues make women less likely to pursue Computer Science, it's no harder for women to do it. So why label women programmers as "special" if they're doing the same thing as the "regular" programmers?