“Most of the time, I don’t feel like a girl, I feel like a programmer”

I sit down with Caroline Clark, 25-year-old computer programmer and Cambridge graduate working in London’s “Silicon Roundabout”, to discuss gaming, storytelling, and the rise of technofeminism…

1. The “computer boy’s” club

Emerging bleary eyed after a gruelling three years locked in a Cambridge library studying Maths, Caroline was first plunged into the fast-paced, vibrant world of tech, working for start-up Kano, where not only was she the only female programmer, she was the third employee. “It was like Uni, or what I wish Uni had been. We worked hard, played hard. It was intimidating as a first job but it was fun.”

Kano’s computer kits for kids idea was a raging success on Kickstarter

In her current role at Masabi she is one of two full-time female programmers, with the only other female staff working in finance/HR. When asked about the challenges of working in a male-dominated sector, Caroline says, “Well it depends on who you work with right. I was recently talking to a guy who works in the city who bragged about “collecting all the flags” through his exploits on Tinder. If I had to work with chauvinists like that, it would be a different story.” She does speak of encountering sexist remarks in an almost all-male office once: “But it was an exception, overall my experience has been really positive.

Where did all the women go? A surprising number of the “computer boys” were, in fact, female

2. I wanted to be an author of games

Wanting to understand why Caroline went where few women have gone in the recent past, she answers with a shrug: “I’m not a solid gamer like some. I just always loved and wanted to make games.” She reminisces about The Legend of Zelda, playing Super Mario with her family, and being pretty obsessed with Pokémon “It wasn’t just the game – it was the TV show, the movies, that whole universe. I wanted it to be real really badly.”

“I played Pokémon and wanted to be an author of games” – GIF via giphy

She compared it to wanting to be a writer: “With gaming, it’s like the best book you’ve ever read, but that you get to control: the action, the storyline, the music. It’s like reading Harry Potter and wanting to be an author. I played Pokémon and wanted to be an author of games.”

 3. Learning to code

In fact her first experience of programming was less than inspirational. Her mum’s partner Tony pushing her to learn C++ as a young girl as “a really employable skill”. “He was right”, she says. “But he didn’t know how to teach it. It was pretty awful. I still hate that coding language.”

#include <iostream>

int main()
	std::cout << "Hello, world!\n";

She reflects on the challenges of developing her programming skills, first teaching herself while on a gap year in New Zealand figuring out what on earth do to with her Maths degree, and facing aggressive men in online forums who told her to “go read such-and-such textbook before you even think about attempting that.”

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A Github survey suggested women confident enough in their abilities to overcome the “gender bias” may be more likely to produce clean code

“When I use some of the tools that we use to craft code with – Integrated Development Environments, or IDEs for short – I find some are just totally unintuitive to use. I think – if a group of people from similar backgrounds create a tool, it’ll probably be harder for others of a different mindset to use those same tools. And software tools up to now have mainly been created by engineers, for engineers.

4. Women in a man’s world?

But things have moved on and are changing further still – now she believes it’s more perception than reality that it’s difficult for women to get into tech. “Companies are desperate for women to join. There are not enough skilled workers for the jobs, it’s never been so easy.”

A UN International Girls in ICT day aims to encourage and empower girls to get into ICT – Infographic: Debating Europe

In fact, she suggests the context can actually be more conducive to welcoming women, when compared with a corporate boardroom. “It’s easier to create a software-based business: there are low start-up costs, things move quickly, its dynamic – the people doing it tend to be younger, more liberal.”

5. The rise of technofeminism

We discuss the new wave of what some call technofeminism – women-only tech forums, women-in-tech campaigns, and coding clubs for girls – which is making gaining programming skills more accessible than ever.

Debating Europe asks: How can we get more women into tech?

But she does express some reservations: “The point is that you shouldn’t hinder people on the back of their gender. But I don’t think we should differentiate.

When you create targets, quotas, there’s a danger these get filled but not by the best people. That can then reinforce a perception that women are less competent in these roles.

“CODE: Debugging the gender gap” is one of many online campaigns aiming to raise the profile of women in tech

  6. Girl alert

Most of the time she doesn’t feel like a girl, she feels like a programmer. But she does sometimes feel a pressure, “as though as the lone female developer you are “representing” all women developers. If you make a mistake it’s because you’re a girl, not because you’re junior. Or tired or hungover or having a bad day.”

7. Game creation as an artform

The truth is, that the tech world is no different from any other. It would benefit from a diversity of perspectives. And this is what comes through powerfully from understanding the world through Caroline’s eyes. For her, the world of game creation is an artform: “I enjoy coding, but it’s not the reason I do it; it’s a means to an end. For me it’s creating the game, the story, the art, the music – all I need is the technical ability to put it together.

Game creation – is it fun? Or art? or both? The debate continues…