Java, Women and the Culture of Computing

Danielle R. Bernstein

Mathematics/Computer Science Dept.
Kean University, Union, New Jersey 07083

Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the National Advisory Committee on Computing Qualifications, July 1999, Dunedin, New Zealand, 21-28.


Why is Java the name of a new programming language? How does the language of computing shape the field? Does the culture of computing determine who is attracted to the field? Why is the popular programming tool package called "Code Warrior"? Might the software sell as well if it were called "Code Quilter"? Computing is very passionate, colorful and masculine; feeling comfortable with computing is not just a matter of acquiring technical skills.

Every field has a culture, a language, buzzwords and expectations. But the importance of culture takes on more prominence in computing because so much of the subject is learned outside the formal classroom setting. In particular, women and men have differing expectations and relationship towards computing. Women use computers as tools; they are interested in working with computers purposefully. Men look at computers as toys. This paper will discuss the culture and language of computing and the disparate impact of the culture on female and male students.


We moved around a lot when I was a child. So when I enrolled in a new high school in the eleventh grade (16 years old), the guidance counselor asked, "Do you want to take math this year? You really don't have to".

A new school, a new guidance counselor, a new system. I told him that I wanted to take whatever came next in algebra. So the guidance counselor enrolled me for Algebra II. It sounded like the right course to me until the middle of the term when I discovered that the good students took a combined algebra and trigonometry course in the eleventh grade. But by then, it was too late. Even so I blamed myself for not being more explicit and asking for all the options. I should have said "I want to take whatever the best students are taking!" Did the guidance counselor make this decision because I was a girl, a new student (though he saw my good grades from the last school), or because he was tired and disinterested? The reason did not really matter. Because of the way mathematics courses were sequenced, it took me the rest of my high school career to make up that deficiency so that I could start with calculus at university.

Most high school girls are not so lucky. Derailed from continuing with mathematics at some point in school, they never get back on track. They start university with a mathematics deficiency, which leaves them unable to study over 75% of the majors. Even in the early 1960s, I knew that because of discrimination against women, I needed to get real, measurable skills and qualifications.

But mathematics has been regarded as something that only a few, "very smart" people can do. The general population is not ashamed of being mathematics illiterate in the same way they might be ashamed of being reading illiterate.

If we can attract and retain women in technical fields, both society and individual women will benefit. First, we need the talent. There is an international shortage of technically trained people. In the U.S., women have 16% of science and engineering jobs. Since these are the best jobs, women should aim to get 50% of those jobs. In addition, we should recognize that the technologies are the pathway to upward mobility, to better jobs, to a better standard of living and the democratic way of life that says that "It's not where you come from that counts, it's where you are going."

But most of the working poor are women; people who work full time but can't afford a stable future, a vacation and in the U.S., the all-important health insurance. Other women are one man away from public assistance. In general, women are clustered in low paid, low skilled, low authority, low mobility jobs.

Despite the high salaries and the great demand for technical skills, not enough women are attracted to technical fields. Computer science has been particularly problematic. The percentage of women computer science graduates has been dropping since 1985. In many universities, it is now less than 20%. Many factors have been held responsible for this, including the image, language and culture of computing. In an earlier work, I encouraged the teaching of the computing culture by introducing computing artifacts (Bernstein, 1997). The purpose of this inquiry is to expose the language and cultural norms of computing.

Nerds and Geeks

The image of computing has been blamed for keeping girls and women away from studying technical fields, in general, and specifically, computer science. As Laura Didio (1996) reports,

It seems girls and young women are avoiding computer science classes the same way their mothers and grandmothers eschewed woodworking and automotive courses in the '50s and '60s. Or as one 16-year-old at Brookline (Mass.) High School told me: "I don't want the guys to think of me as a nerd."

Nerds, geeks and hackers are some of the many words used to discourage women from technical fields in general and computer science in particular. The word "nerd" comes from Nerd, a character in a children's book, If I Ran the Zoo, by Dr. Seuss in 1950.

And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo a Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!

The dictionary definition of nerd states:

A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.

The important words are "single minded" and "focused". The most single minded, focused, people are athletes. Yet no one would refer to athletes as nerd. In describing computing enthusiasts and professionals, "nerd" has at least two meanings. The first is used by people outside the computer community, as a derogatory term for someone who is wrapped up in computers to the exclusion of everything else. The second is within the computer community, where it is used as a complimentary term. When women in computing were asked for their definition of nerd, they replied that nerds were considered overwhelmingly to be young, white males with glasses and bad clothing. Many of the women responded that they could not be nerds simply because they were female.

Men in the computing world are proud to be geeks. The dictionary defines it as a person with an unusual or odd personality. One web site differentiates between nerds, geeks and hackers (

A geek is someone who spends time being "social" on a computer. Someone who just uses their computer for work, but doesn't spend their free time "on line" is not a geek. Most geeks are technically adept and have a great love of computers, but not all geeks are programming wizards. Some just know enough Unix to read mail and telnet out to their favorite MUD.

A nerd is a person with no social skills, usually obsessed with science or technology (geek is more computer specific). Nerds are known for their pocket protectors, taped glasses, and plaid shirts. Many nerds are also geeks, using the net as a safe screen to hide behind while practicing their social skills.

A hacker tends to refer to the more programming intense set of the geek crowd. However the term is overused in the popular media, and therefore is no longer much used among "real geeks". Hacker also has negative connotations related to cracking, or illegally obtaining access to computers and accounts.

By examining these terms, I strive to understand the language and culture of computing, expose it explicitly and discuss it in class. In this way, computer users and students will be able to understand the culture, negotiate around it and participate in changing it. Students need to understand the bigger picture because computing is not just a matter of acquiring specific skills. We need to understand the culture before we can change it. Women need to understand that computing is very passionate, very colorful and very masculine.

What is Java?

Since many universities now teach Java in their first computer science course and it has become a popular, general-purpose language, I want to look at why the language was so named. The dictionary has not yet added "programming language" to its definition of Java. The main definition of Java are (1) an island in Indonesia and (2) coffee from the island of Java, along with several more obscure definitions of Java. But how did the programming language get its name?

The Java language has been in development at Sun Microsystems since 1991. It was originally intended to be used for consumer electronics and therefore invisible to all but software developers. Its first working name was Oak. But since there already was a software product called Oak, developers tried to find another name for the language. As the legend goes, a group of men, sitting in their favorite coffee shop, probably a Starbucks, said "What about Java?" and the name stuck.

I cannot imagine any other product being given a name, whimsically chosen by its developers. There was no marketing research, user acceptability or survey of customer perception. The culture of a programming language reflects the culture of people who design and work in a particular language. In this case, Java, the programming language, reflects Java, the coffee.

But coffee has been part of the computing culture for a long time. Before personal computers, before interactive computing, in the days of large mainframes, many programmers used to work all night. Originally there was a good reason for that. On large computers, when many people shared machines, systems programmers, the best paid and still the most prestigious of programmers, had to take the machine down to do their work. When they did that, the users and application programmers could not use it. So most system programmers worked at night. To do this work on the night shift, they needed to be fueled by lots of coffee and other vending machine delicacies.

At that time, systems programmers were predominantly men, who were focused on their computer system. They had complete control over their time and schedule, worked all night and presumably slept during the day. When I worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey (U.S.A.) as a software developer and did my stint as a systems programmer, I knew then that my body clock prevented me from being a great systems programmer. My best work was done early in the morning and by 4 P.M. I was ready to go home.

This legacy of the middle of the night culture has stuck and is still with us today. Last year, on June 25, 1998, Microsoft released Windows 98 in the U.S. As a publicity stunt, CompUSA, a chain of stores selling computer hardware and software, opened for 98 minutes to sell Windows 98 at 12 A.M. (midnight). They had created enough media frenzy that long queues formed, waiting for the store to open. Was the middle-of-the-night" hype necessary? Windows 98 would have been just as available the next morning.

A programming language named after a type of tea would have a different image. Tea is calming but coffee is stimulating and may promote frenetic action. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-94) said:

The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.
Language of Computing

Language is the mediator of human values and expectations. Language transmits cultural values and its metaphors shape a field. The language of computing, the words used to describe the processes and systems, has been violent from the beginning of the field. Much has been taken from military analogies and language where the computing culture originates. These military analogies persist and are carried on by young men who would be astounded if they were conscripted into the military. For one thing, they would be expected to get up early.

Computing is also peppered with buzzwords and acronyms. All organizations and fields have buzzwords. But computing has particularly graphic, male and violent buzzwords. Some are old, some new, many borrowed and misappropriated from general culture and many of them, blue. A buzzword is a usually important-sounding word or phrase connected with a specialized field or group used primarily to impress laypersons. Buzzwords and acronyms can make people feel included or excluded. If I recall when I went into a new situation, a new place or a new job, I remember having many acronyms and buzzwords to contend with. An acronym would be explained to me. It would make sense and then the definition would slip away again. So I would ask again "What does that mean"? Most students will not do that.

Several examples of violent or military computing jargon are in Appendix A. For example, a computer is booted to get it started. Originally, a computer was sometimes kicked to get it going so the name stuck. A program is executed. More neutral terms, such as run or administered, might be used. When a program does not work at all, it bombs out. When it is obvious that the program is producing wrong answers, it might be aborted or killed. Why not stop the program or halt it? When a programmer cannot understand why the program terminated, she might have asked for a dump, an undigested and huge amount of information about a problem. This seemingly endless stream of unintelligible letters and numbers in hexadecimal notation is bound to scare off anyone not fond of hexadecimal arithmetic and precise, exacting work. Though not used routinely today, poring over a dump is still part of the folklore. And if you get a reputation of being able to generate voluminous amount of software, you are a Code Warrior.

Bombed out, aborted (similar to an aborted mission), execute, boot, kill (several expressions which include the word "kill"), dump, moving target, divide and conquer. Does computing have to be that violent? Other terms come from the mechanic's workshop: quick and dirty, software tool, workbench, and patch.

Frances Grundy (1996) hypothesizes:

Is it possible that this emphasis on engineering and other masculine activities arise because computing, particularly programming and software activities, are in fact not "manly" enough? Do these terms to some extent compensate for the absence of the screwdriver, the soldering iron and the oily rag-even maybe the roar of the engines?

I asked my computer science students who had studied Java for a semester to describe their perception of programming. The following words were used repeatedly:

Needs patienceFrustratingLogical
AbstractDelicateLanguage from another planet
StressfulTediousTime consuming

The phrases above do not describe traditional male activities. But why code warriors, why not code quilters?

Other Possible Images

Violent, military images do not have to be the only ones used to describe computer processes. In the early 1980s, there was a serious attempt to change the analogies to female imagery and skills, such as knitting and sewing (Boden, 1987). The language of knitting was used as an example of a procedural programming language. For example, to describe a diamond pattern (again from Boden)

**1st row: P.2(1,2,1),[k.2,p2] 2 (3,3,4) times,
*s1.2F,p.1,k.2 from cable needle,
s1.1B, k.2,p.1 from cable needle,
repeat from * to last 8 (11, 12, 15) sts...

and that is just the first row. The concepts of variables, repetition and subroutines can be found in knitting patterns. Without explanations, knitting patterns are just as terse and unreadable to novices as computer programs. Yet, no one would doubt that they could learn how to knit with the proper amount of time and instruction.

Sewing can be used as an example of top down programming design. The overall pattern is the top down design that is made up of collar, sleeves, back and front of a blouse. Weaving and quilting metaphors are much more useful to describe the programming process than the vocabulary of war. The program, just like the quilt, is made up of smaller segments. Each piece has to work by itself: the subroutine, subprogram or object. But then all the pieces have to fit together and work seamlessly if the program or the quilt is to make sense.

But these analogies never reached the general consciousness of the computing community. One reason may have been that young women in the last two decades did not grow up with sewing and knitting skills and understanding. They did not appreciate the metaphors and these analogies were not helpful on a practical level. Similarly, typewriter analogies were used to teach word processing in the 1980s. These analogies may have been helpful 15 years ago when most people had used a typewriter, but not any more.

Not all paradigms are of the hierarchical, military type. The Internet is the most successful application since the spreadsheet. It has been called the "killer apps" of the decade. (Again the need for violent language.) The designers of the Internet could have planned to build it as a hierarchy, similar to DOS or the Windows operating system. The hierarchy can be seen when describing the location of the file that contains this document. It is in c:\mydoc\talks\complang.doc.

But instead the Internet model was taken from a cobweb, an interconnecting network where one can go from any computer to any other computer in the world without knowing the physical location of the computer, similar to the telephone network. So we can point and click to get transported from a computer at Kean University in New Jersey, U.S. to a computer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Women and Computing

Exposing and explaining the language and culture of computing explicitly is more important to women students. As a group, women do not explore, have no network of people and are excluded by men in the computing community. Benston (1988) recognizes that:

Men and women do not communicate as equals about technology. The information flow is almost entirely one sided. Men may explain a technological matter to women but they do not discuss it with them. It is very difficult to discuss technical problems, particularly experimental ones, with male peers-they either condescend or they want to simply do whatever it is for you. Other males do not get this treatment-whatever becomes a joint problem to be solved.

In class or at a meeting, a male student will talk over and around a woman sitting between them to another male student about class work or a computing topic. So women students have to depend more on lecturers and written instructions to solve their various computing problems.

In addition, it is well recognized that women and men are attracted to computing for different reasons. Women are concerned about the context in which the software will be used. They want their work to have a purpose beyond the specific program they need to write. This is sometimes whimsically characterized as "men look at computers as toys, women as tools." But when I ask a technical audience to finish the sentence "To me, computing is ...", a typical answer from a woman is:

To me, a computer is a tool by which I can extend my capabilities to complete activities more effectively.

Some female respondents also add "A major headache when not working". A typical male answer is "To me, a computer is a game I get paid to play." Thinking of my personal answers, I can say that "to me, computing is:

Women are less likely to jump through hoops or exhibit obsessive behavior. Men will do things that might make no sense to get to their ultimate goal. As a computing faculty member said:

If you love only what you can do with computers, you don't really love computers. To really love computers, you have to love the process of computers.

Women as a group are more likely to do only what is required in class and use techniques taught in class. A lack of confidence in their (women's) own abilities may lead female students to rely on algorithmic procedures emphasized in school and less likely to explore creative, alternative strategies that allow them to grapple with underlying (mathematical) ideas. (Linn, 1989).

That may be one of the reasons why, though women perform better in mathematics classes, they do poorer on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). On the SAT, students do not have time to work out the problems as they were taught in class. They have to develop quick and assertive techniques to settle on an answer to a mathematics problem and move on to the next one.

Certainly, the stereotype of male rationality and female emotional behavior is wrong in computing. Men are the emotional ones, jump the gun, do not plan, and want to try stuff out before they think it through. They are more likely to use acronyms and buzzwords they do not understand. Women are more likely to plan their strategy and ask questions such as "what is going to happen if I do this"?

Cultural Norms in Computing

Cultural norms can be defined as the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another. The cultural norm of the successful Computer Science student is someone who is on the computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They talk about their equipment, read magazines and are constantly surfing the web. This can be summed up again as the Java culture. This kind of focused, obsessive behavior is not restricted to computing. As Sheila Tobias (1997) points out, this is also a characteristic of research scientists;

The temperament for dedicated, focused work- Staying-up-all-night-kind-of-dedication- I can't think about anything else darling, not even you tonight because I've got those things growing in the petri dish-kind of intensity is (of course) antithetical to what is considered normal behavior for a female.

Maybe women do not understand the cultural norms in computing. It is also possible that they understand the norms only too well and they do not see themselves fitting in with those norms. Not all male computing students are comfortable with the 24/7 obsession with computing of their peers. But this perception bothers women more than men. Women ask if this is the only way to be a successful computing student.

Women feel they do not measure up to their male peers' obsession. Juliet Webster (1996) in Shaping Women's Work describes it as "Emotional stimulation and addictive kicks are gained from working intensely on a project over long and odd hours under stress in a hermetically sealed world".

It is not difficult to feed into the young men's computing obsessions. The CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy pictures using Sun's HotJava program to distribute free software over the Internet. The free software would be developed at universities in exchange for donated equipment. McNealy envisages hundreds of "20-year-olds in computer science labs, working all night on Jolt Cola and Twinkies, who would be thrilled to death to create a better word processor than Word and make it available for free." But are the men any more productive for all their long hours? Cringely (1992) points out that most of the long hours worked are not productive. However, staying up late in the office, just "hanging around" has great masculine symbolic value.

But we should not forget the exhilaration factor of computing. When things click and a software problem has been solved, there is a great feeling of accomplishment.

Application to the Classroom

By discussing computing norms explicitly and in a nonjudgmental manner, both sexes will be more comfortable with their computing interaction. When introducing a word in the computing vocabulary, we should be aware of its connotation and we may need to explain it several times. If possible, we should also state its origin. The purpose of this inquiry was to reveal the language and cultural norms of computing.

References Appendix 1
Expression Alternative Definition
Abort/Kill End the program To manually terminate the program
Bomb Stop unexpectedly When a program terminates unexpectedly
Boot Initialize Initialize the operating system on a computer
Code dump Code details Undigested information about the state of a program, usually in hexadecimal
Code warrior Software developer Great software developer
Crash Failure Unexpected software failure
Default Customary Preselection option used by a program when no alternative is specified
Execute Run Run a program
Kill file Filter file File that filters unwanted patterns
Kill a program Terminate To terminate a program abnormally
Killer apps Popular application Application that is so popular that it will induce people to buy a computer
Spam mail Junk e-mail Irrelevant or annoying postings to mailing lists
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Last Updated on December 31, 2000