Names Hurt: How the Media Manipulates Our View of A Programmer

Group of diverse, female programmers sitting in a boardroom, programmer


Close your eyes and imagine an programmer. Was he white, antisocial, and maybe wearing a hoodie? Kim looks at how the media might be manipulating your view of a programmer.

Last month, Wired released an article originally headlined “Meet The Brilliant Young Hackers Who’ll Soon Shape The World” with an accompanying photo of seven boys wearing t-shirts and serious faces in a seemingly windowless room. The story was indeed about these seven boys, yes, but what Wired didn’t realize they were implying was that these “brilliant,” “world-changing,” “hackers” all are like the ones pictured in the photo. As a girl programmer (who also goes to the same school these boys go to) reading this article, I was immediately upset by their omission of any “hacker” girls at all — aside from the quick references to the wonderful Niousha and Danielle at a male-dominated meeting. I wasn’t the only one upset by it either; tech girls, writers, programmers, etc., all over Twitter started expressing their thoughts as well.

After receiving a lot of responses, Wired editor Nicholas Thompson quickly issued a Facebook apology and changed the headline of the article to read “The Genial, Brilliant, Candy-Loving Hackers of Stetson West.” However, “These College-Age Hackers Will Soon Shape Our Future” still remains as a subheader and Nicholas Thompson’s apology left a lot to be desired. A magazine with such a large tech reader base has such great opportunity to encourage and promote diversity in tech — not only helping more people join tech, but helping companies and the world benefit from greater diversity. Yet they (or other related magazines and sites) still release subtle articles or headlines that imply that if you’re not a white male, you’re not right for computer science.

In a broader sense, media everywhere is still creating and enforcing these stereotypes. Whether it’s only showing girls dolls and princesses in the toy aisles, telling young girls that they’re biologically worse at math (myth), or only showing men as programmers in articles or movies, every single instance counts.

So below, I’ve broken down some common Myths vs Facts about computer scientists!

Myth: All Programmers are hackers

Programmers are most certainly not all hackers. Well, at least not like the characters on TV. The term “hacker” and “hackathon” are thrown around constantly in the Computer Science (CS) world, but rarely are they ever about someone breaking into someone else’s computer (unless, of course, you’re in the cyber-security industry or find bugs in systems like the boys in the article above). Typically they’re just referencing whatever personal project someone is trying to program — whether it be a website, a fun computer game, an app, or something as simple as an Arduino traffic light. Do these all sound hard to you and like something you could never do on your own, either? You’re not alone. Which brings me to…

Myth: Every Programmer can make their own website, fix your cell phone, set up your wifi, and automate their coffeepot

Uh, most definitely not! Whether you’re in primary school, high school, college, at the beginning of your career as a programmer or not even in tech — you are not behind for not being able to do one or even any of these things. Everyone starts somewhere. Just like your after-school hobby might be soccer, drama club, skateboarding, or gardening, these people that seem light-years ahead of you in knowledge have computer science as theirs. Just because they have had more practice, does not mean they’re smarter! Maybe only a tad bit more experienced. Plus, a lot of these projects you see them do that seem so impossible can actually be pretty simple.

Myth: Computer scientists are antisocial, loners who have very little friends

If that’s true, then I’m incredibly offended you just called me an antisocial loner! No way 🙅. TV shows or movies like to keep up this stereotype about what a typical computer scientist is like — take Silicon Valley or Mr. Robot as just two, most recent examples. Computer scientists come in all different shapes, sizes, genders, ethnicities, personalities, etc. just like in any other field. Don’t believe me? Check out the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign for a start.

The fourth lie is something you may or may not have heard, told yourself, believed, etc., before. If you can’t relate — that’s a good thing.

Fact: You can be an amazing, world-shaping computer scientist too

The new “stereotype” of what a programmer is like is YOU! Don’t let the media, peers, or even the imposter phenomenon talk you out of what you love. If you’re passionate about programming, coding, hacking, or any other field, then you most certainly are good and smart enough to be one.

So if you want to be a programmer — go for it! If not, you can still pull off that Hollywood-hacker-look on Hackertyper. Happy hacking!

About the author

Kim Whitney

Hi friends, I’m Kim Whitney! I’m a fourth year (of five!) computer engineering and computer science student at Northeastern University in Boston. I’ve worked four full-time software developer internships (or as we call them at NU, co-ops) so far at EMC, Apple, Starry, and now Turo! I also enjoy art and design, rock climbing, swimming in lakes, and doppler radar – though my passions lately have mainly revolved around diversifying the tech workplace. Please don’t hesitate to send me a message; I’d love to chat!