Playing with Data

A virtual cult of the spreadsheet has formed, complete with gurus and initiates, detailed lore, arcane rituals – and an unshakable belief that the way the world works can be embodied in rows and columns of numbers and formulas.

I heard this quote from “A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge,” written in 1984 by Steven Levy after the introduction of spreadsheet software, in a recent episode of Planet Money titled “Spreadsheets.”

As I learn more about quantitative data analysis, I’m excited about all of the things I can do with it. I enjoy thinking about the data and trying to understand how to use it. But I’m cautious. If I learned anything from studying anthropology, it was a certain amount of skepticism about data — and quantitative data in particular. Although I’m aware that even qualitative data can be heavily manipulated, and I’m grateful for what I’m learning to do with quantitative data, I remain constantly concerned about how numbers can oversimplify, obscure, and deceive. As Levy wrote:

Yet all these benefits will be meaningless if the spreadsheet metaphor is taken too much to heart. After all, it is only a metaphor. Fortunately, few would argue that all relations between people can be quantified and manipulated by formulas. Of human behavior, no faultless assumptions – and so no perfect model — can be made.

Image by Jon Newman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Women, Coding, and the Year 1984

When I think of computers and the year 1984, this commercial is the first thing that comes to mind:

But in the latest episode of Planet Money, they discuss how the year 1984 marked a change in gender balance in the coding world. Up to that point, the percentage of women in computer science had been growing at the same pace as other fields like medicine, law, and the physical sciences. After that, the percentage of women leveled off and then dropped within computer science, while continuing to grow in those other fields.

According to Planet Money, this change is correlated with the introduction of personal computers and marketing their use to boys and men. As men became more and more familiar with computers at home, more of them pursued and excelled in computer science programs — which discouraged students who didn’t have that prior familiarity — and those men went on to make up more of the workforce.

The result, then, was a sharp rise in the percentage of men working in computer science, and a sense of coding as a club for geeky boys — a perspective that continues to impact education and work environments to this day. This also fits the recent statistics I found about men and women in computer science:

According to NSF surveys of employment in science in engineering from 2003 to 2011, the percentage of women working as mathematical or computer scientists dropped from 28.8% to 25%. However, the total number of women working in that role stayed the same. The change came from a significant increase in the total number of men in mathematical and computer science.

Whether that rise was truly caused by men being targeted by marketers and developing an interest in coding at a young age or by interested women being discouraged or forced out when they’re older is harder to say. And it’s likely a combination of those and other factors. (There’s a lot of speculation in the podcast, but they didn’t spend much time discussing research that explores those claims. If you’re interested in thinking about what could contribute to women feeling unwelcome in the tech industry, I’d recommend a coworker’s post on Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist.)

That said, the discussion makes me appreciate everything my parents did to prepare me for computing and coding in my life. My brother and I had equal access to our PCjr (a personal computer by IBM that came out in 1984). We both played games, learned to navigate DOS, and got online at an early age. I did get bored by the myriad games that came out targeted to my brother’s interests, but I happily built websites and was thrilled by puzzle games like Midnight RescueThe 7th Guest, and Myst. I also clearly remember loving the movie Hackers (despite the cheesy portrayal of hacking), with Angelina Jolie as the formidable hacker Acid Burn.

Although I wasn’t persuaded by those experiences or my computer science professor’s encouragement to continue studying it in college, I am grateful for all the opportunities and support I have had as a “geek girl.” I wonder sometimes if subtle gender biases led me to degrees in foreign languages and anthropology instead of math and computer science. Thankfully, though, I have had the freedom and the luck to come back to the tech world later on.

Here’s to more women feeling that draw and having the support to explore coding and tech in their professional lives.

Listen to the full Planet Money episode at

When Women Stopped Coding