Women in Technology

by Krishna on July 26, 2011

Anna Lewis at FogCreek has done the programming community a favor by looking at history and finding that computer science was not a male-dominated field as commonly assumed:

In 1987, 42% of the software developers in America were women. And 34% of the systems analysts in America were women. Women had started to flock to computer science in the mid-1960s, during the early days of computing, when men were already dominating other technical professions but had yet to dominate the world of computing. For about two decades, the percentages of women who earned Computer Science degrees rose steadily, peaking at 37% in 1984.

Once in a while, you see technology bloggers posting about the relative lack of female programmers and coming up with silly theories. There are some who suggest that women are uninterested in programming and those who are seem to be under-qualified. Anna’s post clearly shows that this was not the case in the past as women were interested in software development and did comprise a huge portion of the software workforce. And also recent downward trends are changing with more women now majoring in Computer Science.

But even Anna seems to fall into the trap of assuming that there were fewer women programmers because of the “eccentric, antisocial, male “hacker””. It is the environment created by alpha male programmers that prevent them from choosing the profession and so women apparently have to be “protected”. This is in its own way just as patronizing of women as the previous argument. Before we blame the anti-social programmer, it would be good to look around at actual programmers around. How many do you know who are actively anti-social, abusive and sexist?

I would suggest we look at the broader society before we make these kind of judgments. In the past, job opportunities for women were very limited. Some jobs, such as teaching, however were very open for women. Computer jobs also seemed to be an area which had few restrictions for women and seemed to invite many of them. But as gender barriers began to disintegrate, women had other opportunities. It is a possibility that some of those women who would have been very successful at programming jobs found new opportunities in business, finance, law, medicine, etc.

One may detect such a pattern by looking at the absolute numbers of women graduating versus just their percentages when compared to men. I did some Googling and almost every article lamenting the decline in women graduates uses percentages instead of numbers. I suspect that given that more women graduate now than in the past, using absolute numbers may paint a different picture. Especially if you step outside the United States and look at other countries including China and India. Progress is being made.

That is not to say that we cannot improve the workplace, but what everyone suggests is helpful to programmers of both genders. Helping employees have a better quality of life, making the work environment less stressful and reducing counter-productive internal competition is great for everyone. For example, spending time with your family (especially young children) is something that normal men and women both enjoy. And companies that make it easier for families to do that instead of death marches help them both.

And the hypothesis below is just wrong. There is a reason why Stack Overflow is so successful — Many men have no qualms in asking for help:

For example, women seem to give up sooner even in everyday situations with technology. Like, it’s socially acceptable for a woman to give up on technology and say, “Oh I can’t figure out how this computer thing works.” My friends who are girls ask for help to fix their computers normally because it’s acceptable for them not to be able to do it. They don’t realize that I’m just going to google the answer anyway! They think I already know the answer! Whereas I think most guys would be embarrassed to admit that they can’t fix their computers.



Brandon July 27, 2011 at 9:27 am

Good post. Unlike Fog Creek, I've always tried to hire the best PERSON for the job, regardless of gender, race, religion, etc. The only requirement I have is that you are human (sorry aliens).

Can you imagine the crap storm that would have ensued if a male employee at Fog Creek had said "we'd like to hire more MEN at Fog Creek"? It would have been a PR nightmare, but somehow it's acceptable to say the same thing about women.

I know plenty of female software developers, many of which are quite good. In my experience, the percentage of good/bad seems to be the same no matter what demographic you examine. Gender doesn't matter, and Fog Creek needs to figure that out if they haven't already. Like you point out, they should instead focus on making their environment employee friendly, and let the demographics fall where they will. Trying to "balance" your workplace demographics is just plain stupid.

Krishna July 27, 2011 at 10:09 am

Thanks for your comment, Brandon. Hiring the best person is the way to go. And if your company is good enough, you can get both good male and female programmers.

Jay July 27, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I wish there was a way to comment on her post. The main reason programming was considered a women's job (in the beginning) was because of the way you used to have to program the storage. You used to have to weave a wire in and out of a series of loops and ferrite representing a 0 or a 1. It was a process that anyone who could stitch could do. This was called Core Storage.

Krishna July 28, 2011 at 11:27 am

That is an interesting piece of information, Jay. We often don't remember that the early days of computers was more about electronics and actual hardware.

ciara August 10, 2011 at 11:59 am

this is a very iteresting article. it shows that us females arent as dumb as we act and we look.it shows the males that females can be just as smart as they are.

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