A Response To Shelley

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Regarding my post on Women in XML which is really a post about women in software industry, Shelley writes:

I don’t know where you work, but every place I’ve worked in over 20 years has had women. \ \ Might try looking at the atmosphere of your company and why more women don’t feel comfortable applying there. \ \ In 1996, there were 378,000 science and engineering degrees awarded. Of these, 175,931 were given to women, 202,217 to men. \ \ Many of the sciences were almost equal in participation based on sex – including math. In computer science, though, there were 7,063 women to 17,706 men – a greater disparity than most fields. \ \ But even at that, women made up almost a third of the graduating program. These probably would have been the women you all might have been interviewing. Now, why do you think your company only got one woman?

I am glad to hear that her experience has been different from mine. And I didn’t say that I NEVER worked with a female software developer. The person who first trained me was a female contractor. The president of my company was a former COBOL programmer. Sadly though the bulk of my software career (which is an admittedly short 7 years) has not been spent working with other talented female software developers. I believe I’ve missed out due to a lack of diversity.

However, assuming former company’s atmosphere is at fault (especially not being informed about the company) is hardly constructive and is dismissive of our efforts at the time. It also oversimplifies the real issue. First, let me give some background.

I worked at a small custom software/consulting services of around 15 to 17 (at the height) people located in Santa Monica. Most likely, our small size was the biggest factor in our inability to attract women. I think it had very little to do with the company atmosphere. Consider that roughly half the employees (at the time) were women, just not software developers. The president (and half owner) herself was a woman and a former software developer keenly interested in attracting female software developers. She lamented the fact that there were so few candidates.

Our environment was not that of a Dot-Com. We had in-house day care with a talented and experienced caretaker, reasonable hours, and a flexible work culture. Our failure to attract women is probably (and I don’t know all the answers here) due to several factors apart from the work environment. One of the simplest factors is that we were small. Nobody ever heard of us. The best way we knew to recruit was through job postings on websites such as Monster.com and Dice.com. However, there are much bigger societal and gender issues that we were probably bumping up against.

For example, research shows that not only are women less likely to separate from a job than men (Kulik, 2000), but also that women conduct a job search with less intensity than men (Keith, K. and McWilliams). I think this helps explain why we had so few respondents via the online job boards.

Cultural biases in our educations system and otherwise also have an affect on the number of candidates.

Girls and women are choosing, consciously or subconsciously, not to go into or stay in computer science. While one cannot rule out the possibility of some innate neurological or psychological differences that would make women less (or more) likely to excel in computer science, I found that the cultural biases against women’s pursuing such careers are so large that, even if inherent differences exist, they would not explain the entire gap. [via Ellen Spertus: Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?]

Additionally, for many females, computers are more meaningful and compelling if they are able to link them with other fields and are able to keep computer science’s social context in mind. Margolis and Fisher (2002) call this appeal “computing with a purpose.” However, computer science curricula has traditionally been oriented on the basis of the fascinations of male students, and the aspects of computers that females find interesting may not be emphasized. This lack of emphasis on certain characteristics may discourage women, allowing them to feel computers “aren’t for them.” [via Maria Enderton: Honors Thesis, Women in Computer Science]

I think this points out that there is a real basis in saying that attracting women to a software development role in numbers on par with men is a difficult task. And for very small companies, it is difficult to even attract a few. This is not say that this is a good thing, but its the situation we’re in. Rather than saying “Well you must be doing something wrong.”, we need to ask “What can we do to improve the situation together?” Given the evidence I put forth, in the next couple months, I may be in a position to hire a developer or two as a senior development manager at a different company than the one mentioned here. What tips would you give me to hiring the best and the brightest?  At the end of the day, I think we’re working toward the same goals.

Oh, and we actually work in the field because we like it, not because it’s sexy. But is that why you work in the field? Because it’s sexy?

Absolutely. Nothing sexier than typing on a keyboard all day bathed in the soft glow of two LCDs. Actually, I sort of fell into it. The remark that I made in my last post that programming has no “sex appeal” and that it isn’t “sexy”, that wasn’t intended to be taken literally. My point is that software development is not generally seen as a field that can provide a fulfilling career opportunity for women, or the general public at large. It doesn’t have a very positive exposure in the popular culture. When you ask a classroom of kids what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll hear things such as “Doctor”, “Lawyer”, “Fireman”. Heck, when you ask highshool freshman, you’ll typically hear the same thing (I know, I used to teach a summer science and math enrichment program for gifted students about to enter highschool.) . But rarely will you hear “Computer Programmer.” When I was a kid, my answer was always “I want to be a professional soccer player!”


Keith, K. and McWilliams, A. (1999). The Return to Mobility and Job Search by Gender . Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 52(3), 460-477.

Kulik, L. (2000). A Comparative Analysis of Job Search Intensity, Attitudes Toward Unemployment, and Related Responses. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 73, 487-500.

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2 responses

  1. Avatar for Jeremy Brayton
    Jeremy Brayton August 20th, 2004

    In high school I read the book Sphere. That made me want to be an aero-space engineer for NASA developing a ship that could travel in the way that ship did.

    Then I looked at how much they were making, something like 30-60k a year in their prime and decided against it. The fact that humans aren't really meant for that kind of travel set in shortly thereafter and I realized I wouldn't really be doing a "dream job".

    I then turned to programming and actually wanted to be a programmer. I liked the idea of having a problem and making my computer solve it. I went to college, got into working for my ISP, dropped out of college and here I sit. I don't code much in a language or make a compiled application but I do some programming. I still use a lot of the skills I taught myself about coding and problem solving techniques but I realized pretty early on that I didn't want to program for 8+ hours a day.

    What also keeps women from a typical programming job is the grueling hours. When deadlines hit it's pretty common for people to work excessively long hours and I'm not saying all women don't want to work over time but there is so much of a demand on the worker I'm surprised ANYONE actually WANTS to work in those environments. You're severely overworked and underpaid but I guess as long as you see those little brackets everything is okay? Not for me, I need a little bit more. I would enjoy making a quality product but I would not enjoy the intense strain that is put on almost every single software developer I've ever run into. Luckily my job isn't just development but I have made a number of tools that help my day go by quicker.

    Honestly the profession isn't really suited for anyone. It takes some pretty strong people to put up with the kind of crap developer's put up with day in, day out. I'm surprised there is even a software industry with some of the stories I've heard. I'm not saying women are generally weaker but men tend to put up with more crap than women. We can tolerate a ton of injustice before we speak up, if we even speak up at all. Women are more vocal by nature and communicate when problems arise. This either causes them to leave when something isn't changed, or they work their butts off to get something done. Men on the other hand simply tolerate whatever it is and rarely ever speak up about a problem. It appears that men are "good workers" when in reality they just take the crap shovelled to them. Women are then seen as "bitchy" and sometimes canned because although the grievance is valid the company doesn't care. If Bill can suck it up and work all weekend why can't Mary? Maybe it's because Bill doesn't have a family to think about or is a pushover who doesn't want to upset the hand that feeds him?

  2. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked August 20th, 2004

    Well I work pretty reasonable hours and I spend the bulk of my day writing software. The bulk of software development is not product development but business development. If you're a well managed company, your developers should be working around 40 - 45 hr weeks at most.

    But I disagree that men put up with more crap than women, nor vice versa. It's hard to tag that as a gender issue.