Disclaimer: these opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent
the opinion of any person or institution who are not me.
The topic of sexism in the software industry has flared up recently.
This post by Katie Cunningham (aka The Real Katie), entitled Lighten
caught my attention. As a father of a delightful little girl, I hope
someday my daughter feels welcomed as a developer should she choose that
In general, I try to avoid discussions of politics, religion, and
racism/sexism on my blog not because I don’t have strong feelings about
these things, but I doubt I will change anyone’s mind.
If you don’t think there’s an institutionalized subtle sexism problem in
our industry, I probably won’t change your mind.
So I won’t try.
Instead, I want to attempt an empirical look at some problems that
probably do affect you today that just happen to be related to sexism.
Maybe you’ll want to do something about it.
But first, some facts.
Whether we agree on the existence of institutional sexism in our
industry, I think we can all agree that our industry is overwhelmingly
It wasn’t always like this. Ada Lovelace is widely credited as the
So there was at least a brief time in the 1840s when 100% of developers
were women. As late as the 1960s, computing was seen as women’s
work, emphasis mine:
“You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you
need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle
detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
The same site where I found that quote has a link to this great Life
of IBM computer operators.
But the percentage of women declined steadily from that point. According
to this Girls Go
post, in 1987, 42% of software developers were women. But then:
From 1984 to 2006, the number of women majoring in computer science
dropped from 37% to
— just as the percentages of women were increasing steadily in all
other fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, with the
possible exception of physics.
The post goes on to state that the number of CS grads at Harvard is on
the increase, but overall numbers are still low.
So why is there this decline? That’s not an easy question to answer, but
I think we can rule out the idea that women are somehow inherently not
suited for software development. History proves that idea wrong.
Ok fine, there’s less women in software for whatever reasons. Maybe
they don’t want to be developers. Hard for me to believe as I think
it’s the best goddamn profession ever. But let’s humor that argument
just for a moment. Suppose that was true. Why is it a problem for our
industry? I’ll name two reasons.
The OSS Contributor Problem
If you’re involved in an open source project, you’ve probably noticed
that it’s really hard to find good contributors. So many projects are
solitary labors of love. Well it turns out according this post, Sexism:
Open Source Software’s Dirty Little
Asked to guess what percentage of FOSS developers are women, mostly
people guess a number between 30-45%. A few, either more observant or
anticipating a trick question after hearing the proprietary figure,
guess 12-16%. The exact figure, though, is even lower: 1.5%
In other words, women’s participation in FOSS development is over
seventeen times lower than it is in proprietary software development.
HWHAT!? That is insane!
From a purely selfish standpoint, that’s a lot of potential developers
who could be contributing to your project. Even if you don’t believe
there’s rampant institutionalized sexism, why wouldn’t you want to
remove barriers and create an environment that makes more contributors
feel welcome to your project?
Oh, and just making your logo pink isn’t the way to go about it. Not
that I have anything against pink, but simple stereotypical approaches
won’t cut it. Really listen to the concerns of folks like Katie and try
and address them.
I don’t mean to suggest you will get legions of female contributors
overnight. This is a very complex problem and I have no clue how to fix
it. I’m probably just as guilty as I can’t name a single female
contributor to any of my projects, though I’ve tried my best to cajole
some to contribute (you know who you are!). But a good first step is
to remove ignorance and indifference to the topic.
The Employment Problem
We all know how hard it is to find good developers. In fact, while the
recession saw high overall unemployment, that time was marked by a
labor shortage of
So it comes as a surprise to me that employers tolerate a work
environment that makes a large percentage of the potential workforce
According to this New York Times
written in 2010,
The share of women in the Silicon Valley-based work force was 33
percent, dropping down from 37 percent in 1999.
Note that it’s not just a gender issue.
It’s an issue I’ve covered over the years, so I was interested to see
that while the collective work force of those 10 companies grew by 16
percent between 1999 and 2005, the proportion of Hispanic workers
declined by 11 percent, to about 2,200; they now make up about 7
percent of the total work force. Black workers declined to 2 percent
of the work force, down from 3 percent.
Again, my point here isn’t to say “You should be ashamed of yourself for
being sexist and racist!” Though if you are, you should be.
No, the point here is shift your perspective and look at the reality of
the current situation we’re in, despite the reasons why it is the way it
is. For whatever reasons, there’s a lot of people who might be great
developers, but feel that our industry doesn’t welcome them. That’s a
problem! And an opportunity!
It’s an opportunity to improve our industry! If we make the software
industry a place where women and minorities want to work, we’ve
increased the available pool of software developers. That not only means
more quality developers to hire, it also means more diverse
perspectives, which is important to creative
and benefits the bottom line:
So a sociologist called Cedric Herring has just completed a very
interesting study that obtained data from 250 representative companies
in the United States that looked at both their diversity levels as
well as various measures of business performance there. And he finds
that with every successive level of increased diversity, companies
actually appear to do better on all those measures of business
That’s a pretty compelling argument.
So, what are brogrammers afraid of?
For the uninitiated, the term “brogrammer” is a recent term that
describes a new breed of frat boy software
that are representative of those who don’t see the need to attract more
women and minorities to our industry.
Given the benefits we enjoy when we attract a more diverse workforce
into software development, why is the attitude that we shouldn’t do
anything to increase the numbers of women and minorities in our industry
It’s not an easy question to answer, but I did have one idea that came
to mind I wanted to bounce off of you. Suppose we were successful at
attracting women and minorities in numbers proportional to the make-up
of the country. That would increase the pool of available developers.
Would that also lower overall salaries? Supply and demand, after all.
I can see how that belief that might lead to fear and the attitude that
we’re fine as it is, we don’t need more of you.
But at the same time, when you consider the talent shortage, I don’t
believe this for one second. At this point, I don’t have any studies to
point to, but I would welcome any links to evidence you can provide. But
my intuition tells me that what would happen is it would simply decrease
our talent shortage, but a shortage would still remain.
What would happen is we’d see the shakeout of bad programmers from the
Let’s face it, because of the talent shortage, there’s a lot of folks
who are programmers who probably shouldn’t be. But for the majority of
developers, I don’t think we have anything to fear. We should welcome
the influx of new ideas and the overall improvement of our industry that
more developers (and thus more better developers) bring. A rising tide
lifts all boats as they say.
Now, I’m not sure this is the real reason these attitudes prevail. It
sure seems awful calculating. I’m inclined to think it’s simple
cluelessness. But it’s possible this is a subconscious factor.
Or perhaps it’s the fear that the influx of people from diverse
backgrounds will require that they grow up, leave the trappings of their
college behind, and become adults who know how to relate to people
different than them.
I know this is a touchy subject. I want to make one thing very clear. My
focus in this post was on arguments that don’t require one to believe
there’s rampant sexism in the software industry. The arguments were
mostly self-interest arguments in favor of changing the status quo.
I don’t claim there isn’t sexism. I believe there is. You can find lots
of arguments that make a compelling case that institutionalized sexism
exists and that it’s wrong. The point of this post is to provide food
for thought for those who don’t believe there’s sexism. If we change the
status quo, I believe attitudes will follow. They tend to follow one
another with each leading the other at times.
In the end, it’s a complex problem and I certainly don’t claim to have
the answers on solving it. But I think a good start is leaving behind
the fear, acknowledging the issue, recognizing the opportunity to
improve, and embracing the concrete benefits that diversification bring.
What do you think?