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Why are there fewer female developers?

annietaylorchen profile image Annie Taylor Chen Updated on ・3 min read

Since I switched my career to web development, I can't help noticing that it's rare to see female developers. I mean, there are more and more women getting into "tech" industry, as more and more tech companies are emerging and traditional companies are embracing tech, but women who are developers or engineers aren't as common as men. I am just curious on why it is that way. Note a lot of hypothesis are drawn purely from my observation, so it can be very biased. Please feel free to disagree.

1. Hypothesis: Women in general, are more into careers that deal with people than computers.

Where I am, Sweden, is considered to be one of the most equal countries when it comes to education, employments and gender equality in general. Girls and boys have equal access to education and technology, yet there are less girls choosing computer science or other STEM subjects. This might indicate that, when women are given a choice, they tend not to choose computer related subjects. They might prefer what they are naturally good at, which have something to do with people.

2. Hypothesis: Women from less privileged backgrounds might choose computer science because it offers better job opportunities.

Amoung the very limited female developers I've encountered so far, many of them tend to come from countries that are generally less equal, less affluent than Nordic countries, such as Russia, Poland, India, China, Iran, Cambodia etc. Of course, I've also met two native Swedish female developers who actually studied at KTH, one of the universities in Stockholm that is famous for churning out engineers, but they're not a norm.

3. Hypothesis: When given a chance, for instance, when they no longer need to worry about job or money, some women might switch to careers that deal with people than computers.

So far I have met several people who studied computer science before, from less affluent countries, managed to switch their career when they came to Sweden. For instance: one became a audiologist who helps people fit their hearing aids, another became a technical recruiter. Both said they don't find programming interesting, and do not like to face computer all day, and prefer to work with people, preferably face to face.

UPDATE: 4. Based on some reading and interaction from other readers, there exist a "systematic problem" in the IT industry that alienated women, which reduced the numbers of women as mentors and leaders, discouraged younger generation to pursue the careers.

One argument says from 1984, personal computers were often bought as a gift for the sons, but not daughters. Boys were more likely to play with it and got mentored by their fathers. By the time they entered college, boys were significantly better at computers, which made girls who had less exposure and previous experiences with computer felt "inferior" and "intimidated" and they dropped from computer science majors or changed their majors. Those men created companies and nerdy cultures, and prefer to hire people who are just like them. Women feel unwelcomed and prefer to do something else. When there are less and less women in the industry, less and less girls choose to learn computer science.

Alternatively, in countries like India, girls are encouraged to study IT because it's an indoor job that keeps them safe from "street-level sexual harassment".

Further reading/watching:
The Secret History of Women in Coding
CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap


Of course, there are many women who are indeed interested in computers, programming or engineering in general, and they find it fun and rewarding. And perhaps with more role models, more girls will be inspired to choose tech, and fall in love with it. However, I am not sure the number will eventually even out. I still think it's a positive thing to encourage more girls to get interested in computer science, but I don't think it's necessary to force an equal outcome. After all, we also need to respect people's own interests and choices.

What is your opinion?

Photo credit: Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com

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Annie Taylor Chen

@annietaylorchen

A hybrid of coder, designer, photographer. I love innovative and creative projects. I also cook awesome vegan food!

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I would add my working hypothesis behind this question which is:

For decades, people like me (white, middle-aged, male in IT) have implicitly or explicitly built a system that passively and actively makes IT an unpleasant place for many women to work. This system sits upon a larger, much older societal system which - also built largely by people like me - passively and actively makes many forms of existence unpleasant for women.

tl;dr; there are less female developers because the system/s is/are working as designed :-(

 

Hmm... I'm not sure, how do you explain the point 3? You'd think they'd be happier to stay in IT if that's their natural choice and now working and social environment improve (compared to their previous condition).

I personally think there are both reasons: inner/natural tendency and social environment that's behind the IT career choice by women.

 

I agree, I think a system as complex as this is very likely to have multiple factors that contribute to it. The "inner/natural tendency and social environment" combination is another example of the "nature versus nurture" thinking about human behaviour.

What I most struggle with is people who (a) fail to recognise this as an issue or (b) keep talking about "pipeline issues" (e.g., not enough women studying CS at university) as an excuse to be happy with 5% female engineers in their company an 0% gender diversity in technical leadership positions.

 

Hello Annie. Your post reminded me of this excerpt from Girl Decoded by Dr Rana El Kaliouby:

At AUC, there were equal numbers of male and female computer science majors, and this is true throughout the Middle East. Indeed, I was shocked to learn that in the United States, computer science majors, and majors in all other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines, are overwhelmingly male. In the Middle East, women actually outperform men in STEM subjects, perhaps because we have to work harder to prove ourselves.

AUC is the American University of Cairo, one of the best universities in Egypt. I find her experience similar to mine, but I see a discrepancy between the number of women engineering graduates and women engineers in the workforce, due to too many factors and a high barrier to entering the job market.

 

Interesting Doaa! One time I talked to a girl from India, and she said half of her classmates are female (computer science) and I was shocked to hear that.

Just curious, do all those female graduates get jobs in the end? It would be Sweden's dream to have that... but if a country is like Sweden, there might not be those many female engineers I guess...

 

That sounds about right!
From my own experience, many are lost in the gap between university graduation and joining the workforce, due to too many reasons. Some are that they realize they don't like the major, realize it's boring, physically too intimidating (small agencies, no other women) or daunting (site work where they're on their feet in the sun all day), have familial/societal pressure regarding work or not knowing how to navigate job hunting or a dozen different things.

The grass is always greener :)

Haha indeed. I remember once a girl who studied CS said she envied me for working as a teacher and translator, and I said I envied you so much because you can program and I had to wait for a programmer to have time to solve some problem I have, I wish I could do it myself! That was one of the reasons that drove me to learn it, so I can do things myself. ;)

Personally I love to see role models, but I don't get bothered if I don't. There will be potential women from non-STEM background, who might be genuinely interested and we should encourage them and support them to pursue STEM, but we should also respect other women who are in STEM already to choose something else, if that makes them happier.

There are a lot of awesome women in STEM that would be great role models but they're not widely known unfortunately! This also reminds me of this tweet I saw yesterday haha.

More info about that here.

 

well, if you do some research in the field of cognitive psychology you´ll find this:

In 1997 Baron-Cohen developed the "empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory" which states that humans may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions (empathizing and systemizing). The E-S theory argues that typical females tend to score higher on empathizing relative to systemizing (they are more likely to have a brain of Type E), and typical males tend to score higher on systemizing relative to empathizing (they are more likely to have a brain of Type S). He suspects that if individuals with a "systemizing" focus are selecting each other as mates, they are more likely to have children with autism.

Ok?

So, this is the wikipedia page link (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Baron-...)

This is related to the effects of testosterone on the brain, meaning, that this sexual hormone makes the right-part of the brain less dominant, while estrogens don´t suppress the right part of the brain. In this way, man are more left-hemisphere prone and thus more likely to be focus in 1 thing at a time. This is research related to sexual differences in cognitive abilities, which point to the fact that sexual hormones have influence over brain-cognitive functions

I know these things because prior to work as web developer I´ve went through almost 3 years of intense psychology college researching about these topics...

 

According to the article I pasted in point 4, Google fired an employee who cited the exact Simon Baron-Cohen's research.

I also have studied psychology, and that's why I favor both nature and nurture arguments. Undoubtedly, there are some areas we could improve, such as being more friendly and inclusive. But things like 50/50 outcome is unnecessary because we need to respect the biological differences (due to DNA, hormones, predisposition...whatever) and the career choices those factors lead to.

 

On the matter of nurture you can teach the person being respectfull and aware of other peoples needs and limitations. For sure, we should do all of this, understanding that our efforts on this side can go only to a certain 'pre-determined' point of biological limits. Right? Meaning, biology will constrains us after some level, even though we are psychological fully commited to some (any) purpose!!

 

Have you seen the documentary Code: Debugging the gender gap? What's interesting is that until the 80s computer programming was seen as good career for intelligent women. It wasn't until the 80s that computer programming was seen as a 'man's job'.

 

Interesting. I haven't watched this but I did watch movie like Hidden Figures, and know Ada Lovelace and saw some vintage photos where women were doing "programmer" jobs. I found an interesting article I will share in the main post.

 

Your first and third points assume a cultural aspect that's very prevalent in many parts of the Western world. In essence, the biases that exist against specific genders in certain jobs (not just against women in STEM jobs, but also things such as biases against men in childcare or other people/emotion focused jobs) are a non-negligible part of why these types of gender inequality exist, but the very existence of these gender inequalities helps perpetuate those biases. It's essentially confirmation bias, but with a multigenerational feedback loop.

However, in other parts of the world, that bias either manifests in other ways, or the minorities there who the bias is skewed against are actively ignoring it and trying to get rid of it.

It's also important to consider though that being exposed to those biases as a child colors how one looks at their own life. Humans quite simply tend to subconsciously try to maintain what they view as the status quo. If you're a girl who's grown up exposed to the assumption that most engineers are guys, it's less likely that you'll consider going into engineering, though you probably would have to think a bit if asked why you didn't consider it (and would probably come up with some excuses other than "I'm not a guy."). If you pay attention, you can see the same kind of behavior in other minorities as well, even to the point in some cases of people essentially hiding behind their minority status as an excuse to not try and proactively improve their situation.

 

Thanks Austin for your valuable insight.

Now I think back why I didn't choose computer before, even I had a huge interest in computer back then. The reason was my math and physics weren't so good in senior high, which were required for STEM majors. Maybe I just got bad teachers and textbooks? Now I still struggle with computer science sometimes, but I've found the web development job has evolved to be something quite fun, and I don't necessarily need heavy math and physics in most of the things I do. Most people who helped me during my journey tended out to be very nice white males, it could be I am just lucky!

It would be interesting to see whether this will change in the future.

 

About the first topic, I don't disagree completely but one thing I realized is that, even though we traditionally associate developer roles to ones where you do not need to interact with people as much, it is not true for many companies. Of course you have a lot of coding involved as a developer, but many companies also want their developers to have people skills, since we have a lot of meetings during sprints, or we need to explain how we did things to our colleagues, and even interact with clients directly in the case of project managers who started as developers.

 

Yeah, in modern days, being a software developer is no longer a nerdy guy sitting in the basement banging keyboard for hours. I agree with you that people skills are important as well.

That's why I try to present different opinions to explain this phenomenon, so if there is anything we can do to improve the situation, we should do it. :) For instance, changing people's general impression of what a developer is like could be one thing.

 

True, maybe many women still have this impression if they did not pursue this career and that could be the reason why. I liked the article, debating the different possible reasons why we have less women in this area is a good way to start changing things :)