Tech & Work

IT gender gap: Where are the female programmers?

Justin James presents data points and theories about why more women aren't getting into and staying in development roles, particularly in Western cultures.


My friend Chris Eargle spoke at the Cairo Code Camp several weeks ago, and when I watched the slideshow from the event, I was amazed that nearly 50% of the attendees were women. Based on my experience, reader feedback, and news reports, I believed the number of female IT pros was declining.

Interesting data points

I decided to research the IT gender gap. I learned a number of facts — many of which lead to even more questions.

Looking at the BLS numbers, it is interesting that these professions attract more women (as a percentage) than software engineers (20.2%):

  • Bailiffs, correctional officers, jailers (26.9%)
  • Chief executives (25.0%)
  • Database administrators (35.3%)
  • Biological scientists (45.1%)
  • Chemists and materials scientists (30.0%)
  • Technical writers (50.4%)

Even the professions that are said to have a glass ceiling (such as CEO) have more women in them than software development. Based on the number of science positions listed in the BLS data with substantial numbers of women in them, it is clear that the myth that women are afraid of math or science is just plain wrong (even if less than 1% of mathematicians are women). And given the bizarre outlier of DBAs at 35.3%, and technical writers at 50.4%, we can see that women certainly do not dislike computing fields in general.

Theories about why more women aren't in IT

F/LOSS-specific reasons The fact that only 1.5% of free/Libre/open source software (F/LOSS) developers are women is quite befuddling. In his Datamation article, Bruce Byfield makes it sound like a lot of the gender gap was because male developers are much more willing to spend their free time programming. This makes some sense if you stick to the gender stereotypes that men have more enthusiasm for technical subjects, and that women think of it as "just a job," but it falls apart when you consider the fact that 75% of Linux code is coming from people paid to work on it.

So if women are 20% of the programmers, and paid developers are 50% (or more) of the F/LOSS contributors, it would seem fair to see 10% of the F/LOSS contributors being female, but a 1.5% rate screams out that there is something else going on here. Here are several theories that I read:

  • The F/LOSS community is hostile to women and discourages their participation.
  • Women developers are not attracted to the typical F/LOSS project. (Given the range of F/LOSS projects out there, I can't take this one seriously.)
  • The companies that typically pay developers to contribute to F/LOSS also happen to not hire many women. (This is doubtful, considering that a company the size of IBM would have a hard time being a discriminatory employer on that scale.)
  • Female developers do not do the kind of work that F/LOSS project require. (For example, maybe most F/LOSS projects require C/C++, and maybe few women know C/C++).
Geek culture

Byfield's article about female F/LOSS developers also mentions the culture in F/LOSS projects as a reason for the gender gap. He writes, "...listen to the horror stories female developers tell about sexist remarks or being asked out for dates. Look at the constant trolls on the mailing lists for female developers." This made me think about recently published research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found the stereotypical IT environment (empty Coke cans, lava lamps, ThinkGeek items, etc.) discourages women from wanting to work in IT or study computer science. Ouch.

Crash and burn projects

It looks like "crash and burn" projects also play a large role in turning women off from development; that said, I do not know many men who like these kinds of projects either. I really do not know why men are more likely to put up with these environments, but my experience has been that mismanaged development projects are the rule, not the exception.

Cultural reasons

Environment certainly plays a role in the gender gap; however, not all cultures seem to have this issue. In June 2002, the Association for Computing Machinery published an excellent article by Vashti Galpin discussing women in computing around the world (membership is required to read the article). These are some of the key data points from the paper:

  • In 1996, females in India were 11.3% of the IT related graduates; in 2002, they were 20.3% of the IT related graduates (nearly doubling in six years).
  • 41% of Iranian CS graduates were female in 1999.
  • In Australia in 1994, 22% of IT graduates were female; by 1998, only 19% of IT graduates were female.
  • Western European countries show females as being less represented in the ranks of computing undergraduates (Germany: 10.5% in 2000, United Kingdom: 19% in 1999, Netherlands: 6.6% in 1999) than in the United States (26.7% in 1998); Northern Europeans (Norway, Sweden, etc.) show the same or more women graduates (Sweden: 30% in 2000, Norway: 23.2% in 1999) as a percentage than the United States for the same years (26.7%).
  • India's percentage of female IT undergraduates doubled (from 12% to 24%) from 1997 to 2000; South Africa had an impressive 32.1% graduates in 1998; Mexico's 1999 number was a whopping 39.2%; and Guyana had an astounding 54.5% of female CS graduates in 2001.

Even though these numbers a bit dated, and in some cases they only studied one or two institutions, we can compare North America's numbers from the 1990s and early 2000s — in Canada, 12% in 1997 and 24% in 2000, 26.7% in the United States in 1998, and 20.4% in the United States and Canada in 2000 — to these numbers and get a fairly good understanding of a fundamental idea: the differences in CS graduation rates track cultural boundaries.

One source that I read explained that in India, programming is seen as a "clean" profession in comparison to working in a factory or a farm. Perhaps then what we are really seeing in the United States is that enough professions in fields that women find more attractive than IT have enough open positions so women do not need to go into IT if they want a mentally challenging, high-paying job. For example, 92% of registered nurses in the United States are female, according to the BLS statistics.

Lack of encouragement

In addition to the workplace environment issues, a recent survey shows that a majority of women have been actively discouraged from going after careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. After reading the full report, I had a negative impression of female college students. The report made it seem like the female students are giving up because they lack confidence, or don't feel like they are doing a good job, despite good grades. The report suggests that professors need to act as cheerleaders.

Maybe this rubs me the wrong way because I am a very self-motivated person, but I believe that if you require someone else's approval to know that you are doing a good job, you are probably going to struggle in any challenging career. In my jobs, I have only been told what a super job I was doing at the end of a project or during a review. The way it works in the real world is that you are (hopefully) told when you are underperforming, and you stay employed when you meet or exceed expectations. The idea that college professors need to actively encourage students is laughable.

Here are viewpoints from two women in IT, whom we asked why they think there aren't more women in developer roles.

Nelly Yusupova, the CTO of Webgrrls International, had this to say, which seems to be right inline with the report:

I believe the problems start in a girl's early teen years when they are most influenced and I think it comes down to not having enough positive role models, negative pop culture imagery, and not having access to mentors.

Without positive role models, the problem is self-perpetuating. Girls will not see the opportunities for themselves in technology will not choose careers in technology and therefore there will be fewer role models, and on and on. We are losing out on the pipeline where if you get girls involved early enough in computers and technology, they will have an interest in careers in technology.

Also, girls are inundated with headlines, news stories and by imagery of celebrity, and their debauchery and antics, that is often what today's girls are emulating. The "coolness" or "hip factor" is currently not associated with computer programmers or developers.

"The smart girls don't get the guy" and "the guy is intimidated by the smart girl", those are the messages on TV, in the movies, in music and that is what is happening in real life...our priorities are being influenced by pop culture and that is the message in nearly all of entertainment...

Most actually grow up with a negative stereotype about the technology industry and being a geek. They tend to imagine that, computer professionals and those who work heavily in IT live in a solitary and antisocial worlds, which is not a very appealing image for a young girl growing up.

Arquay Harris, the Director of Engineering for CBS Interactive (TechRepublic's parent company), said:

I think that more women aren't developers because, from a young age, they are not encouraged to pursue the subjects that would allow them to succeed in those roles. The key to being a strong developer is having strong analytical skills. Mathematics and Science are both areas that foster development in those areas and research has shown that those tend to be more male dominated fields. I also think that engineering can be an intimidating profession because there is the perception that it is "too hard" or something that boys do.

While one of the above cited studies shows that 40% of women had experienced some sort of discouragement from pursuing STEM careers, I would love to know what exactly discouragement meant and how it compared to men interested in STEM careers.

For example, if a math teacher took a student who was failing the class and said, "you are not cut out for this kind of work," there is nothing wrong with that — it is just a statement of truth. But if a teacher said to a student, "you know that you'll never make it in software development because you are a woman," then I think we have found the proverbial smoking gun. But in the numbers I have found and the anecdotes that I have read, I did not find a citation of outright discouragement along those lines. I am sure that this happens; I am positive that there are some parents or teachers who tell young ladies, "Whatever you do, don't go into software development. You'll never find a job and, if you do, the pay will stink because you are a woman." I suspect that it's even more common for the discouragement to be more subtle; for instance, family members and educators asking, "why are you interested in that?" or "wouldn't you rather go to nursing school?" It's interesting to see that the two women we talked to cited a lack of encouragement as opposed to active discouragement.

I think that someone of strong character is going to follow their dreams regardless of what others think. When I was growing up, working with computers wasn't cool regardless of your gender; it also wasn't cool to play Dungeons & Dragons, and I got picked on for doing both activities.

It comes back to culture

My experience and opinion is that female immigrants, and the daughters of immigrants from countries with high numbers of STEM workers (such as East Asia) are a bit overrepresented in the field of software development (I was not able to find concrete numbers that support or disprove this observation).

I feel that the underlying problem is culture and not education or work environment or lack of encouragement; that is, the underlying attitudes towards this kind of work that girls pick up while being raised in the United States and other Western nations.

It's possible that Western students are cheered on and encouraged every step of the way and give up without that constant praise. I have seen this behavior in a number of young people. One study I read a few months ago showed that U.S. students have higher self esteem and rate the quality of their work higher that students in China, India, Japan, etc., but in reality, the quality of their work is sub-par.

I feel like the economic wealth in the United States plays a large role in allowing "coolness" to influence these decisions. Looking at the countries with a lot of female developers, they tend to be poor or developing countries: the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. The places with lower rates of female developers are the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other wealthier nations. In a poor or developing nation, when there is a chance to do better for yourself, you might be more likely to go for an IT career, regardless of how hard it might be or what other people think. In the United States, for example, people are much more likely to be able to take a "cool" or easier path than IT and still do well for themselves.

Little hope for the future

In a number of articles that I read, there were assertions that women perceive IT and software development to be jobs with little future; it is easy to see where this impression might be coming from, with all of the talk about offshoring and such. But again, we have a perception problem. The BLS expects to see a 22.2% growth in the computer-related job market between 2008 and 2018. When you compare that to the expected 10.1% growth in the job market overall, you see that software development jobs are going to be growing at double the average rate. Furthermore, CS jobs are predicted to account for 60% of the job growth in professional jobs between 2008 and 2018 (Communications of the ACM, March 2010 Vol. 53 No. 3, page 17).

Lack of pay and promotion opportunities Another explanation for the gender gap is that women tend to leave the sciences sooner than men. In a new paper, Jennifer Hunt provides compelling evidence that contrary to popular wisdom, 60% of the excess rate of abandoning the field has to do with pay and promotion opportunities (the paper is gated, and without being a member of a subscribing institution costs $5). Here we are seeing a problem with perception not reality, at least in terms of promotion opportunities. This is an excerpt from the paper (copyright 2010 by Jennifer Hunt):

Excess female exits from a field are not influenced by the field's working hours, wages, or share of workers in management, though these are all positively correlated with the male share. The implication is that a lack of mentoring and networks, or discrimination by managers and co-workers are the more promising of the existing explanations for excess female exits, and that explanations hinging on the precise nature of engineering work should be discarded. The slight excess female exits from science for family-related reasons are not accounted for by the share of trained scientists that is male.

Although women often cite a lack of promotion opportunities and pay gaps as their reasons for leaving science fields, the numbers show that the actual numbers regarding "working hours, wages, or share of workers in management" have nothing to do with "excess female exits from a field." The author takes this to mean that women are simply not getting the right mentoring and networking, although I find this hard to believe given what I see as the overrepresentation of women in management.

My take is that either women are not seeing the reality for what it is or the potential mentoring and networking simply is not happening for whatever reason.

Is this actually a problem?

Two things that came up in discussions elsewhere was, "is this actually a problem?" and "how would you fix it if it were a problem?" I am not sure if it is a problem. I am concerned that software development is rapidly becoming a cornerstone of modern economies and that more than 75% of the U.S. population finds the field unattractive; this forces companies to hire H-1B workers or send work offshore if they want programmers with CS degrees.

Given that the numbers show that women are being turned off from CS programs, my feeling is that women are not attracted to programming at all as opposed to being shut out from jobs. While I have heard lots of people talk about having a hard time being hired due to their age, I have yet to hear someone say that their gender made finding a programming job more difficult. If there is actual discriminatory hiring going on, I have not seen the evidence.

How can we reverse this trend?

The companies I have worked for with lots of female IT workers were those firms with in-house training, tuition reimbursement, and formal programs to train talented employees to perform IT work. I think that employer-provided training and mentoring may be the best way to bring women into software development. Once women get into the workplace, they will hopefully find that the programmer stereotype and geek culture is not as bad as they heard.

If the underlying problem really is that the geek culture is not a workplace that women want to work in, should it be changed? The study that showed that women do not want to work in that environment also showed that men did not prefer it either but in much lower numbers. So it would seem that the stereotype of programming (which is rooted in reality, in my experience) is a deterrent to women and men. Unfortunately, these studies did not index the participants' workplace preference to their technical ability. It may very well be the case that, say, the top 10% of CS students overwhelmingly favor the stereotype. And given then the top programmers are twenty times more effective than the worst (Code Complete, 2nd Edition, page 548), it may be better to turn away most women and many men programmers in order to attract the best workers. That said, it seems like the stereotypical development environment exists just about everywhere, but those top programmers really are not everywhere.

Share your thoughts about the IT gender gap

I look forward to hearing readers' views, especially women in development roles, about this topic.

How many female developers are there in your organization? If you're a woman in a development career, what are some of the benefits and the drawbacks to working in IT? What do you think is the primary deterrent for women not going into development: geek culture, programmer stereotypes, discrimination, lack of encouragement, pay, or something else? How do you think we can reverse this trend get more women to consider programming jobs and then keep them in the field? Let me know in the discussion.

More women in IT resources


Disclosure of Justin's industry affiliations: Justin James has a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides; he has a contract with OpenAmplify, which is owned by Hapax, to write a series of blogs, tutorials, and articles; and he has a contract with OutSystems to write articles, sample code, etc.


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Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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