(Please note: I posted this to a Trogger a few months ago, and it spawned a GREAT discussion that I hope you’ll check out. The discussion definitely made me rethink some of what I said, and I hope to write a follow-up in time. I will continue to do fresh content, but I also want to get all my writings in one place now.)
While I cannot find any hard data or official surveys measuring the ratio of men to women in the programming world, anecdotes both personal and online seem to suggest its about 1:10. Since it was raised in this post, I’ve been wondering why the ratio is so low. In the end, I think it boils down to two things – one of which we’ve heard a million times, the other of which I think is new.
1) Stereotypes of the developer work environment aren’t very inviting to women. Media portrays dirty men sitting silently at their computers – together or remotely – drinking beer, and usually with pictures of big-busted women nearby. (1) While I know from experience that this isn’t (generally) true, it is what we see in the media at a young age (think Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – to name a few).
We’re told technical fields aren’t for us, and that they dont understand us in the ads we see.
We need to start teaching offices reach out specifically to groups like Girls in Tech, Women 2.0, and WITI, and not just rely on recommendations from their already primarily male developers.
However, I think there is a second issue keeping the double-X chromosomes away from hardcore programming.
written by and for men. They are designed for the way men are socially shaped to think – rather than women (2). Women are encouraged to be, and told they succeed best as, multi-taskers. While tech may be increasing its female component, we apply for and are hired mostly in management, administration, and occasionally design. These positions require a horizontal approach to problem solving: recognizing and understanding the connections between multiple disassociated problems, solving them quickly, all while balancing other tasks and needs. In these positions, one simply can’t get too caught up in a single project.
Programming, on the other hand, is built as with vertical solutions rather than horizontal – variables within sub-groups of groups, building downward into more complex and specific pieces that play a tiny role in the overall problem. And to get this deep, the programmer generally needs to spend hours picking apart one issue, working out the “best” solution and mapping its code trail. Then, they start working downward through the solution, adding more subtle complexities to tweak the final outcome. I believe women can think this way, but society doesn’t generally encourage it. Women tend to be directed, even as children, toward activities that encourage multi-tasking, social patience and understanding, and flexibility. In fact, some believe this is why women are surpassing men in grade school scores: school is formatted as a dozen classes on a dozen different things, where you are more likely to succeed if you can find the connections between them and easiest solutions quickly.
An anecdote, just to show where I’m coming from (and that I’m not trying to bunch all women or men together, just trying to make sense of my experiences). I was always into video games and computer programs, but never into the code behind them. Last fall I began studying Ruby, and then moved onto Rails. The basics of Ruby came quickly for me – faster than they did for my boyfriend who was learning with me. I understood how to figure out what the overall problem was that I was solving quickly, and begin to format a solution for it with the tools at hand. However, as the projects became more complex, with multiple database tables and variables, where one missed sign somewhere threw off everything, I suddenly became overwhelmed. It was hard for me to figure out hundreds of lines of code to solve one piece of one problem – I found it more difficult to even determine what the problem was, let alone how to fix it. It was a lot easier to get a base understanding of what it all did and skim existing code for errors, than to write my own. I found myself easily distracted or getting lost in the coding as I got into “The Zone” and not being able to navigate my way out. Looking back on it, I also wonder if how the lessons were designed – again by and for men – threw me off as well.
All this said, I’m definitely only beginning to think about this, and would love to hear from other developers – especially women – and psychologists (or psych students). The most knowledge I can claim to bring to this is a degree in Human Development (with a handful of gender studies and psych classes in there), my personal experiences in the tech world, and my limited reading on the web.
(1) Encouraging Women in the Gaming Field
(2) At one point, I would say it was designed for how men innately think – as evolutionary studies suggested. Recent psych studies, however, debunk the idea that women are genetically better multi-taskers and men are better at complex problem solving. But they do indicate that the stereotype that women are better at multi-tasking and men at complex problem solving affects women more severely than men (shown in these studies ) and that when women are told a test is a competition or gender comparison, they tend to score more poorly than when they are told it is measuring personal ability on a flat scale (95% correct vs. being in the 95th percentile). This suggests that, as women are told they are better at multi-tasking, they will naturally move towards fields that encourage and reward this ability. And as they are told men are better complex problem solvers, they will avoid fields that require it to succeed.