Why there are so few women in programming and why this matters

Sometime ago I was talking to some friends from ThoughtWorks when one of them asked me why there are so few women in the IT industry? Specifically, why there are so few women in programming?

Since I’m an open water swimming aficionado my first reaction – quite naïve reaction by the way – was to attribute to the physical gender differences such as we see in sports. Women don’t compete with men in sports because there are physical differences. A women world record in any swimming event is different from men world record. But my friends replied that there aren’t any known physical differences that can justify why there are so few women in the IT industry. And they pointed out that the right direction for an answer was in the social and cultural realms. So I kept thinking about this topic, did some research and I want to share my findings.


I still don’t know why but my parents decided to put me in a male only school from 6 to 17 years old. My school decided to accept girls when I was 15. In my last year of school I had to choose between exact, bio or human sciences as part of the preparation for entering university. I chose exact science and my classroom of 35 people had only 2 girls. I started to realize that exact science and girls were not best friends. By then I decided to go to engineering school. I heard that there are not so many women in engineering schools and I went to visit some of them. I decided to go to ITA, a male only engineering school. It was a male only school because during their first year at ITA, the undergraduate students are required to attend a military preparation course once a week. This is due to ITA’s strong connection with the Air Force. Some years ago ITA decided to accept women. After graduating at ITA, I worked at 4 internet service provider companies and in all of them women was a minority, specially in the technical teams.

So the lack of women in exact sciences and technology has been part of my entire life, even though I haven’t paid much attention to this until recently.

Why gender diversity matters

First, diversity in general matters since diversity brings new ideas, new opinions and new view points. Differences always bring fantastic opportunities for learning and improvement. Recent research from National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) shows that diverse talent in the technology industry increases innovation, productivity, and competitiveness:

  • A recent NCWIT study shows that teams comprising women and men produce IT patents that are cited 26–42 percent more often than the norm for similar types of patents.
  • In a study of more than 100 teams at 21 companies, teams with equal numbers of women and men were more likely (than teams of any other composition) to experiment, be creative, share knowledge, and fulfill tasks.
  • Additional studies indicate that, under the right conditions, teams comprising diverse members consistently outperform teams comprising “highest-ability” members.

Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology provides the business case for gender diversity:

The War for Talent – Remaining Competitive: Reaching out to technical women is crucial to a company’s ability to attract and retain the human capital it needs to succeed, and research shows:

  • The cost of filling the vacancy of a skilled technical employee has been estimated to be as high as 120% of the yearly salary attached to that position.
  • Despite popular beliefs about the impact of offshoring on hi-tech jobs, numbers show that the demand for high-level high-tech jobs such as software engineers has increased since 2000 and that offshoring has not slowed job growth in developed countries.
  • Companies are looking for technology workers with more experience and a broader set of skills such as leadership and interpersonal communication skills. Competition for these employees, combined with the drop of computer science graduates and impending retirement of the baby-boomer generation, has led to fierce recruiting competition among firms; nearly 300 technology executives surveyed identified identifying, hiring, and retaining skilled technical workers as their top concern in 2006.
  • Companies with effective diversity inclusion practices benefit from reduced absenteeism and employee turnover.

Women have the skill set for the new competitive demands of technical work

  • Companies agree that they need more technical leaders with varied skills such as interpersonal skills and business skills. 93% of technical leaders in a survey identified the building of collaborative networks in an organization as a crucial component of leadership. Women have the skills to meet the new demands of technological work both in terms of technical and interpersonal skills.

Women are paramount to User-Driven Innovation

  • Women influence 80% of consumer spending decisions, and yet 90% of technology products and services are designed by men. Including women in the technological design process means more competitive products in the marketplace.
  • The most innovative companies design products through user-driven innovation by integrating lead users in the design process. Women bring new markets and new technological applications to the design process and can market effectively to women, opening up new lines of business. Women of various ethnic backgrounds can furthermore open new international and ethnic markets.

Diversity brings benefits to an organizationís image

  • Companies with a diverse workforce generally benefit from a better image in the marketplace.

Diversity makes for better decision-making at all organizational levels

  • Group diversity leads to better decision outcomes, and this has been shown in a variety of settings,
    occupations, and organizations, and also applies to group task performance and to creativity and innovation. Diversity is beneficial because a variety of opinions, backgrounds, and thinking styles and their integration into the solution are what contribute to better decision outcomes.
  • Research has found a correlation between the presence of women in higher management and financial performance of the organization, as measured to total return to shareholders and return on equity.
  • A recent industry report estimates that by 2012, teams with gender diversity will double their chances of exceeding performance expectations when compared to all male teams.
  • Diversity is especially important and beneficial for problem solving and innovation tasks, such as is the case in technology.

Three weeks ago a read an interesting article on men and women in a Brazilian magazine called “Super Interessante”.

Cover of june's edition of a Brazilian magazine on men and women

Cover of june's edition of a Brazilian magazine on men and women

Some interesting facts from the article:

  • Women earn 75% of men’s salary for the same type of work.
  • 57% of the men negotiate their first salary. Only 7% of women negotiate their first salary.
  • Men prefer jobs with performance bonus and competition.
  • With friends, men talk more than women. However, when they are 1 year and 8 month old, women talk 2 to 3 times more than men.
  • Also, girls are stronger, since child death is 22% bigger for boys.
  • Women are 59% of the people who receives a university degree.
  • In 2010 women are the majority of the American workforce.

What can we do to improve this situation

Last week I watched a very interesting presentation entitled “Where Are All The Women?” by Erin O’Brien (@coolaunterin) via @sarahtarap and @dlbock that shed some light on the topic:


  • general US workforce: 47% women and 53% men.
  • computer and math occupations 26% women and 74% men. Women share is declining.
  • computer programmers: 22% women and 78% men.
  • open-source programmers: 2% women and 98% men.

possible explanations:

  • stereotyped computer programmer image:
    Computer programmer stereotype

    Computer programmer stereotype

  • a study in the university of washington where they introduced women into a computer science department classroom. If that classroom has images of startrek posters and videogame lying around women were less likely to show an interest in the computer science field. If that same classroom, still labeled as computer science classroom, has nature posters and phone booths lying around women were as likely as men to show an interest in computer science industry.
  • it’s a two way street:
    • women need to work to get into the field despite the stereotype
    • people need to work hard to recruit women

Some advice for those who are trying to attract women to work in their companies:

  • Don’t make your office spaces stereotypical. Fill your spaces with non-stereotypical images.
  • Don’t assume all women like shopping, the color pink, or panda bears. There’s not a stereotypical female programmer.
  • Don’t allow gender-specific job titles: mother, diva, princess, babysitter, etc. Use titles that speak to skill and attributes.
  • Women work one hour less per week, but spend twice as many hours on housework as men.
  • Women are not appealing candidates because of maternity leave, sick kids, school vacations, sick spouse. Hence, be flexible for ALL employees for family time.
  • Networking is essential to further the career and networking normally happens in conferences which involves social aspects and traveling. This can be hard for a woman in an environment dominated by men. Additionally, it is bit harder for women to travel.
  • Women tend to self-select herself out and to sell herself short. Organizations need to more flexible on their search for talent and women need to sell themselves more adequately. When men succeed they justify it with their ability and skill. When women succeed they justify it with luck. When men fail they justify it with bad luck. When women fail they justify it with low ability. Hence don’t reject a woman at the resume-level of selection. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Interview all of them even if her resume is not as good as some men candidates. She’s probably selling herself short.
  • Women receive shorter letters of recommendation and lower job performance ratings. So use objective measures of job performance (e.g., # of widgets). Don’t use reviews to determine pay increases.
  • 82 cents is not equal to a dollar. A woman gets paid 82 cents for every dollar a man gets paid for the exact same programming job.
  • Don’t ask women why there aren’t more women in programming. Read blogs, articles, etc. by women in the field.
  • Don’t ask a woman to speak for ALL women in the field. Ask men to speak to other men about the problem.
  • Don’t assume a woman works in HR. Assume she is a programmer.
  • Don’t point out the only woman in the room. Ask a woman how she got started in programming.
  • Don’t assume a programmer isn’t a “real” programmer. Ask her what her favorite project is / was.
  • Start them early!
  • Be careful with language. Women have a natural aversion to risk. “Let’s hack this” may sound dangerous to a woman while it sounds cool to a man.
  • Get involved with organizations helping women (.e.g., STEM – Women in Science, Technology, Engineering,
    and Mathematics
  • Don’t ask women out that you work with.
  • Finally, inspire someone, guide someone, coach someone, mentor someone!

Checkout the full presentation.

Lessons learned

  • We need to recognize that gender diversity matters both because of its social aspect – equal opportunity to all people – and its business aspect – diversity impacts positively the bottom line.
  • After recognizing that gender diversity matters, we need to embrace the difference and work hard to improve this situation. Some suggestions on how to improve this situation can be seen in Erin O’Brien’s (@coolaunterin) presentation “Where Are All The Women?“. These suggestions were summarized above.

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