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Career Prospects: Women at Management positions in Software

Why are there so few female programmers?

My wife asked me and I didn't know.

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"I'm not a lady's toy" - Ken, Toy Story 3 –  Reigel Sep 21 '10 at 6:28
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Can you ask your wife why she isn't a programmer ? While not statistically significant, you are more likely to get reasons for not being a programmer from non-programmers. –  Gary Sep 21 '10 at 6:42
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Please see my answer at What's your experience with female programmers? if you still think that female programmers are rare everywhere. –  Greg Hewgill Sep 21 '10 at 8:39
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I love the irony of questions like this being "definitively" answered by male programmers. –  Anna Lear Sep 21 '10 at 15:07
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The mother of all programmers (oh snap) was of course, a woman. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace –  Steve Evers Dec 18 '10 at 10:28
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21 Answers

up vote 65 down vote accepted

It could be because it's such a stupid job. Sitting in a darkened room, staring at a flickering screen, mumbling to yourself, trying to figure out why the page renders one pixel too far to the left.

Perhaps the girls are just too smart :-)

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I'm spending my live staring at millions of little colored squares and pressing buttons just to change the color of them. –  Martin Sep 21 '10 at 7:30
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+1 for the sense of humor, but I disagree. They don't know what they're missing. –  Camilo Martin Nov 22 '10 at 11:49
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This is the highest rated and accepted answer? That in itself says something rather disheartening. Ugh. –  Rein Henrichs May 13 '11 at 3:59
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alt text

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A picture is worth a thousand words - well, it is more than one picture and it even contains some words, but i hope you know what i mean –  eL13 Sep 22 '10 at 1:37
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Every parent out there should be laughing at the absurdity of this. It is hilarious to see the natural mothering instinct in my 3 year old girl, as she delights in her dolls in a way that is totally foreign to my 3 boys, that would happily use them as weapons. –  Eric Wilson Sep 28 '10 at 6:54
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@FarmBoy: I think you underestimate the effect you have on your kid when they are such young. I think that buying a doll to your boy and that he doesn't play with it do not prove anything as it is just thinking too high level for such a young mind. I think that every interactions just shapes the way your kid will react (ex: just the way you look at him/her). By that optic your argument for biology would be pretty weak (too high level). I don't study in that subject though so take this like you want but I still think you underestimate the effect of 'culture' on such a young mind. –  n1ckp Oct 9 '10 at 22:12
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Kids are sensitive to small details, like how parents watch them play with certain toys more than others. If you find her nurturing play hilarious, you might be watching it closer than when she picks up her brothers' cars. Also, I know that when I asked my daughters if they were going to stay home and take care of kids someday (they were 4 years), they answered, "Don't be silly! Daddies do that!" Since I don't want them to feel constrained by how our family does things, we talked about mothers we know who care for children during the day. Kids assume what they see is how it is. –  Ethel Evans Feb 8 '11 at 20:14
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Cultural factors at work. Many of the answers here cite biological differences, but I find that difficult to believe given:

  • In the US, programming was initially considered "women's work." The ENIAC was the first computer developed in the US (used to automate ballistics computation during WWII) and most of the programming was done by 6 women. At the time, programming was seen as clerical work, akin to secretarial work. Jennifer Light's paper, When computers were women, is an interesting read on this topic.

  • In other areas of the world, such as India, China, and Eastern Europe, the gender ratio is much more balanced. If I remember correctly, women actually earn a slightly higher percentage of computer science degrees than men do in Bulgaria -- I don't recall the exact figures, but this is mentioned in Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender (not enough reputation to post a link), which has nearly an entire chapter discussing the under-representation of women in computer science.

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I have noticed that the gender ratio does seem much more balanced among international students than among locals in Australia –  Casebash Sep 22 '10 at 12:32
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World Wars tended to see women in the workforce more than "usual", since men were off fighting. Didn't think of it applying to computing though! –  Andrew Grimm Sep 24 '10 at 8:07
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I just talked to an engineer who returned from a recent trip to China. He stated that there was a 45% to 55% ratio, with the upper ratio being the women. Culture matters. –  Bill Dec 13 '10 at 23:24
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That simplified example looks besides the point, but consider that the human brain is a biological organ that has evolved in part for the purpose of acquiring culture. Language, for example, has been called "an instinct to acquire an art" - biological and cultural aspects are complementary, not conflicting. –  Steve314 May 13 '11 at 2:47
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As a female programmer, I have to say that I have rarely met resistance or discrimination from any man. Most seem happy that a girl has walked into a male-dominated arena with her head held high. Coworkers are mostly pleasant, and I've never felt held back or underpaid.

However, I dread being asked by a woman what I do for a living. Nearly always am I either immediately ignored, told off, or receive a slight disgusted look. Or they completely misunderstand what I meant by programming and start talking about doing art for websites.

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I agree with your first paragraph but have never experienced the reaction you described in your 2nd one. I'm happy to tell anyone (male or female) that I'm a programmer... its who I am and I'm proud to just be me. Everyone is unique, and I enjoy our differences. Besides, if other females talk bad about your job just tell them about all the cute guys you get to work with and how much attention you get from them since you're a rare female :) –  Rachel Dec 14 '10 at 13:39
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@Rachel I think most of the ignoring and disgusted looks are from them not knowing how to relate to you. I did just get out of college, where I had to try and coexist with all of the education and art majors, so that's probably where most of THAT comes from. The telling off comes from the older ladies. And I never endorse being boy crazy...especially when you're married. ;) –  baileysage Dec 14 '10 at 16:59
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I'm a man, and I get those 'looks' from a lot of people, both M and F. This is just fear of the unknown. Regular people have absolutely no clue how computers work, but they know that they're important. (Most programmers have no clue either, but they know enough to fake it.) –  Mike Baranczak May 13 '11 at 2:51
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From my experiences women are put off by programming for two reasons:

  • It's an inherently single-threaded activity, and women prefer multi-tasking more than men do (on the average).
  • The field requires a mindset of rigidity and rule-following, which attracts people that prefer stereotypical gender roles. Most of the men in the field have a higher tendency than men on average to treat women according to gender roles.

While the second reason is culturally driven, I think the first reason is primarily due to biology. This seems to be backed up by studies I've seen on the relative performance of women and men at multi-tasking. It's possible that the whole thing is 100% cultural, but it seems unlikely. I find it very hard to believe that the biological difference between men and women is strictly cosmetic, when the cosmetic difference is so radical.

While I agree there is gender inequality in the field of programming, I reject the implication that we should strive for a 50/50 split. Gender equality is not about statistics, it is about individual opportunity. We should have equal encouragement and opportunity for girls and boys to get into the field of programming, and equal treatment after they enter the field. But we can get that equal opportunity and still end up with an 80/20 split.

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+1 for equal opportunity and not 50/50 split. A large part of the difference is because females choose other career paths –  Casebash Sep 22 '10 at 12:35
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@Yar, well I have, in 3 different foreign countries so far, and I happen to agree with Joeri on this :-) Recommended reading: Brain Sex. –  Péter Török Jan 31 '11 at 9:49
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Single threaded activity? I often end up coding, replying to project managers' emails, going to meetings, looking up things in documentation, hunting down bugs, testing, and writing documentation all in one day, sometimes on more than one project at a time. Sounds pretty multi-tasked to me! –  baileysage Jul 22 '11 at 21:01
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Probably something to do with social expectations. It wasn't that long ago we were supposed to stay at home and raise a family, and it takes a while for that to work its way out of a generation.

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That can't be the only reason - otherwise we wouldn't really have women in the workforce at all. In a normal (non-tech) company you might find there are 35% women and 65% men - in a software company you might find 2% women... –  Jaco Pretorius Sep 21 '10 at 7:04
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Also, most earlier programmers were women, as typing was seen to be a woman's job. That perception has changed some what. –  Matt Ellen Sep 21 '10 at 7:06
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+1 for social expectations, which is sadly confirmed by some of the other answers. –  eL13 Sep 21 '10 at 11:06
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I'm sure there's other reasons, but in general technical/mechanical jobs are expected to be held by males. Just think about it... when something is broken in a house the male normally gets called to fix it. Or when you're talking about calling for repair, you normally refer to a 'repairman'. We may not realize it but we're still feeding the stereotype. Also to non-techy people, a software programmer is the same as a "person to fix my pc" and therefore gets put in the same category as "mystical people who fix my stuff" which generally consists of a lot of masculine people that do physical labor –  Rachel Sep 21 '10 at 12:44
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I would have voted up and commented on the other answer that had similar content to mine (and was voted down), but I need to add support to the biological component despite my lack of 15 reputation to do so.

Before you vote me (or him) down, consider whether political correctness is impairing your critical thinking. Males and females are very different, in a multitude of areas. Women have demonstrated in numerous cultures that they are just as capable as men in being able to learn the skills and perform the tasks involved with highly technical professions such as programming, but the disparity comes down to a case of motivation.

Whilst there are certainly exceptions to every rule (some boys like dolls, some girls like guns), by and large, women trend towards feminine activities (which tend to have a focus on creative and social components) and men trend towards masculine activities (which tend to have technical, physical and competitive components).

This is not 50's chauvinism at work, this is millions of years of evolution and biology. Women are not discouraged from this field at all, they just don't trend towards actually being interested in it at all.

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Just like the pink/blue nurseries for girls/boys developed through "million of years of evolution", he? Those colors must be genetically tied to the children's gender. –  eL13 Sep 21 '10 at 11:11
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@eL13 Before the 1940s it was pink for boys and blue for girls. bit.ly/cC0Xe0 –  thing2k Sep 21 '10 at 12:52
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Generally, when there's a large sex-based disparity in a field, it turns out that there's a lot of cultural barriers. Attributing such disparities to biology usually turns out to be a copout, either to avoid having to work with the opposite sex or to avoid having to change the culture. –  David Thornley Dec 13 '10 at 23:12
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@David Thornley, we're back to nature-nurture. I believe you're right and that there's tons of evidence for this, but how can this be argued? –  Yar Dec 18 '10 at 20:25
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I'd vote this one down twice if I could. Our genetics haven't changed significantly in a single generation, yet the gender disparity was about 30 times smaller in my parents' time. –  HedgeMage Jan 31 '11 at 11:22
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Most games are targeted at the macho market. Don't underestimate that hook. I would have never ended up in an IT field if I didn't have to fight with 640 KB to get games to run.

I think part of the answer lies in the answer to one of the hardest questions in a marriage (assuming it's a traditional marriage): Why does the woman care so much about that paint color while the man cares so little?

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As someone relatively recently engaged, I can't agree more. "What should the wedding colors be?" "I don't care; just tell me what time I have to show up and I'll be there." –  Steve Evers Sep 21 '10 at 20:09
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In my country, take an example of my class. there was around 62 students in computer science engineering out of which 24 was girls. Believe me or not out of 24 twenty got passed with good score. Imagine out of first 10 students 7 was girls. Of course they showed more intelligence than boys but alas only 3-4 of them are interested in doing job. They all wanted to get higher degree but not to work. I asked to few of them and they replied that they just want to get married and nothing else.

But from last two years I can see lots of female programmers and they are working very good.

And the moral of the story is that "It's all about necessity and interest".

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Women getting a degree to find a suitable husband. Sounds like western Europe a hundred years ago. –  Carra May 13 '11 at 21:56
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Hanselman had an interesting podcast not too long ago that dealt with women programmers in the Muslim world. He interviewed two women and their perspective on why there are so few western women in IT was surprising.

I could be misremembering but I think freedom of choice was cited. Also, one woman's story was dripping with irony: she wanted to leave IT but her father made her stick with it.

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There is a big biological part. We are programmed to behave differently, and thanks to that, we can combine our efforts to allow procreation. But this doesn't prevent us to do "unconventional" decisions. In fact, I like the idea to be unconventional.

There is also the cultural aspect. In western countries, it's not common, but in some countries like India, there is a lot of female programmers. Certainly because there, programming is less a passion than a profession.

Still today, I've haven't met any girl programming by passion. I know they exist since one of them actually wrote a wonderful book called "Design Patterns, Head First".

I believe it's a combination of the biological & cultural reason.

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-1: It is a cultural aspect, because many people in our culture believe programming is more like footbal than playing with barbies. –  eL13 Sep 21 '10 at 10:57
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Interesting statement, but I think it's cultural AND biological. –  user2567 Sep 21 '10 at 11:27
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I started studying math in the early 70s. There would be 1 or 0 women in an upper-division class of about 30. This was explained as a result of the biological differences in how women thought. In 2000 I went back to school for an MS. Women were 20-33% of the classes, and having no more difficulty than I was. Did biology change that much in 30 years? Over and over again, I've seen people invoke biology as an explanation for some social convention. There may be biological influences, but we know for sure that the "biology" will be invoked without evidence to justify the status quo. –  Charles E. Grant Dec 18 '10 at 18:57
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@Pierre, but if it's biology than why does the female/male ratio in programming vary so much by culture, and why has the participation of women in math been so changed so much by just changing a few societal rules, like say allowing women to attend the top rated universities? When biology is invoked to support the status quo it is often done in a circular fashion: "Why are there no women in math/programming?" "Because the neurochemistry of the female brain makes them less interested in math/programming." "How do you know that?" "Because there are so few women in math/programming." –  Charles E. Grant Dec 18 '10 at 23:33
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The same question gets asked for the engineering field and I think that here in the United States the "answer" that most people have started to accept is that there are cultural differences that lead young women to make different career choices than men. Likewise, I've read a couple articles saying that women who started out interested in going into software development decided not too after starting college for a verity of reasons (e.g. harassment by men, didn't find the classes interesting, work was too tedious, etc).

One interesting issue is that the statistics can be skewed a bit by industry in that some sectors have a more balanced gender ratio (assuming that 50-50 is possible). Based upon my observations in the industry I work in, there are a lot more women doing laboratory work than men and a fairly even distribution of women with PhDs as well. On the IT side of things, the development teams tend to have more women in them, but usually they are roles such as project manager or analyst as opposed to the developer positions.

The US Department of Labor has some interesting reading on this subject from a more generallized standpoint in their Women's Bureau section if you want a bit of light reading.

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As a woman and a programmer, I used to ask myself the same question, until I got to graduate school. Most of the people in my information systems program were women, and most were not Americans. In this country, men have historically migrated more to programming for a variety of reasons others have discussed. In many other countries, there doesn't seem to be such a difference. I'm curious to know why this might be the case.

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Simon Baron Cohen*, in The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism, suggests that there's a spectrum of brain masculinity/femininity, where on one end you have autism and people with generally a strong ability to analyze things systematically, and on the other end of the spectrum you have people with strong empathy. The more "male" the brain is (which is dependent, iirc, on hormone secretions during pregnancies, and other factors) the more it tends to be located toward the first end of the spectrum. If true, this can be a partial cause of having less women in exact sciences, engineering, and so on. There are of course other reasons, for example external social factors.

The author is professor of Developmental Psychopathology in the Departments of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom

An interesting read.


  • Yes, it's his cousin.
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I remain skeptical. As much as we've learned about brains and neurophysiology in the last few decades, we still can't explain a phenomena as basic as handedness, let alone traits as complex and subtle as talent/interest in math and programming. –  Charles E. Grant Dec 18 '10 at 19:24
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There's a lot of truth in this answer.

[anecdote]

I probably wouldn't have become a programmer if it weren't for my dad. Waaaay back when VB5 was shiny and new, my dad had gone as far as he could go as a mechanic in the Air Force, so made a career change and went to school for a degree in microcomputer science.

He showed me one of his homework assignments: it was a square shown on screen, you click on the square and turns into a circle, you click on the circle and it turns back into a square. Was I impressed? No. More like BLOWN AWAY BY THE SHEER AMOUNT OF AWESOME.

I asked my dad how he did it, and it seemed so easy. So he'd always show me his programming assignments, asking me if I could figure them out, we had some pet projects we worked on together like a poker hand evaluator and centipede game, etc.

I loved it! I always stole my dads textbooks and taught myself how to program, made cute little apps as a hobby, and 10 years later it spiraled out of control and became a career. I'm now a better programmer than my dad.

[/anecdote]

There's another female developer on my team who has almost exact same story.

We care about more than just boys and make up. I think its important for programmers, dads especially, to be involved in developing their daughters latent talents and interests.

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There's a factor I haven't seen mentioned yet.

I'm not claiming that it's universal, but I remember a not-too-subtle undercurrent of sexism and outright misogyny in my CS program, both among the professors and other students. Given that I can count the number of women who went through the program with me on one hand, I think there's a correlation. The program my wife went through at a different school was an order of magnitude worse; she was repeatedly groped by a classmate, and her complaints were met with a "tough shit" from the department chair (she quit the program shortly afterward).

My industry experience hasn't been that much different; if you're a reasonably attractive woman, you are a target for inappropriate attention from some fairly gross personalities. You'll be valued for your programming skills, yes, but you're just as valued for your boobs.

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Based on my experience.

Back when I was college, female population where more than the male when we graduated in our IT department. But after that, those females did not went to seek jobs that inline them. One said, trouble about programming just have to stay to her college life. Maybe that's one reason.

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Girls play with Barbie's and Boys play with Computers.

Jokes apart, reason could be nature of Job like sitting in front of an computer and thinking is not an easy task.

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I think social perceptions and pressure. I think as the trendy girl gamers evolve perhaps we'll see more female programmers. Maybe they should have more computer programmer Barbie dolls, shrug.

What's funny is the first programmer is female, Ada Lovelace.

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Looking around me, I think a lot of it has to do with lifestyle. Put simply, the programming lifestyle as described by a lot of men (take start ups as an example), where it's almost a complete obsession, just doesn't appeal to women.

In the areas where it's more stable - say maintenance/systems programing/systems admin, more stable working environment with some recognition of life outside cubicle/desire not to depend on pizza boxes for lunch....there are more women.

Women are inherently good at problem solving. When the problem is "lifestyle is rubbish", then the solution is "don't get involved".

I've seen similar debates where women are pretty much castigated for not going about programming the male way - they don't pull the all nighters, or the obsession and that's somehow less? However, in my experience, that doesn't mean they write worse code (often it's better). But the programming culture in many - dare I say it - Anglo-Saxon programming shops is unattractive.

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I'm a bit surprised by the question, perhaps I was under the misimpression, that a heavily skewed gender ratio was peculiar to my particular workplace. Having done the higher education thing in the 1970s, women in physics and engineering were rarities, but it seemed that quite a few ended up in computer science, and even mathematics. I currently work at an ME software vendor, the ratio of user trainee's in class (these would be practicing MEs, not programers), is maybe 15-20% women. Compared to the low single digits percent that was common when I was that age, that looks pretty good to me. I assumed programmers would have an even greater female participation ratio.

One anecdotal observation regarding my own family. I did software as a career, not by choice, but because it was the only decent career path available to me. I wanted to avoid it -you spend most of your time struggling with complicated broken things, which isn't my idea of something which promotes mental health.

In any case my wife had started out as a programmer, but her first job was very unpleasant assembly code maintenence for a now defunct computer manufacturer. She hated that and switched to technical writing and would never again consider any sort of programming. So perhaps the differential social pressure to make a high wage, even if the profession isn't that intrinsically attractive is part of the reason the schooling to the profession pipeline leakrate is so skewed.

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