Women in Tech: Scarcity, Sexism and Solutions

Jen Heilemann By Jen Heilemann

Software engineer Jen Heilemann reflects on the stark reality of women in tech, their scarce numbers, the sexism some of them are subjected to, and how to change it all.

Jen Heilemann, Developer at The Nerdery

Jen Heilemann, Developer at The Nerdery

Jen Heilemann is Developer at The Nerdery. Her writing does not reflect on the opinions or thoughts of anyone else at The Nerdery, or anywhere else.

Over the last few years, and particularly in the last few months, I’ve been doing lots of reading about women in tech, and particularly women in programming. The stories and numbers haven’t been particularly encouraging.

Female participation in Computer Science and particularly programming conferences is pitiful.

Over the last thirty years, the total number of women in scientific fields have grown dramatically, while the number of women in Computer Science hasn’t kept pace with the men. In 1987, 42% of software developers in the US were women, while today, that number hovers around 28%.

Depending on which conference you attend, the number of female participants can range between 25% and 2%, leading to the “Steve rule” (or the “Brian Rule” or the “Scott Rule”): there will be more attendees named Steve than total female attendees.

Women rarely participate in open source projects, a huge percentage less than are actually employed as programmers, with surveys ranging from 1.1% to possibly as much as 3-5%, depending on the community.

All these numbers point to one big question: why?
The answers and explanations are all over the map.

Some blame our culture and the social pressures put on children to conform to expectations, both from adults and their peers. I’ll put my own personal anecdote behind this idea, as I was homeschooled for elementary and middle school. As a girl, I never thought computer science or programming were a “man’s job,” my parents were encouraging, and I didn’t really care what my peers thought. I don’t know what the “gender roles” assigned by middle-school kids are like.

The differences between the roles our culture give to men and women certainly lead to discrepancies in the workplace. Women usually take more responsibility for childcare, leading to careers cut short and difficulty attending conferences or other events far from home. The way women approach their jobs can affect their career direction. This is a discussion that is far bigger than I can approach in this essay, but just note that these hurdles doesn’t stop women from being doctors, lawyers, architects, or biologists, at least not on the same scale.

Until there’s total acceptance and never shock that a woman is a programmer or a girl is entering a programming contest or that female at the conference isn’t somebody’s girlfriend, it’s our responsibility to call out bad behavior and make sure treating women as equals is par for the course.

Others point to endless stories of harassment, objectification, and just general ugliness towards women. And before you tell me that that stuff doesn’t happen, I’ll give some examples:

These stories are only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve heard or read various responses to this topic from men, varying from the well-intentioned to the outright hostile:

  • Maybe it’s one of those problems where it’ll go away if we just stop talking about it.
  • Women just don’t like techy things.
  • Men are more interested in programming as a hobby, while most women programmers think of it as their job – that’s why you don’t see as many at conferences.
  • You’re probably right, but couldn’t you be overreacting a bit?
  • The only people that can change this situation are women themselves. Go on, get off your @$# and do something if you don’t like it.
  • It’s so great to meet a female programmer. There aren’t many of you. (You’re… welcome?)

Another way to approach the problem

The stories of harassment and ignorance aren’t going away tomorrow. We have to start paying attention to the little comments, the jabs, the jokes, and make sure it’s clear that they’re not okay. (When I say “we,” don’t think that I’m talking about a little group of femi-nazis. This is your job too.) Start noticing how the women around you are treated and talked about.

On the other hand, things are getting better – slowly. At the corporate level, companies are increasing the number of diversity programs, internships, and mentoring programs focused on women. The number of educational programs and scholarships for young women in computer science have grown dramatically (and some of them don’t even use pink in their advertising!). But the assumptions surrounding women in programming aren’t changing quickly enough.

You may think you’re not part of the problem. You’ve never harassed a coworker, you’ve never said anything off-color. I’m sorry to break it to you – because there’s a problem, you’re part of it. I’m part of it. Until there’s total acceptance and never shock that a woman is a programmer or a girl is entering a programming contest or that female at the conference isn’t somebody’s girlfriend, it’s our responsibility to call out bad behavior and make sure treating women as equals is par for the course.

Oh, you praised your female co-worker for her contribution to [insert major project here]? I’m sure she appreciated it.

What, should I give you a cookie?

Posted: April 9, 2013

Jen HeilemannWomen in Tech: Scarcity, Sexism and Solutions
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    I feel like this is a rant with several great important points but provides no real actionable solutions.

    Women in the industry can sometimes already be reserved with their opinions as they don’t want to appear too overreacting. By putting everything on notice without any such dialogue of where you’re coming from, you will definitely spark a backlash of what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

    As a male, I want women in the workplace because diversity rocks and it creates a better balance in the workroom. But men in IT in general can have several personalities that don’t reflect the general norm of the population. When I tell other people of my job, I feel a heavy sense of the geek in the basement with no life label. So that goes both ways, and since I’m not a woman, what do YOU do to soften that stigma for girls growing up and deciding their futures? It’s very uncommon to have that path thrust on them, and you can probably provide a list of gender discrimination and role expectations there, but how do you and other women translate your passions onto those impressionable girls? That’s the heart of the problem.

    Men like direction and a goal to fix. “Becoming more sensitive and aware” isn’t a real solution as it’s an ambiguous objective without any real course of action. It’s preferable to inform people what to do rather than what not to do, given the two choices.

    No doubt you’re going to meet a bunch of assholes in your life, but instead of declaring me and you as the problem and pick up our feet, what direction are you putting forth to address the larger stigma of IT as a whole. It’s a shame that it seems like women recognize the potential passions evoked from creating and designing digital things, as a man, I have no clear idea of how to spark that earlier or how to enkindle that spark to something more.

    So while this article can be a cathartic alarm bell, what’s the next step?

    • Jennifer Heilemann

      Hello friend!

      I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head when you ask what the next step is – part of my “cathartic alarm bell” article was trying to say that I don’t know what the next step is, and we have to work together to figure it out. Paying attention to the women and environments around you are only a first step.

      As far as I am concerned, I plan on encouraging my nieces and daughters in their interests – wherever that leads them. The main reason I’m where I am right now is because my parents encouraged me to dig deeper into web development, and I’d love to play that role in another young woman’s life.

      On the other hand, if the environment in IT continues to devolve, would I feel comfortable encouraging a young woman to join us? That tells me that we need to do something NOW to improve the situation, not JUST hope that the next generation will be more inclusive.

      You’re obviously concerned about this subject, or you wouldn’t be reading an article on this site that’s decently deep in the archives – you’re the choir, as far as I’m concerned. What can you or I do about negative or exclusionary attitudes in other people? Only a few things come to my mind easily: calling out bad behavior when we see it, trying to model good behavior as best we can, and not letting this subject be forgotten.

      We can make sexist, racist, and other negative comments or behaviors stand out by reacting to them, so that the people around you can see the impact they might not otherwise be aware of. Saying, “Hey, that’s not nice or fair” is hard, and I think it’s a powerful thing to do.

      Add to the discussion and spread the word yourself! Write a blog post of your own, or talk about it with your friends or family. I had no idea that the numbers were so dramatic until I began researching this subject. From others’ reactions, I think most people are in the same boat.

      Thanks for your comment, and good luck!

  • Debbie

    Hi,
    Your article is so timely for me personally. I am a computer teacher. I am currently taking an online programming class. I noticed all of the material in the class is maie oriented. I brought this up in their questions section and immediately was verbally attacked. By other women.

    It is a said state when we can not help each other. Men are actually more open to hearing my thoughts.

    I would like more young women to join in learning computer science, but when other women are hostile to my questions on how to do this I am lost.

    Debbie