I had fun today speaking at Open Web Vancouver 2008, and even more fun listening to Zak Greant, who was on just before me. He’s a fine speaker, I recommend him for any geekfest. Here’s what caught my eye: there were way more women in the audience, proportionally, than I’ve seen at any Ruby or Rails or Java event.

Attendees at Open Web Vancouver 2008

OpenWeb is a very PHP-heavy gathering, and I’ve noted this PHP-gender linkage before.

Why might PHP attract women? I can’t see it being anything intrinsic to the technology. Lauren suggested that if a community (such as PHP) at some point gets a reasonable representation of women, the situation might easily become self-perpetuating, if female geeks preferentially seek out events where they’re not so rare as to feel like space aliens.

Still, one way or another there’s a lesson here for Ruby and Java.



Contributions

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From: Tkil (Apr 14 2008, at 21:53)

I wonder if it's because PHP makes it easy for someone to follow the "designer" to "HTML author" to "PHP programmer" track, while most of the other languages you mention (Ruby, Perl, Java, etc) are more of a "programmer" to "webapp programmer" trajectory.

Probably more women coming in from the design/layout side than from the pure programming side. (Sadly.)

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From: Scott (Apr 14 2008, at 22:27)

Great talk today Tim.

You seemed very pro Rails. I am trying to choose between Django and Rails right now for some projects and I am seeming to lean towards Django well because it is Python... and Google uses it(must be good??) anyways both are new to me (I come from PHP) just wondering why Django wasn't mentioned. But if Tim Bray likes Rails there has to be something I am missing?

Anyways very cool to see you talk for the first time.

-scott

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From: Sander (Apr 15 2008, at 00:29)

One of my friends is a female Java programmer, and has been busy promoting "women in the Java industry" with a new organization called Duchess - http://www.jduchess.org/

From what I've heard, she's been happily surprised by how many women popped up out of the woodwork once she got some publicity going.

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From: Martin Probst (Apr 15 2008, at 00:58)

I second that thought about PHP being a language that is far better at attracting people without a formal training in programming. I don't know about the US, but in Germany the majority by far (think beyond 90%) of formally trained programmers is male.

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From: Jeremy Dunck (Apr 15 2008, at 07:09)

I started to suggest that more mature communities would attract more women, but then again, Python has a pretty mature community, and PyCon was definitely male-heavy.

We could use more data points like this...

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From: Karen MacKenzie (Apr 15 2008, at 07:19)

Hi Tim - I took away a huge heap of inspiration and pointers from your talk yesterday, so thank you! I agree with your observation - every year there are a couple more women at this conference, but this year in particular I noticed that we may actually take up a percentage point or two. I think the developer's mindset starts early, in elementary school and high school. For me it wasn't a field that we were exposed to, as women. It had to be a personal hobby, something that we took up in relative isolation. Now the culture is changing, and women see role models in their own field of interest. It's a positive thing, may help mute or mitigate a bit of the blatant ego that some developers carry around... a yin yang thing.

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From: Ian Bicking (Apr 15 2008, at 09:11)

I'd agree with the people who ascribe it to the move from designer to (often unintentional) programmer. I know several women who fit into this category, and unlike the women "programmers" that I know, I don't know these women *because* they are programmers. These women don't really think of themselves as programmers -- it's more an unintentional role they fell into in order to get things done. I've noticed the same thing in the Plone community, which has a relatively larger proportion of women than many other communities.

Probably any community around an application is likely to get more women than a community around something more abstract, like a programming language. PHP is in a funny position this way, as many people treat it in the raw form like an application -- a kind of proto-CMS.

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From: Chris Adams (Apr 15 2008, at 09:15)

I suspect a lot of it has to do with the PHP community being so large - it reached that level because it was very open with a strong "anyone can make something" message. Most of the other environments are closer to traditional programming with a "you must be at least this smart to enter" feel and didn't used to be as inviting as the PHP crowd (mob?).

I think this meant that anyone who wasn't already a comfortable programmer was going to look at PHP. Industry history being what it is, the self-identified programmer group has a pretty wicked gender-bias.

One other thought: there's a lot of truth to the idea that early support is key. Nothing else is even in the same game as PHP because it's no harder for most people to host than a .html file and Mac-using kids already have everything they need pre-installed. Rails, Django, etc. have some very nice things to offer but they require an aspiring programmer to jump through a number of hoops before they get to start on anything which they actually care about.

I think Python is by far a better language than PHP for teaching programmers but there is some appeal to the idea that the Python, Ruby, etc. camps should be working to make it just as easy for that first page to built by uploading helloworld.rb to the average ISP. There's an argument that the rest of us would benefit from that as well - most of the "build your first {rails,django,cake,symphony,etc.} app" tutorials have a dozen steps which are exactly the kind of repetitive work we built computers to do.

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From: Tony Fisk (Apr 15 2008, at 20:46)

Ruby and Python may be considered semantically superior to php, but even after programming a fair bit in Python, I still don't really know how to use it to drive a web page (Stepper motors? Yes! Web pages?...). With php, you just... print "do it";!

Coding in any of these languages is a cinch, but that first step from html to script generation is a doozy! I think the bridge php provides assists people of all genders.

On a vaguely related note. I've just started checking out Django. I must say I'm very impressed with the ability to comment on each paragraph of the online manual. I've not seen it before (on the web that is: on paper, plenty of times), but I suspect I will see more before long

(http://www.djangobook.com/en/1.0/chapter01/)

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