I’ve been moaning for years, in public forums and on this blog, about the horrible gender imbalance in the software tribe: the women are missing. I’m depressed because, numerically, things haven’t gotten any better. But there are grounds for optimism, just maybe.
It’s the numbers, stupid · They’re horrible. If Wikipedia’s right, less than 20% of university grads entering the profession are female, and the number is falling. So, basically, any employer that can get their female headcount noticeably over 20% is apt to feel smug. Is that pathetic or what?
I don’t want to be all soulless here, but the numbers really matter. Check out The Petrie Multiplier: Man-woman dynamics aside, the experience of sexism is always worse for the under-represented gender.
I don’t think the high-school girls who are massively declining to take up CS are doing those combinatorics, but a lot of them have the (correct) intuition that any environment where there are hardly any women is going to present problems for women.
Which is to say, we’re stuck in a negative-feedback loop: A big reason women don’t go into computing because they notice that there are hardly any women in computing.
Aren’t the problems cultural? · Yes, we have those: casual sexism, too much boozing, and advantaged classes who are oblivious to their privilege. For intelligent focus on this stuff, start reading geekfeminism.org (you should anyhow, it’s good) and if you really want your mind expanded, dip into Model View Culture (warning: some of the opinions there are extreme, not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The fact that these conversations are moving into the mainstream is good; a necessary (if obviously insufficient) condition for starting to right our balance. Further: I think I see progress in beating back overt sexism and related stupidities.
But I don’t think that cleaning up our culture is going to bust us out of that negative-feedback loop any time soon. The best way to get more women to join a community is to have lots of women in the community.
But how? · Self-evidently, a profession that’s 75% male just can’t suddenly have more women, as a whole. But... maybe it can work locally. If a few of our subcultures, conferences, companies, CS departments, really make it a priority to attack their gender imbalance, some of them will succeed. And I think that for some of those, the feedback loop will go positive; women will observe that there are women there and so more of them will want to be there.
But where? · Our sub-tribes tend to cluster around software tools, whether grouped by function (programming languages, databases) or vendors. I can’t see one of the BigCos making gender balance a priority; but who knows, it might be a smart tactic for a scrappy startup. GitHub seems to be trying (and yes, let’s grant that being happy over a 25% ratio is sad, but still).
Also, a community around a programming language or database or GUI platform might have a shot. My personal favorite sub-tribes are the ones clustered around dynamically-typed programming languages: Ruby and Python and so on. And I’m delighted to see things like Record Number Of Women Give Tech Talks At PyCon 2013, and to survey the faces looking out at me from the 2014 Scottish Ruby Conference site.
It occurs to me that if some such community got that positive-feedback loop going, they’d be fishing from a deeper talent pool, bringing more brains to bear, having better events and tools and interfaces and management and, well, results. And that’d get noticed; the competition for talent and attention and love between our sub-tribes is friendly but ferocious.
Back to school · But that’s not good enough. I think that in the big picture we’re still pretty well stuck until universities start graduating better-balanced cohorts of CS majors.
I occasionally give speeches for, and consult with, my alma mater, the University of Guelph, and in particular its School of Computer Science. I was huddled with a bunch of SoCS faculty on a recent visit, kicking these ideas around, and we got ourselves a little bit excited at the possibilities.
Suppose a CS faculty somewhere decided it was going to make gender balance a key focus? It wouldn’t be easy, and it would require concerted outreach into the high schools to touch those girls who are currently getting their impression of computing from, well actually I don’t know where, but I bet those impressions don’t include very many women’s faces.
If it worked it would be a game-changer; competition for the brightest kids is pretty intense, and a school that’s fishing from both halves of the population holds a winning hand, and would find itself in the news.
And the culture too · Of course, this sort of critical-mass-building effort would be wasted if the women who do start showing up find themselves awash in “brogrammer” bullshit.
And anyhow, that culture is bullshit, and we should leave it behind just because it deserves to be left behind.
I’m a greybeard · I’ve seen decades of this gender monoculture. Call me crazy, but I still believe we can do better.