Are most programmers male?

James J. Besemer jb at
Sun Aug 11 11:50:59 CEST 2002

"David Mertz, Ph.D." wrote:

> I've reflected on this a bit lately.  It's kinda sad about the
> overwhelming male bias of programming and related areas.  Programming,
> of course, is not the only important thing that people do--but in the
> world of work, we are a fairly highly-paid and highly-skilled group.  In
> a societal way, having women excluded from these areas is to the
> detriment of both the field and to overall gender equality and women's
> rights.

I think it's totally wrong to conclude that women are 'excluded' in any
way.  I think the present population makeup simply represents peoples'
choice in the matter.

When I was young and naive I used to believe that the only differences
between men and women were induced by society -- that men and women were
essentially identical except for the momentum of traditional roles thrust
upon them.  Now that I've been married for over 20 years and raised children
to adolescence (and observed many other individuals and families), I find
that viewpoint laughable.

My wife and I and most of our friends (all radical Liberals at the time)
certainly did not wish to impress any societal prejudices on our children.
Nevertheless, they all turned out to fit the stereotypes.  It was amazing to
see these traditional behaviors emerge unexpectedly as if pre-programmed in
tiny babies.  There are amazing differences early on simply from individual
to individual but the differences between boys and girls is even more

By preschool (3-4 years) the girls (generally) all were quiet and
cooperative while the boys (generally) were all noisy, aggressive and less
cooperative.  Furthermore, when it comes to child rearing itself, men and
women (generally) exhibit markedly different instincts.  Women tend to be
nurturing and indulgent while men tend to be the ones to set limits and
discipline the children.  I don't find it at all surprising that something
like 90% of adolescent criminals come from fatherless households.

Men and women (in general) differ in a great many ways.  If you only
consider the significantly different concentrations of testosterone and
estrogen, you naturally would expect significantly different behavior
patterns along 'traditional' lines.  I don't find it at all hard to think
that those differences would lead to different preferences in job choice or
in choosing even to work at all outside the home.

When my son was in 7th grade, I volunteered to teach an electronics class to
the students.  It was a very popular class and almost half the students were
girls.  The school was very progressive and almost militant about
encouraging girls to strike up an interest in math and science.  Each class
would start with a short lecture where I would introduce one new principle
in electronics and then we would have a lab session, where the kids would
try to wire up a circuit per directions I provided.  The boys had obvious
difficulty waiting for the lecture to end as they were very excited to start
the lab.  The lab consisted of passing out kits of all the necessary
components along with a diagram showing exactly how to hook them up.  I
included some more elaborate circuits such as pulse generators, variable
frequency generators and motor speed controllers, so it was non-trivial to
hook them up.  I found it interesting that the girls had absolutely no
trouble following the instructions and generally were the first to get their
circuits to work.  The boys had trouble focusing on the instructions and
following directions.  I generally had to help several of the boys debug
their circuits.  And there usually were one or two boys who didn't start
until half way through the lab and often failed to get it to work at all
before class was over.  Then there were the boys trying to start a fire with
electrical sparks.  Later I also taught an introduction to programming class
that included an overly ambitious term project.  A girl, also the youngest
student in the class, was the first to get her program to work.  Another
girl was the second.  None of the boys came close to getting it to work.
Amazing differences.  The boys seemed to be really excited about the
material but had difficulty paying attention and accomplishing the work.
The girls seemed indifferent, almost bored, but were very effective in
completing assigned tasks.  This suggests to me not so much a difference in
aptitude as a difference in interest.

I heard about a study once that indicated that men (on average) were better
skilled at tedious and meticulous tasks associated with mathematics,
programming and engineering (though not necessarily all other fields of

More interestingly, this same study also concluded that women (on average)
were better skilled than men at first level management type jobs, a
completely different set of problems and challenges, requiring a completely
different set of skills and abilities.

Who knows?  I don't find it hard to believe.

Personally, I think it's possible to make meaningful generalizations about
people grouped by sex, say, or country of origin.  However, these
generalizations don't tell you anything for sure about a specific
individual, and thus cannot be relied upon for making judgments about any
particular individual.  Certainly it's no basis for discrimination of any


James J. Besemer  503-280-0838 voice  503-280-0375 fax
mailto:jb at

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