Are most programmers male?

Terry Hancock hancock at anansispaceworks.com
Tue Aug 13 08:16:10 CEST 2002


From: bitsniffer <bitsniffer at whoknows.com>
> As far as I can tell YES. Most programmers are male. And it is a problem.
> ["value of diversity" argument (see above), very nice, but omitted ;-D]

Glad to hear this point being made. Some of the earlier
posts in this thread were a little scary.

Anyway, I note that all of the replies are from people
who are apparently male. Well, me too, so I asked the
nearest technically-inclined female, which is my wife. ;-D

She asked the following questions:

1) Does "Are most programmers male?" translate to:

 A. 'Are most people who call themselves "programmer" male?'

or possibly

 B. 'Are most participants on open-source programming mailing
    lists male?'

or even

 C. 'Are most people who program men?'

She gives a different reply for each.

For A, she points out that many more women program than
call themselves programmers. Female scientists for example,
certainly program a lot. I can attest to this. I haven't
actually counted, but I suspect that my user base is pretty
close to 50/50, and most of them program in Fortran,
Java, Python, or Perl.  Others code HTML or SQL which
are perhaps not true programming languages -- but this
is essentially the same type of discipline.  Few of these
women would say "I am a programmer". Most would say "I
am a project scientist for the so-and-so mission".

Unlike male scientists, BTW, I've noticed that female
scientists will be quite unashamed to say they are
interested in nebulae, say, because "they are so pretty".
The result is the same though -- they're still doing
hard science.

There are of course many other disciplines which attract
women and which involve a lot of programming or coding.

HTML seems to be a big hit with women.  My wife's 
personal website dwarfs mine in its complexity and design,
and she is much more attentive at maintaining it.

She also has an interest in databases, and this was the
first program she wrote in Basic on an Apple II back in
the 1980s when she was first learning this kind of stuff.

She also notes that as women move into fields, those
fields become "ignorable". Thus writing HTML isn't
"real programming" any more. Not sure if SQL has reached
that kind of reputation.

For B, she lists several reasons, 
One resolves to "Women don't like mailing lists". (We
may suppose that she actually means *she* doesn't like
them, but there might be a correlation with gender). She
prefers web-based forums. And indeed, from what I've seen,
there's a lot more women on those. From introspection,
she suggests the following reasons:

1) Men may be more ascetic. She finds the plain-text
   email environment distasteful. She prefers colorful
   web-based forums. In practice they play with font
   colors and graphic emoticons and what not as well
   as trading images and stuff.  Funny, I thought guys
   where generally more visual. But it's not so much
   the mode, as the comfort level.  I guess smilies
   aren't macho enough. ;-D  I like 'em though.

2) Mailing lists involve "going through a lot of clutter".
   She finds it easier to navigate the web forum to
   get to the content she wants. It seems she doesn't
   use the automatic threading feature in her mail
   reader much. Even so, though, she finds the degree
   of misuse or incorrect threading to be very annoying.

3) Forums tend to display multiple posts from different
   people at once, rather than reading them one at a
   time. This is more of a conversational mode, and is
   perhaps more socially satisfying for her than reading
   long monologues.

4) Pissing contests and flame wars.  Typically male
   behavior on the lists, particularly programming lists
   like this one, involve a lot of male-posturing behavior.
   Various people attempt to assert dominance vicariously
   through choices of programming language or style. Now
   she mentions it, it pretty much gets on my nerves, too.
   Come to think of it, I doubt the "Python Extension" jokes
   were getting you guys a lot of female viewers.  Politeness,
   she points out, is very important to women, and forums
   are typically moderated for such content.

   This includes such practices as referring to "M$ Windoze",
   "Nutscrape", and "Internet Exploder" which she points out
   are classical posturing behavior, which makes most women
   think of pre-teen boys.

She did not want to post a reply on this list herself,
for some of the above reasons. Also because she figures
she'd just get pissed off reading some of the posts in
this thread.  This is why you are listening to an
interpreter, you neanderthal thugs! ;-D  (you know
who you are).

She also notes that fewer women are involved in the
open-source movement. She points out that women are
less likely to want to be in a "radical" movement,
and are probably more likely to stick with what they
know.  Thus, the women programmers she's met are
mostly doing Windows stuff.

On the flip side, we both note that open-source
development has many advantages for women and that for
her, anyway, Linux *is* mainstream now. But not for
many people she knows (i.e. non-computer professionals).

She points out that women have contributed in specific
areas where they have unmet needs -- such as programs
for children.

For C, she asserts that the statement is not so true --
many women program in the course of doing other work:
but they typically classify themselves as something
other than programmers. Women would probably rather
be web designers, or managers, or scientists, or
basically anything but the female equivalent of "fat,
nerdy guys who spend all day on the computer". Blessedly,
this doesn't keep her from socializing with at least
one such. ;-D

However, to the degree it is a problem, we come back to
the differences between boys and girls. Especially
during the critical teen years (listen up if you're into
the education thing). This is the age when the stereotypes
are at their strongest and people are working hardest
at gender identity.  Adolescence is a hormonal hell
for both genders, remember it?

Boys want an image of being in control of something
important, and maybe mysterious. Computer programming
does that for you. Back when we where learning, you
programmed, because that was basically all you could
do with the computer -- there wasn't much of a consumer
applications market then. Hence, her Apple II database
program implemented in Basic.

Since then, the landscape has changed. There's little
practical motivation for learning programming, except:

1) access to technological power
2) potential earning power in the work world

Consciously or unconsciously, for reasons of nurture
or nature, they are probably looking for the ability
to provide for a mate and children and to claim and
defend territory (either physical or mental).

These are key to males who are interested in attracting
mates. They are trying to posture and build a power
image to dominate other males and improve their mating
prospects.

At this time, girls are trying to do essentially the same
thing, except that, for them, this mostly means creating
an impression of

1) beauty -- both physical and mental
2) support ability (practical things)

For the same reasons as the boys, the girls are
probably looking for the ability to attract a
desireable mate, "nest", and nurture children.

Personally I think those instincts are genetic, though
they are heavily moderated by intellect and may be
transferred onto other things.  Intelligent organisms
can do a head-job on themselves if they want to, and
achieve any goal they see a need for.

Now humans define beauty in much more complicated ways,
but both of these two result in strong "nesting"
behaviors -- girls become overly concerned with how
their rooms, houses, lockers, etc. *look*.  They
become interested in performance and exhibition of
art, music, whatever.  They make crafts. They cook.
They like "cute" things.

Both are stereotypes, but stereotypes are important
at that age. Usually both genders find outlets they
can become reasonably good at, and this accounts for
specializations.  Obviously some guys go for the football
team and some try to hack the school computers. Likewise
some girls tryout for modelling and some try to make
the perfect web page.

So, we argue, if you want to get boys interested in
computing, no problem -- convince them they can 1) make
money at it, 2) make a lot of trouble and impress
their friends, and 3) gain power over their world.

If you want to get girls interested, convince them
that they can 1) make a living at it, 2) make beautiful
things to impress their friends, and 3) exhibit their
talents.  Traditionally, girls get power by association,
though direct power has more attraction than it
used to, based on my conversations with present-day
teenagers (I met a few working on game projects and
on the above mentioned forums).

Mind you, these are gross generalizations: if I recall
correctly, my wife was an JROTC 1st Lieutenant at
that age, and I was writing a science fiction novella.
So we certainly didn't fit the stereotypes too well.

By the same token, a more girl-friendly curriculum
may attract some other boys, too.

One person suggested an example of teaching a girl to
write a bookkeeping program. He was perhaps right to
focus on the practical uses of such a program. But I
think a much more fundamental point was missed. A
bookkeeping program is BORING.  To a boy, it would be
interesting, but not because it does bookkeeping --
only because it is a program, and one he could easily
understand, thus expressing his prowess over the
computer with relative ease. The focus on money and
it's associated practical "breadwinning" value may
have some value, too.

For a girl, this power has little motivating force.
She simply sees that the objective is uninteresting,
and will lose interest in the process as well.

Also for perhaps unrelated reasons (but let's accept
them as a fact of life), teenage girls aren't as keen
on things like math and physics as their male
counterparts -- I think this is also curable, but let's
skip over that. So, it's not unreasonable to think
that math and physics problems in computer science
may be correspondingly less interesting.

But computers can do a lot more than math. Indeed,
math is now the minority of their application in
practice.  Let's focus on arts and literature
applications:

1) Write a program that writes stories. I know this
   can be done -- my son has a program that does
   it.  I don't think it would actually be that hard
   in a language like Python, though it would be
   reasonably challenging.

2) Write a non-repeating music box. I.e. "generative
   music". There are, I believe, lots of ways to
   do this, and again, I don't think it's really
   that hard.

3) Write an animation or drawing program that allows
   simple commands to produce the output. This is
   actually a bit more complex, I think, but still
   feasible if you have all the necessary libraries.

All of these, my wife points out, produce something
the girl can show to her (non-computer-oriented)
friends.  

Curiously all these ideas are treated as "advanced"
computer science topics in most curricula, but I 
think they might seem easier to some girls (or at
least more worthwhile) than some of the "basic"
material that is normally taught.

Well, I think I've written enough wild generalizations
for one day. :-D  This is basically a condensation
of the conversation we had last night sparked from
the thread I'm replying to.

Cheers,
Terry

-- 
------------------------------------------------------
Terry Hancock
hancock at anansispaceworks.com       
Anansi Spaceworks                 
http://www.anansispaceworks.com 
P.O. Box 60583                     
Pasadena, CA 91116-6583
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