Are most programmers male?

Val Henson val at
Tue Aug 20 03:14:41 CEST 2002

James J. Besemer wrote:

> 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.

Ah, right, one person's anecdotal evidence clearly supersedes any
number of properly conducted studies.

> By preschool (3-4 years) the girls (generally) all were quiet and
> cooperative while the boys (generally) were all noisy, aggressive
> and less cooperative.

I'd just like to address this one point, and leave the rest as
exercises for the reader.  Studies have shown that adults treat
children differently according to their (perceived) gender as early as
18 months of age (and possibly earlier), and are often completely
unaware that they are doing so.  Adults play differently with a baby
dressed in pink than they do with a baby dressed in blue, regardless
of the actual gender of the baby.  Don't take my word for it, here is
a link to one of Ellen Spertus's papers discussing some of these

Most telling is this excerpt:

"The difference in toys cannot be explained purely by the children's
preferences --- the expectations of parents and other gift givers play
a major role. Numerous studies, cited in [Pomerleau et al 1990, page
360] have found:

   "When interacting with an infant who was introduced as a girl,
   adults used feminine toys (for instance, a doll) and talked more to
   `her'. When the infant was presented as a boy, they used masculine
   toys (e.g., a hammer) and encouraged more motor activity."

Adults interacted differently with the same infant depending on which
gender they believed the infant was, not the infant's actual gender.
This means that adults treat boys and girls differently from an early
age, and that difference is at least partly based on the adult's own
preconceptions about what boys and girls want.

Another beautiful study that I unfortunately can't find a link to
right now is one on how far mothers allow their children to wander
before calling them back.  Researchers observed mothers with children
at playgrounds, and discovered that girls ended up travelling
approximately one third as far as boys during the day, mainly because
their mothers called girls back sooner than boys.  I may be
remembering this study from "Unlocking the Clubhouse" by Jane Margolis
and Allan Fisher - regardless, it's an excellent book for anyone truly
interested in finding out why women avoid computer science.

I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about the subject.  If you're
interested in discussing it more, please contact me off-list.


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