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Women in Technology

Over the past several months, I’ve seen a resurgence on the various mailing lists I’m on asking a simple question – why aren’t more women in technology, and software development specifically?

For example, on the Software Craftsmanship mailing list, Josh Cronemeyer asked the following:

I was talking to a colleague about the SCNA conference. When I showed her the list of speakers her first response was to point out there were no women in the list. I pointed out that was often the case at small to medium tech conferences. Later I decided my argument was pitiful and just bad logic.

Matt Heusser replied with a link to Philip Greenspun’s blog which said:

What about women? Don’t they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I’ve taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my “medical school recommendations” directory.

Matt goes on to further say:

If we want more women in the technical professions, we need to raise the perception of those professions from button-pushing nerds who do fair socially – to highly paid, highly compensated experts who get things done quickly.

Josh Cronemeyer then continues:

It seems like a crux of greenspun’s argument is that women don’t go into science because they understand this is a profession with a bad ratio of reward to effort. This doesn’t explain why already in grade school and Jr. High there is a noticeable gap in science test scores between boys and girls. I don’t think the 8th grade girls have already realized that science isn’t where the good jobs are.

So, to summarize what I’ve seen, women aren’t in technology because there aren’t good jobs, or poor reward to effort, or because we’re a bunch of button-pushing nerds. And while I disagree about the reward to effort (look at the founders of Google, and Facebook, and others), I believe there is something else at play.

What does the typical software development shop look like? Either a sea of offices or cubicles with the lights off, headphones on, typing away at a computer and hoping to not have to talk to anyone. The code you write is immediately deemed as “crap” unless you did it in 2 lines of code with Perl. It’s a constant contest of showmanship and oneupidness. And suggesting change or better ways is viewed harshly unless you have “proven” yourself. For fun, we have LAN parties and all sit in the same room with a different computer, interacting through a computer screen only. And the stereotypical programmer isn’t the healthiest creature, or cleanest, or best dresser.

Let’s also look at the technology itself. Yes, it advances at a rapid pace, but it’s more than that. There is an attitude, an air of superiority around it. “Oh my gosh, you’re still using *IE6*? What a l0s3r.” Software development, and IT in general, is one, big, pissing contest. Let’s whip out what we got, and I’ll respect you if it compares to mine.

In fact, let’s look at the practices in place today. Scrum is wildly popular. “Let’s crush together and KILL THAT FEATURE! First, we’ll shove everything into a backlog. And then we’ll rip it out for a Sprint, where we’ll beat it into submission and throw it out the door at the end. And we’ll do that over and over until the customer says ENOUGH!” Or Extreme Programming – where the most vital practices – Customer Collaboration (Onsite customer), Pair Programming, Test-Driven Development, Customer Tests – are some of the first to go because of the social nature of them. Heck, I’ve heard well-respected leaders in the community say, “Well, the Agile Manifesto was just an excuse for a bunch of guys to go skiing” – and that perception leads to the feeling like this is one giant club where the weak aren’t allowed, and the followers will be cut off.

There are certainly times when I have felt like I wanted to leave the software field. Almost always, it’s around social issues – the politics, the games, the people issues. Further, in order to institute change in our field we have to issue a series of “manifestos” to force people to know that this is about social issues. For example, look at the Software Craftsmanship Manifesto:

Not only working software, but also well-crafted software

Not only responding to change, but also steadily adding value

“Craft” and “Value” are soft words – meaning we have to have a discussion to find out just what that means. We can’t just target some sterile definition.

Not only individuals and interactions, but also a community of professionals

News flash! You being stuck in a cubicle all day just leads you to think you are the best at what you do. And you are the best – at writing code in your cubicle. But if you want to really grow, you have to reach out to others and learn from the better ways. And perhaps show others better ways as well.

Not only customer collaboration, but also productive partnerships

In other words, it’s not just about talking to your customer, it’s about understanding them. What are their needs? What do they want? What keeps them up at night? How can we make that better?

So 8th grade girls may not be thinking science isn’t where the good jobs are, but they can clearly see the community of people on the internet who are the output of the math and science fields who then go into the computer field. A lonely, barren place full of posturing, sniping and showmanship where everyone has to prove that they are better than everyone else, all the time. That’s what we can begin to crack. Turning software development from this testosterone-driven battle royale to an industry where we collaborate, partner, and understand. That would be amazing, and would be a place I could happily see my daughters being a part of. And a place where people of any walk of life would be proud to be a part of.

And that’s what I see as the driving force behind my involvement in the Software Craftsmanship movement, and the other things I’m a part of. Changing our industry to one of, as Kent Beck would call it, appreciative inquiry and cutting out the things that just make us look bad, act bad, and make bad software.

Edit: There are three good resources for Women in Technology I wanted to point out:

  • Women in Technology (WIT) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to offering women in all levels of the technology industry a wide range of professional development and networking opportunities.
  • WITI – Women in Technology International – WITI’s mission is to empower women worldwide to achieve unimagined possibilities and transformations through technology, leadership and economic prosperity.
  • Women In Technology article series -This series is comprised of articles written by women on the topic of “Women in Technology,” which will run through September.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • PilotBob July 17, 2009, 2:29 pm


    Bad day Cory? Hey everyone… Cory needs a group hug!



  • fergjo July 17, 2009, 5:38 pm

    Yep. Showing off is a socially backwards habit too many of us have. It seems to come from the need to demonstrate value perhaps?

    It would be helpful if management did its part in not protecting and promoting socially retarded programmers who have tech talent. That archetype often plays so many control games and undermines people they deem “stupid” or “useless” at every chance they get; they actually erode the team’s ability to work or function without their orders and oversight. The irony being they are “too busy” to deal with people that don’t “get it”. Right.

    Collaboration is key and a sign needs to be hung on the door of every shop stating “leave your ego at the door”. Tantrum throwing “rock stars” belong on MTV (2) not in my shop.

  • juju July 18, 2009, 11:25 am

    I’ll take the bait on this one…I think it goes back much further than eighth grade that girls lose desire to become a “technically proficient computer squirrel” and that it’s more of a nuture and nature combo plate. I’ll throw out some generalizations, as there are always exceptions to the rules of course, and personal examples.

    First and foremost, you have to take into consideration how girls are raised. I’m going to pull a highly likely, though scientifically unproven, figure out of the air and say about ninety percent of us played with dolls growing up. Our genetically different counterparts got to play with trucks and mud and smashed things and took our dolls apart with pliers. While most women aren’t staying at home and reading Pride and Prejudice while cross-stitching by candle light, living some sort of obscene Little House on the Prairie fantasy as a result of the toys we played with, I’m sure that our born gender and our upbringing has a lot to do with our adult occupational decisions.

    Also, females are the stereotypical readers and creative writers in school, while the males are dominating the playground and excelling in mathematics. We are steered by our teachers to take a liking to these subjects as I can only assume that after years of working in their professions, teachers are geniuses at recognizing the difference between how boys and girls learn. Like I said, there are always exceptions to the rules, but there must be a reason for the generalization.

    I personally got into technology for two reasons. One, I was naturally curious about computers and exposed to them at a young age by my father (works in electronic data security and compliance) and further influenced by my first boyfriend who was a web designer. Sadly enough, it wasn’t until we broke up that I decided I wanted to know “What the heck all the fuss was about” and went out and bought an O’Reilly on HTML and read the thing from cover to cover. I “got” the information that I was reading, I understood it, I thought it was interesting. And via social networking, I started connecting to people who were into technology and could patiently answer questions that I couldn’t RTFM for myself.

    Now, I would have to say that your description of LAN parties is dead on, and sure it gets annoying when you’re almost certain that you are the first female that the opposite gender has seen up close as the girl-to-guy ratio is JACKED. It doesn’t help that coders have certain antisocial tendencies which I would say stems from both nuture and nature as well. The guys who are proficient in coding are indeed true geeks and there isn’t a whole lot of room to discuss who Brad Pitt is dating while banging out lines of code which hinders the social aspect of technology. However, girls would still show up. Most were girlfriends of coders who thought Final Fantasy was a gift from the gods but there were some (maybe five who routinely showed up) who weren’t alarmed by the fact that there were no beds to get their beauty rest at DevHouse shindigs and who weren’t thwarted by the fact that half the guys here were having a hard time forming a whole sentence that didn’t have technological terms in it. Interestingly enough, while they were die-hard at coding, their talents really shined in design. They could run amazing websites, engineer for Apple, but they were notorious for “making it pretty” – or the term adapted was “shiny” – in kind of a “let the guys do the dirty work and build the house, we’ll do the interior decorating.”

    So maybe that’s more of our Little (Dev)House on the Prairie roots showing – we’ve adapted from our lives of literal cross-stitching to, in a sense, electronically/digitally cross-stitching. We still apply our knack for “making it pretty” from the physical world to the digital realm in order to keep up with progression. Females are slowly making themselves recognizable as skilled and proficient in the technology field but there are so many factors that can be loosely categorized in either the nurture or nature definitions that turn us off from coding and until those barriers are broken, development will remain a gentleman’s club.

  • financial services software July 23, 2009, 12:07 pm

    we have some women that work for our company and they do a great job. we even have a programmer.

  • Womens T Shirts August 20, 2009, 9:44 am

    i think a lot of women don’t want to be classified as nerds, and for the most part that is what it takes to be a software developer, it has a fairly strong stigma. there are some out there, but not nearly as many compared to men.