On Gender and Programming

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2009-04-30 Print this article Print

Is the programming field rife with alpha male behavior to the point that women are turned off by the profession?

That's what eWEEK's Darryl K. Taft asks in his article inspired by Ruby on Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson. Hansson recently blogged about gender and programming in a post entitled "Alpha Males Are Not Keeping Women Out of Programming":

I just can't get into the argument that women are being kept out of programming because the male programmer is such a testosterone-powered alpha specimen of our species. Compared to most other male groups that I've experienced, the average programmer ranks only just above mathematicians in being meek, tame, and introverted.

When I talk to musicians, doctors, lawyers, or just about any other profession that has a fair mix of men and women, I don't find that these men are less R rated than programmers and that's scaring off women from these fields.

My first observation of this post is that it doesn't seem to be attached to anything. It's just a statement of opinion out of seemingly nowhere. A defense of a position on gender that seems to say, "Hey, everybody, alpha males are all over the place, and mostly not in programming."

Not sure I understand the motivation or the position, really. And there are alpha males and females involved, but mostly male.

While I agree there is some truth about the introverted aspects of hard-core technologists, I reject the idea that technically savvy people are meek or tame. The introversion, to me, has more to do with having an aptitude for the creative possibilities that can be carried out via a computing machine. There is a logical process to programming that in many instances excludes social encounters. Programming is a human-to-functionality relationship, rather than a human-to-human one.

Perhaps that is the turnoff for many women?

But let's not kid ourselves. Programming is a highly competitive, male-dominated space. Sometimes it's competitive between businesses and languages, and in other instances it's competitive between peers within the same company. Is that a male or female thing? Not necessarily. Some cultures of programming do involve large teams of people having to work together on the finished product, but the work that has to get done, the majority of it is about you, your coding skills and perhaps your defense of your programming logic.

Whether gender is a factor or not, the point to me is this: It doesn't matter. What matters is that women don't enter programming in the same numbers as men. And Hansson doesn't really offer a reason why ... He just says he knows alpha males aren't to blame, and he supports more women getting into the field.

The only way to really know is to ask women. Enter the Athena Factor.

The Athena Factor is a 2008 study that took a closer look at reasons why women leave tech-related jobs and don't return to them, which the study dubbed "antigens" since they repel women from technology. There are a number of factors, some related to macho-male attitudes, sexual harassment, lack of promotions and something that seemed to me to really stick out: isolation. One of the authors of the study, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, told Computerworld the following:

What are the other antigens? The second one was the sheer isolation many women cope with daily. She might be the only woman on the team or the only senior woman at a facility. Isolation in and of itself is debilitating, with no mentors, no role models, no buddies. And if you're surrounded by men who don't appreciate you, that can be corrosive.

The third thing is that, for many women, the career path is all very mysterious because they don't have mentors or sponsors or folks looking out for them. Some of them can't begin to map what the career ladder looks like. This mystery adds to the sense of stalling, of being stuck and not knowing where to go or how to get there.

Is programming an isolating field? It can be if you're not part of a particularly collaborative environment. It kind of leads me to think that the nature of programming as an hourly and daily grind is too isolating for many to overcome.

But, ultimately, for the most direct answer, ask women why they don't enter the field. Don't just say it's not because of you if you haven't gone through the trouble of trying to find out.

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