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'The Developer World Has Serious Issues With Diversity' -Martin Fowler

01.12.2012
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Although it's easy to become accustomed to it, it's pretty obvious the software development world has some serious issues in diversity. By this I mean that we have some notable differences in proportions of people compared to the general population. One of the most obvious differences is the low proportion of women, which is true all over the world (albeit noticeably less so in China). In the US, where I spend a good chunk of my time, the lack of African-Americans is also obvious. There's a lot been written on why such imbalances might exist, and what might be done about it. [1] But here I want to concentrate on a more fundamental question - does it matter?

One point of view I hear fairly regularly is that these diversity imbalances are natural - because women don't have the aptitude or inclination for programming. This point of view upsets a lot of people but I think it's important to treat it seriously. I think of it as a hypothesis, which I'll call the natural balance hypothesis. It needs to be treated seriously because there's plenty of people who feel it explains the current situation - but I argue that it has two serious flaws, which mean that I must vigorously reject it.

The first flaw is a simple one of evidence. There are (roughly) 50% women in the world, so we should expect the ratio for women in computing to be 50% - unless there's real evidence that some other ratio is natural.[2] So far there's no such evidence. Sure, it's obvious that there are biological differences between men and women, and there is evidence that there are differences in brain function between the sexes. But there is no evidence that indicates that the skills that make people better programmers are more common in men.

The only evidence that seems to occur to people who promote the natural balance hypothesis is the fact that there are less female programmers.[3] Personally I find it troubling when software professionals, who ought to be good at logical thinking, can reach so easily for such circular logic.

It is the second flaw in the natural imbalance hypothesis that brings the heat into the discussion. Men have spent centuries using this kind of argument to deny women equal rights in all sorts of fields. Over the last century we've seen tons of evidence that this isn't true elsewhere, so why should it be true in software? As far as I'm concerned this shoddy history should make us doubly wary of the any suggestion that a diversity imbalance is natural. Unless someone comes up with decent evidence that there is a relevant biological difference, we must operate on the assumption that women are equally well suited to programming.

You'll notice above that I said "inclination or aptitude". I've noticed a lot recently that advocates of the natural-balance hypothesis say less frequently that women have less aptitude than men for programming, instead they say that women don't want to do programming. But making statements with inclination is little better than with aptitude - there's still no evidence and it has just the same shoddy history.

So, accepting that there is no good reason for a diversity imbalance, does such an imbalance matter? That is, given we have a unnatural imbalance, is it a problem that's sufficiently serious to spend energy on fixing it? I think there are many reasons why it matters to tackle our imbalances. First and foremost, there's a moral argument. I'm a strong meritocrat, who believes that we should strive for a society where everyone has an equal opportunity to fulfill their potential. A diversity imbalance suggest that there are many women, who would have good careers as programmers, who are not getting the opportunity to do so. I agree with Eric Ries's view that diversity imbalances suggest we are not as meritocratic as we like to think we are.

This waste hurts our profession too. We need more and better software developers to produce valuable software that improves our lives. By not bringing enough women into the profession, we are handicapping ourselves. This will only become more serious as the demand for talent increases in the future. How can we say we are hiring the best people when we ignore significant chunks of our population. Critics of efforts to fix the diversity imbalance often fret that we risk failing to hire a well-qualified male, when we habitually fail to hire well-qualified females.

Lack of diversity is itself a problem. Different people think differently, and consequently come up with different ways to solve problems. If you have a bunch of people with the same background, they miss lots of ideas - leading to inefficiencies and lack of innovation. A diverse group is usually more effective.

This lack of diversity also contributes to our marginalization as a profession. We are already in the situation where the opinions of programmers aren't taken as seriously as they should be by people outside our profession. We see this regularly in our discussions with business people who dismiss us as mere nerds. A diversity imbalance makes us look even more like some marginalizable outsider.

Left to themselves, these kinds of imbalances tend to get worse. People have a natural, often sub-conscious, tendency to be around people like themselves. Consequently as a group becomes a smaller minority, they get excluded more. A warning sign is when people are turned away because they "won't fit in".

There is a great deal of good potential in the software profession. We have a strong tendency towards meritocracy, a natural first position with exploiting the power of computers to enhance our lives, a lack of historical baggage in how we organize ourselves and our work. As a result I think we could provide a model to influence other social groups and lead the way in demonstrating how humans can collaborate. Diversity imbalances are a cancer to that position - how can we claim to be forward thinking when our diversity looks it comes from where the rest of the world was a couple of generations ago?



1: I started writing this bliki post over two years ago but have been stuck because I don't have any profound things to say about how we can fix the diversity imbalance. As a rule I try to ensure that everything I write provides information that readers can act on, so this post sat in limbo. Eventually I decided that I'm just so tired of people saying things like "there aren't many women programmers because women don't have the aptitude/inclination" that I decided that this bliki was worth posting - just so I could give that argument both barrels.

2: I find it makes the discussion flow rather better if I use a concrete case, so I'm using the male-female diversity imbalance. The same arguments apply to most other diversity imbalances too - particularly those with a history of discrimination.

3: Although female programmers are rare now, that wasn't the case in the 70's. That shift is another argument against the natural balance hypothesis.

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Comments

Andrew McVeigh replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 8:14am

I have 2 daughters who I have tried to interest in programming. They aren't interested in graphical video games etc, which is what originally piqued my interest all those years back. I mistakenly assumed it meant that they weren't interested in programming.

However, it turns out that they are very interested in (a) books and (b) mobile phones. For (a) I have had some registration of interest from them over interactive fiction using things like TADS and Inform7.

So, perhaps part of the problem is that we are not appealing to what various groups are interested in - perhaps the teaching methods or interest-generating topics that are currently used in computing are very oriented around what males "tend" to be interested in (whether naturally or via socialisation).

Kit Davies replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 8:52am in response to: Andrew McVeigh

This is similar to moves made by the auto industry to appeal to female car-buyers. Before about 1980, the majority of car buyers were male, so cars were designed to appeal to males (performance, gadgets, chrome). And cars tended to be designed by males. During the 1980s, many more women were working and buying cars. None of the male-oriented cars appealed so canny makers took on female designers to design cars with female appeal (small, maintenance-easy) since there was a new untapped market. So, as you say, I can see more female participation in our industry when there is a sector for female-oriented software products, whatever they might be ?

Reid Atherton replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 9:16am

Has anyone conducted surveys of these lower-represented subgroups? What do they have to say about why they don't or can't pursue software development careers?

 

 In the commentary that I've read online, e.g. by female software developers, my overwhelming impression is that the mistaken or exaggerated perceptions of "nerd culture" and the job's duties carry the most blame. "I like to analyze problems, but I don't watch Star Trek. I like to devise creative engineering solutions, but I don't enjoy working in constant isolation." Yet watching Star Trek has no concrete connection to it whatsoever, and communicating well and working in teams is in reality highly important to the job. Combined with the self-sorting tendency of people to choose the careers that contain "people like them",  these implicit perceptions make a huge collective difference.

Andrew McVeigh replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 10:16am in response to: Kit Davies

some good work has been done in this area for software.

"Storytelling Alice is a programming environment designed to motivate a broad spectrum of middle school students (particularly girls) to learn to program computers through creating short 3D animated movies."

not my words - the system was made by a woman.

 http://www.alice.org/kelleher/storytelling/

 

Nick Leaton replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 10:29am

The first flaw is a simple one of evidence. There are (roughly) 50% women in the world, so we should expect the ratio for women in computing to be 50% - unless there's real evidence that some other ratio is natural.[2] So far there's no such evidence. ============= Surely the measure is the percentage of women in the workforce. If less women work than men, why would you expect 50% For example, women taking time off for child birth, and in the UK, retirement ages are still lower.

Dean Schulze replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 11:24am

For all of your talk about logic and evidence you give no evidence that women have the same aptitude for programming that men have.

The current imbalance suggests that there could very well be a difference in aptitudes. Since you offer no evidence of any gender-specific barriers to entry for women that makes aptitude difference a logical thing to consider.

Gender imbalances also exist in other fields involving mathematics, physical sciences, and technology. Do you think the imbalances in all of these fields could have some commonality?

The only logic you offer is that the number of women and men in the general population are equal so you expect that there should be an equal number of women programmers. The evidence shows otherwise, so you should suspect that your logic is too simple of is simply flawed.

How about some better logic or even a little bit of evidence to support your thesis that the imbalance is unnatural?

John J. Franey replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 12:43pm

Martin Fowler eliminates a hypothesis to explain the imbalance without offering others. Maybe we should find a woman with the inclination and ability and ask her what she thinks. Unfortunately, if we talk to a woman who does not have a software related job, it would be difficult to assert that she has the inclination or ability, and a woman with a software related job would more likely have an experience of acceptance than rejection.

If a woman with inclination and ability who was unable to break into ANY male dominated career were asked what the root cause is, she would reply, my guess, that sexual objectification of women in modern culture has rendered men incapable of maturely conducting anything close to an acceptable level of professional relationship with any woman. The behavior of men, young and old, towards women is appalling, according to my young adult daughters. Really. An able woman's inclination could drop off pretty quickly in such an environment, I'd think.

Maybe there is not a correlation between the involvement of women in tech before the 70's and the time the contraceptive pill was intorduced, but I'd guess there is. At the time the pill was introduced, the sexual objectification of women really took off.

Neil Crow replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 1:40pm

"A diverse group is usually more effective." but Design-By-Committee is a recognised anti-pattern http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?DesignByCommittee ... just saying

 BTW, my wife is a programmer and she's beautiful!

Andrew McVeigh replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 5:24pm in response to: Dean Schulze

Gender imbalances also exist in other fields involving mathematics, physical sciences, and technology. Do you think the imbalances in all of these fields could have some commonality?

We should be careful not to make generalisations about women's abilities, or to assume that natural ability might be lacking in effectively half of the population. The trouble is that this sword cuts both ways...

For instance, one of the major changes in education in the UK (and Australia) over the last 15 years is that grade measurement has changed away from sudden death exams towards ongoing assessment. This style has seen girls' performance in a number of subjects including maths and sciences improve across the board. In the UK the discussion is no longer about "why can't girls do maths?" but rather "why do boys perform so badly?". Boys are falling further behind each year.

In a nutshell, it looks like the way that subjects are taught can bias towards a particular style of learning that helps one group and penalises another. Teaching had unknowingly been doing it for years to favour boys. Sure, one might argue for instance that the pendulum has swung too far towards a focus on how girls learn. It would be a mistake however to argue that boys are less than able, just as it is a mistake to assume girls are less capable intrinsically.

Basically, through our collective biases we are locking out close to 50% of programmers, and finding new justifications as to why this is ok. Shameful and sexist for sure, but it's worse than that. It's inefficient and wasteful.

 

Dean Schulze replied on Thu, 2012/01/12 - 11:17pm in response to: Andrew McVeigh

"Basically, through our collective biases we are locking out close to 50% of programmers, and finding new justifications as to why this is ok. Shameful and sexist for sure, but it's worse than that. It's inefficient and wasteful."

That's a baseless assertion.

Can you provide any evidence that any group of people are being "locked out"? What are the collective biases you refer to?

Andrew McVeigh replied on Fri, 2012/01/13 - 6:30am in response to: Dean Schulze

That's a baseless assertion.

This goes to the heart of what Martin was getting at. We have an outcome (not many women programmers, declining over time) and we are searching for a reason. You say it's due to lack of aptitude or interest and i'm saying that women are perfectly capable and that probably we don't market or structure computer science to appeal except to males.

So, Martin's point is that the onus is not on people like me to prove that women are capable. It's up to people like you to defend why you claim they are not.

Here are some related historical biases that show you are most likely on the wrong side of history.

1850-1900's male consensus: "woman can't be allowed to vote. they have no interest or aptitude for politics"

    reality: women were disenfranchised from the process, which made it look like lack of interest.

early 20th century consensus on learning: "women can't be doctors or lawyers"

    reality: these fields now have >50% intake of women students.

a more subtle form of bias - church view: "women can't be priests. they are equal but different"

    reality: they make fine and caring ministers/bishops of religion if they are so inclined.

In short, it's easy to defend the status quo by claiming that it's the underrepresented group's fault. It's a self fulfilling prophecy also: if women are not doing computing at uni because we bias them away from it, we observe the effects 10 years later in the workforce and conclude that they are underrepresented because this is their inherent limitation. We are blaming the victim.

At its heart this is effectively the cause and challenge of discrimination. 10 years ago, I would have agreed with your (slightly angry) point. As the father of 2 teenage girls, however, I have lately seen the subtle push of girls away from science and maths and have watched with dismay.

And finally, even though I shouldn't have to, let me point you to a recent academic study showing that this bias is very real and can be measured scientifically:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6008/1234.abstract

 

Dean Schulze replied on Fri, 2012/01/13 - 10:22pm in response to: Andrew McVeigh

"You say it's due to lack of aptitude or interest and i'm saying that women are perfectly capable and that probably we don't market or structure computer science to appeal except to males."

I didn't say any such thing. You are making things up.

"So, Martin's point is that the onus is not on people like me to prove that women are capable. It's up to people like you to defend why you claim they are not."

You and Fowler have as much obligation to support your positions with evidence as anyone else has. Fowler is particularly hypocritical when it comes to not providing evidence after he criticizes others for not doing the same.

If you and Fowler think that the number of women programmers should reflect the number of women in the general population you should show why that should be so.

Do you think there is a problem because there are so few men in nursing? Is there some barrier to entry for men? What about gender balance when it comes to business analysts?

Lund Wolfe replied on Sat, 2012/01/14 - 4:52am

Programming is not very diversified. Having a much larger proportion of women in the field would be a big improvement in the existing environment, not to mention that we need all the best programmers we can get. There may well be fewer women who feel that they would be good at programming but exposure via classes will quickly identify those that like programming and are good at it, regardless of gender or anything else.

I suspect it is much less about ability than interest, though. Programming is a field of, by, and for young males. It is definitely more nerdy than other engineering and science fields (already considered hard or boring or both) and probably even less appealing to young women than to the young generation as a whole. The prospect of working with "programmers" every day for a living may be very unappealing. Would you want to work in a field dominated almost exclusively by women even if you had a strong interest in it ? You would probably rightly question whether you'd be a good fit in the environment.

If there were more women programmers then there would be more women programmers.

Paul Chen replied on Sun, 2012/01/15 - 11:21pm

One non-profit trying to increase diversity specifically in Computer Science is CodeEd: codeed.org

"CodeEd teaches computer science to girls from underserved communities, starting in middle-school."  There are active programs in Boston, New York, and San Francisco.

Andrew McVeigh replied on Mon, 2012/01/16 - 9:05am in response to: Lund Wolfe

Would you want to work in a field dominated almost exclusively by women even if you had a strong interest in it ?

Perhaps I would ;-)

If there were more women programmers then there would be more women programmers.

A very true point. The current situation is indeed a self fulfilling prophecy.

And sadly, despite my producing anecdotal/historical/scientific evidence that there is bias against women in our field, sadly some male programmers still don't get it.  their sexist arguments essentially amount to "women are a bit thick, innit".

I'd hate to see what their reasons for the underrepresenation of minority racial groups are...

 

Carla Brian replied on Tue, 2012/04/03 - 12:59pm

I agree on this. IT makes me wonder also why are there many men programmers rather than women. - Joe Aldeguer

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