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Wondering why there are few women in tech? Here’s the perspective of someone in tech.

Via Instapundit and Bill Quick, I’ve noticed discussion about this Forbes article on why females are under-represented in technology companies.

As someone who has spent an adult lifetime in the tech industry, let me suggest an angle that I didn’t see in this article, and which I have not seen in other similar articles.

Most jobs of any consequence in tech companies require people to successfully write code at some point in their careers. Writing code is a very unusual human activity. In addition to logic skills and some other cognitive capabilities that the articles usually do touch on, there is one aspect of it most people outside the industry have never thought about: you must be comfortable being wrong and prepared to constantly acknowledge and fix your own mistakes.  

You are wrong a few dozen times a day. The computer tells you (via a compiler error or problem in the running program) that you are unambiguously wrong, and you *must* figure out how to fix the mistake before you proceed. The mistake can’t be overlooked or ignored. It must be fixed, and to the exacting standards of a machine with no emotions.

And here’s where I think the problem results in disparate impact between males and females: the computer is invulnerable to pleading, sweet-talking, eye blinking, hair tossing, lip licking, or any of the other things a substantial fraction of young women have learned to use to get their way in the world, via persuading a male to take care of it or overlook it.

Think, for example, about all those famous stratagems for getting out of traffic tickets, and the jokes about wanting to use one and finding out the cop is female. Whether feminists like it or not, that behavior is common among young women, and it’s common because it works in many social situations.

Whether you think it’s cultural or genetic, woman are less comfortable in the harsh reality, hard edged world of writing code. I think it’s at least partially because it goes against how they have learned to deal with the world around them. Because the computer isn’t a person, and certainly not a male, their best social skills avail them nothing. Plus, they have to be completely comfortable being told flat out “you are wrong about this – deal with it” many times a day, every day.

This is hard. No one likes being told that they are wrong. I know plenty of men who can’t deal with it either. But I think women, on average, have less experience with it than men.

There is evidence to back that up. For example, there is research confirming that teachers pamper girls in school. So, from a young age, and given our current educational system, I think a male is less likely to have someone overlook their mistakes.

There are certainly amazing and talented women developers. I know some and I’ve hired some. In fact, I’ve hired a larger percentage of the women candidates who interviewed with me than men. I just don’t see that many of them.

I strongly challenge the idea that the disparate numbers are due to sexism at the level of the technology companies. In the ruthlessly competitive world of tech, we’ll take talent where we find it. I don’t care about a candidate’s gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or anything else irrelevant to the prime consideration: can they effectively write software? 

In fact, given the current lop-sided proportion of men in the industry, in many cases a qualified woman actually has an advantage! Men are hardwired by eons of evolution to prefer to look at a woman across a conference table than another scruffy, bearded, overweight male nerd. Male decision makers, in my experience, simply never turn down a qualified woman due to sexism. (I supposed there are Neanderthal male decision makers out there who do, but in a long tech career, I’ve never met one.)

So, to the extent that gender matters at all, women typically have the better of it. But decision makers can’t afford to let that factor override the need to perform. Anyone running a software development team knows the dangers of having someone who can’t deal with the harsh realities of being told they are wrong and figuring out how to fix it many times a day. One of the prime characteristics I look for in interviews is defensiveness, which usually indicates an inability to deal with being wrong a lot. Such a person (male or female) not only fails to contribute much, they degrade the overall ability of the team to get things done.

I don’t know how to fix this comparative lack of women in the industry, and I would certainly like to see it fixed. But expecting university computer science departments or tech companies to do it is silly. Any solution is going to have to go a lot further back in a female’s life than young adulthood, and involve a much bigger effort than just encouraging more girls to enter science fairs.

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16 Responses to Wondering why there are few women in tech? Here’s the perspective of someone in tech.

  • And then let me point out, most of the better Q/A people I’ve known over the years have been women.
    I wonder if that doesn’t fit into your theory because they get to tell, mostly males, on a very regular basis, they’re WRONG and they need to fix it.
    I used to work at a small firm outside Boston with a staff of about 40 programmers which had about a 70/30 mix.   The women on staff were, in general, solid programmers, in the same percentage that any same size group of men would be solid or exceptional.
    At EDS they ran almost every programmer through SED, which was EDS boot camp and a 2 year hitch, and eye batting didn’t generally work from what I saw.   They were, as a rule, very very selective about who they let into SED in the first place.

  • I don’t know how to fix this comparative lack of women in the industry, and I would certainly like to see it fixed

    You buy into the narrative that disparate results are a problem? Why? I question the validity of that argument. There are more men in tech. There are more men coders. So what? Has it been proven in any way that the gender imbalance is some sort of a problem? Or are you accepting the progressive mantra?

    • I would like to see it fixed because I’m a heterosexual male who likes having women around.

      • Ah, self-interest…!!!  GOOD, GOOD motive!  I dunno it is a “problem” that needs “fixing”, though I do identify with wanting more of those MUCH better looking and smelling XX types around (and that was a reference to genetics…don’t take it anywhere I didn’t go!)

      • Yeah – because I’m sure there are just hundreds of young women about to consider a career in programming that are secretly looking for guys like US to get involved with.

        • that should have been said with a smiley smirk.

          • Hey, I get zoomed at several times a month by Sugar Babies.  Poor things think “lawyer” means I have money.  Heh…!!!
            Even Erp was able to fool a Russian bride for a while...

          • I don’t know if he fooled her or she just tolerated him until she got legal residency.

      • Booth Bimbos?

        • While I enjoy looking at booth babes as much as the next guy, I happen to be a sapiosexual. And women who are excellent at software development tend to be very intelligent.

          • Hang on, I’ll scrunch up on the bench here a little more, we’re in the same boat.

  • Keep in mind that the ability to persuade males can mean that plenty of women who could write code, might not becuase they get paid more for being smart and persuading males.
    So, go into pharma sales rather than programming, for example.

  • What is the percentage of female grads CS degrees, 10 or 15%?
    After 15 years in IT, where women were a tiny subset, I spent another 15 years in construction, where I saw perhaps three female field workers.

  • I’m from Canada.  All I can say that men in the country are messed up.   At least  A good 1/3 of you have modanna (sans whore) complexes especially to female co-workers.
    The uneven treatment of parents to sons and daughter and spoiling of daughters is crazy.  I don’t know what the parents think they are accomplishing other than unrealistic expectations that make their daughters unable to be satisfied or happy in a truly peer relationship, especially marriage.

  • The real problem with women in tech is that most professionals in programming don’t just do it as a job but also followup with aspects as a hobby.
    On one of those professional women’s blogs, they constantly complain about how their male counterparts are doing hardware (i.e. fiber networks) and software (i.e. open source) projects on the weekends and that’ all they like to talk about.