Female software engineers may be even scarcer than thought

Crowdsourced data sheds new light on the gender gap in software development

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It’s no secret or news flash that software development is dominated by men. But there have been some signs recently that women may be closing the software gender gap a bit. For example, half of the recently announced Code for America fellows are women. Also, at the recent Grace Hopper Celebration, a gathering devoted to furthering the interests of women in computing, many tech companies expressed their desire to hire female engineers


Who's minding the gender gap?

Image credit: flickr/Sarah Stierch

So, things are looking up for women developers, yes?

Well, maybe not. No matter how you slice it, women are way underrepresented in the world of software development. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 about 22% of computer programmers, software and web developers in the United States were female. That number comes from the Current Population Survey, which is based on interviews with 60,000 households.

One female engineer feels that the real number of women working in the field is significantly less than that, and she’s started gathering some numbers that back her up. Tracy Chou is an engineer at Pinterest and she feels that companies may be overstating the number of women engineers they’ve hired (if they report them at all). It’s Chou’s feeling that in order to solve the problem of too few women building software, we first need good metrics to define the magnitude of the problem. As she wrote:

"...there’s a bigger goal, to remove gender as the hidden (or sometimes not-so-hidden) discriminant in the tech industry. And we need to work together to make that happen, and it starts with having honest dialogues about how we’re actually doing, as an industry, to encourage women in computing."

In an effort to get a more accurate count of women doing software development, last month she created a GitHub project to collect data on how many females are in full-time just writing or architecting software. People are encouraged to submit data for their own companies, or data about any company which they gather through sources such as company websites.

The data she’s been collecting for about a month now can be viewed via a Google spreadsheet. Taking a look at them, there are already some interesting findings. Based on data reported for 107 companies, 438 of 3,594 engineers (12%) are females, well below the BLS’s 22% finding, backing up Chou’s theory that the numbers may be inflated. 

Here are how the some of the more well known companies in Chou’s data rank:

  • Khan Academy: 6 of 24 engineers, 25%

  • Medium: 5 of 21, 24%

  • GoodReads: 5 of 25, 20%

  • Snapchat: 2 of 13, 15%

  • Hootsuite: 6 of 41, 15%

  • Reddit: 2 of 14, 14%

  • Pinterest: 14 of 105, 13%

  • Etsy: 19 of 149 , 13%

  • Quora: 4 of 35, 11%

  • Flipboard: 6 of 60,10%

  • Flickr: 4 of 42, 9.5%

  • Mozilla: 43 of 500, 9%

  • Foursquare: 6 of 85, 7%

  • Dropbox: 9 of 143, 6%

  • GitHub: 10 of 160, 6%

  • Stack Exchange: 0 of 23, 0%

  • 37signals: 0 of 20, 0%

Taken at face value, these numbers certainly suggest that women may be even more of a minority in the developer workforce than those government numbers suggest. Of course, as Chou herself notes, these numbers could be subject to bias, based on the motivations of those choosing to report data. But even if the government’s estimate of 22% is the true percentage of software engineers who are female, Chou’s numbers at least tell us which companies are doing a better job of hiring women to build their software.

I think this a worthy endeavour - and I particularly like her approach of crowdsourcing (and open sourcing) the data collection. I hope more people submit data so we can all get a better idea of just how many women software engineers are (or aren't) out there. So, if you have data to contribute to the cause, please do!

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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