The mail room clerk addressed this yesterday, and I want to add my two macadamias…. (More)

“I think for girls, you cannot be what you cannot see”

It’s no secret that men dominate the programming industry. The numbers vary from company to company, but across the industry it’s about 3:1 male-to-female among IT professionals, and a bit higher among programmers. In high school Advanced Placement computer science exam requests, young men outnumber young women by 4:1. So it’s easy to dismiss the disparity in hiring as merely mirroring ‘fundamental’ gender-based differences, as a Google employee did in his infamous screed.

But that high school AP computer science exam statistic may be the worst data point to prove ‘fundamental’ gender differences, because high school is exactly when the disparity is widest:

Researchers found that computing appeal for girls peaks in middle school, where having an inspiring teacher and thinking that coding is “for girls” are instrumental in sparking interest. The appeal dips in high school in what researchers call the “high school trap” because of a lack of friends in coding classes or the lack of those classes at all. Interest then spikes in college, where having inspiring teachers and positive role models is key.

Girls are much more likely to be engaged in computer science if they have female teachers, while the gender of the instructor doesn’t influence boys’ interest, according to the study.

“I think for girls, you cannot be what you cannot see,” CEO and founder of Girls Who Code Reshma Saujani says. “And so when they have positive role models teaching them computer science, talking about the pioneers of computer science … the impossible seems possible, and they then can imagine a place in that field for themselves.”

That Google employee may resent Google’s Made With Code camps for girls, but the data show such camps are exactly what many girls need to not just improve their skills but – just as important – feel part of a programming community.

“Although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless”

And it’s not as if women just ‘can’t do’ programming. Indeed a newly-released study of “pull requests” at the coding site GitHub found that women may be better at it:

Biases against women in the workplace have been documented in a variety of studies. This paper presents a large scale study on gender bias, where we compare acceptance rates of contributions from men versus women in an open source software community. Surprisingly, our results show that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s.

Of course, there’s a catch. That’s only true if people don’t know the gender of the code-writer:

However, for contributors who are outsiders to a project and their gender is identifiable, men’s acceptance rates are higher. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.

And this wasn’t a tiny sample, or limited to a particular kind of programming:

Researchers analyzed data from GitHub, a San Francisco-based open source software community with more than 12 million users who collaborate on coding projects by suggesting solutions to various problems. By tracking users using social networks and Google, the researchers were able to obtain the gender of 1.4 million users, which allowed them to assemble the largest scale study of gender bias to date.

The team examined whether men and women were equally likely to have their coding suggestions, known as a pull request, accepted on GitHub. They hypothesized that pull requests made by women were less likely to be accepted than those made by men. After all, the number of women in computer science are dwarfed by the number of men – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 73 percent of the field is comprised of men.

But they found the exact opposite: Women actually have their requests accepted at a higher rate than men, 78.6 percent of the time compared to 74.6 percent of the time for men.

And overall, women’s acceptance rates dominated over men’s for every programming language in the top 10.

But if people knew the code came from women, the acceptance rate plummeted to 62.5%. Now, maybe the problem is that women who include their gender in their GitHub profiles are worse programmers than women who conceal their gender. Maybe … but there’s no evidence for that. So I’ll go out on a limb – squirrels do that – and say that’s not the reason. Instead, it’s far more likely the reason is gender bias … judging the code, in part, by the gender of the person who wrote it.

“A more holistic understanding of the consumer marketplace”

So that statistic about high school AP computer science exam requests is irrelevant. In fact, so are the statistics about percentages of men and women in college computer science programs. Indeed even statistics about résumés submitted at Google are irrelevant, and here’s why….

If you’re in the tech field, Google is a plum workplace. They get two million applications each year, and only about 1-in-130 are hired. That’s lower than the acceptance rate for Harvard … by a factor of 10.

Of course not all of those 130 applicants for any given job will be qualified. Let’s say only 20% – 26 of the 130 – have the skills and experience for the job. And let’s say male applicants outnumber females by 4:1. I don’t know that, but I’m still out on that limb. So that works out to 20 qualified men and 6 qualified women, for every position. I rounded up for women, because the GitHub study above suggests that women are – on average – slightly better programmers.

In short, for every one job opening, Google probably has several qualified men and women. So it’s a pretty good bet that almost everyone Google hires is qualified, with the usual caveats for occasional H.R. oopses.

Given that, should their H.R. department aim for hirings that mirror the relative percentage of qualified applicants … or hirings that mirror the overall population?

Before you answer, consider this:

A recent study by Deloitte found that women’s choices account for up to 85% of buying decisions nationwide. Furthermore, studies concluded that diversity of opinion is integral to innovation. Though it is still commonplace to find boards and project teams without a sole female member, the integration of more women into the field will naturally lead to a more holistic understanding of the consumer marketplace.

Simply, given that almost everyone they hire will be qualified – because they have 130 applicants for every job opening – it makes good business sense for Google to aim for a roughly 50/50 split on their programming teams … to better reflect Google’s market.

“This is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones”

Don’t take my word for that. Here’s a former senior Google programmer:

People who haven’t done engineering, or people who have done just the basics, sometimes think that what engineering looks like is sitting at your computer and hyper-optimizing an inner loop, or cleaning up a class API. We’ve all done this kind of thing, and for many of us (including me) it’s tremendous fun. And when you’re at the novice stages of engineering, this is the large bulk of your work: something straightforward and bounded which can be done right or wrong, and where you can hone your basic skills.

But it’s not a coincidence that job titles at Google switch from numbers to words at a certain point. That’s precisely the point at which you have, in a way, completed your first apprenticeship: you can operate independently without close supervision. And this is the point where you start doing real engineering.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them - and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.[…]

And once you’ve understood the system, and worked out what has to be built, do you retreat to a cave and start writing code? If you’re a hobbyist, yes. If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups. It’s about making sure you’re all building one system, instead of twenty different ones[…].

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you - most likely your manager - has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering.[….]

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialized to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on - this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones. It’s a skillset that I did not start out with, and have had to learn through years upon years of grueling work. (And I should add that I’m very much an introvert; if you had asked me twenty years ago if I were suited to dealing with complex interpersonal issues day-to-day, I would have looked at you like you were mad.) But I learned it because it’s the heart of the job, and because it turns out that this is where the most extraordinary challenges and worthwhile results happen.

That analysis – not the percentages of high school AP computer science exam requests, college computer science graduates, or even Google applicants – is what should guide Google’s hiring process. That analysis is one big reason they brought on a new Vice President for Diversity. Working to improve gender balance in their programming shop is not “political correctness,” and it’s not an “ideological echo chamber.” It’s just good business …

… and whiny misogynists like the one who wrote that screed will have to get with the program – pardon the pun – or look for other jobs.

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Image Credits — Google Logo, Male & Symbols: Wikicommons; Faces: IconArchive; Composition: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)

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Good day and good nuts