I am a minority’s minority. 4,000 out of 2,387,000 computer scientists were women of multiple races according to data from the National Science Foundation in 2013. Not bad, considering that women like me constitute less than 1% of the population, it makes sense that we should represent less than 1% of any workforce. When you just look at my gender, or African-Americans like my grandmother (that’s a story for another time), the story is quite different. This story is the same across all fields in science, engineering, technology and math, or STEM, with the notable exception of life sciences which has reached an even split between the genders in recent years. I want to focus on increasing awareness for female developers, but this problem spans all minorities and most STEM fields and is therefore very applicable to any woman or minority who wants to get in on some of that math stuff. A lot of the research I reference covers the broader topic, but is relevant to the topic at hand: the mythical female software developer.
The Female Developer Shortage (or Scientist, or Engineer, or Mathematician)
Where are all the ladies at? The job security of a developer is absolutely stellar, with high demand, low supply and great pay. The work environments range from pant suits and cubicles to jeans-every-day and beer fridges, providing for a variety of work styles. While some positions require round-the-clock availability and long hours, others provide a healthy work-life balance with reasonable hours and flexible work-from-home schedules. Women with families or plans to start families should be signing up for the latter in droves, yet of the more than 50% of the professional workforce that are women less than 25% are in computer and mathematical occupations in 2015, says the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Only 35% of those women represented minorities. The median salary for a software developer with a Bachelor’s degree in 2013 from this data from the NSF was $80,000. Quite lucrative, even when you control for gender. The gender wage gap is even better than average, with software developer women making 93 cents on the dollar compared to the average of 79 cents. Even so, 17.9% of computer science degrees awarded in 2013 were to women compared to 27% in 2002. So not only is this number staggeringly low, it’s been declining. As a minority female developer, this is extremely disheartening. It’s not surprising that I am the only female developer at Bluefletch. I realized that in the course of writing this post that the chances of me finding a role model or mentor who understands the struggles that I face are pretty slim. The only course of action left to me is to become a mentor and help make sure that girls understand that this math stuff is actually kind of cool. It’s important that we, as professionals with rewarding occupations, continue to thwart what we were culturally programmed to believe from birth: that these numbers reflect nature instead of nurture. For me, doing the research has put concrete numbers to something that I’ve been feeling since middle school: that I am biologically not good at math.
A Culture of Nurturing Bias
Cultural trends and media portrayals of people in this field often make it unattractive to young women deciding their career path right before college. Nerd and geek culture are intertwined with the idea of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. The sort of fervor that men in STEM are portrayed to have in media may be unappealing to girls who have many different interests and want to fit in with their peers who are also brought up to believe that math and science just aren’t “cool”. A massive report from the Harvard Business Review in 2008 called The Athena Factor tells us a story that shows the impact of bias that affect women all their lives. Implicit bias convinces young girls and women that members of the female gender are innately less skilled at math. Negative stereotypes affect these students’ test scores the most; the score gap in math and science grades between genders has essentially vanished but in standardized tests such as the Math portion of the SAT and STEM AP exams, girls score lower than boys on average. The difference in test scores is rapidly disappearing into the horizon, with 1 out of 3 high test scores in the math portion of the SAT being girls compared to 1 out of 13 a decade ago. As we continue to close the gap in the classroom, we also need to focus on closing the cultural gap that we as a society still foster. Several studies show the impact of negative stereotypes on girls’ performance on exams. Bringing up the stereotype prior to the exam drastically lowers girls’ scores and doesn’t affect boys’ scores; not bringing up the stereotypes normalizes the test results, with girls scoring quite similarly to boys. Stereotype threat, as one study calls it, can be something as innocuous as asking for a student’s gender prior to the start of the exam. Self-confidence and interest in math is a major contributor to the number of girls participating in STEM degree programs. Low self-confidence in math and sciences discourages interest in STEM careers because the girls don’t believe they are able to succeed. In spite of the relatively small gap in grades and test scores, girls also assess their own abilities significantly lower than boys do. Girls are adequately prepared to seek degrees in STEM, but negative stereotypes erode their ability and the ability of their role models to believe that they can succeed.
What Can We Do?
The shortage is real, and it’s a problem. Understanding as many users as possible, along with their needs, is as important to the success of software companies as the code itself. Diversity means that developers can relate to the people their products affect. Unique experiences and ideals change the way a team thinks about problem solving by incorporating varying perspectives. This ultimately results in software that is approachable to many different users. We want to create software that reaches many distinct kinds of people and in order to accomplish that we need to be able to relate to them.
There are too many factors at play to say that any one thing will solve our female software developer shortage. Negative stereotypes are only a small part of the picture. Making computer science an attractive career to young girls is completely dependent on the people they look up to; from their third grade math teachers to actors portraying people in these careers on TV. If each generation continues to foster a culture of degradation and belittlement, we can’t be surprised when girls react to STEM careers by alienating and rejecting them in school. It may take some time, because we are fighting against cultural brainwashing that girls are not good at math. By understanding the issues plaguing computer science and other STEM fields, we can begin to counter the damage we’ve done to young women over the centuries.