Why Society Needs More Female “Nerds”

Introduction

If you ask someone to describe the typical programmer, one will most likely describe a nerdy white male that is probably a college dropout and has been coding in his parent’s basement since the onset of his teenage years. This “geeky” stereotype of a programmer is ubiquitous. It is no secret that males dominate the technology sector. Look around any college campus today and one will find that men monopolize Computer Science classes and heavily outnumber the amount of female Computer Science and Information Technology majors. The reality is that Silicon Valley has yet to generate a female Zuckerberg, Gates, or Kalanick equivalent.[1] While leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyers do exist, they have only contributed to their respective company’s success instead of being the ones who launch the success.[2] However, this imbalance has not always existed. Once upon a time, women were known for their contributions to technology.

The True Beginning of Manpower in Computing

In the past, computers used to be synonymous with women, according to Ruth Oldenziel, professor at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands who studies history, gender and technology.[3] The world’s first computer programmers were six women who developed the 30-ton ENIAC, one of the world’s first electronic computers.[4] These women ran this computer for the United States army during World War II in the 1940s.[5] At this time, computing was seen as the ideal career for women. This vision is encapsulated by a 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine article titled “The Computer Girls” that explains why women coalesced so well into computing careers: “Now have come the big, dazzling computers — and a whole new kind of work for women: programming. Telling the miracle machines what to do and how to do it. Anything from predicting the weather to sending out billing notices from the local department store. And if it doesn’t sound like women’s work — well, it just is.”[6] The author further quotes Dr. Grace Hopper explaining that women were not only treated as equals, but preferred: “Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”[7] For society, programming evidently conveyed secretarial work. However, as more people began to unearth the vast capabilities of computing, this so-called “apt fit” for women began to vanish.

By the 1960s, programming had transformed into a new elite identity consisting of algorithmic and critical thinking rather than just rote, clerical work. The industry began to recognize parallels between computing and chess-playing, puzzles, mathematics, and playing instruments.[8] This altered the recruiting process of coders for most companies. Specifically, 80 percent of companies began to screen potential employees by utilizing aptitude tests and personality profiles. These examinations placed a newfound emphasis on creative intellectual thinking rather than interpersonal relations or managerial decision-making.[9] To be a coder now signified that one possessed specific analytical skills rather than just patience. This new mindset that programming belonged to uniquely qualified individuals allowed the industry to swiftly eliminate women and gave rise to the “brogramming” culture.

The Evolution of Brogramming

This recent masculine association with computing is indisputable. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, in 2014 only 15 percent of undergraduate computer science majors were female, compared to 37 percent in 1985.[10] This decline may be due in part to evolution of the title “brogrammer” that exists as a hybrid of the common fraternity nickname “bro” and employment description of “programmer.” This moniker appropriately combines the career with the company culture at many technology companies. This label is so prevalent that it became the tag-line of a Facebook group with 21,000 members, the humorous element of numerous online job advertisements, the name of a hackathon in Austin, Texas, and the topic of a popular Quora thread titled: “How does a programmer become a brogrammer?”[11] (For reference, the author suggests drinking Red Bull, beer, and “brotein” shakes.[12])

The allure of this macho culture is clear: these companies boast a more relaxed work environment in order to stimulate creativity, and who does not love a stress-free work zone? Gagan Biyani, co-founder of the startup Udemy that provides an online platform for coding courses, believes that the popularity of brogramming can be attributed to the social aspect: “There’s a rising group of developers who are much more sociable and like to go out and have fun, and I think brogramming speaks to that audience.”[13] Unfortunately, while this boisterous environment may appeal to men, a significant portion of society feels excluded by this audience. This marginalized portion is women.

When Bro-ing Out Leads to Leaving Out

Klout, a social media analytics company, recently attended Stanford University’s career fair. In the hopes of attracting software developers, the company advertised itself by posting, “Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring.”[14] While these witty comments intrigue men, many women feel unwelcomed. Upon reading this post, Sara Chipps, founder of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit aimed at creating opportunities for women interested in software development, immediately replied with: “No. I don’t want to bro down. I can’t imagine that a girl would see that and say ‘I totally want to do that, it sounds awesome.’ ”[15] These companies may not intend to be exclusionary in their recruiting or advertising campaigns, but the unfortunate truth is that women are not equally inclined to join these companies. Even worse, the females that are brave enough to enter this male-dominated industry frequently are unable to last. A staggering 56 percent of women leave technical positions at the “mid-level” point of their careers, which is a rate that is twice as much as their male peers.[16] Moreover, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, one-third of the women who abandon their technical careers resort to non-technical roles.[17] Evidently, women are dissatisfied with their computing-related careers. This suggests that their frustration arises from a problem within the industry that is solely applicable to females.

How the Boys Won

Many perceive that the disproportionate amount of male programmers exists due to a lack of females immersed in STEM education. This belief is false. Research by The Economist cites that for every 100 men graduating from universities, there are 140 women.[18] Additionally, since the 1970s, the number of female MBA graduates has improved fivefold.[19] Moreover, younger girls have approximately attained equivalence with boys in biology, mathematics, and physics.[20] In fact, the problem lies with women leaving the field rather than failing to enter it. A recent New York Times article followed the destinies of the Stanford class of 1994 and found that women dropped out of the field whereas their male colleagues acquired fortunes as the Internet took off.[21] Society has never reached a better time for women to revolutionize the technology industry; women are better educated and serving in almost equal numbers to their male counterparts in other professions, and yet they their presence in computing is continuously diminishing. According to a study conducted by the Labor Department in 2015, only 17.9 percent of software engineers were women. However, data from other typical male-dominated careers do not mirror this extreme discrepancy. The same study found that 56 percent of those holding business or finance-related professions were women, 36 percent of surgeons and doctors were women, and one-third of lawyers were female.[22] This problem therefore is unique to the technology sector and comes from culture.

Although technology appears to represent the sector of the economy with the largest gender inequalities, this is not the first time that women have been left out of the business world. When airbags were originally created, the engineers designed the safety requirements with the typical engineer’s body type in mind. No women engineers were present on this project.[23] Imagine the implications if all airbags were only designed to protect the supposed “average” 5’11” human. While society eventually recognized this potentially fatal miscalculation, it appears that we have yet to recover from our discriminative tendencies. A broad and diverse mindset is needed not only to improve success in the computing industry, but also for society to survive as well.

The misinformed assumption is that in order for technology and start-up companies to flourish, they must move quickly without regard to traditional corporate regulations. Many factors evoke this attitude. For example, at these companies, the boundaries between work and social life are often unclear, many employees are young and work extensive hours, and the founders oftentimes are friends with their employees. The result is that these companies revel in their ability to forgo official protocol with the belief that it will only decelerate their success.[24] This lack of bureaucracy is what allows these companies to exclude women; their primary goal is not to enforce employment equality but to dominate the market share. In a market where winners-take-all, there is little time to evaluate the diversity in the workforce. As summarized by leading venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, “When you’re building a startup, you’re fighting for your life. You aren’t going to do anything for corporate responsibility.”[25]

Unfortunately, this free-for-all atmosphere discourages initiatives for change and equality. Julie Ann Horvath, a former software engineer at Github, publicly announced her resignation from her position by citing that she was plagued by constant sexism and intimidation: “I had a really hard time getting used to the culture, the aggressive communication on pull requests and how little the men I worked with respected and valued my opinion.”[26] In an essence, Horvath felt judged based on her gender rather than by the contributions of her work. This lack of structure facilitates the ability of a company’s culture to ostracize minorities, which is ironic when technology is only meant to enable communication and connections.

The Counterproductive Effects on Creativity

Furthermore, while this brogramming culture exists as an effort to foster innovation and ingenuity, in some cases it actually restrains the creative process. Londa Schiebinger is a professor at Stanford University who runs the Gendered Innovations project, which seeks to prompt engineers to consider genders while developing new products. This project strives to minimize the current deleterious effects of the myopic view in the industry. Schiebinger has found that as males continue to exclude women from the design-making process, they unintentionally also exclude women from desiring and thus purchasing their products. She contends that “Women are increasingly consumers; they’re not going to like products that don’t work for them.”[27] Without giving consideration for a female’s perspective, these products immediately lose half of their potential market, automatically diminishing their potential viability. This appears nonsensical; why eliminate half of the revenue for a product if there is no need or benefit in doing so?

These unpleasant implications may not be intentional, but nonetheless occur when only one gender designs products for society. Consider that in 2011 Apple produced a Siri that found prostitutes and Viagra, but not abortion providers.[28] Functionality is instrumental in design. While reviewing The Social Network, author Zadie Smith critiqued that Facebook is “reduced to the size of its founder. Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to.”[29] The Social Network is not, “a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called ‘Mark Zuckerberg.’ It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”[30] Ultimately, we are living in a technical society created by men and for men. Women unsurprisingly are frustrated as they are left in the dust while their male counterparts strike billions by doing something that a woman could have done, too.

A Brighter and More Feminine Future

Fortunately, there is hope. Organizations and companies alike are actively sponsoring initiatives for promoting more diversity. Organizations such as Girls Who Code actively develop partnerships with industrial professionals to help promote enthusiasm for coding.[31] Some start-ups even exist by acting as diversity consultants. One particular start-up, Paradigm, advises popular unicorns such as Pinterest, Airbnb, Udacity, and Slack on how to attract and retain women.[32] These programs are not only initiated by smaller companies.

Intel Capital, the investing division of Intel, recently announced a $125 million Diversity Fund.[33] This fund is possibly one of the most influential efforts yet. This fund will be used to invest in companies whose CEO or founders are either female or from other minority groups. As Intel itself is 77 percent male and 70 percent white, it hopes to support scalable ventures that traditionally would have been unsuccessful due to minority leadership demographics instead of business proposals.[34]

Google and Netflix also have improved their gender equality programs. Google recently increased its paid leave of absence for mothers from 12 to 18 weeks and saw retention rates jump by 50 percent.[35] When Netflix announced its policy of providing one year paid leave for new parents, it took less than 24 hours for Microsoft to add 8 weeks to its existing parental leave program. The following week, Adobe increased its parental leave.[36] The trend is clear: the major tech giants are finally drinking the diversity Kool-Aid, and the rest of the industry should, too.

Bringing the Computer Girls Back

Although this lack of diversity hinders social freedom, it additionally elicits economic implications. A 2016 McKinsey & Company report highlights that if Silicon Valley can bridge the gender gap, then the technology sector’s GDP will increase by $25 billion (or 9 percent) by 2025.[37] Similar action by San Francisco could drive approximately $45 billion in 2025.[38] For the nation as a whole, full gender equality in California would increase GDP by $648 billion by 2025.[39] Full gender parity in the United States alone would enhance GDP by $4.3 trillion.[40] These statistics are enough to turn heads. So if women can add so much to our productivity, then why are they still ignored?

The most ironic part is that although computer programming may be the most innovative industry, when analyzing its diversity it pales in comparison to the rest of the economy. For good or for worse, the industry is not going away anytime soon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computing jobs available, and based on current graduation rates, there will only be 400,000 computer scientists to hold these positions.[41] That is one million vacant jobs. It appears intuitive to allow women to fill these roles.

While the current stereotype of programmers has morphed to omit women, managers can easily resolve this. Companies can no longer attribute excuses to a supposed lack of women pursuing STEM fields. Women are now extremely well-educated and increasing their presence in scientific disciplines. Eliminating the fraternity-like culture at companies and eradicating the sexism appears to be the quick fix in order to create a gender neutral identity of computing. Once this prejudice can be eliminated, then females can increase their presence in the industry and possibly regain their former dominance. If the snowball effect of improving gender parity presented by Netflix, Microsoft, and Adobe is not convincing enough, just consider the added benefits of diversity. Excluding women from the design-making process of engineering provides no additional benefit, as seen by the invention of the airbag and potential loss of half of a product’s market. Providing women with this deserved opportunity is not only the smart economic thing to do, but the logical thing for an industry known for innovation and data. Hopefully, by 2020 women will possess roughly 50 percent of the 1.4 million computer science jobs.

Appendix

Report A: “NCWIT’s Women in IT: By the Numbers Presents the Most Compelling Statistics on Women’s Participation in IT on a Single Page”

Report B: “Women in IT: The Facts (2015 Update)”

Report C: “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United States”

Bibliography

1 Burleigh, Nina. “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women.” Newsweek. IBT Media, 25 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

2 Ibid.

3 Lerman, Nina E., Ruth Oldenziel, and Arwen Mohun. Gender & Technology: A Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.

4 Ensmenger, Nathan. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Burke, Elaine. “The Computer Girls: 1967 Cosmo Article Highlights Women in Technology.” Silicon Republic. Silicon Republic Knowledge & Events Management Ltd., 08 Aug. 2015. Web. 02 May 2016.

8 Ensmenger .

9 O’Shields, Joseph. “Selection of EDP Personnel.” Personnel Journal 44.9 (1965): 472–74. Wiley Online Library. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

10 NCWIT’s Women in IT: By the Numbers Presents the Most Compelling Statistics on Women’s Participation in IT on a Single Page. Rep. National Center for Women & Information Technology, 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 May 2016.

11 MacMillan, Douglas. “The Rise of the ‘Brogammer’” Bloomberg. Bloomberg LP, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Women in IT: The Facts (2015 Update). Rep. National Center for Women & Information Technology, 06 May 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.

17 Hewlett, Sylvia Ann, Carolyn Buck Luce, Lisa J. Servon, Laura Sherbin, Peggy Schiller, Eytan Sosnovich, and Karen Sumberg. The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology. Tech. Harvard Business Review, June 2008. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

18 “Valley of the Dudes.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Kantor, Jodi. “A Brand New World In Which Men Ruled.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 02 May 2016.

22 Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Rep. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

23 Porter, Jane. “The Fascinating Evolution of Brogramming And The Fight To Get Women Back.” Fast Company. Mansueto Ventures, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

24 Miller, Claire Cain. “Technology’s Man Problem.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 05 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

25 Ferro, Shane. “Here’s How Silicon Valley Really Thinks about Diversity in Hiring.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 4 May 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

26 Wilhelm, Alex, and Alexia Tsotsis. “Julie Ann Horvath Describes Sexism And Intimidation Behind Her GitHub Exit.” TechCrunch. AOL Inc., 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 01 May 2016.

27 Miller 3.

28 Burleigh 7.

29 Smith, Zadie. “Generation Why?” The New York Review of Books. NYREV Inc., 25 Nov. 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

30 Ibid 13.

31 Flynn, Kerry. “Silicon Valley Isn’t the Only Tech Scene with a Gender Diversity Problem.” Business Insider. IBT Media, 27 July 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

32 Rao, Leena. “Meet the Woman Trying to Fix Silicon Valley’s Diversity Problem.” Fortune. Time Inc. Network, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 May 2016.

33 McCue, Matt. “Intel’s $125 Million Plan to Shake up White, Male Silicon Valley.” Fortune. Time Inc. Network, 9 June 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

34 Ibid.

35 Dickey, Megan Rose. “Silicon Valley Could Gain $25 Billion by Narrowing Gender Gap.” TechCrunch. AOL Inc., 7 Apr. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

36 The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United States. Rep. McKinsey Global Institute, Apr. 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2016.

37 Ibid 10.

38 Ibid.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid 7.

41 Porter 1.