Is Frontend Web Development Sexist?

melissa mcewen
Dec 9, 2017 · 6 min read
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Earlier this week a judge threw out the class action lawsuit against Google for pay discrimination. Embedded within a larger case about pay discrimination, is a question about whether a subfield in tech, front end development, is gender-segregated and lower paying. It is a fascinating argument and one that requires some understanding of why software is divided into frontend and backend, and what that means for women.

For onlookers, frontend and backend are the two “main” types of software developers who make websites and web applications. It is a relic of back in the late 90s and early 00s when frontend was mainly governing the appearance of the website CSS, HTML, and a little Javascript, whereas back-end was roughly coding how the website interacted with databases in languages like PHP or .Net. This distinction hasn’t been relevant in probably over a decade, but it persists.

And the consequences are unfortunate and largely harm women. In the lawsuit, Kelly Ellis says that despite her background in backend development, Google assigned her to be a frontend developer, which had significant consequences for her career:

Google pays backend engineers more than frontend and fasttracks them for promotion. On the teams Ms. Ellis worked with and observed at Google, almost all backend software engineers were men. Almost all female software engineers, however, were frontend engineers.

The darker subtext of the divide between frontend and backend is that frontend is considered by many to be the “pretty window dressing”, whereas backend is the “real” development.

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From commitstrip, they have one for how frontend sees backend but I don’t think it has the same consequences professionally

Often companies have just developers and then frontend developers, as if the latter are not quite the real thing. Very few companies even classify people as backend formally though in practice they are treated this way.

There aren’t that many women in tech, but it’s generally recognized that we are disproportionately represented in the frontend field. Unfortunately it’s hard to pin down the numbers since a lot of surveys lump us together. Where we aren’t lumped together is in salary estimates, which almost always show frontend developers get paid less than backend or just “regular” web developers. Often writers make the mistake of comparing frontend to backend, but considering back end is considered just a “regular” developer or another arcane classification (like DevOps) it’s a bit more stark. Glassdoor reports the average web developer make $87,661, a frontend developer $76,300. Advance in your career and it gets worse– senior frontend developers make an average of $98,560, and regular senior web developers make $113,601.

It also varies a lot with different parts of the industry. For example, Robert Half reports that in the creative sector, the median frontend developer in Chicago makes $89,846, whereas the median for just “web developer” is $121,030. I know this also anecdotally because until recently I was a web developer in Chicago in the creative sector.

It’s funny because while I started in web development mainly doing frontend as a hobby, when I went into the field professionally I was even more backend than the backend developers. I did server and network administration stuff and then later as that field changed, virtual machines. I probably would have made a pretty good DevOps engineer — a backend role. But when I tried to go back into software, I had to struggle against the perception I was frontend. At tech events, people often assume I’m frontend. I’m pretty sure it’s not because of the way I dress. I’m almost positive it’s because I am a woman.

Discussions with other women in tech confirmed they also experienced this. On a women in tech group I’m part of it’s generally recognized that a common practice is to hire women as backend software devs and then only assign them only frontend work. We call it the “frontend bait and switch.”

This happened to me constantly. Or I’d interview with a company and the recruiter would be like “oh so you’re applying for the frontend role?” even though I never said I would and made sure to never mention frontend languages or frameworks.

Besides the pay gap, there is a prestige gap between frontend and backend, a bias that frontend isn’t as challenging and therefore less prestigious. This bias persists even though software engineering has changed dramatically since it was divided into those two categories. Back when I started software development, Javascript really was mainly used on the frontend and was kind of looked down upon by the back-end developers. Now it is used throughout the stack, mainly thanks to Node.js.

Also frontend development changed itself. Now very few frontend developers even work with CSS or HTML directly. They mainly work with frameworks such as Vue.js and React.js that are JS-based stacks that eventually do render as CSS/HTML/JS in the browser, but the journey there is more complicated. I make fun of React worship sometimes but the view that React is prestigious and “good” has done a lot in making frontend more prestigious.

The hilarious thing is though React has changed perceptions, frontend was never less hard. React is way easier than the frontend stuff I did 8 years ago making shit work in IE 6.

What hasn’t changed is some of the attitudes towards frontend among non-developers such as managers, HR, and recruiters. These people still often consider frontend “less hard.” It often makes it hard for us to get promoted and paid more.

It also means that once you are considered “front end,” it is hard to escape. I had to get my manager to fight for me against a resource manager that considered me “just a frontend developer” to get on a Node.js project. My manager knew that what mattered was the language (Javascript) more than the part of the stack it was on, but it was harder to convince the resource manager.

I imagine it’s pretty hard to convince a judge too. The lawsuit’s claim seems to rest on asserting that the skills and qualifications for backend and frontend are the same, but said this did not prove the work was “equal.” Proving they are equal would be critical to making claims under the Equal Pay Act. And I imagine that would be a bit difficult, though if I had to explain to a judge I’d emphasize that they are mostly the same these days in practice.

I was annoyed last time a recruiter tried to track me into frontend because I’d made such an effort getting the back-end stuff on my resume and leaving out the frontend. So he had two “tests” to take: frontend or backend. I chose the backend. Which was foolish because there isn’t just a backend anymore. The assignment was to build an app and noted that you could use Bootstrap, a popular set of styles that you can just stick on an app, for the frontend. But Bootstrap gives you only a tiny fragment of the “front end.” It makes your app look OK, but those pretty Bootstrap buttons don’t do anything.

I did the app in Meteor and it’s impossible to do a Meteor application without knowing and using a frontend framework. You need those buttons to make things happen with a database, and a lot of those interactions are now governed by a front end framework like React. It’s that way with many popular web application development frameworks these days.

Professional perceptions of frontend are changing, but changing slowly. Frontend salaries are finally catching up to back-end, especially in Silicon Valley. But they still lag elsewhere. When young women at tech meetups ask me what they should do, I tell them to only pursue frontend if that’s what they really love, because otherwise they are adding obstacles to their career before it even starts. Though frankly, you may not get a choice. You might find yourself assigned to frontend anyway.

Right now we are reaching the point where we should ask whether frontend and backend distinctions should continue to exist or whether they just reinforce outdated and often sexist stereotypes.

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