Where are all the women software engineers?

Jean Jennings (left), Marlyn Wescoff (center), and Ruth Lichterman program ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania, c.1946.

Eighty per cent of Irish schoolgirls surveyed agreed that tech careers were attractive and rewarding. So why are only six per cent of software developers women?

An estimated 6–7 per cent of software developers globally are women. According to Ireland’s IDA, only a quarter of this country’s 117,800 STEM workers are women; 44 per cent of our secondary school students believe STEM subjects are more suited to boys than girls. Less than five percent of tech venture funding goes to women founders.

Square that with the 54 per cent female participation in 2014’s Young Scientist competition (and subsequent Google Science Fair glory for an all-girl team) and the fact that around 30 per cent of attendees at CoderDojos every Saturday have a pair of X chromosomes…

Tech companies appear to have figured out that women engineers and software developers are a good thing. Women-led private technology companies are more capital efficient, achieve 35 per cent higher return on investment and, when it comes to venture-backed businesses, deliver 12 per cent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies*. So what’s with the paucity of women?

Awareness is growing of women’s dominance of programming roles in the early days of computing; what people are trying to get to grips with is understanding why those numbers plummeted from the mid-80s, bringing us today’s low levels. The documentary Code: Debugging The Gender Gap points towards popular educational and corporate cultures — not just for discouraging women programmers, but for failing to recognise there’s talent out there in the first place. As director Robin Hauser Reynolds says, it’s human nature to identify with other people who are like us, to a degree where you simply stop noticing that what’s comfortable for you isn’t necessarily representative of the real world.

Blaming women’s lack of advancement on their over-use of the word ‘just’, you can see why some talented women just feel it’s not worth the schlep.

Difficult as it is for some people to admit it, tech still has a culture problem when it comes not only to attracting women, but retaining them — from booth babes to so-called brogrammers and into the more distasteful arena of Gamergate, tech can be an unwelcoming space for women. When you get a former Apple and Google exec blaming women’s lack of advancement on their over-use of the word ‘just’, you can see why some talented women just feel it’s not worth the schlep. As Code shows, the real challenge lies in striking a balance between calling out the bad behaviour while presenting tech as a rewarding career option to women of all ages.

To be fair, the more established tech companies have long since moved beyond lip service; VMWare in Cork has hosted diversity workshops to help people understand the role unconscious bias can play. Intel offers scholarships to girls intending to study technology subjects at university. IBM developer Niambh Scullion is one of the founders of the CoderDojo Girls movement — and the tech giant sponsors various events around the movement. Many workplaces are increasingly supportive of the kind of cultural changes that make women feel more welcome.

But as Pinterest developer Tracy Chou has written, ‘vanity metrics’ and talking things up won’t solve the problem. Chou’s been working to actually crunch the numbers on GitHub — you can take a look at (and, indeed, contribute to) her work here.

Maybe it’s time for some genuine visibility for the many women who are happy in their tech careers. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are close enough to being household names. But they’re not engineers. AMD CEO Lisa Su, Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek, VMWare’s Yangbing Li and Giant Spacekat founder Brianna Wu are, as are CEO of Fujitsu Ireland Regina Moran and Intel VP Ann Kelleher. Flextronics’ Caroline Dowling has a patent for developing integrated supply chain technology to her name.

The pipeline is there. Maybe if we heard these names more often — and outside the context of ‘women in technology’ events or blog posts like this one, it would help…

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