The Strong Bias Against Women in Coding

By: Alia Hoyt
women programming
Women are often discriminated against in coding HowStuffWorks

Headlines in recent years asked why the percentage of women majoring in computer science had dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 18 percent in 2010. Now, new research provides one answer. A study shows that women's peers are less likely to accept their coding even when their work product is just as good as (or better than) a man's.

A team from California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University took on the behemoth issue of gender bias by way of GitHub, a collaborative software development site with 10 million users, only about 1.4 million profiles of which are identifiable by gender. Users can make software code suggestions, called "pull requests," to projects being managed by other members.


Data analyzed by the researchers found that pull requests offered by female programmers whose gender was publicly available were only accepted 62.5 percent of the time, as compared with a 71.8 percent acceptance rate from women whose gender was not known.

This is in stark contrast with the overall numbers, which suggest higher acceptance of pull requests made by women whose gender was unknown, but who'd already developed a solid reputation on previous projects (78.6 percent accepted), as compared with those made by men in the same boat (74.6 percent accepted).

"Surprisingly, our results show that women's contributions tend to be accepted more often than men," the researchers explain in the study, which they say will soon be peer-reviewed. "However, when a woman's gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless."

We spoke with a few women in the field to get their thoughts on the study. As expected, the experiences were varied, though most agreed they had experienced bias.

Alexandra Anghel, is CTO and founder of the online platform Appticles, and has more than 10 years' experience as a developer. She's gone gender-neutral on sites like Stack Overflow (a Q&A community for programmers). "I didn't have a profile photo when creating my account, and, after adding it, I saw that people were not accepting my answers anymore and their comments were becoming meaner and meaner," she says in an email.

Leslie June, an experienced coder with BitCookie concurs. "I evade a lot of bias as I stay anonymous whenever I can, but I have certainly experienced the bias in person," June says via e-mail.

Lookmai Rattana, a developer with two years' experience would agree with that statement. "The only time I have experienced a gender bias was when I used to attend hackathon events. People seemed to always assume I was the designer/creative of the team, rather than being one of the developers," she says via email. "That some people wouldn't even consider that I might be a developer kinda hurts more than assuming that I'm not good at the job."

The very nature of coding might be partly to blame for this ladies-second attitude. "Coding itself has a competitive aspect that isn't as present in other industries. While many businesses rely on the communal efforts of a team, coding is very personal, independent, isolating work," June explains. Plus, "the perception that coding is a male-dominated industry is still pervasive, which leads to gender bias in and out of the community."

But software engineer Priscilla Rodriguez doubts that the bias issue is as dire as some believe. "In my opinion other industries are way harder on female workers than in coding," she emails. "Other professional industries often give preferential treatment to men over women, but in my experience, coding has [a] pretty even playing field."

Interestingly, it's not clear whether men are always the problem portion of the equation. "In the present paper, we haven't looked at the gender of the person responding to the pull request," researcher and North Carolina State associate professor of computer science, Emerson Murphy-Hill, notes. "We've done some preliminary analysis on that, and it looks like women are harder on women, and men are harder on men. But this analysis doesn't take into account whether the genders are visible."

Several of the female developers pointed out that the answer to the problem is for more women to enter the field so it won't be so surprising to see a female coder, or accept suggestions from her. 

"The more women in the field, the less shocking it will be to anyone, and the more normalized it will become. Just like doctors — no one is surprised by a female doctor anymore," emails Ann Gaffigan, CTO for National Land Realty. "I do think the answer is for us to be confident in our work, and to not apologize for being female."