Are Women Software Engineers Judged Differently On Their Work? I Asked People In The Tech Industry What They Thought About That Github Study
It has long been known that women working in tech and studying computer science struggle to be taken seriously, and now, we have more than anecdotal evidence to prove this is a problem. According to a recent study in PeerJ, Github users judge women's code more harshly. And that's not because it's worse; actually, when members don't know who wrote a code contribution, they're more likely to use code written by a woman. The difference only came when the users were aware that the code in question was written by a woman. Is this attitude reflected in women coders' day-to-day experiences? To find out, I asked several engineers how they felt about the study and overall perceptions of women in their field.
Women are vastly underrepresented in the tech industry, constituting one in six engineers at software companies, according to LinkedIn's data. Unfortunately, a recent study by the coding education company Bitsbox found that only three quarters of people believe there should be an equal proportion of men and women in tech. Like the Github study, this reflects the mistaken belief that there are fewer women in tech because women are less capable. In reality, biases against women in tech, as well as male-dominated work cultures fraught with workplace harassment and patronizing attitudes, tend to drive women away.
But don't take it from me — take it from people who are currently working in tech. Here's what coders had to say about the way women are judged in their industry.
1. It's All About Who You Know
"Personally knowing committers [people who contribute to projects on Github] helps considerably in getting your commit in — going out for drinks even more so," says one female engineer at a large software company. "Discussing your solution with them first helps even more. The [PeerJ] study cannot account for personal connections among men who are anyway the majority." The study did in fact find that women's code was only judged more harshly than men's when the evaluators didn't know the women.
The power of connections, however, can also work against women. One study presented at the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology found that women who succeed in business typically use personal connections, but most women aren't using this strategy. Due to disproportionate childcare responsibilities and feelings of exclusion from "old boys' clubs," women are less likely than men to participate in professional networking and bonding activities, perpetuating an atmosphere where men give one another preferential treatment.
2. Women Really Are Better Coders
One male software engineer at another major tech company was unsurprised that women on Github are judged more harshly — or that their code is considered better when their gender is unknown. "The code of the women on my team is more heavily scrutinized in code reviews than the code of the men," he says. But, he adds, "in the recent campus recruitment period, our team was more impressed with the average female than the average male engineer, and that was reflected in the new grads who received offers."
According to the authors of the PeerJ study, one possible reason women provide better contributions to Github projects is "survivor bias." When a system is rigged against a particular group, only the best members of that group will "survive" and succeed in that field. So, while men who received Bs in their computer science courses may have gone on to become engineers, only women who got As may have done the same, leading women engineers overall to be better at their jobs.
"Every female software engineer I ever met was way better than the average male," confirms another male software engineer at a well-known tech company who also teaches high school computer science. "We have four girls in the class out of 30. The girls are all doing better grades-wise. But none of them are aiming for a career in computer science. However, some of the boys, despite the worse grades, are trying harder... doing more computer-science-related work outside the classroom. They are spending their free time learning more. In the end, I see them more likely to come through the pipeline."
3. It's A Race And Class Issue Too
The software engineer and teacher quoted above also mentions that many of his lower-income and minority students probably won't have the chance to become engineers even if they have a propensity for the field. "These kids are smart. They simply don't have exposure," he says. "I have been trying so hard to get companies to notice and give them the opportunity to move up. 'These kids are not going to end up at Stanford' is an understatement... most are not going to college."
Race is in fact a huge issue in the tech industry, with African Americans constituting only one percent of software engineers at Facebook, Twitter, and Google, according to Bloomberg Business, and Native Americans so scarce and neglected in the industry that companies aren't even including them in their diversity data. Many of these racial issues come down to class disparities, with lower-income people unable to receive the education necessary to become engineers.
4. Companies Can Help Prevent Gender Bias
"There's a lot more work that needs to be done to support women in STEM," says one female founder and CEO of a tech company. "When we interview candidates, we give the same objective, technical coding tests to ensure that we eliminate any kind of bias." Experts on workforce diversity have also suggested setting a quota for how many women get interviewed for each position and keeping as much of the interview process as possible gender-blind. That won't make people judge men and women more equitably, but our biases aren't going away any time soon, and these steps could combat them in the meantime.