Last year I had the chance to go to San Francisco to attend the Apple WWDC. I won’t talk about the conference itself, except to say that one thing struck me about it that I still think about. In a conference with about 5,000 attendees, there must have been a maximum of maybe 250 women attending, about one-in-twenty. I think that’s being generous too.
Of course this bias amongst software engineers is no surprise to anyone in the industry, but I think addressing this deficit should be given some sort of priority. I have my reasons and it has little to do with principles of equality. Simply put, software engineering needs a gender balance so that we can get better at what we do. I’m going to use gender balance to generalize my points, but the argument applies to just about any division that we apply to ourselves as humans; race, socio-economic status, etc. as software engineering is basically dominated by white males.
To use an analogy, as an industry we need to foster “bio-diversity” amongst our developers. I can’t speak with any exact knowledge, and forgive me for painting with broad brushstrokes, but it is reasonable to speculate that generally there are qualities that women contribute to the industry that are unique and positive beyond the capabilities they have in common with their male counterparts. As much as I believe people should be treated as individuals on their individual merits, I think it is important to recognize the potential of having a more diverse human resource in the software engineering pool.
When I’ve broached the issue with (male) colleagues, they tend to shrug. You can’t magically attract people to something if they aren’t inclined towards it. This is true, but I’d like to suggest that the reason that women aren’t particularly attracted to programming is because the tools (including the languages) have been mostly written by men, and although it may not be intentional, their design and utility is geared towards male patterns of organisation and logic. Only recently has usability and accessibility for software interfaces become a priority. No one thinks about writing tools that are accessible too. As a result, I imagine the barrier of entry is generally higher for anyone who isn’t the person who wrote the tools, i.e. women.
I also don’t think there is anything wrong with the culture of software engineering that might be turning women away. Actually, I think that the professional culture amongst software developers is very inclusive and approachable. More so perhaps than other male dominated professions where women have a far greater foothold such as law and politics.
There is a real need for affirmative action on the part of industry. As software becomes even more pervasive there is a need to ensure that those creating it have the same breadth of diversity as those who are using it.
The view for the industry applies on the smaller scale of individual offices too. Sure you want someone who is a good fit for your company’s or team’s culture and you want someone who is capable, but you also need to assess whether having a single type of perspective on the work you are doing is a good idea. That’s why you shouldn’t hire me. You probably already have someone just like me on your team. In fact there’s a good chance that your whole software engineering team is probably just like me; male (and white).