The Real Reason More Women Don’t Code

The Real Reason More Women Don’t Code

I menstruate, and I code. I share this perhaps shocking personal information in the interest of full disclosure, and in solidarity with a new satirical campaign from Girls Who Code. The campaign proposes a simple explanation for the current low numbers of women in tech: that our hormonal cycles interfere with our ability to code.

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Other explanations offered up in the campaign include that women can’t code because their boobs get in the way or their long eyelashes make it hard to see the screen.

These explanations are obviously ridiculous and therein lies the point. For example, if women can’t code because they menstruate then there isn’t much we can do.

After all, menstruating is part of our basic female biology. If it prevents us from concentrating, or thinking rationally, or coding … what hope do we have?

According to the Australian Computer Society’s recent figures, only 28% of all ICT jobs are held by women in Australia, and the proportion is even lower for specifically technical roles in ICT.

So there is certainly a basis for wondering whether there is a fundamental reason that women are so underrepresented in IT and computing roles.

But I’m not convinced that the latest campaign from Girls Who Code is asking the right question. “Why can’t girls code?” is a question that starts from the assumption “girls can’t code”. Is this really the prevailing attitude?

Boys v girls

There is, certainly, evidence that boys favour other boys when estimating the performance of their peers in science class.

There is also evidence specifically from the open-source software community that there is bias against accepting code produced by women, despite the overall high quality of their contributions.

Anecdotally, most technical women can share a story of a situation where their work wasn’t taken seriously.

Dr Maria Milosavljevic, National Manager Innovation & Technology and Chief Information Officer at Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), told me how when she was the only girl in a year 12 computer science class, every boy in the class offered to “help” her with her assignments because they assumed that she would need their help.

The implication seems to be that if boys don’t accept that girls can code, then girls can’t code. To me, that’s horribly paternalistic.

Worse yet is the idea that female biology is not suited to coding, an idea that was recently floated (seriously, I fear) citing a 1999 study of 15 people that identified brain differences between men and women.

Surely, there are biological differences between men and women. Periods, brain structure and so on must exclusively determine what women enjoy doing and what we are good at. Right?!

Girls can code

Let’s start from the default assumption that girls can, in fact, code. There is nothing in our biology that is preventing us from being able to learn how to code.

There are plenty of examples that this is the case – after all, the proportion of women in technical roles is not 0%. And there have been some very high profile female computer scientists, including arguably the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852); the developer of the early COBOL programming language, Grace Hopper; her syster’s keeper Anita Borg, and Google’s first female engineer, now Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer.

Here in Australia, Kay Thorne was one of the early programmers of the CSIRAC computer nearly 60 years ago.

So, I think a better question is, “Why don’t (most) girls code?”.

This is a question that has been explored many times, and even one that I have written about previously.

It is generally seen as a pipeline problem, with the challenge being getting girls interested in coding. The solutions proposed involve developing engaging opportunities for learning and creating with tech, demystifying coding and boosting confidence, and highlighting female role models.

Girls Who Code, Code like a girl, Go Girl, Go for IT and Tech Girls are Superheros are all organisations working to create these opportunities.

The truth behind the employment numbers is more complex than that pipeline, however.

While we know that enrolments of females in ICT courses at tertiary level lag behind males, we also know from research done at Harvard that even if women enter employment in ICT, they don’t always stay there.

Beating the ‘brogrammer’ culture

There have been accusations of a “brogrammer” culture in tech that is hostile to women.

Microsoft got into trouble earlier this year for organising a party at a developer event featuring half-naked dancing women, highlighting that even companies that have worked to support women in tech still lose their way sometimes.

Which brings us full circle back to our biology and the idea that girls can’t code. Yes, women are different from men. Yes, women certainly can code.

On the other hand, women don’t want to face sexism or misogyny in the workplace, behaviour which is driven primarily by their biology. If girls are getting the idea that they can’t code, simply because they are girls, then it’s no wonder that they don’t see coding as a viable career path.

So maybe they don’t code because someone makes them feel that they can’t.

The Girls Who Code campaign oversimplifies a complex problem, and it delivers a message with nuances that may be lost on the people who need most to understand them.

But it has provoked a question about the connection between biology and cultural attitudes towards women in tech that is worth considering. Period!

Karin Verspoor, Associate Professor, Department of Computing and Information Systems, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • Why do people keep citing that single, non-peer reviewed study into GitHub pull requests to show that there’s a serious bias against female coders? Here’s a great rebuttal indicating that the results need to be treated with caution:

    Unlike many people who will respond to this article, I do believe that gender has SOME impact on employment outcomes and salaries. It’s not the only factor, and it’s not something to be exclusively blamed on men in the workforce, but it’s one part of the story. However, if people (especially academics originally writing on The Conversation) keep writing articles on gender bias while citing questionable material supporting their arguments, they look unreliable and give readers an excuse to reject the claim in its entirety.

    Do these writers want to FIX issues of gender inequality, or just complain about it?

    • Actually, I’d just appreciate a straight answer on what they want equality of?
      Is it equality of rights?
      Is it equality of opportunity?
      Is it equality of outcome? (Which outcome? What inequalities are you willing to enact to get that outcome?)

  • The chip-on-shoulder brigade needs to get into their skulls that males and females are different, and it’s okay to be different. It doesn’t mean superior or inferior, it just means different. This of course means that, being different, they will have different approaches, different preferences, different needs, etc. And again, that is perfectly okay.
    There are some things that appeal more to males and other things that appeal more to females – still not a problem. In general, coding and IT appeals more to males than females, so we get a higher proportion of males in that line of work. This is not a problem. What is a problem is trying to push women into things they don’t want purely for the sake of some political agenda.

    • If someone pushed me into nursing because they needed more men… I would be outraged! And I would take offence. It’s a very fascist way of looking at things.

      In saying that, I voluntarily entered a female dominated industry. I’m part of the 28% of males in my field and in no way do I expect articles like this to come out urging more men into the field.

      • Because no women have ever wanted to code without being ‘pushed’ into it. I mean, it’s not like women pioneered software engineering, invented the compiler or programmed the first computer or anything like that.

        The reason that there are more men than women in ICT is inherently sociological rather than biological. I mean, really, are you implying that men have somehow evolved within two generations to be biologically inclined towards coding?

        • When I was 10, I decided I wanted to program. So did my wife. I didn’t meet her until many years later (and we both still program, despite stupid headlines like this article designed to incite gender wars).
          The reality is that neither of us were encouraged, we did what we wanted to do – no persuasion, so social bias. Nobody had the first clue – the idea of technology either inspired you or it didn’t in the early days.
          I totally reject there should or must be 50% of any gender in anything. However, if someone who WANTS to is denied the opportunity, then they have a right to protest. This message has been lost with aggressive sexism in media which is very one sided.
          I thought this article showed more intelligence than many similar articles, despite the click bait headline.
          I’m still waiting for LifeHacker to address sexism in the media – it’s all a 1 way street. How many times has domestic violence been called a male thing, yet not one single objection ever – despite this being the most vile and sexist thing I’ve ever heard in my life. This article was less sexist than most of the sexist articles at LH, but it’s still sexist.

        • 1: Straw-man fallacy.
          2: Annecodatal fallacy.
          3: Unsupported claim.
          4: Straw man fallacy.
          Hayley, it’s this repeated inability to argue feminism legitimately that leads me to a severe risk of committing the fallacy fallacy.

          • Maybe you should sit back and ask yourself why you’re so threatened about the idea of women in STEM, because you seem to have a real issue with it.
            It’s really not worth “arguing feminism” with you in any case, since you don’t seem to actually be able to construct a valid argument in the first place.

          • 1: Ad Hominem.
            2: I directly refute your claim that I cannot make an argument, by providing the following argument.

            Premise1: Fallacious arguments do not validly support a claim.
            Premise 2: Unsupported claims should not be accepted.
            Premise 3: Deliberate fallacious argumentation is dishonest.
            Conclusion1: When Hayley make a fallacious argument, the claim she wishes to support is not supported.
            Conclusion 2: When Hayley make a fallacious argument, Hayley demonstrates either a failure to understand honest argumentation, or a willingness to argue dishonestly.

            Is your argumentation ready to exit the schoolyard?
            If so, please define what feminism seeks to equalise, and we’ll have an adult discussion about that.

        • Why is it a problem that there are more men than women in ICT?
          Will you be writing a piece about why it’s a problem that there are more women in [insert field] than men?

  • “every boy in the class offered to “help” her with her assignments because they assumed that she would need their help”

    Umm no (and isn’t that an assumption in itself) As a male I can say with utmost certainty that it wasn’t assumption of help, it was boobs. I am often ashamed of the actions of my gender, but its plain and simple. Put 20 geeks in a room, they’re going to hang off the one girl with similar interests and do anything to spend more time, even if its the one thing she hates the most. Because stupid.

  • In general, coding and IT appeals more to males than females, so we get a higher proportion of males in that line of workThe question is though, is that really the case or is it that girls DO want to do that line of work but feel they can’t or shouldn’t? I know from my own experience I desperately wanted to work with computers from a young age, but was told by parents and teachers that ‘computers were for boys, not girls’, and so ended up forcing myself into various different careers that I hated but were considered ‘correct’ choices for a female. I did eventually go back to university, study I.T. and land myself a role as a software developer so now am really happy for what feels like the first time in my life – I’m right where I have always wanted to be. If the gender equality push for women in I.T. was around when I was a kid who knows where I’d be by now.

    Not saying my experience is typical of course, but I do think it’s worth investigating the truth behind the statistics before writing the whole thing off as a political agenda. The same should apply to industries that are generally female-dominated, to ensure that boys that grow up wanting to be nurses or teachers or childcare workers have the same opportunities.

    • Hopefully the attitudes you’ve described are changing for the better, but they make clear that the solution must extend beyond token diversity requirements and angry op-eds to getting parents and teachers to encourage girls who are interested in playing with computers to do so.

      And thank you as well for pointing out the need to do the same for boys who want to enter traditionally ‘feminine’ industries. So many advocates for greater equality ignore the other side of the coin, but it really is necessary to get more boys into hitherto ‘female’ jobs to instigate widespread changes in attitudes. If not, we’ll either see little change at all or, worse, an oversupply of STEM/computer/management grads (both men and women) combined with a chronic undersupply of nursing, aged care and childcare workers.

    • In the IT programming field, are you advocating equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome?

      If it’s equality of opportunity you seek, why do you think you can monitor opportunity using outcome statistics?

      If it’s equality of outcome you seek, are you willing to instigate unequal opportunity to achieve that equal outcome?

  • Let’s put this way, coding is not for everyone. I am not saying, its impossible to learn, but it takes dedication and lots of time and practice.

    Coding is very technically challenging, some people struggle with technical things while others don’t. So saying that women can’t code because of their hormones is utter garbage.

  • I think the schism comes from the rather misguided notion that coding is THE work of “intelligent people”. While you certainly need a particular and elevated kind of intelligence to perform as a coder, it doesn’t mean that’s the only or main differential that separates coders from non-coders (of either genders). I’d say that it is a particular kind of personality which plays a bigger factor in making someone wanting to become a coder (and being successful at it). And I think that that’s a kind of personality more likely to develop in a man (for better and worse).

    While I definitely agree that there are some societal issues that discourage some women from coding and that need to be ironed out, I very much doubt they’d put a dent in the huge percentage difference in the numbers of men vs women coding. After all, if you are truly passionate about something, you’ll go and do it, the rest of the world be damned, and so have several women done in the past. So it just comes to the fact that women naturally, for whatever chemical or psychological difference, are not so inclined and passionate about coding, as a whole. This is NOT a bad thing in the same way that it is not a bad thing that most men don’t find elementary teaching or nursing positions very attractive. And most important, it doesn’t mean that the one career is more important or intelligent than the other.

    Sometimes I worry than in this rat race of gender representation in careers where women want to prove that they are “as able” as men (which is true, but I argue, irrelevant) is mostly contributing to guilt and belittle the women who choose to follow their passion and strengths into traditionally women-dominated careers.

  • I’m puzzled as to just who exactly is saying women can’t code ?
    Whilst I understand the reasons why they might not want to, or feel isolated in the largely male dominated field, but there’s nothing stating women have an inability to code, for any reason, unofficial surveys notwithstanding.

    There’s been quite a few of these articles of late, and inevitably there’s some link to a study to ‘prove’ that men are hostile to women in X industry.
    What most of the reports cited from women who worked in these areas, was that most of the men were actually quite supportive, and that there was usually just one or two men that made their working environment unpleasant.
    Let’s get this clear – that’s not a man problem, that’s an arsehole problem, and every office suffers from one, whether it’s male or female.
    Men dislike them as much as women, but we often don’t have the luxury of dropping out of that environment, because it’s expected we continue to provide for our families/partners/children.

    “every boy in the class offered to “help” her with her assignments because they assumed that she would need their help.”
    I think a previous commenter nailed it, stating it was less about needing help and more about getting close to a girl, especially at that age.

    Under-representation ?
    Rather than cite some dubious market analysis study, who are trying to drum up extra work, let’s look at what the Govt says.
    Taken from the Workplace gender Statistics, dated Feb 2016: ” As a proportion of all employees, 24.7% are women working full-time”. and “35.7% of all full-time employees
    Despite that, they are doing quite well in leadership positions: “Women hold 14.2% of chair positions, 23.6% of directorships, as well as represent 15.4% of CEOs and 27.4% of key management personnel in Agency reporting organisations”

    So, less than a quarter of women are actually working fulltime, but for those that are, they hold 23% of directorships and nearly 30% of key management positions.

    You still want to talk about misrepresentation and imbalance ?

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