Geertjan's Blog

  • November 19, 2014

Few Women Want To Be Programmers Because Few Male Programmers Are Kind

Geertjan Wielenga
Product Manager

While at Devoxx a week or so ago, the discussion about "why there are not more female programmers" was held, yet again. The abstract of the BOF that was held on this topic starts off with: "It feels like women still are strongly underrepresented in the Java ecosystem. It is even worse than in the JavaScript or Python world." Etc. And then there's the usual discussion about why this might be, about how to get more involved, how to participate in projects, about mentoring programs, about needing to have more women speakers at conferences, etc etc.

In another session, rather oddly, I learned that balloons and cupcakes are needed. At first, I looked with raised eyebrows at the guy that I was attending the session with, and we both silently mouthed something like: "Wow, there would be an OUTCRY if a male programmer were to stand on that stage and say that there need to be cupcakes and balloons in order to bring women to programming conferences." (And he'd be blacklisted from speaking ever again at any conference anywhere in the world, on any topic at all, which as far as I know has never ever happened before, making for the shortest blacklist ever.) It was, however, a female programmer on the stage (with an atypical speaker background, i.e., not from the US or EU, so some cultural differences were the basis of the perspective I believe), who also talked about a need for daycare facilities at conferences, as a precondition for more women attendees.

I've thought more about this and in my humble opinion the balloons and cupcakes theory is closer to the mark than one might think. There is a pervasive curtness and to-the-pointness and a OK-I'll-help-you-but-you-better-not-waste-my-time-by-showing-you're-an-idiotness that is more than apparent throughout the developer community, regardless of the language or the technology, i.e., in the Java community, in the Python community, in all kinds of developer communities.

Myself included! I'm often very direct and curt and might more often than not come across as being unkind, in the context of my work within various, primarily Java, developer communities. And that's simply because I want to get the job done, help out, give advice, and then move on to the next thing to work on, or to help with, or to give advice on. "Being nice", smiling, being patient, etc, are always secondary to those aims. No matter how much you, if you're a male, reading this, are now thinking to yourself: "Well, speak for yourself. I'm pretty kind and I smile a lot," I don't believe you. I believe you're hurried and when you're hacking with someone, you want to work quickly, with a lot of speed, you want to hurriedly fix one thing, and then hurry on to another thing, you want to quickly add new features, and fix bugs, and there's time pressure, all the time.

In fact, the real question is, therefore not "Why do so few women want to be programmers?" The question, the real question, is: "Why do so many men want to be programmers", given this unkind (yes, yes, you're helpful, but you're hurried, you're on the clock, no time for cupcakes, and you think balloons at conferences are ridiculous, proving my point) ecosystem?

In short, the programming world is a pretty fast paced environment, in which you need to move fast and accurately, where you tend to get looked down upon when making mistakes, code fast, and do everything else fast. The point isn't that women aren't up to those tasks, I'm sure they are. But why would they want to be? So the question is why do men not find this environment so problematic that they choose to stay far away from it? The only exception to all this that I know of is mob programming, as explained to me by the wonderful Woody Zuill, which is a very kind environment, embracing of newbies and supportive from the beginning of the day to the end:

To me, a BOF worth having on this topic should not have any women in it, as every year at Devoxx and so many other conferences. Instead, there should be a BOF aimed at men (myself included!) and about being kinder, with a title like "Towards a Friendlier Developer Community". There's something seriously wrong with men (as well as the few women who are in the various developer communities) that we tolerate the unkind, intimidating, impatient, macho attitudes that pervade the software industry, as well as so many other industries, I might add.

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Comments ( 17 )
  • guest Wednesday, November 19, 2014

    "I've thought more about this and in my humble opinion the balloons and cupcakes theory is closer to the mark than one might think."

    I hardly think there is a lack of young women going into computer science because they have decided that programmers are unfriendly. They have most likely not met any/enough to have any idea on that, and those they have were extremely unlikely to have been in a work environment.

    Personally I think it's obvious the problem is their perception of being a programmer in that they do not see themselves as being a "geek" or a "nerd" - two commonly applied descriptions of programmers which can carry with them somewhat negative social (and perhaps hygienic) stereotypes, something which I'd say troubles young men less than young women.

    "There is a pervasive curtness and to-the-pointness and a OK-I'll-help-you-but-you-better-not-waste-my-time-by-showing-you're-an-idiotness"

    Only amongst those pathetically and misguidedly assuming this kind of behaviour establishes themselves some level of credibility (typically young men thinking they are on the "way up"), but that applies to every field, not just programming.

  • guest Wednesday, November 19, 2014

    Not all women are cupcake girls. Some just want to be respected for their work and be as efficient and driven as any of their male coworkers.

    While there are definitely the sterotypical cupcake girls that society continues to reinforce, not all women are like this. The real problem is that a women should not be defined by sterotypical assumptions. Not all women are nice nor do we have to be nice we just want to get work done.

    Often times what I see and have experienced is that smart women are not given the same opportunities that men are given. Think back and reflect on how you would feel to be held back not given challenging projects beacause of your geneder, race, ethinicity, etc... it sucks! We all want to contribute to society and have impact.

  • Geertjan Wednesday, November 19, 2014

    Hi, guest1 -- my blog entry was precisely about terms such as "I think it's obvious" and "Only amongst those pathetically and misguidedly", etc. I.e., it's a question of tone. Can we be kind, please. :-) Me too, of course. Indeed, I do believe there is a lack of women going into computer science because no warmth at all comes from the computer science industry. It strikes me as odd why men want to be part of this industry, that's the point of this blog entry.

    Hi, guest2 -- "cupcake girls" is your term, not mine. :-) Indeed, everyone wants to be respected for the work they do. Yes, we do all want to contribute to society and have an impact. But why would one want to be part of an industry (and there are many such industries) where unkindness is the norm? It's a pretty intimidating segment of the workforce, that's really all I'm saying. And how can we make it friendlier?

  • Angelo D Thursday, November 20, 2014

    Hi Geertjan, I suggest you ro read: "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus".

    Of course, since we do not have time, you can read the summary: http://www.wikisummaries.org/Men_Are_From_Mars,_Women_Are_From_Venus.


  • Andy Bailey Thursday, November 20, 2014

    In my many years as a developer I have learnt that

    - a lot of the younger generation of developers simply lack a lot of social skills

    - that one-upmanship rears its ugly head all too often

    - men are too competitive to be cooperative but..

    - having worked in a successful cooperative environment don't want to go back

    Anyone with the requisite skills can become successful in their chosen field, regardless of gender. Given the stereotypes and perceived social aspect in the profession is it hardly surprising that many people would be put off from joining us.

    I don't think being kind is the key, being respectful and honest are more pertinent. Having worked with some truly socially deficient people in this profession I am not surprised that we are missing out on so much potential talent.

    Cup cakes? No, that is swinging the pendulum too far. Creating a congenial and comfortable workplace? Yes please!

  • Geertjan Thursday, November 20, 2014

    Andy, I remember being at university (where I studied law and political science and things like that) and walking past the computer science lab, where various people were working late into the night, no warmth at all coming out of that lab, every one of those developers focused on their screens, typing away rapidly, with their backs to the world at large. No warmth at all. Had there been "balloons and cupcakes", i.e., not these actual things, but something that exudes some kind of warmth, a friendly inviting atmosphere, I would certainly have walked in (and would have been able to discover that programming is something really fun and enjoyable, which I only discovered 10 years later by accident on my own). And, again, notice that this has nothing to do with male/female or gender or anything like that. What can we do to make the world of computer science more friendly and inviting so that those that may not be aware that they can contribute to it can begin to understand its relevance and the role they can play?

  • Andy Bailey Thursday, November 20, 2014

    Geertjan, I studied CS at Uni so I was one of those stuck in the CS Lab racing to get projects done or, far more likely, playing games at that time of night.

    What they do not teach enough of in Higher Education is how to work in teams where the end result is not judged by the end product but how you got there.

    In the race to get a decent grade 90% of your work is done in solitude and, because your final degree grade depends on you doing better than the others, the last thing most students want to do is help others with their work. On the other hand, asking for help falls on deaf ears unless you ask someone outside of your peer group.

    Added together these make for potentially CS graduates who have little idea of how to work in groups and worse, getting them to work in teams is hard work because you have to show them how to do it.

    Strangely enough, newly minted female graduates in whatever discipline tend not to have these social "anti patterns" built into them when they start a career.

    If you want to have decent human beings studying CS etc. then the courses should include not just collaborative work but also how to collaborate. There should also be compulsory Mentor programmes too.

  • Gurce Friday, November 21, 2014

    Hmm, cupcakes and balloons... Making computer programming fun again... That's a nice idea :) I guess it's a bit of an aside from the main topic, but I'm in the mood to elaborate.

    It makes me yearn for the 1980's, being a child again, picking up and reading those very colourful, cartoon-filled Usborne series of computer books for kids. Here are some examples:


    They were delightful and exciting, filling me with enthusiasm, all thanks to a bit of colour and cuteness.

    My mother appreciated the influence that series of books had on me so much, that she wrote to the Usbourne publishing company asking if they had any such books for young kids now, as she would love to buy them for her grandson too.

    They were very flattered to receive the letter (the hand-written, snail mail variety), but sadly had to inform her that their writers can't keep up with all the varieties of pc's/hardware/languages in order to write a similar book in this day and age.

    Alas, where did all the colour go... I miss it :(

  • Pierluigi Vernetto Saturday, November 22, 2014

    frankly I believe women are more attracted to jobs entailing more social interaction... many men are quite happy to stare at a screen a whole day without uttering a single word, while this lifestyle doesn't suit much most women...

  • Dorine Flies Sunday, November 23, 2014

    As to the question why there are not more ladies In CS, I really don't think image has much to do with it but more a case of finding a need to "Code" in the first place and maybe community, perhaps where the balloons and cupcakes perspective came from. I work with Geeky kids, tomorrow's engineers and the ones that progress follow a pattern, they get obsessed about solving the challenge or problem and those simply tend to be the boys. The girls find it interesting but then go on to ask what's the point in coding before they choose to or not put more time into this vs. the boys who just get on with it.

    This is not to say girls can't or won't and there are lots of good female software engineers out there so perhaps it has more to do with a mindset, as a way of thinking then gender?

    And as to being curt to the point of being rude, well yes ok in the none technical world it is but, within our ranks as peers it's frankly a necessity, if everything is awesome and nice, how are we to get better? And are we not able to solve just about anything with the help of a few friends who understand where we are with honesty coming from? You just have to get over the fact it is not exactly personal that curtness and more a wish to help you step up to the plate, even if it comes out as frustration at your inability to understand something basic being shared with you?

    I've come to technology as a second career and I would rather have 10 engineers as my friends who bluntly told me what's what, then 100 saying everything is awesome as I can't improve on awesome ;)

  • Karen Bognich Monday, November 24, 2014

    And then there are those of us women Java programmers that feel exactly about our work as you do -- no time for hand-wringing over being "nice", no need for a Christmas cookie exchange to feel like work is rewarding. I can attest first-hand that we exist. Let's not make it about gender. It's about interest, ability, and having the right kind of brain wiring. I run circles around other programmers on a daily basis, and since most programmers are male, well...

    Now, this said, I entered the field 25 years ago, having graduated with a music performance degree and knowing very little about computers in general. I taught myself programming and I worked my up from the VERY VERY bottom. The timing and circumstances were right for me. I loved programming. I am suited for it and along with my work ethic, this enabled me to compensate for the lack of a formal programming education. I do wonder whether I might have been discouraged if I'd come up via a traditional male-dominated college software engineering program, and I'm not sure the same opportunities exist today for an inexperienced and untrained person to work in the programming field without that educational background. But, there are many paths, not all of which include a strong dependency on the kindness of mentors. I think independence in learning is even more important. You have to be able to work successfully with others, but you also have to be able to figure things out fairly well on your own. That's not a super-tall order, regardless of gender.

    But honestly, I think focusing on improving work environments by offering challenging projects, competitive compensation, and ample opportunities for motivated employees to advance is a better overall tactic for attracting programmers of both genders. Ensuring a work environment free of hostility toward minorities in general (not just women) is, of course, a basic requirement, but most of us do this kind of work because we love it and because it pays well (not necessarily in that order). So, I guess no cupcakes and balloons for me. :)

  • Nestor Hernandez Tuesday, November 25, 2014

    Honestly, IMO the simple reason that there are few girls in technology is that they don't like it. Just simple, a great proportion of girls are interested in other fields: Administration, Health, Bussiness, etc.

    When I was studying I've seen many girls hating coding activities, at the end when graduated the few girls that stayed in career (many of them abandoned) looked for activities like teaching, system analysis, documentation, and other activities related to technology but not really tied to software development.

    After all, should we worry?, Is there someone worried for the few men in nursing?

    Just to be clear: I think that men and women have the same degree of capabilities and potential, but sometimes persons choose their vocation and we should not force to opt for other things that they don't like.

  • guest Monday, January 26, 2015

    Instead of just guessing why, or what, you think women are thinking, why not just ask them. It's more efficient and more accurate than guessing.

    Balloons and cupcakes are for birthday parties. Usually kids' birthday parties, but sometimes, or a lot of times, depending where you work, your coworkers will decorate your cubicle for your birthday, and they seem to do this for both men and women equally.

    What I see on the Internet, are a lot of blogs where men are trying to guess what women want or think. Instead, why don't you just ask them? (remember the fallacies of hasty conclusion? and how that is an illogical fallacy?)

    There are men who are not in tech field. Look around you, not every man you know is a programmer, why? Why do men not go into the field?

    I see male truck drivers, male construction workers, male landscapers, male janitors, male teachers, male professors, male garbage collectors, male doctors, male receptionists, male security guards, male policemen, male writers, male store managers, male flipping burgers at McDonalds, male waitresses, male bartenders, male farmers, male wrestlers, male models all the time. So CLEARLY, a lot of males are not attracted to the field either.

    The question to me is, if men are so naturally gifted in STEM, then why don't they take advantage of it. Think of how much more money they could make.

    Do a survey, and ask both males and females why they are not attracted to the field. Also, ask both males and females that ARE attracted, why are they? and what they like and what they don't like.

    It should be a controlled experiment to be fair, right?

  • guest Monday, January 26, 2015

    The problem is not that there are women not interested.

    The problem is that the women that ARE interested, are blocked.

  • guest Saturday, February 14, 2015

    Maybe I'm a little late here, but as a new graduate out of college, and female, I would be offended if someone catered to a stereotype for me. I have found other men to be welcoming and have no problem with mentoring along the way. Other women, however, often seem to be the problem. I went into programming because I like to solve problems, and if I'm wrong, there is a definite reason why, which i can solve through debugging and researching the issue. What I don't like is the general perception that men are gods when they fix a computer or write some working code. If i do it, and share my excitement on some breakthrough I made, it's a deer in headlights look or just completely ignored. Being a female programmer is isolating. It would be great to see more female programmers, but as a mom too, it's frustrating to see the lack of toys directed at girls that focus on technology and engineering. For real change to happen, it has to be a cool thing for girls to like technology(marketing needs to change) and women need to be more willing to talk about technology.

  • Geertjan Sunday, February 22, 2015

    Thanks all for the comments. Interesting that this article and the statistics it describes completely supports the assertions in the blog entry I wrote:


  • guest Tuesday, April 12, 2016

    Hi. A bit late to the party here but I also am a female software developer currently planning my exit from the field.

    The reason for that is the general isolation and the feeling of truly being looked down upon due to my gender. It is not too bad and I could easily ignore it and continue, but since I have other options too, I just don't want to.

    In all of my workplaces I have almost always been the only girl around and never really fitted in. I also find familiar the scenario described above, where men seem to be getting praise for solving even the simplest tasks but women do not get the same praise unless they do something really mindblowing.

    In conclusion there are women in all the male-dominated fields, but the issue is that these women are very good. Why is that an issue? Well, women have to be super-good to even compete for the same positions as mediocre men get to compete for just for being men. I am sorry if it offends someone, but I am just sharing my perspective. A typical male-dominated field: all sorts of men, good, bad and mediocre + a few super hardworking/talented females.

    We will only have achieved true equality when mediocre women also get to all the positions mediocre men are in today. Sound weird, but to me it seems so.

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