Why are there so few women programmers?

Women and Programming

Why are there so few women programmers? We might first excavate the stereotypes that probably float around in most of our minds, certainly in mine – not that I believe the stereotypes, but they still reside in my head. First, there’s the idea that women prefer being around other people, prefer human connection, and simply don’t enjoy thinking at a deeply abstract level. So crunching code, or doing math, for most women just isn’t their sort of thing. But I’m told by a friend who knows about such things that it’s largely a myth that women are bad at math – my friend says the research shows that through high school, women and men do the same at math. It’s only when you get to the higher reaches of college or grad school that women lose interest or turn off, or something happens.

(Full disclosure: my “friend” is my boyfriend of many years who has written a lot about gender and keeps me informed on these things.)

Lawrence Summers, the ex-president of Harvard and former Secretary of the Treasury, got into trouble for suggesting at a conference that women lacked the innate ability that men have in science and math, causing a famous woman biologist at MIT to abruptly walk out. Previous generations of women report having to struggle like mad to survive in the “man’s world” of the sciences.

Some people argue that discrimination and socialization are the two things that keep women out of science and math. I wonder if anyone can cite instances of discrimination against women in the computer sciences... I would bet it exists. Other people believe that from infancy, girls are more interested in people and boys are more interested in objects. Two famous developmental psychologists, Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke from Harvard, debate these issues.  Pinker thinks there are innate differences in both motivation and ability in men and women in relation to science; Spelke does not. One surprise: males show greater variance in intelligence at both ends of the spectrum. So there are more boys at the very low end of intelligence and at the high; hence, Pinker claims, there will be more men showing up at the high end, at the elite universities and as the big names in math and science, and presumably, in other fields as well. When it comes to intelligence, everyone is aware of the great brains, but few of us are aware of the other end of the spectrum, so we have no stereotypes of men as being dull, although we presumably would if our focus as a culture was on low intelligence.

As far as the way men treat women in the developer community, I can speak only about my experience working with male developers mainly inside Sun. I’ve interviewed and worked with many developers over the years, and they’ve treated me with the utmost respect, and in some cases, with considerable patience when I was slow to follow their train of thought. If the problem is a lack of respect for women among developers, I haven’t encountered it.

Enough babbling for now. More later if you're game. :) And, let me hear from you. Who are you? What are your interests? Hello World!


Hi Janice,

Especially poignant because, of course, the person credited as the first programmer was a woman: Ada Lovelace.

Ada was one of the few people who fully understood Charles Babbage's ideas about his Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine. She created a program for the Analytical Engine, which had the Analytical Engine ever actually been built, her program would have been able to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

More info. on Ada Lovelace here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace



Posted by Wayne Horkan on February 27, 2008 at 11:09 AM PST #

Having 2 daughters and a wife all majored in science or engineering, I can testify that women are absolutely no less, if even better, in Math than men.

Having taught all 3 of them programming, I am sorry to say that they are too smart for software engineering. You need a bit dogged stubbornness, particularly in the early phases, to hunt down those minutia in code. The women in my family all lost interest in that quickly. Boys, particularly teenagers, are a lot more "dogged" than girls.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on February 27, 2008 at 12:27 PM PST #

at first when I got into the tech field there really were no women around but now i am in a development group where the it's about 50-50. Having said that I think the main problem about getting women into the computer field is that they ( actually most everyone ) thinks it's only programming when that is not true - there are many other positions. One field that ,in general, women shine at is testing - women just have this way of getting everything in order down to the last detail. I think if women are shown that there are other disciplines in the computer industry they will show more interest.

Posted by Jv5181 on February 28, 2008 at 11:09 PM PST #

My wife is definitely better at math than I am! In fact, I think she'd make a great programmer.

Posted by Michael on March 09, 2008 at 07:37 AM PDT #

hi Janice,
I am prticularly happy about your post, thanks for this opportunity. I am an Entreprenuer in Training with a software development company in Ghana (a developing country in west africa). I cannot tell off hand how many women programmers there are in my country, but i'm pretty sure the number is very minimal. and i always get that second look when i mention that i'm a programmer in training.
In Ghana, the term progarmming is almost synonymous to the 'man', and its deemed to be a man's world.

In my organisation, there are 14 men and only three(3) young ladies. Gradually i believe the women programmers are gonna increase and we will rub shoulders with the men. but i must say that i have enjoyed quite a great deal of respect within the organisation.

Posted by Daisy Baffoe on April 10, 2008 at 02:19 AM PDT #

I beg all your pardons (I do have an excuse in that I was away on business/personal travel), for being super slow to respond to your most thoughtful and interesting comments to my blog. (I flunk badly Blogging 101 that says the blogger should be responsive to comments.) Thus, I'm going to respond to all your comments here (again my sincere apologies).

Here goes and thanks again--

Thanks Wayne for the reminder. I've read about Ada Lovelace --
Byron's daughter no less -- and the ambiguities regarding her
exact contributions, but it's clear she was very smart. I think
very smart women sometimes have to expend energy protecting male
egos, which may cut into their analytical juices. I wonder to what
extent there is a conflict between being what the world says is a
"good woman" and a good developer.

Thanks, Sin-Yaw Wang: Your comments are intriguing. I know what
you mean when you say boys are more "dogged" than girls and I
don't disagree with you. I wonder why though. Is it that
"dogged testosterone" that makes males more competitive and
ready to aggressively attack a problem, whereas equally
smart or smarter females don't feel that aggression? Is
it a matter of social conditioning that makes boys want
to be aggressive and girls afraid of it? I'm afraid we
have more questions than answers.

Thanks, Jv5181, I'd never heard that before about women's
gifts at testing. I wonder if anyone else can confirm your

Thanks Michael. Again, I wonder if it's the case that women
have equal brains but less motivation or interest to become

Thanks Daisy, so interesting to hear about Ghana
and your position there. I just got back from
travelling to Sun Tech Days events in both Australia and St. Petersburg, Russia, so have been thinking a lot about cultural differences and likenesses amongst developers globally. In both countries, the developer audience looked just like what
I see each year at the annual JavaOne event in San Francisco: a young and male group. In most respects, the developer audience looked the same to me at least in
each country. I guess that shouldn't surprise as businessmen often look the same worldwide. I say "men" because of the ubiquitous male-gendered \*business suit\* whereas
business women (having more options) dress with more variety. It will certainly be interesting to see if, when and where more women developers will appear on the scene...

Posted by Jan Heiss on April 15, 2008 at 09:21 AM PDT #

Here's a link that may help. Apparently, according to this article women programmers were among the majority when the field was first blossoming, but then the culture changed...see: http://makeworlds.org/node/146

Posted by Julianne Holroyd on September 14, 2009 at 05:17 AM PDT #

Thanks, Julianne. Very interesting information and news to me. Really appreciate you telling us about this.

Posted by Janice Heiss on September 15, 2009 at 03:27 AM PDT #

I was looking for information on women programmers when I can across this site. I am a woman programmer. I went back to school a year ago to enter the technology field as a programmer and hopefully get a reasonably paying job.

I am still a student, but in a coop term with a company that is pretty much all men. In school I was welcomed and respected, there were about 2 women to every 8 men and I did not see any disrespect from my professors or students around my age and younger.

I do see it in my workplace though. I am still a student so very nervous about making mistakes, and the technology I am working with is older so our courses didn't cover it. So there are plenty of times I ask for suggestions or guidance and am frequently talked down to or made to feel like I am being mocked.

Being a coop student I have no real sway in this company so I don't know who to talk to. I have been there two months, and am finally finding some individuals who recognize my contributions and value them, but I wish I didn't have the 3 days of the week where someone says a comment and simply ruins my whole day.

Unfortunately I signed a contract when I first started to stay on til the end of April, and I have considered trying to get out of it but am worried I will end up someplace worse.

I have always been interested in math and problem solving, but I am shy and senstive so it makes things hard. I think that is why I end up finding employment in other areas.

I really hope that all places of employment are not like this. I am also a single mom (to a fiercely smart daugher) so fighting at work all day to prove myself on top of going home and fighting to keep things together is exceedingly trying.

So I can see why many women might be interested in programming, but dissuaded because of happening into one of these enviroments, and having to deal with that all day and go home and take care of a family.

Posted by A.H on November 10, 2009 at 01:12 PM PST #

Hi A.H.,

Thank you for your posting, which makes it all too clear how far we have to go before women will receive the equal treatment they deserve in at least some technology companies. I do feel respected and supported working at Sun, but my role is that of a writer, so there the difference might reside. And some companies are far more enlightened and fair-minded than others. I think your posting also adds nuance, perception and subtlety to the concept of a hostile workplace. It’s very important to have allies in a workplace, people who understand you and know what you are experiencing and can offer support and perspective. It doesn’t have to be a woman in your case; I’ve known men who act as good allies to women in such situations. More often though, it is a woman...

It’s no fun feeling demeaned by your co-workers. Are there fellow workers you can talk to about this? There might be organizations that deal with women programmers who could help, if only as sources of support. And as you gain more skill, confidence and experience, people will show you more respect, which is a reason to stick it out.

Good luck and thanks again for sharing your experience. Your challenges really came across. Thanks for being so open.


Posted by Janice Heiss on November 20, 2009 at 04:32 AM PST #

Nice post. i am a software engineer myself...personally i wouldnt say men are better at math than women or vice versa. the simple truth is men are NOT women AND women are NOT men. We can have similar interests...but you must admit...we dont have the same interests. the only reason there are so few women programmers is that they are NOT interested. not that they cant be great at it...they can.
our society plays a big role...just imagine... boys grow up playing with toys that are "science" related... and that becomes part of them. they grow up wanting to be engineers etc...and this is opposite for women. i think u get my drift.

we are all equal...but we are not the same:)))


Posted by Kofi on December 28, 2009 at 09:41 AM PST #

Thanks, Kofi, for your thoughtful comments.
I really appreciate them and the spirit in which you made them.

I think we are a long way from figuring out how much of men/women differences are caused by socialization and how much by something "deeper" and perhaps biological. Certainly women seem much more attracted to the helping professions than men and seem to generally get less pleasure out of working with abstract numbers or symbols or straight logic than men do. It will probably take a few more decades of research to find out exactly why.

Posted by Janice Heiss on January 07, 2010 at 07:42 AM PST #

I think the profession of software engineer itself, or programming is not attractive for most females. Especially in non-creative industry. Most programming or software development profession are quite "anti-social".
Even some males hate it. It's not just females.

Some males could accept that situation depending on their personality.
Males are also tend to be more persistent in this kind of work, due to their background, and how they're educated and nurtured by their parents, teachers, and society.

There are very few chances to contribute to software development outside "programming" that benefits most companies or organization. The bulk of most of the work is in programming. Unless if it's a big software company, where the scope of the job is larger.

I still view that the differences are caused more by socialization and human nature to view the profession itself.
Although biological may play a "small" part.

Posted by Jesse on February 27, 2010 at 11:41 PM PST #

Jesse, interesting comments. They sure are food for thought. It's so hard ultimately to generalize as one person's nightmare job is another's dream job. It's quite interesting how different people's sensibilities are. It sure makes life interesting. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

Posted by Janice Heiss on March 01, 2010 at 03:26 AM PST #

Ada Lovelace never wrote a program in her life. Furthermore, there were no programming languages in her time. Also, the machines Babbage completed were not programmable. Yes, Babbage designed a programmable machine, but never built it.

Finally, quoting Wikipedia makes you look stupid. Quoting encyclopedias for papers was always the way of the laziest students in school. Quoting Wikipedia is the modern equivalence of such laziness, especially since it always contains mistakes and deliberate misinformation. The only service Wikipedia serves is to let intelligent people filter out the opinions of idiots.

Posted by Dave on April 04, 2010 at 04:16 PM PDT #

Why are there so few women programmers? Because women are bigots and conformists.

There used to be far more women programmers than men programmers. This changed in the late 1970s when Hollywood invented the stereotype of the computer nerd, a social reject that was worthy only of ridicule.

As soon as Hollywood did that, women stopped becoming programmers. The attitude that high school and college aged women have towards programmers is that they are despicable little nerds. That's why women don't date CS majors. If women don't have enough respect to date CS majors, they sure as hell aren't going to be one. Women are bigoted against programmers.

Second, women are conformists. We're talking about a gender that actually shaves it genitals in accordance with fashion trends. Women actually look at men's magazines to see how the nude women in them are shaved, and then they mimic the style. No guy would ever shave his genitals to conform to the latest fashion. This says a lot about how women are influenced by their peers.

Since women look down on programmers, any girl thinking about programming would stop because she doesn't want to be looked down on by the other women. Conformity + bigotry effectively blocks off any women from even considering programming as a profession.

If you want to encourage women to enter programming, there is only one way. Convince women that male programmers are as sexy as long-haired rock stars. Do that and women will enter the programming field in droves. Fail to do that and there's nothing you can do to get women to become programmers.

Posted by Because women are bigots and conformists on April 04, 2010 at 04:25 PM PDT #

Quote: Most programming or software development profession are quite "anti-social".

Proves my point. Total bigotry.

Posted by Dave on April 04, 2010 at 04:29 PM PDT #

I think the difference between women and men in scientific/techie fields is their levels of motivation. men can stay captivated by any field that they are into (not necessarily tech) whereas women in general are more holistic in approach to their life, they will not focus on just one thing.[I'm a woman, computer scientist, went to mit and currently working in a startup as a programmer and have many scientist/techie friends of both genders]

Posted by ml on May 04, 2010 at 01:55 PM PDT #

Programming is a challenge and mainly involve with maths and there should be a lot of desire to do that unless you can't do that.
normally women like to be more social and they tend to lazy to think more logically that's why women can't involve with programming cause there is a logical sequence with programming if can't think in logical way then no ,it's not possible to do that.

I guess it's a gift from nature keep away women from those kind of things cause women are for take care their children and maintain the houses,men can't maintain the house even they earn money.also men can't take care children with love ,it can only do women.when women involve with maths so much their concentration to their houses,children will lost cause it got lot of times.

I guess that's why every women should study art which improve their passion and love in their heart unlike tough works which women make more tough so they treat to their children and husband like that as well.

I respect to women but I don't like women involve with programming personally cause it likes they drive vehicles ,always crashes.!

Human being should respect to nature and never try to go beyond its boundaries.!
when they go it will make their end.

Posted by razor on August 24, 2010 at 04:02 AM PDT #

Razor that's very narrow minded point of view.
Nature hahaha,
I was studying computer science with focus on fuzzy logic and AI, try me, guys had troubles to understand 50-70% of alghoritms used for face recognistion, approximation etc etc so the automatic-control plane will not crash on your head.
I didn't have any troubles in it and yeah I am a woman.
I am a programmer already 5 years, and indeed such idtions I keep meeting at work, thanks God bosses are not that stupid in scandinavian countries and they see who does the work.
Many guys basically are not that good with abstractive way of thinking, they prefer practical stuff and practical subjects as far as I see. If its only abstraction like math or painting, dear Lord, they're lost, of course with some exceptions.

Posted by joan on August 25, 2010 at 11:53 PM PDT #

Joan, if what you say is true, then I wish I could live in Scandinavian countries. No, I'm not a woman.
Smart women intrigued me.

Posted by Jesse on August 26, 2010 at 12:08 AM PDT #

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Janice J. Heiss


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