21st Century Coding: Where The Boys Are?

21st Century Coding: Where The Boys Are?

During the halcyon days of wine and roses depicted in the 1962 film of the same name, it was not unusual to find women studying and working in the field of computer science. According to a report from NPR, many of the early computing pioneers were women and for many years the percentage of women studying computer science was growing faster than the percentage of men. This changed in the middle of the 1980s. The percentage of women studying computer science flattened and then plunged even as the percentage of women studying other sciences continued to grow.

The NPR article traces some of the change to the introduction of the personal home computer. The personal computer was heavily marketed to men and boys. Movies such as Weird Science and War Games portrayed the lead male character as a boy genius that used computer skills to accomplish what was then thought impossible and then to win the adoration of a beguiling female. Very stereotypical, but the narrative held fast and computers were thereafter the domain of geeky boys and nerdy men.

Fast forward to 2016 and you find that women are still struggling to gain respect in the field of computer science. For example, a Feb 2016 article published in the Guardian describes the results from a study conducted by a group of computer science students. The students conducted the study to document the behavior of software developers on Github, one the most popular open source software development communities in the world. Github is a repository of software code used by over 12 million people. Github offers a collaborative environment where users can review, criticize, and offer suggested enhancements to existing code. When a user writes code for another user’s project, the repository owner can accept or reject the new code using a Github process called a pull request. The study researched code pull request acceptance and rejection rates by gender.

The researchers looked at approximately three million pull requests submitted on GitHub, and found that code written by women was approved at a higher rate (78.6%) than code written by men (74.6%).

Perplexed by the findings, the researchers examined whether women were making smaller code changes or if women were out-performing men in only specific code type pull requests. They found that women’s code changes were not smaller and that women’s approval rates were consistently higher than men’s regardless of code type. The researchers thought possibly that the women’s pull request approval rates might be higher as a result of reverse bias. Maybe the repository owners were more accommodating toward women contributors.

This is where the researchers uncovered something disconcerting. They discovered that the approval rate for women’s work was always higher than men’s unless the gender of the submitter was known. In the case where a women’s gender was in some way visible on Github, the code pull request was approved at a much lower rate than men’s.

Don’t lose hope! There is a progression towards a gender balance in coding. Super model Karlie Kloss has been making strides with the launch of her coding camp, Kode with Klossy. The summer camp is for girls ages 13-18 in New York, Los Angeles, and Kloss’ hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.

Not to mention, two students, Winnie Wu and Jorge Cueto, both attending elite U.S. universities, Harvard and Stanford, and concentrating in computer science, have done studies and are acutely aware of the gender and racial divides that exist in the computer science community.

Each student documents the percentage of students majoring in computer science on their campus by ethnicity and gender. At Harvard, Winnie found the majority of Harvard CS concentrators are Asian (53%), followed by White (39%), Hispanic (5%) and Blacks (3%). The specific ratio of men to women is 73% male vs 27% female.

Focusing on ethnicity at Stanford, Jorge discovered the computer science concentrators were Asian (46.4%), followed by White (38%), Hispanic (9.5%) and Black (6.1%). The ratio of men to women at Stanford was 70% men and 30% women.

Winnie and Jorge’s research provides interesting insight into not only the lack of diversity by gender but also the hegemonic influence of two ethnic groups; Asians and Whites. Asians and Whites comprise 92% of the computers science concentrators at Harvard and 84.4% at Stanford.

As the excellent work of Winnie and Jorge traverses their respective campuses and leaks into conversations on the Internet, the vision is that others will contribute to the debate in meaningful ways and stimulate ideas on how to bridge the gender and ethnicity gaps in the field of computer science. It may take a lot of hard work, but one day soon, the hope is that women of all ethnic backgrounds will choose to concentrate on the computer science curriculum edging the graduation rates closer to the desired 50%/50% split with men. Who knows, based on the gender neutral code approval percentages exhibited on Github, it’s likely that women will surpass men as Coders in the real world.



Randall Smith – StratoSTACK Product Manager

Illustrations and Copy Edit: Jaime Baldwin- StratoSTACK Digital Media Specialist