“In the early days of coding, women flocked to programming because it offered more opportunity and reward for merit, more than fields like law. Now software has the closed door.”
If biology limited women’s ability to code, then the ratio of women to men in programming ought to be similar in other countries. It isn’t. In India, roughly 40 percent of the students studying computer science and related fields are women. This is despite even greater barriers to becoming a female coder there; India has such rigid gender roles that female college students often have an 8 p.m. curfew, meaning they can’t work late in the computer lab, as the social scientist Roli Varma learned when she studied them in 2015. The Indian women had one big cultural advantage over their American peers, though: They were far more likely to be encouraged by their parents to go into the field, Varma says. What’s more, the women regarded coding as a safer job because it kept them indoors, lessening their exposure to street-level sexual harassment. It was, in other words, considered normal in India that women would code. The picture has been similar in Malaysia, where in 2001 — precisely when the share of American women in computer science had slid into a trough — women represented 52 percent of the undergraduate computer-science majors and 39 percent of the Ph.D. candidates at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Today, when midcareer women decide that Silicon Valley’s culture is unlikely to change, many simply leave the industry. When Sue Gardner surveyed those 1,400 women in 2014, they told her the same story: In the early years, as junior coders, they looked past the ambient sexism they encountered. They loved programming and were ambitious and excited by their jobs. But over time, Gardner says, “they get ground down.” As they rose in the ranks, they found few, if any, mentors. Nearly two-thirds either experienced or witnessed harassment, she read in “The Athena Factor” (a 2008 study of women in tech); in Gardner’s survey, one-third reported that their managers were more friendly toward and gave more support to their male co-workers. It’s often assumed that having children is the moment when women are sidelined in tech careers, as in many others, but Gardner discovered that wasn’t often the breaking point for these women. They grew discouraged seeing men with no better or even lesser qualifications get superior opportunities and treatment.
“What surprised me was that they felt, ‘I did all that work!’ They were angry,” Gardner says. “It wasn’t like they needed a helping hand or needed a little extra coaching. They were mad. They were not leaving because they couldn’t hack it. They were leaving because they were skilled professionals who had skills that were broadly in demand in the marketplace, and they had other options. So they’re like, ‘[expletive] it — I’ll go somewhere where I’m seen as valuable.’ ”
The result is an industry that is drastically more male than it was decades ago, and far more so than the workplace at large. In 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26 percent of the workers in “computer and mathematical occupations” were women. The percentages for people of color are similarly low: Black employees were 8.4 percent, Latinos 7.5 percent. (The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey put black coders at only 4.7 percent in 2016.) In the more rarefied world of the top Silicon Valley tech firms, the numbers are even more austere: A 2017 analysis by Recode, a news site that covers the technology industry, revealed that 20 percent of Google’s technical employees were women, while only 1 percent were black and 3 percent were Hispanic. Facebook was nearly identical; the numbers at Twitter were 15 percent, 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
The reversal has been profound. In the early days of coding, women flocked to programming because it offered more opportunity and reward for merit, more than fields like law. Now software has the closed door.
Clive Thompson, “The Secret History of Women in Coding”, The New York Times Magazine (17 February 2019), 54.