Why so few women programmers?

24 Oct

Why is it that only 17 percent of COBOL programmers are women?  I have to admit that I just recently became aware of this fact, but just a quick glance around my workplace confirms the fact that I’m definitely in the minority as a female COBOL developer.   Why the gender gap, which is not unique to COBOL developers, but seems to exist in the IT field in general?

My daughter recently posted a link on Facebook to an interesting radio program presented on NPR about this phenomenon.  While women composed the majority of computer science gurus in the early days of computer programming, the number of females in the IT field has plummeted starting in 1984.   Why the nosedive?  Their theory is that the first home PCs were marketed in 1984, and these PCs weren’t’ good for much beside gaming which is typically targeted at the male gender.  The early PCs were considered “boy toys”, and just didn’t attract many girls.  As a result, many young men entering college as IT majors had a few years of PC experience under their belts (albeit gaming experience), and girls lacked confidence in their abilities because of their lack of PC experience.   Hmmmm……    Since I never took a college class in IT, I guess I didn’t have the opportunity to be scared off by guys with more PC experience than me. Interesting theory, but not sure I’m buying it as the sole reason for the current gender gap. I set out to do some additional research on the subject, and found several other theories…

1.  Women overwhelmingly do not consider IT positions to be good jobs.

I really can’t imagine why this would be true, as my generation has always esteemed IT professionals.

2.  The IT community is hostile to women and discourages their participation.

While I’m sure this gender discrimination exists somewhere out there, I can honestly say that I have never experienced it in the workplace.  My skills and opinions have always been respected by my male peers.

3.  Companies that hire a large number of developers also happen to not hire many women.

With our current laws regarding gender discrimination in the workplace, this one also doesn’t ring true with me.

4.  Men have a higher level of tenacity when it comes to troubleshooting and fixing a problem.

In my experience, I have not found this to be true.  While I have worked with a limited number of female developers, I have found them to be just as skilled at problem solving as their male counterparts.

5.  Men are just generally better at math and science, making them more likely candidates for a career in the IT field.

While I’ve never believed that men have a monopoly on math and science smarts, I’ve also never understood why we’ve been told that you have to excel at both math and science to succeed in a career as a developer.   I was pretty decent at math, but never took trig or calc in high school.  I was OK at science, but never particularly liked it, and opted out of any non-mandatory science class.  My “other career” was as a Registered Nurse, and, in my late thirties, I actually had to take a high school chemistry course in order to enroll in nursing school.  Despite these facts, I have been successfully employed as a COBOL developer for more than 30 years.    OK, this theory may have hit home with me as a stereotype that might deter some women from entering the IT field.  

6.  Today’s women are inundated with images that promote “coolness” or “hip factor”, a characteristic that is not associated with computer developers.

While I’m well past the age to worry about being hip or cool, I think this may play a part in young women’s career decisions..

7. Young women are led to believe that men are intimidated by “smart girls”.

As a woman, I never understood this one. I would think that men would be more attracted to a “smart girl” with a good earning potential.

8.  Young women are led to believe that IT professionals live in a solitary or antisocial world, which is not very appealing to a young girl.

I’ve never found my life in a cube as a developer to be any more solitary than life in a cube as an accountant, a field that attracts a much higher percentage of women.

So I have to conclude that the main factor in play here is our Western culture, since the percentage of female developers is on the rise in Eastern countries, where IT is seen as a “clean job”, as opposed to working in a factory or a coal mine.   Women in the US seem to be buying into the developer stereotyping and geek culture, and are choosing to opt out.  Since I am a product of on-the-job training in programming, I think the best way to encourage women in the IT field is for businesses to offer in-house training, tuition reimbursement, competency testing, and programs to train talented women in the IT field.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *