Why are women being pushed away from the tech industry?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Back in the 1970s, when my mother was in graduate school, she studied computer programming so she could build simulations of the urban transportation issues that she was researching. Her computer science professor was a woman. At the time, that wasn’t especially surprising. If you’ve seen movies like Hidden Figures, you are probably aware that the computer industry was initially welcoming to women (at least, relative to other industries at that time).

Over the last 30 years, women have been slowly, but relentlessly, pushed out of the computer industry. Young women have responded rationally by avoiding a profession where they know they are not wanted. You can read a good review of the percentage of women studying the subject in Women computer science grads: The bump before the decline

The article says:

1986 was a good year for women in IT. In may of that year, 15,129 female students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, that was the high water mark — and the beginning of a precipitous decline….

So why did the relative number of women choosing computer science as a baccelaureate major rise so sharply between 1971 and 1986, only to stall and decline so steadily and steeply over the next 25 years? What accounts for the bump? With the percentage of women graduates in computer science at a 39-year low it’s a question that still lacks a definitive answer.

In the 1960s and 1970s the computer industry was more open to women than the legal profession or the medical profession. But then in the 1990s something changed. Women continued to flow into the legal and medical profession, but the tech industry became the only major profession where women’s participation was in retreat. By 2017, 50% of all new doctors in the USA are female, but among computer programmers, women have been reduced to 26%:

In 2013, only 26% of computing professionals were female — down considerably from 35% in 1990 and virtually the same as in 1960.

Hopefully, I don’t have to explain how it undermines business productivity, when good people get pushed out.

It is important to realize the tech industry is somewhat unique. It’s growing resistance to women goes against the trends in most other industries:

Using the National Science Foundation’s SESTAT data, we examine the gender wage gap by race among those working in computer science, life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. We find that in fields with a greater representation of women (the life and physical sciences), the gender wage gap can largely be explained by differences in observed characteristics between men and women working in those fields. In the fields with the lowest concentration of women (computer science and engineering), gender wage gaps persist even after controlling for observed characteristics. In assessing how this gap changes over time, we find evidence of a narrowing for more recent cohorts of college graduates in the life sciences and engineering. The computer sciences and physical sciences, however, show no clear pattern in the gap across cohorts of graduates.

This subject gets a decent amount of discussion in tech magazines and tech forums. If you run a Google search, it is easy to find an abundance of personal stories:

My daughter traveled with me to DrupalCon in Denver for “spring break”, attended the expo at OSCON 2012, and even attended and watched me moderate a panel at the first Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC ’12) conference at USENIX Federated Conferences Week. Thanks to my career, my daughter’s Facebook friends list includes Linux conference organizers, an ARM developer and Linux kernel contributor, open source advocates, and other tech journalists. My daughter is bright, confident, independent, tech saavy, and fearless.

When my daughter got home from the first day of the semester, I asked her about the class. “Well, I’m the only girl in class,” she said. Fortunately, that didn’t bother her, and she even liked joking around with the guys in class. And when the lessons started (Visual Basic? Seriously??), my daughter flew through the assignments. After she finished, she’d help classmates who were behind or struggling in class.

Over the next few weeks, things went downhill. While I was attending SC ’12 in Salt Lake City last November, my daughter emailed to tell me that the boys in her class were harassing her. “They told me to get in the kitchen and make them sandwiches,” she said. I was painfully reminded of the anonymous men/boys who left comments on a Linux Pro Magazine blog post I wrote a few years ago, saying the exact same thing.

And also:

And yet, here it is, the year 2010, and my female friends and I are still being insulted, harassed, and groped at at open source conferences. Some people argue that if women really want to be involved in open source (or computing, or corporate management, etc.), they will put up with being stalked, leered at, and physically assaulted at conferences. But many of us argue instead that putting up extra barriers to the participation of women will only harm the open source community. We want more people in open source, not fewer.


My wife is an IT manager. She knows Unix, can code, debug nasty windows problems, and gets shit done. Still, coworkers, new hires, and people who don’t know her try to address her male subordinates during escalated issues assuming the men are the ones who know what they’re doing.

To repeat: Women now make up 50% of all new doctors and more than a third of all new lawyers, but there are actually less women graduating with advanced degrees in computer science than there were in 1989. Women are clearly willing to work extremely long hours at work that is intellectually demanding, so as to get into high paying professions. But they are not willing to make the effort for a profession that doesn’t want them.

Is this trend an example where the arrogance or power-grabbing of elite programmers are a problem? Only the passage of time, and some in-depth studies, can answer that question, but we can say that there are some programmers who certainly use their influence for evil, and it is up to the rest of us to try to balance out the pressure they exert. We can call out those specific instances where computer programmers have behaved badly. James Damore and Eron Gjoni are exemplars of the worst kind of behavior in the profession, so I’ll talk about them for a moment.

Programmers such as James Damore can do a lot of damage. Here is a guy who could have used his position for good, but he instead decided that his time and energy were best spent fighting to make the tech industry even more distorted than it already is. As I mentioned in If a programmer confuses the average for the 1% they deserve to be fired, even with exaggerated assumptions about the inherent weaknesses of women, we still end up with a Gaussian distribution, where the fringe is still plenty enough for every programming job in the world:

Suppose there was overwhelming evidence that 95% of women were terrible at technology and only 5% of women were awesome at technology. There are roughly 7 billion people on the planet, roughly 3.5 billion women, roughly 1.5 billion women who work outside the house for a wage. In this scenario, where only 5% of women are awesome at technology, there are 75 million working women who are awesome at technology. According to the Bureau Of Labor Statics, the USA had 1,256,200 software developers in 2016. The BLS also tracks some other minor categories, such as Web Developer, which have about 150,000 jobs. Lump all the sub-categories together, and let’s say there are 2 million such jobs in the USA. Let’s be wildly generous and double the number for the EU, and triple it for Asia. That gives 12 million software developer jobs in all of the advanced and developing economies. So even with exaggerated assumptions about women’s inherent weakness in technology, we still end up with a scenario where every single programming job in the world can be filled by a woman who will be awesome at the job. There is no need for men, at all, in the tech industry.

Obviously I don’t want to see a world where men are chased out of the technology industry, but we are currently facing the opposite situation, so I’ve adopted strong rhetoric to try to provide some balance.

One of my pet peeves is people who indulge in lazy just-so “evolutionary psychology” arguments and yet still believe themselves to be hyper-rational. James Damore seems to fall into that particular vice. You would assume that a computer programmer hired at Google has at least some idea what a Gaussian distribution looks like. But no. In his essay, he constantly references studies that found some interesting preferences for women which were different from the preferences of men, then he treats the mode of that distribution as if it applied to all women. That would be irrational even if Google hired the mode of a distribution, but of course, Google only hires the best. Does anyone think that Google hires the mode of the nation’s IQ distribution? Or do you think Google hires the smartest 1%? Damore deserved to be fired for bad math.

And of course, Eron Gjoni is not an elite programmer, but he also is not a credit to the profession. While his crusade against Zoë Quinn might not be the norm, the fact that it started a movement suggests there is some pent up rage looking for an excuse to express itself.

There is also a strange dishonesty in the rhetoric that surrounds this issue. On a variety of forums, it is common to see people use biased language, and then deny that their words are biased, and when others call out their behavior, the initial commenter will complain they are being censored. This comment sums up some of the confusion that exists around people’s right to express themselves:

I don’t think even Orwell predicted the Newspeak-y confusion over censorship that has become so ubiquitous — “my freedom of speech is infringed upon unless people with views I dislike are made to remain silent; it is censorship when others express certain views”.

In terms of how many women have actually been pushed away from the tech industry, what is the difference between the 35% of 1990 and the 26% of recent years? Accepting the rough 2 million figure, you have to assume that at least 180,000 women are missing from the tech industry. But that implies that the 35% was somehow the magically perfect number. If you assume that the tech industry should achieve gender parity, as the medical profession has, then there are almost 500,000 women missing from these technical jobs.

Some might argue that we should refrain from action on this issue until more studies are done. But the scale of the distortion to the labor market, and the implied loss of productivity, is large enough that we should address this issue with urgency. We might not understand every nuance of the situation, but we can certainly take action against the worst abuses. We can respond to the situations that have been described by countless individuals, of which I offered an infinitesimal sample above. We have a moral obligation to push back against what abuses we see around us.

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