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Women stopped coding in 1984

August 9, 2017


Much is being written about the memo by a junior engineer at Google. Alas, much of the commentary is as bad as the original memo, whose author tries to explain the current prevalence of men in software engineering through biological differences between women and men: “more men may like coding because it requires systemizing.”

When I studied computer science in graduate school in the 1980s, about one in three of my fellow students were women. And that was reflected in the work environment in the 1990s. The fair assumption then was that the upward trend would continue. Instead, it reversed. The field is far more male-dominated today than thirty years past. The graph above shows the percentage of women pursuing medical degrees, law degrees, physical science degrees, and computer science degrees. That last is the odd red curve that diverges from the upward track of the others, starting to decline in 1984. The article from which that graph is taken hypothesizes that the inflection is due to the rise of the PC, and their more common use by boys than girls. That explanation is not entirely convincing. It at least attends to recent history. Anyone wanting to appeal to biological differences between women and men to explain their differential representation in a field as culturally laden as software engineering needs to work into that explanation a) why such difference suddenly manifested in 1984, and b) why it affects computer science and not medicine.

Sabine Hossenfelder thinks Google over-reacted in firing the author. Though she also disagrees with his reading of the presumed psychological differences between women and men:

The bigger mistake in Damore’s memo is one I see frequently: Assuming that job skills and performance can be deduced from differences among demographic groups. This just isn’t so. I believe for example if it wasn’t for biases and unequal opportunities, then the higher ranks in science and politics would be dominated by women. Hence, aiming at a 50-50 representation gives men an unfair advantage. I challenge you to provide any evidence to the contrary.

Update #1: Yonatan Zunger has an interesting take on this from the pure engineering perspective. I especially like this:

If you’re a professional, especially one working on systems that can use terms like “planet-scale” and “carrier-class” without the slightest exaggeration, then you’ll quickly find that the large bulk of your job is about coordinating and cooperating with other groups. It’s about making sure you’re all building one system, instead of twenty different ones; about making sure that dependencies and risks are managed, about designing the right modularity boundaries that make it easy to continue to innovate in the future, about preemptively managing the sorts of dangers that teams like SRE, Security, Privacy, and Abuse are the experts in catching before they turn your project into rubble. Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.

Update #2: The fraction of women taking AP CS exams has jumped from 19% to 27% in the last four years.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2017 8:56 am

    That’s an interesting plot. I wonder what caused the percentage of women in computer science to drop off. I agree that the explanation given above isn’t satisfying. Maybe males were more drawn to the field as Silicon Valley developed and computer science became all about start-ups — men tend to be more likely to take high-risk jobs which require relocation. Hard to say if there is anything in that though.


  1. More on the Google memo | Rturpin's Blog

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