Where Are the Females?

I have an idea for an article, but I’m not entirely sure how to approach. IAda Lovelacet’s a subject that I believe some have written about, but as a male, it isn’t a subject that I have given much though to until recently: Where are all the female software engineers?

I suppose the only reason I’ve thought about it at all is because I have two daughters, neither of whom seem all that interested in video games or computers. Sure, there’s some passing interest. They like simple games on Friv. But really, for the most part, any interest in that which may be considered “technical,” ends once they get Pandora open and playing their songs.

I’m definitely not one to declare this an open and cut case of sexism. It could simply be a difference among genders. As someone who loved Lego as a boy, I tried pushing Legos on my daughters. It didn’t stick. I’ve presented video games. No dice. They’ve watching me tinker with Arduino… With only passing interest.

In college I had two female computer science professors. One taught Cobol, the other taught Data Structures, Object-Oriented Programming, C, and C++. This second professor, not a PhD, was one of the best professors I had. She knew her stuff–and she knew how to teach it. Sure, most professors know what they are talking about, but the skill of teaching is something, at least in my experience, that most lack.

I’m trying to think of how many female software engineers I have worked with over the years. I’ve worked with female managers, product and project managers, quality assurance engineers, and technical writers. But when it comes to counting the number of female software engineers I’ve encountered, I think the number is two or three (and only two that I can recall). I do know another female who majored in Computer Science, entered the workforce, worked for IBM, and left the field because she hated it.

While sexism, I think, is an oversimplified answer, I think that simple gender preference is equally oversimplified. After all, there are many female scientists, math teachers, and engineers of other disciplines. May it have something to do with social nature? One can only guess. One would expect just about any professional field to be weighted one way or the other. We aren’t surprised that there are more female than male nurses, or more male than female auto-mechanics. But in these fields, the reason for a gender preference seems somehow a little more clear.

I may not give this a second thought if I had encountered just a few more female software developers. But just two or three seems low enough to suggest that there is something more at play. I don’t suggest for one minute that it has anything to do with bias on the part of men, and I can say this because I personally have not encountered any such bias. I have never once heard men discuss female engineers of any kind in any derogatory manner, nor would I take part in such a conversation (I have a mom, two sisters, a wife, and two daughters–all of them extremely intelligent). Nor do I suggest that the measure of gender equality is equal numbers of men and women in a given field. I think that assumption would be outrageous (correlation doesn’t imply causality, nor does correlation necessarily imply inequality–it may or may not).

About a year ago I was helping my oldest daughter with her math homework. I was shocked when she said, “Dad, I’m just a girl, I’m not good at math.” WHAT! Where in the world would she have heard such a thing? Certainly not from me. Certainly not from any of her teachers (all of them female). When pressed, she could not explain to me why she thought such a thing or where she might have heard it. The only answer I got was, “Math is for boys.” Similarly, I wonder, if for some reason, young girls develop a sense that computers are for boys. And if so, where would this troubling idea come from?

I’m interested in hearing some thoughts on this subject, and if any female software folks happen across this post, I would be especially eager to hear from you.