Women have been at the forefront of programming since Ada Lovelace wrote the first software for Charles Babbage’s computing machine in the 1840s.
Fast-forwarding to the 2000s, people are now more likely to believe that the stereotypical female programmer resembles Stieg Larsson’s iconic character Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Salander is an accomplished programmer and hacker, yet she is depicted as someone who lives on the fringes of society with little regard for societal norms.
Technology and programming industries have been late to the game in their responses to this less-than-flattering stereotype. Perhaps in acknowledgement of a recent study, which suggested that when women coders produce work product with higher acceptance rates than men, these industries are establishing initiatives to welcome women into the mainstream of programming and coding. Women will still encounter resistance and challenges in these industries, but the roadblocks are slowly falling away.
Name-Brand Technology Companies
The number of women currently on the programming side of the name-brand technology companies remains low. For example, barely 16 percent of Microsoft’s technology positions are held by women. That number drops to 10 percent at Twitter.
The big companies are taking aggressive action to change these ratios. In 2014, Google budgeted $50 million to support programs to attract women into programming and coding. Apple also donated several million to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Intel pledged $300 million toward programs to diversify its workforce. These and other efforts are creating a demand for women programmers in these companies.
Computing and information technology management and software engineering consistently rank near the top of the highest-paying employment positions for women, with salaries approaching $70,000 to $80,000 annually. The pay gap between men and women still exists in the tech industries, with women earning roughly 80 percent of what men earn for a comparable employment position.
Given its location in one of the most progressive states in the country, women might think the Silicon Valley startup culture would welcome female programmers and coders. The Valley’s male-dominated tech startup culture, however, has been difficult for women to break.
Recent high-profile harassment lawsuits and a gradual influx into the Valley of women who are starting their own companies are presenting new opportunities for women, which will only expand as more venture money flows into those companies.
The backlash against women in gaming came to light with the Gamergate controversy in 2014 and 2015. Notwithstanding the cultural bias against women as game programmers, a few women have begun to establish reputations as quality game designers and coders.
By some measures, the number of women in game-development positions has doubled in the past ten years and starting salaries are approaching $50,000 annually. The gaming industry will continue to look for the new ideas that will help it introduce new concepts into the gaming world, including social engagement and connections to other players in multi-game arenas.
The majority of internet websites are developed by small companies and independent web developers that provide services to local or family-owned companies. Women are beginning to realize the business startup options that this environment provides for them.
A few organizations, including the Women’s Coding Collective and Hacking for Women, help women to learn coding and business skills that they can then apply to form their own web development businesses.
Jezen Thomas, a self-taught programming expert, offers his opinion on the state of affairs for women in the software industry:
"There is some truth in the idea that the software industry is hostile towards women, and this is perhaps why so many women self-select out of it. A more obvious and less discussed point however is that the industry is just plain boring.
Software development is a male-dominated industry, and as a result we produce solutions to male-dominated problems. The act of writing code is a largely uninteresting means to an end for either sex. It’s the fact that software is a platform for driving innovation and improving people’s lives that makes it interesting."
For Thomas, technology born from software development solves mostly male-dominated problems. When the world’s population is pretty close to 50 percent male and 50 percent female, one has to wonder if technology really does serve a male master.
Women continue to hold a higher percentage of public sector jobs than men, and government programming positions continue to attract qualified women. Qualified programmers can earn $50,00 to $100,000 annually in government positions.
Researchers are beginning to study the effects of a teacher’s gender on an individual’s decision to study computer programming. Preliminary findings suggest that female programming instructors can help younger women to reject the negative stereotypes that keep women away from programming and coding careers. As these studies expand, opportunities for women who want teaching careers in computer science will expand with them.
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The employment opportunities for women in computer programming and coding may be increasing, but the relative percentage of women who actually fill those positions is, by some measures, on the decline.
Inroads in to the programming industry will be achieved when women can overcome the stereotypes of female programmers that are prevalent in popular culture, and the men-only locker room culture that is prevalent in the industry. Progress, if any, come in fits and starts, but in the long haul, the industry will benefit from greater involvement by women.