The Joel on Software Discussion Group (CLOSED)

A place to discuss Joel on Software. Now closed.

This community works best when people use their real names. Please register for a free account.

Other Groups:
Joel on Software
Business of Software
Design of Software (CLOSED)
.NET Questions (CLOSED)
Fog Creek Copilot

The Old Forum

Your hosts:
Albert D. Kallal
Li-Fan Chen
Stephen Jones

Great female *programmers*

I have worked with female programmers at various jobs that are great, better than most coworkers of either sex, though of course they are underepresented.

And I have worked with and known women that are great *computer scientists*, i.e. there are a decent number of women with Ph.D.'s in computer science, and they do quality work.

However, I noticed on this list of notable *programmers*:

that all the great programmers with female names are actually *transsexuals*.

Here are the 3 transexuals I see:

Transexuals are arguably more notable than (natural) women programmers on that list, which is fairly remarkable, given their distribution in the general population.  And it looks like a pretty complete list to me.

There are a few female writers/product designers/computer scientists there, but they aren't what you would call great programmers, like Ken Thompson, Linus Torvalds, or John Carmack: (says she wrote books)

The woman below looks like possibly the most distinguished?  Never heard of her though.  Let me be an ass and say that she was probably influenced by her husband, who is also on the list.

Just an observation.  I think if you put up a list of great doctors, lawyers, biologists, etc. you would find a much greater proportion of women.

But programming and pure mathematics seem to be the realm of men (though not computer science, curiously).  In retrospect isn't it just common sense that most females don't want to sit in front of a computer typing obscure code, completely opaque to 99.9% of the population, for the *decade* that it takes to produce a lasting and classic piece of software?
Anon Send private email
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Oh come this topic again! It should stop at some point, otherwise "bad" comments will pop up, and you know the rest...
Victor Noagbodji Send private email
Saturday, January 26, 2008
>>> ...isn't it just common sense that most females don't want to sit in front of a computer typing obscure code,... <<<

No.  Well, true, most don't, but why is that "common sense"?

Keep in mind that this issue involves small fractions of large numbers.

Most females don't want to sit in front of a computer typing code; most males don't want to sit in front of a computer typing code.  A very small fraction of males does want to do that.  With billions of humans on earth that small fraction may still yield thousands of programmers.

Why is that small fraction so much smaller for females?
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I would rather people start rumors that all female programmers are great, because otherwise they wouldn't bother to get into the industry. Maybe that would attract a few.

There are numerous factors. Mostly, the myth of a lone narcissistic hacker putting working in his mother's basement to put together them next big thing (which will make him richer than Bill Gates, which will make him pull more chicks than Orlando Bloom) is somehow a good fit for men, but not for women. And if you don't fit the myth, nobody (not even yourself) will have the confidence.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
How could you not mention Grace Hopper?
QADude Send private email
Saturday, January 26, 2008
The arguments that occur among programmers I suspect are more vicious than in other jobs. I don't think women would like the constant thrill-of-victory-sting-of-defeat quality to the tech business.

I knew some smart girls in high school who still wait tables, though. It's their own fault
my name is here
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Ada Lovelace (the first programmer)
Grace Hopper (invented the compiler)
Roberta Williams (co-founder of Sierra On-Line)

...and that's just from memory.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Where are the female hackers?  E.g. a female hacker that is under 30, not in a PHD program or not a grad student and programs in a non mainstream language like Lisp, Scheme, Haskell.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I can't be bothered to link you (wikepedia is a good starting point), but men are just biologically more suited to doing maths (in the reasoning/problem solving sense, women are actually better at performing mechanical computations). This is a biological phenomenon, not cultural (e.g. you can see that women subjected to testosteron immediately improve, and women who were subjected to testosteron while in the womb due to a particular condition that their mother had, are more "male" in their aptitude profile). It's not PC to say so, but I guess facts don't need to be PC.

Furthermore, the variance of this aptitude is greater among men.

All this means that if you take the very top people in the world when it comes to these skills, almost all of them will be men. Sad but true, and not likely to change as long as competence is the guiding factor for career choice.
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008
Perhaps it's merely a case where somebody who's got lots of X chromosomes, and is really good, can choose what they want to be good AT.  As it goes against stereotype, there's not a lot of them and so they'd stand out more than usual...

So, if you can choose what to be good at, why the %!&#38;# would you settle for programming?
old fart
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I worked with a very good female programmer, as long as she stayed within her comfort zone. She could solve anything that could be solved if given an imperative language and Windows. She was so motivated to please that she would do everything in her power to get the job done, as long as she could solve it with her two big hammers. She could do a lot with those two hammers. It was like watching Paul Bunyan lay track. People loved her for what she could do, and the effort she exerted. But when people asked her to make a road instead of track, it just didn't happen. She was mentally able, but too afraid to fail, and would give up at the first opportunity.

She could have been great, but she wasn't interested in learning for learning's sake, she was just interested in pleasing the people she worked for, and she felt she could best do that by never saying No, and furiously swinging those two great, big hammers. And if that wasn't enough, she would just have to swing a little faster.

Of course her managers figured this out, so they set her up to play the hero. She couldn't resist. She wasn't a programmer any more.
Lou Vanek Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
"I can't be bothered to link you (wikepedia is a good starting point), but men are just biologically more suited to doing maths (in the reasoning/problem solving sense, women are actually better at performing mechanical computations)."

I suppose if you can't be bothered to link me, then I can't be bothered to believe you.
Kyralessa Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Like I said, it's not very PC, so I'm not surprised at your reaction.
Feel free to live in ignorance and ignore the facts if it fits your ideological beliefs better, I don't really care, but the facts are the way they are, and they're there for anyone who cares to look. Like I said, wikipedia (on sex and intelligence) is a decent starting point, but do read the references.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Well, maybe there aren't that many girl programmers because most girls get dolls while boys get gameboys. 

I am a male student from germany and here about 59% of our math students are females. Nevertheless our entire course in compsci has only two females. So it is not the math/thinking skills but more the technic afinity.
Bogo Mieps
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Like I said, there are biological differences here (especially linked to the male hormone testosterone). Culture can't explain why womene subjected to testosterone exhibit "male" aptitude profiles.

Your example is anecdotal and irrelevant. A cultural variance at most. The distribution of women among technical subjects can very well vary for cultural reasons, yes, but realise that the women you are comparing (the ones in maths, and the ones in compsci) are members of the rare breed of women who have a more male aptitude profile.

If you can tell me that there are only two women in your nursing programme, then I'd be intrigued.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Women need more attention than men.

The fact is that being a software developer doesn't offer a level of social stimulation most women need to be happy (especially white women of western european origin).

As much as scientists refuse to admit it (at least publicly), it is very much a biological phenomenon.
Danilo Milosavljevic
Sunday, January 27, 2008
You all need to go on a date with a personage of the appropriate gender for your interests, and/or take a cold shower.
dot for this one
Sunday, January 27, 2008
This "date" you speak of... how do I get one?

Sunday, January 27, 2008
There is one female hacker "sharkfish" that I know of.  She used to be a regular here, but you scared her away.

This seems to be her site.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
How did she get scared away from JoS?

Place just got too stoopid for her?
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Where are all the female plumbers?
Where are all the female car mechanics?
Where are all the female heating/cooling contractors?
Where are all the male nurses?
Where are all the male kindergarten teachers?
Buford Twain Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
And what ever happened to that guy who waited tables at Hooters?
Philo [MSFT] Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
"Like I said, there are biological differences here (especially linked to the male hormone testosterone). Culture can't explain why womene subjected to testosterone exhibit "male" aptitude profiles."

First, there may be effects due to genetics and gender linked biochemistry, but they can't be deterministic. Although female mathematicians have been rare, they have existed in every age. Second, any evidence for genetic effects is deeply obscured because until the last 50 or so years there were also incontrovertible social effects. Not subtle things, like "hostile workplaces", but blatant, force majeure "We don't admit women to university", "We don't admit women to the Mathematics program", "We don't publish results from women", "Daughter, I forbid you ruin your ovaries by studying mathematics" (For the last two consult the history of Sophie Germaine and her correspondence with Gauss.).

If the low numbers of women in math are due to a biological effect, you then have to explain why the numbers of women in upper division and graduate math courses has increased dramatically in the last 50 years, since male/female biology has not significantly changed in that time. This is not just an anecdote, in the US women are now more then 1/3 of math majors (see for example). Interestingly women are still less then 1/5 of C. Sci majors.

An anecdote can never establish a theory, but it can go a long way to disproving one. I started my undergraduate degree in 1974, and in those days women in math and physics were quite rare, maybe 1 degree in 50. I returned to school for an M.S. in Applied Math at the University of Washington in 2002, and found that women made up 1/4 to 1/3 of my graduate courses. And no, they weren't having any more difficulty with the coursework then I was. Again, human biology hadn't changed much in 25 years, so what accounts for the difference?
Middling Early MSFT employee
Sunday, January 27, 2008
It's worth reading the debate that Steven Pinker & Elizabeth Spelke had on this topic some time ago (

Pinker is in favour of the genetic view and thinks that boys are just better at this kind of thing.

Spelke says that in order to measure performance, one cannot just rely on short tests, but that one has to look at long term performance. Thus, IQ tests and even programming competitions are not necessarily the best way to measure performance. I can't remember what she suggests as reasons for the current dearth of women in the sciences.

Personally, I'm staying out of this debate until there is hard evidence. I realize that this won't change the composition of the IT workplace. The only suggestion I have is that everyone should always insist on focusing only on a person's talent and work ethic.
Wynand Winterbach Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
So WHY do girls get dolls and boys gameboys? Hmm?

I think the answer to that question is more relevant to this discussion than the men-are-inherently-better-at-math talk.

I for one mutilated and threw away all the Barbies and dolls I got and only would play with Legos and stereotypically male toys, and to this day I only wear skirts/dresses at events where "proper etiquette" demands I not wear pants and pink is virtually nonexistent in my closet..I have one pink dress shirt... Friends and family complain because I refuse to buy into stereotypical gifts for their kids - no pink or dolls for girls, no blue or cars/video games for boys. Just a whole bunch of geeky toys that are apparently more appropriate for boys, although that makes no sense to me.

And as usual, there are plenty of "great" female programmers that weren't named: Grace Hopper, Joan Mitchell (of jpeg fame?)...define great? I've met some awesome women programmers before, and even though they're not famous/"great", they are fantastic at what they do. In proportion to the number of women in this field though, I don't think it's really that surprising.

Also, I might note, all sorts of people (parents, teachers, friends inclusive) had a way easier time accepting my wanting to go to med school vs. my wanting to finish a BS in computer science or my accepting some programming job/internship/freelance work (although they have zero problems coming to me for tech help). Society itself is deserving of much blame when I can't tell most people what I do for a living without them reacting in a very odd way, probably because it's an answer more likely to come from a guy. I've even had people assume I was some designer at an event with almost all coders, especially because almost all the other like three women there (with the exception of one) were.\

Jane Send private email
Sunday, January 27, 2008
MSFT employee,
Nothing I said contradicts your arguments in any way. I didn't say that there weren't cultural phenomena as well.

You seem to think that facts are somehow negotiable, well they're not. You can't "vote" in a discussion on facts. Yes culture plays a part, but it is a fact that there are real biological differences between men and women, that impacts our respective aptitude profiles. There are obviously outliers (Marie Curie etc.), but on average, and especially when you talk about looking at the top 5% or so.

Back to culture, yes it plays a part. You'll note that I carefully qualified my statement that it was true as long as competence was the factor for career selection. In some developing countries )e.g. Malaysia IIRC) the culture says that non-manual work is exclusively for women, so computer scientists are almost exclusively women. That doesn't mean they're biology is different, just that the culture plays in to distort the gender distribution (w.r.t what it should be if everyone was free from cultural pressure and could do what they were good at).

Likewise it's likely that there previously was an exaggerated distortion (discrimination against women) in the past (though these days my anecdotal experience is at least a data point that in some places this has now flipped in the other direction - universities and corporation actively try to hire women, regarless of competence).

However, all of this cultural variation does not change the meassurable and quantifiable facts of the matter: We are simply different biologically, and it just so happens that this is a field where men are better on average, and where the variance is larger for men so that among those who excel most are men.
Doesn't mean there aren't exceptions, and it doesn't mean it can vary based on culture - but as long as actual aptitude matters, it won't change anytime soon.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Another anecdote for the discussion.  I have attended a number of international software-related 'conferences', and the number of female developers is always tiny compared to the number of male developers.

But one very notable exception is with Israeli companies - they appear to have a male/female ratio much closer to 1:1 (at least, the ratio of the people they send is closer to 1:1).

I have no insight as to why this difference exists, nor do I have the necessary data to determine if it is statistically significant.  Maybe I'll take more detailed notes next time!
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I have worked with female and male developers in my career.

This is anecdotal, but I have never worked with a bad female developer.  They listen, they participate, they don't have to dominate a meeting, and they don't insist that their way is the one right way.  Now that I think about it, I've never had to fire a female programmer, either.

Of course, I've encountered many more male programmers than female.  If the numbers were equal, maybe I would have encountered more of the bad ones...
Sunday, January 27, 2008
"However, all of this cultural variation does not change the meassurable and quantifiable facts of the matter: We are simply different biologically, and it just so happens that this is a field where men are better on average, and where the variance is larger"

There measurable and quantifiable differences in biology. There are measurable and quantifiable differences in career outcomes and social roles. The causal relationship between these is not a fact, but hypothetical and vigorously disputed. I can show you a lovely plot linking genotype to oil content in corn, suitably controlled for growing conditions. You can't show me any such plot linking genotype to mathematical productivity, suitably controlled for social influences. You may be persuaded of such a link from lower level studies of the relationship cognition and testosterone, but the link to higher functioning is extrapolated and speculative, not proven.
Middling Early MSFT employee
Sunday, January 27, 2008
If you think anything in the social sciences will ever be "proven" you're deluding yourself.

There *are* results that indicate that biological differences make a substantial contribution to the "psychological gender" of an individual (e.g. in all 25 cases of male infants with disfigured/injured genitalia who were castrated, given female hormones, and raised as girls, they ended up playing male games as children, having male interests and getting male careers -- biology has a non-zero, and most likely substantial impact).

Also, it's just plain common sense. The skills that programmers use most (e.g. mathematical and abstract reasoning), also happen to be the ones where men are just biologically better. We know for a fact that biology is a major factor here (because while there are more women in CS programs these days, they aren't scoring any better on the tests of cognitive abilities).

You can say complain about not having a "proven" causal relationship from "men have strong biological advantage" to "men dominate the industry", but that's just allowing wishful-thinking to get the better of you, IMO.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Almost all of you are starting from the shaky premise that programming is a desirable job... Most people don't give a crap about how computers function, they just want to USE them to reach some other goal.
Wakeup Call!
Sunday, January 27, 2008
"Also, it's just plain common sense. The skills that programmers use most (e.g. mathematical and abstract reasoning), also happen to be the ones where men are just biologically better."

No, that is exactly the issue that is in dispute: are males biologically better then females at mathematical reasoning? Common sense seems to turn into circular reasoning:

Q: Why are there so few women in mathematics?
A: Because women are inherently less good at mathematics.
Q: How do you know that women are inherently less good at mathematics?
A: Because there are so few women in mathematics.

At best you've stuck in one level of indirection:

Q: How do  you know that women are inherently less good at mathematics?
A: Because we measured their math skills in abstract with a test based on our model of what low-level cognitive traits are important in mathematical reasoning.
Q: How can you be sure that the test measures actual mathematical skill as opposed to simply being a proxy for other lower level male cognitive traits?
A: Because (the mostly male) mathematicians do very well on them.

I've been hearing these claims of biological determinism all my life, yet I've seen the gender ratios in graduate math classes go from 2:98 to 30:70 in 25 years. Are there biological difference that mean the ratio will never be 50:50? That could very well be. But I do know the folks that were telling me in 1974 that the 2:100 ratio was biologically determined were full of crap.
Middling Early MSFT employee
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I read an interesting study some years ago "Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences".  It has a female-specific chapter as well as a minority-specific chapter.  It was fairly interesting; women seemed more likely to get discouraged at a poor grade, but academically they were as able.  Also, another study I had to read was about agile practices, like pairing; it seems that in a paired environment women did do much better in programming courses, regardless of the ability level of the person they were paired with.  I don't think the issue is raw ability here, I think it's that some people get discouraged more easily than others, and there are ways of dealing with that.
I'd also wonder why this topic comes up about once a fortnight, because I doubt that the majority of programming jobs require all those deep mathematical or problem solving skills people are touting here.  I know not all of my jobs have required all that much brainpower.  Writing SQL scripts is not rocket science.  Parsing XML is not rocket science.  Much of what a programmer in an IT department does is just dead simple to the point of narcolepsy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008
You think writing SQL scripts is simple, but you forget all the knowledge that you already have that is necessary for writing those scripts:  how a database is set up, what relationships are, fields, joins, indexes, data types, sorting ... and so on.

And a lot of people just can't or won't learn that stuff, so to them, it's anything but simple.
Prisoner of corporate America
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Here's a question for you: why do we seem to care so much about this?  Stop and ask yourself this: would more women in the industry have any noticeable effect on our lives?  For 99% of us the answer is probably no.

In my case: it would probably have a small influence on the jokes that fly around at lunch, and the eye-candy level would presumably increase.  Yep, that's going to make a major difference in my life.

Seriously, why are people so concerned?
Justice Walker
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Because most of us can't get that hot receptionist to go on a date with us so we must prove our superiority on these message boards at least twice in a lunar cycle -)
Piepton Send private email
Thursday, January 31, 2008

This topic is archived. No further replies will be accepted.

Other recent topics Other recent topics
Powered by FogBugz