Women Coders Better than Men (as Long as Nobody Knows They are Female), Apparently.



23 Feb 2016


7 minute read

The conclusion drawn by a study published last week has found that code written by women on the Open Source programming website, GitHub, is, in fact, more likely to be accepted and approved than their male counterparts. That is, at least, when their reviewing peers don't know they're female. 

Academics from North Carolina State University and California Polytechnic State University decided to examine the prevalence of gender bias in programming on GitHub -- one of the largest open source coding communities in the world. They expected their research to confirm that gender bias in software development is overwhelmingly prejudiced against code written by women. The results, however, were intriguing.  

The two professors and a small army of students who contributed to the research examined “pull requests” on GitHub as the source data for their analysis. Specifically, they looked at the behaviour of coders, and the way in which female programmers were perceived and subsequently treated on GitHub utilising some different methodologies.

Unexpected findings and ghosts in the machine

The researchers found that despite 92% of software developers being men, the small number of female coders were proportionally more likely to have their work approved and viewed favourably on GitHub, as long as they didn't identify themselves as women.

“Our results show that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s…However, when a woman’s gender is identifiable, they are rejected more often.”

The results do throw a spanner in the works for the standard response by the tech industry when attempting to justify the conspicuous lack of women in tech generally.

The general synopsis is that the female species is less involved in technology due to either a lack of interest or skill. (Not my words!) This lack of interest means they therefore don't pursue coding at an early age or consider it a future career path. With these revelations by GitHub, though, that argument might just be total BS! Instead, bias against women coders may be one of the primary reasons that they are not as readily accepted in the male-dominated industry, which has nothing to do with either interest levels or a lack of 'skillz'.

The researchers, looking at around 3 million individual pull requests on GitHub, discovered that code written by women was approved at a rate of 78.6%. Code written by men, however, had an approval rate of 74.6%.

Ok, so it might be difficult to raise any eyebrows at a 4% difference between males and females based on that figure. I mean, it’s hardly conclusive, isn't it? But, it's the next bit of information that confirms the prevalent bias against females.

You see, that 4% number is only held to be true when the gender of both the male and female coders’ gender was not “identifiable.” The acceptance rate for women coders when their gender was noted in their profile was worse than men's, dropping to a considerably lower approval rating of 62.5%. Shut the front door.

"Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless."

But wait, there's more!

The study also found that women comprehensively dominated their male counterparts in every single coding language, from C++ to Java, and back again.  In one quick move, this also kills the idea that women are somehow less well-represented in the ‘hardcore' programming languages. It also adds weight to the study’s analysis that overall, code written by women is in fact judged to be better in a community of their coding peers than men's.

But, men still outnumber women considerably, don't they?

Well, yes they do, which is why the new research is particularly important in the context of the future of computer science. The results show that gender equilibrium, when it comes to coding at any rate, should be a much more balanced field that it currently is. 

We must actively ensure that technology and coding do not remain the 'boys' club' in schools. Hopefully in the future, women will at least be given the opportunity to succeed at careers in technology and coding.

Besides, science has proved that women are at least as competent as men.

"At least as competent as men?"

It's a small detail, but the study has yet to be peer reviewed.

At present, despite the evidence provided by the research, the findings and conclusions have yet to be verified by other academics and institutions, which is actually quite a big deal in the science realm.

It's not enough to just do the research, publish the findings, and claim them as gospel. I'm not saying the study could be flawed; I'm just saying that it will be a few months before anyone can go around shouting with definitiveness, "It's true, it's true!" But, that said, they might be onto something huge here.

The paper concludes"Women have a higher acceptance rate of pull requests overall, but when they're outsiders and their gender is identifiable, they have a lower acceptance rate than men…In closing, as anecdotes about gender bias persist, it's imperative that we use big data to better understand the interaction between genders."

"While our big data study does not definitely prove that differences between gendered interactions are caused by bias among individuals, the trends observed in this paper are troubling. The frequent refrain that open source is a pure meritocracy must be reexamined."

The full report of the study can be read here.


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