Power, dissent, and bullying in software developer communities

Grassroots developer communities form around shared values in dissent against institutions and norms that dehumanize their work and diminish their efforts. They attack these orthodoxies with humor, heretical thinking, and hard work.

This benefits society when developers defy those with greater power. It harms society when developers bully people with less power.

At the ThoughtWorks sponsored Agile East, Martin Fowler spoke to his post, SmutOnRails.

Part of the community was offended by a presentation at the GoGaRuCo (Golden Gate Ruby Conference). Others fought back saying that no offense was meant, the presenter apologized, and that the tone was in the spirit of the Rails community.

(T)he view of the rails leadership seems to be this: that the objections to the presentation are yet another attempt to foist empty corporate values on the thriving Rails ecosystem… (more)

This debate is not unique to the Rails community. It reminds me of concerns my friend, Luke Melia, raised over jokes and behavior at the first Austin Alt.NET. Martin Fowler links off to a similar controversy in the Flash community.

It is also not unique to developer communities but developers in particular need to be concerned about the outcome.

Women, African Americans and Hispanics are under-represented in IT and even more so in software development. In 2001-2002 74.4% of software developers were men. 78% of those men were white.

In 1986 the percentage of women in CS programs peaked at 37%. The percentage of women in computer science programs has gone down since then.

In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent. — What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?, NY Times

There were 15,000 women in CS progreams in 1986. Riding natural cycles this number was not matched again until 2003. This latter number contains a higher percentage of non-resident aliens who will not necessarily contribute to the US workforce.

This despite higher percentages and numbers of women acquiring college educations than men. In 2007, 33% of women 25-29 held a four year degree or higher versus 26% of men. 55% of graduates with four year degrees or higher aged 25-29 were women.

Women are even receiving the majority of degrees in science and technology. They have shown steady progress in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and engineering.

Metrics can be misinterpreted but these quantitative measures support a stunningly obvious anecdotal observation. US software developers are a white male enclave.

This is a power imbalance and we developers are part of the problem.

Isolation is a key factor for a higher attrition rate among women and minorities, said Teresa Dahlberg, director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at UNC Charlotte. People tend to associate with “like communities,” where people have similar backgrounds and interests, she explained. — Computer science lacks women, minorities, SD Times

So when we behave in a way that marginalizes and intimidates talented women and minorities, we abuse power. We become bullies. We are oppressors.

“There is a good amount of research that shows that women are judged more harshly than men, for hiring, evaluations and promotions,” she added. “Virginia Valian [author of "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women"] shows this for women in science, technology, engineering and math faculty jobs.” Virginia Valian is a professor at Hunter College. — SD Times

Part of the problem may be a perception that software development doesn’t contribute enough to society. To the degree this perception is true it is damning. To the degree it is just a perception we have work to do as advocates.

Our actions need to be judged not by our intentions but by the outcome.

Requisite variety within our teams remains an essential enabling condition for sustained innovation.

Access to technology is growing across all tiers of class, race and gender both in the US and overseas. Diverse teams can better address our market and build software better adapted to our end users.

A more diverse workforce provides the kind of social change that will help us create a more humane workplace for developers.

Finally, anything that limits the number of able US software developers hurts our ability to compete.

When developer communities marginalize women and minorities, we conspire to isolate ourselves from the larger society. We defeat our own attempts to change the power structures around us and improve our lot and our output.

Working on a paper about women in software development

dandelionI just submitted a paper on agile values and the underrepresentation of women in software development.

This is not an original topic but the research I’ve read has focused on how women who participate in agile practices, particularly XP pair programming have more favorable impressions of the work and of their ability to contribute both of which are correlated to entering the occupation.1,2

My belief is that agile practices are tools but it is the agile values that give us the urgency, courage and insight to wield those tools towards a desired outcome.

That is, we are much more capable of making software development more tolerant and inviting of diversity if we believe we should do this as part of our core mission as Agilists to develop with craft and quality and to deliver value to our employers and our end users (do not forget).

So, the rough outline of my paper is this:

  • The shortage of women entering software development and disproportionate share of women leaving mid-career is real and measurable and well documented.
  • The problem is worse in IT than it is in almost all other areas of STEM because, unusually, the percentage of women in software development has actually declined over the last 20 years.
  • This shortage and particularly the attrition of experienced women developers represents a material burden to our industry.
  • Product teams that represent the diversity of their customers have a potential advantage in developing products that appeal to that diverse customer base
  • Women are at least the equals of men when it comes to influencing consumer technology spending and online activity
  • Therefore, it is in the interest of the industry to educate, recruit and retain women developers
  • Agile is a collection of practices united by a coherent set of principles
  • As agile becomes mainstream it is more important than ever that practitioners understand and embody these principles
  • The creators of the Agile Manifesto realize this and are calling us to a principled approach to our work
  • These principles are at stake when it comes to things that affect the competitiveness, insight into end users, and potential for innovation in our teams
  • If we engage our agile practices behind this principled cause we can begin to remove the impediments within our own organizations to the recruitment and retention of women
  • When we do, we will influence larger changes across the industry, within education and in society

I’ll go into more detail and try to defend my arguments in later posts. In the meantime, I’m happy to engage with anyone who finds fault in my premise.


1S. Berenson and K. Slaten. “Voices of women in a software engineering course” in JERIC, vol. 4.1, Mar. 2004.

2O. Hazzan and Y. Dubinsky. “Empower Gender Diversity with Agile Software Development” in Encyclopedia of Gender and Information Technology. E. Taugh, Ed. Hershey, PA: IGI-Global, 2006, pp 249-256.

Are we driving women away from software development?

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45 on Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers.

I’ve broken the fifty slide, eighteen minute presentation into several posts.

This first part uses existing research to establish:

  • women are under-represented in software development,
  • this is a multi-decade trend atypical of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM),
  • women are leaving mid-career in disproportionate numbers and
  • young women are opting out as early as middle and high school.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

There is an abundance of research on the problems women face in our field. I would love real researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference here.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.


(1-2) Hello,

My premise is the lack of women developers in the US is an impediment to value delivery and product innovation in the software industry.

In light of this, Agile principles call on practitioners to confront hostile workplace conditions and enterprises to address the material impediments of pay and advancement.

This beneficial change in teams and companies can incrementally change perceptions in the larger society.


(3) To introduce myself

I’m a software practitioner not a consultant or educator. I’ve studied and applied Agile methods for nine years.

I’ve spent most of my career in woman run organizations.


(4) I have a daughter

…who loves technology and sought out a culturally diverse, math and science school in Brooklyn. So, this topic is personal to me.


C. Hayes. “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” in Gender Codes : Why Women Are Leaving Computing. T. Misa, Ed. Hoboken, N.J. IEEE Computer Society, 2010, pg. 33

(5) Women are underrepresented in Computer Science

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent 46% of the workforce but only 25% of software developers. Over two decades the percentage of women developers has steadily declined.

S. Hewlett and C. Luce,. “The Athena Factor.” Harvard Business Review, pp. 51, Jun. 2008.


(6) Women are leaving mid-career

Women are leaving IT in larger numbers than men. 56% of women leave mid-career across all technology occupations. 41% leave their careers in “high technology” compared to only 17% of men. Half of women leaving STEM careers leave the STEM sector completely.

Four Decades of STEM Degrees, 1966-2004: ‘The Devil is in the Details.’” CPST, Sep. 2006, pg. 3.


(7) Women are not studying Computer Science

According to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, in the decade between 1986 and 1995 the number of women earning Computer Science bachelor’s degrees dropped 55%. As of 2010, the percentage was still falling despite growing percentages of women graduating from four year colleges. This is not typical of STEM where 49% of bachelor degrees go to women.

N. Zarrett and O. Malanchuk. “Examining the Gender Gap in IT by Race” in Women and IT. J. Chohoon and W. Aspray Ed. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press, 2006, pp.55-88.


(8) Young Women are disinterested in pursuing high tech education or careers

The Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study, a longitudinal study of 1,400 white and african american students found that women were much more likely to have no interested in IT related careers and degrees than men.


(9) At what cost to the software industry?

In the last decade, the U.S. software industry represented $200B in annual sales and employed 2.2M software professionals. McKinsey & Co estimates in this decade, demand for mid-career IT professionals will increase by 25% while the available pool will decrease by 15%. This in a country where 71% of workers are in jobs with low demand or an oversupply of eligible candidates.


(10) The cost of attrition

And let’s also get at the cost of attrition. According to HR magazine, it costs approximately 100-125% of an employee’s annual salary to replace them. Retaining one-quarter of the women who leave computer engineering mid-career could represent a ten year savings of $8B to the industry.

Next: Are women are under-served by software…

The full citation list for my paper.

Are women are under-served by software?

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers Part 2 of 7


(11) Lost opportunity in the software industry (Product)

The lack of women on software teams is also a potential loss to product innovation…

(12) Women are our customer

Women directly or indirectly influence 61% of U.S. consumer electronics purchases[18].

(13) Women in gaming

Women are 42% of active game players and 48% of frequent game purchasers. And if you think they’re just buying them for their kids, industry research shows women 18 and over are 37% of game players whereas boys 17 and under are only 13%[19].

(14) Women on the internet

Half (50.4%) of the internet population is women 18 and over. They spend an average of 38 hours per month online. They spend 5% more time than men in online social networking and 20% more time on online shopping. Women account for 58% of internet buyers, 61% of internet transactions and 58% of internet dollars.

(15) Women are underserved

Software products are generally designed with no consideration for women as distinct user groups. In “Gender differences in Web Usability”, Frank Spillars states, “Gender differentiation is barely present in North American technology product design… let alone Web experiences[22].”

(16) how women perceive and use software

In “Towards Female Preferences in Design.” the authors found differences in the ways men and women perceive and describe software products. “The results of this research have revealed female-oriented themes that should… enlarge views of pleasurable product design attributes and language for the genders[23].”

(17) three ways companies fail.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) highlights three ways companies fail to address women consumers: Poor product design: failing to tailor products to women’s unique needs and challenges.

(18) three ways companies fail.

Clumsy sales and marketing: based on outdated images and stereotypes.

(19) three ways companies fail.

Inability to provide meaningful hooks or differentiation: considering women indistinguishable from the general customer population or thinking of them as one monolithic segment[24].


Next: Can women devs help software better address the needs of women end users…

Previous: Are we driving women away from software development?

All slides published to date.

There is abundant research on the problems women face in our field. I would love researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.

Please comment on my proposal to Agile 2012.

The full citation list for my paper.

Can women devs help software better address the needs of women end users?

These are notes from my presentation at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS) #45.

I’ll link to my full paper when it is available and to subsequent posts as I publish them.

Agile values, product innovation and the shortage of women software developers Part 3 of 7


I. Nonaka and H Takeuchi. The Knowledge Creating Company. New York, NY. Oxford University, 1995

(20) How would having women on dev teams help software better address the needs of women

For this, I’ll lean on the research of Nonaka Ikujiro and Takeuchi Hirotaka . This slide is an illustration of their concept of the product development cycle in serially innovative companies. It requires the creation and sharing of two kinds of knowledge within the organization. Explicit knowledge – that which we can explain in words – and tacit knowledge – that which can best be expressed by doing. This concept of knowledge creation and techniques for forming teams that support it are the roots of the most widely adopted Agile process framework, Scrum[39]. Nonaka and Takeuchi emphasize that an enabling condition for sustained innovation is, requisite variety, having a product team made of members with different backgrounds, perspectives and motivations. Requisite variety applies to cross-functional teams but also to team members with diverse life experience. Because it is through life experience that we acquire tacit knowledge.

T. Oshita, et. al. Bread Baking Machine. US Patent Office, 2004

(21) Matsushita Example of Tacit Knowledge

The classic example of the incorporation of tacit knowledge into a disruptive product design is the first Matsushita bread machine. It took a hands on experience of baking bread by one of the product engineers (a woman) to crack how to implement the mechanics of kneading dough in a bread maker.

(22) Team diversity and delivering value

Women are significant customers and influencers in the buying decision for software and software dependent technology. Statistically, women have different perceptions and preferences for software. Therefore, according to knowledge creation theory, it is a competitive advantage to have women individual contributors bring their tacit knowledge to software product development.


Next: Do Agile principles demand we confront the shortage of women developers…

Previous: Are women are under-served by software?

All slides published to date.

There is abundant research on the problems women face in our field. I would love researchers to jump in on whether Agile principles and Agile practioners can really make a difference.

I’d also love any suggestions of organizations, institutions and individuals I might reach out to for more information, collaboration, or to take up the cause.

Please comment on my proposal to Agile 2012.

The full citation list for my paper.