It's no secret that the tech industry has a gender diversity problem. We know, thanks to self-reported diversity statistics from some of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley, that men vastly outnumber women in programming jobs, where much of the power and prestige inside the industry is located. (At Google, women make up 17 percent of technical employees; at Facebook, it's just 15 percent. A less formal survey done in 2013 by Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou found that women represented just 12 percent of engineers at major tech companies.)
But a recent survey of more than 26,000 programmers by Stack Overflow, an online Q&A community for coders, shows that the big tech companies may be doing better than the programming community at large when it comes to including women.
92.1 percent of the respondents to Stack Overflow's 2015 developer survey identified as male; only 5.8 percent identified as female. (The remaining respondents either chose "other" or declined to answer.) The survey was conducted online in February, using ads placed on Stack Overflow, and included respondents from 157 countries.
"Our internal stats suggest the imbalance isn't quite as severe as the survey results would make it seem," the survey's authors write, "but there's no doubt everyone who codes needs to be more proactive welcoming women into the field."
Stack Overflow's active audience may skew more male than the programming world as a whole. Like other online communities oriented toward programmers, the site—which allows programmers to ask and answer questions, and promote helpful responses with "reputation" points—has faced accusations of creating a hostile environment for women. "I know a lot of female programmers, and I know there are a good number of them out there," one user wrote in a 2010 post to Meta Stack Exchange. "But I don't recall ever having one of my questions answered by, nor have I ever answered a question by a female programmer here at Stack Overflow."
In 2013, a team of researchers found that Stack Overflow, whose parent company raised $40 million in a funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz earlier this year, was an "unfriendly" community for women. The researchers wrote:
Although the computing field is generally unbalanced towards men, the community around [Stack Overflow] seems to create and maintain higher barriers to entry for women. It does so by designing an approach to collaboration based on earning prizes, achieving higher status and promoting and fostering extremely fast responses by the participants, in turn producing more reputation and status. Additionally, the presence of sexism in technology- and computing-oriented communities (as in the programming community around the Linux project) is not only under-estimated, but also frowned upon as a “non-problem” by the male audience.
The Stack Overflow survey also turned up some hopeful statistics about tech and gender. 67 percent of female respondents, for example, had less than five years of coding experience, and 37 percent had less than two years. That might mean that young women are joining the coding class and making it less homogenous. Also, women made up a much greater percentage of respondents from India than in the U.S., meaning that at least some countries are having luck closing the gap.
The Stack Overflow survey is just one data point in a long, long chain of evidence that the tech industry's gender imbalance is severe and systemic. But it does raise questions about whether Stack Overflow, one of the central nodes of conversation for programmers in the tech industry, needs to change its site mechanics to make its forums more welcoming to women. In a January post announcing the site's funding round, Andreessen Horowitz investor Chris Dixon compared Stack Exchange (a network of sites that includes Stack Overflow) to Wikipedia. He meant it as a compliment, but given what we know about Wikipedia's mostly-male editor network, perhaps there's a cautionary tale in there, too.