Posts tagged ‘feminism’

As a woman programmer, I have noticed there is something of a gender imbalance in my profession. It’s an issue that’s interested me for a while, not least because people often ask me about what we can do to improve the situation. For myself, I enjoy writing code and I think it’s a great career. The sexism I’ve been aware of has not made a big impact on my life, although I know not everyone has been so fortunate. Susan Fowler’s blog really shocked me earlier this year. I have had some bad experiences, but not like that.

I recently read this article about the history of women in programming, by . She shows this graph comparing percentage women in different university studies in the US. It’s quite stark:

The percentage of women studying Computer Science suffers a trend reversal in the mid 80’s, while the other subjects don’t. The explanation given, is that it’s about then that home computers began to appear on the market, sold as a toy for boys. I lived through that time, and yes, my family bought a ZX Spectrum in the mid 80’s when I was about 10 years old, and yes, my younger brother learnt to program it and I didn’t. Fortunately I managed to learn to program later on anyway.

All this got me thinking about my current situation. I live in Sweden, and it’s a very different culture than the US. For example, I was reading about the concept of ‘male privilege‘. One of the examples given is that men have the privilege of keeping their name when they marry, while women are questioned if they keep theirs. The thing is, in Sweden, this is not true. Either partner may change their name and it’s not remarkable for them both to keep their original names, or both swap to something entirely different. That’s something of a trivial example, but I do think it is a sign of a wider cultural difference. Privilege is experienced in a social context, and Sweden has a much more feminist society in many ways. (See for example this page about gender equality in Sweden)

So I became curious to see whether the same thing happened in Sweden – did the proportion of women computer scientists also drop in the 80’s? I discovered that the Swedish statistical authority collects and publishes data on this kind of thing, and you can search it via a web gui. I started poking around on it and soon I was hooked. Loads of really interesting data lying around waiting to be analysed!

Here is the plot I came up with, that is showing somewhat equivalent data to the graph on the US that I showed earlier:

(If you want to check my data, I got it from, from the table “Antal examina i högskoleutbildning på grundnivå och avancerad nivå efter universitet/högskola, examen, utbildningslängd, kön och ålder. Läsår 1977/78 – 2015/16”)

Although the proportion of women in engineering is pretty low compared to the other subjects, it’s encouraging to note that the proportion has increased more than the other subjects. It’s now at a similar level to where doctors, lawyers and architects were thirty-five years ago. (I was disappointed not to find any data for Natural Sciences. I’m not sure why that’s excluded from the source database). Anyway, I’m not seeing this trend change in the 80’s, the curve is fairly smoothly upwards. I suspect the subject breakdown isn’t detailed enough to pick out Computer Science from the wider Engineering discipline, and that could explain it.

So I’ve done some more digging into the data to try to find if there was a turning point in the mid 80’s for aspiring women programmers. I think something did happen in Sweden, actually. This is the graph that I think shows it:

(I’m using the data sources “Anställda 16-64 år i riket efter yrke (3-siffrig SSYK 96), utbildningsinriktning (SUN 2000), ålder och kön. År 2001 – 2013” and “Antal examina i högskoleutbildning på grundnivå och avancerad nivå efter universitet/högskola, examen, utbildningslängd, kön och ålder. Läsår 1977/78 – 2015/16”, the SSYK codes I used are shown in the title of the graph)

If you look at the blue curve for 2001, you can see it peaks at age 35-39 years – that is, there were a higher proportion of women programmers at that age than other ages. If you were 35-39 in 2001, you were probably doing your studies in the mid to late 80’s. Notice that the proportion of women at younger ages is lower. The green and yellow curves for 2005 and 2010 continue to show the same peak, just moved five years to the right. The proportion of women coming in at the younger agegroups remains lower. The orange curve for 2015 is a little more encouraging – at least the proportion of women in the youngest two age-groups has levelled off and is no longer sinking!

So it looks to me like there was a trend change in the mid to late 80’s in Sweden too – the proportion of women entering the profession seems to drop from then on, based on this secondary evidence. I imagine that computers were also marketed here as a boy’s toy. I really hope that things are changing today in Sweden, and that more women are studying computer science than before.

For reference, I did similar curves for several other professions, using the same dataset.

So there are a lot of women lawyers out there, and the proportion looks to be continuing to increase.

Male nurses seem to have things worse than female programmers, unfortunately. Plus I can’t see any real trend in this graph – the situation is bad and fairly stable.

The proportion of women police officers levelled off for a while but they’ve managed to turn things around, and it is now increasing again.

So programming is the only profession I discovered that has this decreasing trend of women participation, even if it has now levelled off. Let’s hope that changes to an upward trend soon – my daughters will by applying to university in about ten year’s time…



On Saturday I was up in Stockholm facilitating my fourth code retreat for Valtech, and my second Global Day of Code Retreat. It seemed to go very well. I tried out a few new elements, which seemed to make it go even better than the previous ones, so I thought I’d talk about them here in my blog.

The first thing we changed was that we had quotas for men and women, and we were aiming for a 50/50 gender balance. About a month before the code retreat, we were fully booked, with 20 places each for men and women taken. In the end several people dropped out at the last minute, and there were slightly more men. Still, it was a much better balance than last year. I think it made for a healthier atmosphere during the day, and we encouraged more women to be active in the community generally.

The second thing we changed was I didn’t require people to do Game of Life, I suggested some other code katas as alternatives. Game of Life is an excellent kata for practicing skills like writing clean code, simple design, and TDD generally. It’s also really fun to be doing an excercise that thousands of other programmers are also working on. However, I realized that around 1/3 of the people who’d signed up for the event had already been to a previous code retreat, and might be getting bored with Game of Life. We’re there to have fun, after all!

As I’ve been working on my book, and running various coding dojos recently, I’ve been thinking hard about TDD and how to learn it. It’s a multifaceted skill, and some katas allow you to focus on particular aspects of it, which can make practice more rewarding. For a complete beginner to TDD, Game of Life is actually quite hard to get started with, I’ve seen a lot of people struggling with it.  So in my introduction I highlighted four other katas people could choose from, as well as Game of Life:

  • String Calculator – good for the TDD newbie, since it really leads you by the hand
  • Tennis – good for practicing refactoring
  • GildedRose – good for practicing writing really good tests (and refactoring)
  • TyrePressure – good for understanding SOLID principles

People seemed to generally appreciate having a choice. Some pairs chose a String Calculator for their first couple of sessions, to get used to TDD, then went on to Game of Life for the others. Some pairs tried out Tennis, Gilded Rose and Tyre Pressure in the afternoon, instead of one of the other challenges. Some pairs who were already good at TDD tried out String Calculator in Clojure, and found it let them concentrate on the learning the language not solving the problem. One person, (who has been to 3 code retreats previously), didn’t do Game of Life all day, and said he really enjoyed himself and learnt loads!

The third thing we changed was that I suggested people try cyber-dojo as a coding environment. This is a tool designed by Jon Jagger as an aid to practicing your coding skills. It provides a basic editor/testing environment, and records the state of the code every time you run the tests. You can review all your changes in the session retrospective, and get a picture of how well your TDD was going.

Before the code retreat, I had set up cyber dojos for Game of Life, and Tennis. I put up the cyber-dojo ids on the whiteboard, and through the day most of the pairs tried it out for one or more sessions.

As a facilitator, I found it really helpful when going up to a pair, to be able to see the little row of traffic light symbols at the top of their screen. I could quickly get an overview of how their session was going. For example, if I see a few red-green-yellow sequences then I can infer they are probably doing ok at TDD. If I can see nothing bug a long string of yellow, then I know they’re in trouble!

For the pairs, some liked cyber-dojo because it meant they didn’t waste any time setting up their coding environment at the start of the session. For those doing Tennis, if they made a refactoring mistake, they could very easily just click on the most recent green traffic light to revert back to a known good state, and practice doing the refactoring again. Some pairs found it helpful in the retrospective to review their session in the tool.

Other pairs didn’t get on so well with cyber-dojo. Some couldn’t live without their usual editor commands. Some got confused by the lack of syntax highlighting. A couple found a bug in cyber-dojo that it lost touch with the server and stopped updating their test results, whatever they did to the code. (The workaround is to open the same url in a new window, btw).

I know Jon is aware of this bug, and I’m sure he’ll track it down, but actually the lack of syntax highlighting and editor commands is deliberate. It’s the same idea as the other challenges, like mute pairing etc – to throw you out of your comfort zone and make you really concentrate on the way you code.

So that was the three things we changed – gender balance, other katas, cyber-dojo. What we didn’t change was the overall format or aims of the day. We still paired for 5 sessions of 45 minutes, and threw away the code afterwards. We still had coding challenges like “Mute pairing with find the loophole” and “Maximum 4 line methods”, and held retrospectives after every session. I think deliberate practice in a group is at the core of what makes Code Retreat (and coding dojos!) fun and valuable. The changes we introduced were all designed to enhance the learning experience, and were based on experience and reflection after previous events.

Overall I was very pleased with all the changes we introduced, and I’d like to do it like that again. If you’re facilitating or organizing a code retreat, perhaps you’d like to introduce some of these elements too.

I’ve never been to Öredev before, and it really is a very impressive conference. Gathered in Malmö right now, is over a thousand developers, with a collection of speakers representing the elite of the global software development industry. The sessions are overflowing with a plethora of great advice, news and inspiration. That’s primarily why I’m here, although I could also praise the excellent conference organization, food, live music, sponsor giveaways and other entertainments.

I’d like to talk about my first impressions of the conference. As with other software conferences I’ve been too, women are rather unusual here, both among delegates and speakers. I’ve blogged about this before, and it’s not untypical. The sad fact is that the proportion of women is low, and, unlike in other industries, actually falling in software development.

I’d just like to relate two experiences I had yesterday.

Women speakers
I’m here as an ordinary delegate at this conference, but at most conferences I go to, I’m a speaker. I was really happy to be greeted yesterday by Dan North, Gojko Adzic, Pat Kua, Corey Haines and others, since they’re people who I really respect. I’ve mostly got to know them when we’ve spoken at the same conferences in the past. Of course they all asked me which day I was speaking on at Öredev. Well, the easy answer is that I was not asked to speak here. I looked on the Öredev conference website and there was no call for submissions, unlike other conferences I have spoken at like XP, Agile Testing Days, ScanDev, Agile, JFokus etc. I assumed that it was invitation only, and the track chairs would mail me if they were interested in having me speak. Now I realize that I should have mailed them to point out I wanted to speak here.

I think I just fell into this trap that women apparently often fall into, described in this article I read this week: “Four Ways Women Stunt Their Careers Unintentionally“. Apparently we tend to be “overly modest” and “women fail to get promoted because they fail to step up and apply”. So I didn’t apply, and I didn’t get a job to speak at Öredev. #kickingmyself

Neal Ford’s keynote
I listened to a keynote by Neal Ford yesterday. I’ve heard him speak before, and he is always very entertaining and yet makes some interesting points about software. It’s just a small thing he said that really bothered me. A keynote speech is supposed to set the tone for a whole conference – you have the everybody gathered, and you’re supposed to say something inspirational and thought provoking.

One of Neal’s jokes was about some obscure Star Trek reference that I didn’t get (although from the audience reaction I’m guessing most others did), that he followed up with a slide showing the top Google image results when you searched for this thing. He made some comment about google knowing that when you search for this, you’re really asking for porn. He had helpfully airbrushed out the image results so you could only vaguely see the outline of naked women.

Neal, you really didn’t need to do that. Your talk had enough fun stuff in it without alienating me with science fiction references and disguised porn.

Looking forward
There are two more days of the main conference, and plenty more good stuff on the programme. I’ve spotted a session called “geek feminism” in the “extra” track. I’ve never thought of myself as a geek feminist, but maybe I am. Having had the experiences described above, I think I’ll go along and find out.