Software development gender gap pondered

Issues, possibles solutions aired at Rails conference

With software development a male-dominated profession, a panel of women developers this week pondered issues causing the imbalance as well as strategies to address it.

At the RailsConf 2009 conference in Las Vegas Tuesday, three women involved in software development tackled the issue in a session entitled "Women in Rails." Causes for the imbalance ranging from a lack of women in computer science programs to women leaving the field to have babies and underestimating their chances when job opportunities arise were cited.

Panelist Sarah Mei, a developer for 10 years and a Rails user since 2006, said she has been trying get more women to attend San Francisco meetings pertaining to Ruby. She also has been reaching out to Web designers as well as to women who have never programmed before.

Women, though, have kept a low profile in the community. "I think that being visible is not something women do easily," Mei, of LookSmart, said.

Also on the panel, Lori Olson, a developer for 23 years and senior architect at Labrador Technologies, said that she might consider doing more self-promotion so other women know that software development is a viable career. She said she has remained a developer despite overtures to move into management.

Mei said she spends time teaching JavaScript to high school girls and encouraging them to consider programming. Girls also are finding their way around MySpace, she said.

"I find it very encouraging that these days, every teenage girl that I know can make their own MySpace page," said Mei. "They don't think of it as programming."

Taking time off to have babies has affected employment opportunities for women, Mei, a mother herself, noted. "There's a lot of women [who] drop out when [they] have kids," she said.  Then, when they seek to return, "they come out and they can't even get interviews because of this gap in their resume," Mei said.

Historical issues also were noted. In the 1990s, computer science programs were set up to be difficult to weed out persons. This was because there were more applicants than available spots for developers, Mei said. "All of the women dropped out because the guys generally had been programming since they were in high school or earlier," she said. Since then, a lot of computer science programs have not made adjustments in the way things were done in the 1990s, she said.

Mei also cited a recent newspaper article about the "macho gaming culture" suppressing the number of women in programming. "I have no idea how to address it, but it seems to be an issue," she said.

Olson said women have been migrating out of the developer role and becoming designers and testers. "I think we need a way to reverse this trend," she said.

More women might be able to attend a conference like RailsConf if there were child care available, Mei said. Panelists also discussed assisting women with paying for such an event.

After the session, Mei acknowledged that computer science in general suffers from an image problem that includes fears about jobs being outsourced and other issues. But spurring innovation requires expanding the field of programmers, she stressed.

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