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Where Are All the Women Programmers?

How to make women feel more welcome in tech.

Key points

  • Only 5 percent of the world's professional programmers are women, according to the Internet’s largest developer survey.
  • An important factor in high-school students' career decisions is feeling like they belong and are welcome in the new community.
  • Female role models and mentorship can help drive more women to tech.

“Without Stack Overflow, I’d be unemployed,” many programmers will tell you, referring to the online forum that helps solve coding problems. The site is built around questions and answers, and anything goes—from entry-level issues to, quite literally, rocket science. The community is large and diverse, and it more or less represents everyone and everything in software.

Every year, Stack Overflow asks tens of thousands of developers about their experiences in tech. It’s the largest survey of its kind, and it tells us about the kind of people involved in building software around the globe.

In the section for demographics, under “gender split,” you’ll find that, in 2022, only about 5 percent of the professional programming participants were women. The percentage is low, consistent with other reports, and doesn’t move much either. Year after year, the survey reports similar statistics.

Whether the lack of women in tech sounds like a big deal or not is up to the reader to decide. At the end of the day, if half the population is not interested in a profession as a whole, that’s nobody else’s business but theirs.

The question is this: Are women actually uninterested in programming, or do they feel unwelcome?

As someone who’s also been writing code professionally for the better part of the past 20 years, it’s hard for me to believe that that many people would be uninterested in software. For one, it’s a pretty convenient job! There aren’t many careers that would be easier to tailor to just about any lifestyle. If you want to work remotely or at a desk, if you want a full-time job or a side hustle, there’s a job for you. Programming also pays rather well, and it’s not like you’ll have to lie about what you do for a living at a cocktail party.

Come to think of it, programming may be man’s best-kept secret.

Programming the Funnel

To land a decent programming job, one has to spend some time learning software development. Starting at a young age helps, and what one chooses to spend their free time on in high school can make a huge difference later in life. Students whose classmates think computers are cool are more inclined to think so themselves.

High school has a huge influence on what one chooses to study, and most statistics do show a gender gap in new university students in STEM programs. The size of the difference depends on the country and other factors, but—to give you a ballpark figure—a 2017 study in Canada determined the gap to be 13.2 percent.

Other researchers have found that the number of same-sex peers one has makes a difference. For example, if a girl has more girlfriends in her class, she is less likely to make gender-stereotypical choices. Role models are huge as well: Girls with mothers in tech are more likely to choose a major in STEM.

In South Korea, kids are assigned to all-girls, all-boys, and co-educational high schools at random, a system that offers unique insight into how a person’s preferences can change by the time they’re ready to choose a career. It turns out that students at either an all-girls or an all-boys school perform better on math tests, but students at an all-boys school are more likely to choose a college major in STEM. Girls’ skills might be on par, but they are less interested in following through.

The first step in changing anything is to measure it. Researchers have been looking for the root of the gender gap for a long time. In the Canadian study mentioned above, David Card and his colleagues found that the difference can be at least partially explained by the comparative advantage that girls enjoy in other courses: They may be good at math, but their English or French skills are even more impressive.

Soft Landing

Inspiring more women to go into science starting in high school is a great thing, but that only changes the supply side of the equation. Gender discrimination in the workplace is real, and women programmers face an uphill battle when entering the job market.

In 2020, the World Economic Forum recommended that organizations should introduce diversity programs to ensure equal representation in all phases of the talent pipeline. Increasing the visibility of women in powerful, traditionally male-dominated occupations should reduce stereotyping and discrimination. Simply by virtue of seeing other people like us, we feel a sense of belonging that, in turn, makes us feel more welcome.

Modeling Role Models

One of the most important factors affecting a young person’s career decisions is needing to feel like they belong—to feel like they’re welcome in their new community.

In an effort to reduce the gender gap in science, policymakers often propose mentoring. Role models are everywhere—in TV shows, at school, and at home. Regardless of their gender, people with parents in STEM are more likely to find a similar career than those with parents in other fields.

Simply promoting women mentors can narrow the gender gap in STEM enrollment and graduation. Here, scientists have another important role besides mentoring: They are role models. It is their “job” to counter negative stereotypes and change their mentees’ expectations for the positive.

The glass ceiling has long been broken. Ada Lovelace was the first programmer, and that was in the early 1800s (notice the absence of the “female” qualifier here). The more women who work in tech, the more women will be drawn to tech. We just need a few more women mentors and role models who have been successful in software.


Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2022:

Canaan, Serena and Mouganie, Pierre, Female Science Advisors and the STEM Gender Gap (May 26, 2019).

Card, David E. and Payne, A. Abigail, High School Choices and the Gender Gap in STEM (September 19, 2017). Melbourne Institute Working Paper No. 25/17,

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