Why Are Women Stuck in Soft-Skills Roles in IT?

In 2019, only 19% to 20% of computer software engineers and programmers were women — a number that’s been declining for the past thirty years.

In the midwest, we have observed that women were more likely to be found in mid-management roles — positions dominated by soft skills — rather than technical roles. (But we also need to acknowledge that women are also getting stuck in mid-management — a statement supported by studies about large IT companies and startups).

For decades, a debate has raged whether women are well-suited for technical positions. Is biology the reason we see fewer female engineers? Why are women in tech more likely to be in soft-skills-dominant roles? In this piece, we’ll take a look.

It’s also important to note that the majority of the sources and scientific research that we cite present gender as a binary (men and women). While transgender and nonbinary individuals are not represented in the conversation or the research, they face the same bias and stigma that we address in this piece.

The Biological Debate

In 2017, a software engineer working for Google named James Damore posted a ten-page document entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” into an employee discussion forum. In his document, he pointed to biological differences between men and women to explain why there’s a lack of women in technical roles at Google.

For instance, Damore claims women have a “stronger interest in people rather than things” and have a higher level of neuroticism. “This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”

If Damore’s claims are correct, the differences he points to could explain why more women are found in soft skills positions and, as well as mid-management rather than upper leadership positions.

And Damore is not alone in his thinking. Many employees spoke out both in support and in protest of Damore’s perspective. And two years later (2019), Microsoft underwent a strikingly similar debate in its internal forums. When an employee spoke out against discriminatory hiring at Microsoft, other employees commented:

“Many women simply aren’t cut out for the corporate rat race, so to speak, and that’s not because of ‘the patriarchy,’ it’s because men and women aren’t identical, and women are much more inclined to gain fulfillment elsewhere.”

“We have a plethora of data available that demonstrate women are less likely to be interested in engineering AT ALL than men, and it’s not because of any *ism or *phobia or ‘unconscious bias’- it’s because men and women think very differently from each other, and the specific types of thought process and problem solving required for engineering of all kinds (software or otherwise) are simply less prevalent among women. This is an established fact.”

But is it fact? In general, research has found that there are biological differences at play when we look at how gender impacts psychological traits and interests; however, the scientists that study these differences seem to agree that sex differences are only one factor of many.

For instance, Damore linked to a study by David Schmitt, a psychologist who found that women were more likely to be extroverted, agreeable, and neurotic — traits that supposedly make it difficult for women to shoot for leadership positions and excel in high-stress jobs.

But even Schmitt believes that the sex-based differences he observed are a very small piece of the puzzle. “These sex differences in neuroticism are not very large, with biological sex perhaps accounting for only 10 percent of the variance,” the scientists told WIRED. “The other 90 percent, in other words, are the result of individual variation, environment, and upbringing,” WIRED journalists explained.

Schmitt also said that it was a huge stretch to believe that sex differences would play a big role in someone’s ability to handle the stress of a leadership position at Google.

The findings of one 2013 study of almost 1000 brains seem to support that men and women’s brains were “wired differently.” More recently, a 2016 study of over 1400 brains found that very few subjects were consistent with what you would expect to find in a male or female brain. Instead, most brains they studied had “unique ‘mosaics’ of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males compared with females, and some common in both females and males.” Their findings were consistent with a similar study of the personality traits, interests, and behaviors of over 5,500 individuals revealing that “internal consistency is extremely rare.”

If biological differences make men better developers than women, blind research would back this up, but that’s not what we find. In 2016, the open-source community software platform GitHub analyzed the behavioral differences among 1.4 million users based on gender.

They looked at the percentage of coding suggestions (pull requests) accepted when the gender of the person offering the suggestion was known compared to when the gender was not included in the developer’s profile. GitHub found that women were more likely to have their pull requests accepted than those made by men (78.6% compared to 74.6%) as long as the person accepting the suggestion didn’t know the request was made by a woman.

If the user profile did not identify them as a woman, their requests were accepted 71.8% of the time. If their profile outed their gender, the percentage dropped to 62.5%.

The findings of this study indicate that women are just as good of coders, but there is a bias toward their work.

Bias and Social Stigma

In responses to one popular Quora forum about whether men are better programmers than women, female programmers commented on their experiences:

  • A girl’s interest in programming was seen as “a big behavioral problem – since it affected my social life, my looks and my femininity.”
  • Female coders have been accused of copying code.
  • A computer science student has been encouraged to switch to a “more appropriate” field.

“From what I know,” the most upvoted commenter wrote, “men have no clue how much this affects women’s decision making.”

“Men are better at programming machines,” a male commenter wrote. “Women are better at ‘programming’ human beings.”

Bias against female techs, conscious and unconscious, is prevalent not just within the industry, but also in the education system and in Western society. (There are fewer gender disparities in tech in many non-Western countries).

This bias extends to company policies and opportunities offered to women. Women who choose to have children are often penalized for doing so through lowered pay or the lack of childcare resources. And even though it is more common for parenting responsibilities to be shared equally between parents, researcher Henrik Kleven found that mothers may not be offered opportunities that require travel or long hours “because of the perception that they are the primary caregiver to a child.”

Women in senior and technical roles are also faced with the challenge of being the black sheep on their team or board. Per a 2018 McKinsey report, 40% of women in senior and technical roles are the only woman on their team. This isolation makes women twice as likely to report that they’ve been mistaken for a junior or non-technical staff member and have been excluded or more closely scrutinized than other coworkers at the same level.

Why Diversity in IT Matters

So why do we need more women in technical and senior leadership positions?

The short answer is that diversity and inclusion matter because everyone deserves an equal opportunity to pursue the careers of their choice without discrimination. 

Research has also shown that companies that strive to cultivate an overall inclusive environment benefit greatly from their efforts:

  • Less employee turnover
  • Higher levels of employee engagement and morale
  • An increase in innovation and connection to their customers
  • Increased productivity

And diversity includes more than just gender. People come from different backgrounds including race, class, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities, etc. The more diverse our teams and our management, the more likely those teams are to help everyone in the company thrive and make a difference around differences in pay and quality of life across the country.

Organizations that Are Encouraging Diversity and Inclusion in IT


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