It’s Different For Girls

In this blog post, a New York venture capitalist expresses his concern about an urgent national problem: the underrepresentation of women in software engineering.

Why this would, by itself, be an urgent national problem is hard to imagine. From an end-user’s perspective, what matters is that software does what it’s supposed to, reliably and without risk. (The genital anatomy of the programmer, as far as I am aware, is ignored by most compilers.)

No, this is seen as a social problem, of considerable urgency. Why would that be? I can think of two possible reasons.

The first is the belief that the relatively low numbers of female programmers must be due to pernicious social oppression and obstruction. This is a serious charge! In order to convict, however, one should establish its truth beyond a reasonable doubt. To do that, one must rule out other possible causes.

First among the possibilities to eliminate, of course, is that the innate cognitive and dispositional qualities that confer programming talent, and that attract people to this peculiar and highly abstract profession,might be distributed differently among males and females, as a result of our evolutionary history. There will always, nevertheless, be women who love solving the sort of problems that programmers solve, and who don’t mind spending long hours at the computer every day solving them. I’m a professional software engineer myself, and I have known some gifted female coders. But might it not be the case that software engineering is simply the sort of thing to which more males are attracted, and for which more males have the talent to succeed? One thing I know about programming: if you don’t love it, you’ll soon come to hate it. The hours are long and sedentary, the work can be terribly frustrating, and the workplace pressure can be almost unbearable. Maybe males are just, on average, more likely to be the ones who love it enough to want to do it for a living. Maybe they are also just somewhat more likely to have the kind of cognitive architecture it takes to do it well.

Do we have any compelling reason to eliminate this hypothesis? No. What we have instead is, rather, a growing body of evidence that coherently and consistently supports it, as well as the simple common sense of the ages, and the plain, overwhelming fact that all human societies, always and everywhere, have divided themselves into sexually differentiated roles.

Does this mean that some sort of social obstruction doesn’t exist, or has never existed, regarding women programmers? Of course not. But the numbers are stubborn, even as society ties itself into knots trying to equalize them. The author of the post in question, for example, speaks about a training program that admits qualified applicants purely by lottery. It’s still mostly males, nevertheless:

At The Academy For Software Engineering (AFSE), we use a “limited unscreened” model to accept students. It’s limited because you have to attend an open house and make AFSE your first choice, but once you do those two things, its a lottery system to get in. So effectively the distributiion of students admitted is going to be very similar to the distribution of students who apply and make the school their first choice. In our first year, we admitted 24% young women. In our second year, the percentage was less, I believe below 20%.

So things are getting worse, not better. (As I said, we are looking at a national emergency here.)

If you insist on ruling out the possibility of natural male/female asymmetries, however, then the only explanation that remains is the one that consumes “progressive” sorts as an unquenchable flame: systematic cultural oppression, the eradication of which, down to the last “microagression”, is the primary duty of a just society. (We note that to do so requires assuming power, and exerting control. This has an obvious, and timeless, appeal.)

The other possibility is that such differences are, in fact, innate, but that they must be eliminated (admittedly, a minority view; the blank-slate/cultural-oppression tine of this fork is far more popular). Fortunately, human nature itself being but clay in the hands of the wise and the just, this can be fixed, too, if the right sort of pressure is applied.

By a happy convergence, both problems are amenable to the same remedies. Regarding the declining numbers quoted above, we read:

This is very upsetting to me and we are working on a number of things to change this.


It will require working hard on the parents of the young women and the middle school guidance counselors.

All I can say is that were I such a parent, to learn that I was about to be “worked hard on” by some busybody on a mission to adjust my daughter’s ambitions to fit his Procrustean template would have me reaching for my revolver.

We see here, yet again, the chief feature of the “progressive” way of looking at the world: to reverse cause and effect, and so to imagine that our nature is the product of our culture, rather than the other way around.

As it happens, the maverick feminist Camille Paglia took up the same topic in an astringent interview published just yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. “What you’re seeing”, she begins, “is how a civilization commits suicide.”

Right she is, and so we are. Read more here.


  1. Not sure why you don’t want to comment on Fred’s post and include a link to this post there. In his defense, at least he puts his money where his mouth is. He financed that high school for software programming, and even if it never sees the gender balance he hopes for, it will probably have put some kids on the path to profitable careers, kids who might not have gotten on that path as easily otherwise.

    Also, consider installing Disqus as a comment system here.

    Posted December 30, 2013 at 2:26 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Dave, and thanks for dropping by.

    First, let me say that I think for Fred Wilson to finance that programming school, and thereby to give eager young people with a love of coding the training, support, and opportunity they might otherwise not be able to have, is truly admirable. This kind of private-sector initiative is exactly the way this sort of thing ought to be done, and I salute him for it.

    My only quibbles are with a) the expectation that all human groups should become coders in equal proportion to their representation in the population as a whole; b) the belief that when this doesn’t happen it is a clamant societal problem, and symptomatic of structural oppression; and c) that the solution is aggressive social engineering and re-education.

    As for commenting over at Mr. Wilson’s blog, I generally don’t post oppositional comments at other people’s blogs any more. The ensuing arguments with other commenters become too heated too quickly, and are almost always completely unproductive.

    I’ll look into Disqus — thanks for the suggestion — but I’m really quite happy with the comment system I already have. I find those third-party comment systems rather off-putting, and I think a lot of others do too.

    Posted December 30, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    I’d like you to keep the current comments system in place Malcolm, this way I can see in bigger type so as to insure if I have it, just white it doesn’t take much effort to Torx up.

    Posted December 30, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Re your comment to Dave as to why you don’t comment on others’ blogs, there is a lot to be gained from discussion and even more so when there is disagreement. You don’t need to feel compelled to respond to each comment. You can also pick and choose where you comment. I recognize that (Fred Wilson’s blog community) is unique. As a result this is where I do much of my commenting and learning. I am also a Disqus advocate. One of the great advantages is that it allows me to discover where people I respect (like Dave above) are commenting. The reason I read your post is that someone mentioned in an AVC comment that he had commented here and provided a link. But mainly I appreciate how conducive Disqus is to discussion. I guess it has a lot to do with what you want to accomplish with your blog.

    Regarding your post, I believe we are in a time of discovery about why there are not more women coders. We won’t really know until roadblocks are removed what the real answer is. I am an interesting case in that while not a coder myself, my interest in technology, fueled by reading and commenting on Fred’s blog — and sharing this discussion with my kids — was instrumental in my oldest son enrolling as a college freshman in a comp sci program this past fall. These discussions have impact. Drawing women into tech has impact on the following generation, both boys and girls. As part of that discussion I appreciate opinions like yours as a check and balance to ensure that we find the true answers.

    Posted January 1, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Donna, and thanks for your comment.

    I do realize that a lot can be gained by discussion, and that’s why readers here are welcome to comment and discuss. I realize also that I can choose where to comment, and which comments to respond to. Sometimes I do comment on other blogs; other times I prefer just to comment here, and provide a link to the item referred to.

    Regarding switching to Disqus: I think the WordPress comment system is perfectly adequate for my purposes, which are modest: to write posts, and allow people to comment on them. As I’ve said, I think that third-party comment systems have some drawbacks of their own, and can be more trouble than they are worth.

    As for female coders: if a woman wishes to be a programmer, she certainly has my blessing, and I completely agree that there should not be any “roadblocks” put in her way simply due to her sex. That’s as far as I’ll go, however, and I certainly do not think that the mere fact that fewer women choose to be programmers should be considered to be conclusive evidence that such roadblocks actually do exist, or used to justify the PC witch-hunts and coercive social engineering that such “gaps” between the aggregated life-outcomes of various human populations always seem to give rise to. I would like very much, just once, to see somebody not already a member of the neoreactionary or HBD movements acknowledge even the mere possibility that the reason for fewer women becoming programmers might actually just be natural differences between men and women. But nobody ever does. (Certainly Mr. Wilson did not; all I see in his post are the usual assumptions about ‘bias’.)

    Bigotry and oppression are serious charges. Don’t assume that differential outcomes logically imply social oppression, for they may have other, perfectly natural causes. Of course, if you actually see real oppression taking place, then by all means expose it: we all agree that it shouldn’t be happening, and where we find concrete examples of it, we should root them out. But we mustn’t just infer bigotry and oppression, and then force society (which is to say, white males) to atone for it, merely because we see differential outcomes. That’s logically sloppy, and deeply unjust.

    Posted January 1, 2014 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  6. Erik says

    “I would like very much, just once, to see somebody not already a member of the neoreactionary or HBD movements acknowledge even the mere possibility that the reason for fewer women becoming programmers might actually just be natural differences between men and women. But nobody ever does.”

    They do, I’ve seen them! Then the next step goes something like this:
    “…but that’s only part of the explanation, and it shouldn’t be used as a justification to forget about the other part which is still-present sexism.”

    Posted January 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

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