A recent devchix blog post has inspired a lot of discussion about the low percentage of women software engineers out there. There's been plenty of discussion in the XML community, as Tim Bray, Lauren Wood, Shelley Powers, Jeni Tennison, Edd Dumbill and David Megginson have contributed thoughtful comments. Everyone says that there are a lot fewer women than men writing code, especially in the US, the UK, and western Europe. OK, to be honest, I haven't seen anyone include this qualifier, which is very interesting. (Note that Jeni, who is British, shows graphs of male vs. female computer science degrees based on purely American data, or so I assume from the reference to "national data" in the nsf.gov source of the data points.)
The "western Europe" part is particularly important, because I'd like to avoid the minefield of generalizations based on race or ethnicity. While it would be almost trite to say that Japanese attitudes about a culture of consensus are more in line with what devchix's gloriajw is looking for, I've never personally known any programmers of either sex from that country. Professionally and personally, though, I'd say that at least half of the programmers I've known from former Soviet bloc countries are women, and I don't expect to hear about a culture of consensus trumping pissing-contest swagger in those countries.
When I was getting a computer science degree, it was always interesting in the first meeting of each large lecture course to do the mental pie graph of how many men and how many women were in each group. That's when I first noticed that among those speaking Eastern European languages (not that I was very good at identifying exactly which languages were being spoken), there were plenty of women, perhaps even fifty percent. In workplaces since then, while I haven't known dozens of Eastern European émigrés, women were well-represented among the ones I've known.
Why is this? Does it stem from attitudes about the value of engineering as a profession in those countries? Is any of this a legacy of the Soviet system? Are there things that they're doing right that we should emulate—beyond the obvious one of encouraging a good math education among both sexes—and how would such recommendations relate to the issues that the gloriajw and Jeni bring up? Am I making a mistake by basing my generalization on those who've emigrated to the US?
My older daughter was in an after-school math club this year because her friend Diana begged her to join. Diana's Romanian parents (her dad teaches chip design at the University of Virginia and her mom has been on maternity leave from a Java coding job) forced her to join, because they have strong ideas about the importance of a good math education. I'm going to have to ask Diana's mom about the system that led her to becoming a software engineer the next time I see her.