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Women in computing: what about the cultural variable?

Why do I see more women programmers among Eastern Europeans?

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.


(Note: I usually close comments for an entry a few weeks after posting it to avoid comment spam.)

I'm a Romanian Computer Science student and also work as a programmer, and I'm a girl :)

I'd like to say something about the Romanian educational system: Math is considered one of the most important subjects there are in school. And something different that I've noticed, people that know Math are considered cool, at least that was like in my High School. Girls too.

But, even though in my last year of High School we were about 50% boys and 50% girls(both very good at math & programming), not that many girls went to study Computer Science, and preferred instead Economical studies (Maybe it's a trend right now here : girls go to economical universities, boys to engineering universities).

At my faculty, we are about 25% girls right now. And in general the guys are very cool with the girls. They don't make those kind of judgments based on gender. Although, there are ones that do(not many). BUT in almost every case I've encountered, those guys sucked as programmers, and in my opinion sucked as human beings too :) (Therefore their opinion is not so important)

I'd like to add something else about the guidance my parents gave me as growing up regarded to my studies. As both of them were engineers, they felt like a good math education for me and my brother was very important and always encouraged both(my brother and I) of us towards this direction equally.

Thanks for this post and everyone else that posted about this subject. I think it's very encouraging for young programmer girls that there is a concern about this. :) Not long ago I was looking for women in IT as models, and didn't find that many, and started to worry about what chances did I have in this just because I was a girl.

Interesting point. I helped take a highly technical class at a company in Madrid a few years back, and was amazed that the attendees were about 50% female.

Compare that to the UK, where I've only ever worked with one female software engineer...

In my IT class there was only one girl:(( And not pretty at all :(((

You should read some of the posts I link to--a public declaration of whether she's pretty is part of the problem.