Why Are There So Few Female Software Developers?

Speaking of gender and the technology industry, the New York Times took a swing at that vexing question: why are there so few women in Silicon Valley? Writer Claire Cain Miller has done a ton of research and gathered sundry studies and reports to try to glean some answers. A few facts that were of interest:

  • “Only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees in 2008 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.” This, of course, is a radical departure from post-secondary trends where about 59% of American college students and 57% of Canadian university students are women. I tried to find a illustrative breakdown by gender and field of study, but couldn’t.
  • “Women account for just 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies, and 22 percent of the software engineers at tech companies over all, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.” Speaking anecdotally, I’ve never seen a software development team where one in five engineers were women. The average, in my experience, is more like one in ten or one in 15. I did some Google Images searches to try to illustrate this point. What’s your experience been?
  • “Women own 40 percent of the private businesses in the United States, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. But they create only 8 percent of the venture-backed tech startups, according to Astia, a nonprofit group that advises female entrepreneurs.”

Do Startups Need Technical Founders?

The article spends a lot of column inches on the subject of female founders of startup companies, and whether women are getting frozen out of venture capital investment. It reminded me of one of the lessons I’ve learned working in and around the tech startup culture for the past 13 years.

Your startup’s likelihood of success increases significantly when some or all of the founders are technical. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but here are a few guesses:

  • You can boot strap the development from day one, because you can participate in the programming work.
  • You’re less likely to get hosed by your contract developers, because you speak their language and can act as an effective quality control monitor.
  • You’re more able to assess the skills of the developers you hire.
  • You’re likelier to have already worked in a startup, so you may have gained some insight into how to run one effectively.

I’m not alone in reaching this conclusion. An executive I know who works with VC funders recently told me that at least one technical founder was an important criteria for who he wants to work with.

I don’t know how pervasive this perspective is. Nor do I know how correct it is. In my personal experience, the companies I’ve known (many of them clients) that have been most successful have had technical founders. On the other hand, Stewart had a Masters of Philosophy and Caterina had a Bachelor of Arts when they started Flickr, so it’s not a hard and fast rule for success.

Still, this might be one explanation for some of the extra hurdles women may face when seeking funding. They’re, statistically speaking, less likely to be technical, and that becomes an additional barrier. Whether female startup founders are actually engineers or not, they’re obviously battling sexist stereotypes.

As a footnote, I don’t think that we need gender parity in every job on the planet. We should achieve opportunity parity, where anybody can qualify for any job regardless of their gender. But if we hit that target (how would we know if we had? Good question), and end up with, for example, a 33%/67% split among women and men in computer science, we should be satisfied.


  1. Caterina and Stewart are both technical IMHO (don’t be fooled by their degrees). Before flickr, both were web designers who could do CSS and HTML and general Internet experts. Stewart even won a Chrysler award for his web design and Caterina designed her website and other sites.

  2. You never really addressed why it’s important to have that 33%/67% split. What problems are we going to solve if we make that number. If you’ve got your project out there on the net, no one’s really going to care what gender you are. Besides, asking for outside funding should be a last resort for any decent start-up these days.

    1. I may not have been clear. My point was that the natural state for a particular field or job may not be a 50%/50% split. Women and men are going to be inclined to some jobs more than others.

      Of course, we need to make the opportunities available for everybody, regardless of their gender, but we don’t need to end up with an even gender split across the board.

  3. I always come down to Dori’s response to an overenthusiastic Google recruiter extolling the virtues of free meals, Wi-Fi, laundry, shuttles, and stuff — all encouraging a never-go-home culture.

    “If you want female developers,” Dori said, “stop making it sound like hell on earth.”

    In many tech fields, women have to accept and enjoy the work-as-all aesthetic. Yet somehow medicine, science, graphic design have managed not to keep women away.

    I don’t think startups and comp sci jobs should be as gender-undiverse as they are, because they’re probably missing the technical creativity women can offer. There’s nothing inherent I
    the work that requires overwhelmingly male dev teams — not in the way, say, Bering Sea crab fishing does.

  4. Because a developer can sit a long times.. But Females must have shopping..So this job is not for females..May be exceptions..

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