Why Software Still Looks Like a Frat House

Software has a bad rap as being a white/asian-male-dominated industry.

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Software has a bad rap as being a white/asian-male-dominated industry. With some of the most progressive companies in the industry still at over 83% male in their tech roles, and ethnically speaking over 90% Asian and White in the Bay area, its reputation is well deserved. While the software industry actually started with women in the majority, several people have written and recorded podcasts about how we got to the sorry state of affairs we currently face. That said, just identifying the historical issues doesn't mean that things are going to improve very quickly. Many companies are currently working on improving their numbers with regard to tech diversity, but the mess that we have created is actually an ecosystem — an ecosystem in which critical components remain largely unchanged.

Here's what's up:

  1. It's the same professors.
  2. No one is being fired.
  3. Work experience is king.

1. It's the same professors.

One major problem we face in breaking down the cultural gauntlet that exists in tech is in our university structure. While the industry has largely embraced the idea of encouraging women and people of color to pursue programming as an educational track, in large part the same professors who taught computer science classes 20 years ago are still teaching the same classes. This presents a problem both with out-of-date curriculum and retention of a gender and ethically biased culture. There are a few notable exceptions, but speaking broadly if university departments haven't changed, the barrier to entry will remain largely the same.

2. No one is being fired.

Another big problem in the ecosystem is in the workplace. There is a huge shortage of programmers with a significant number of years of experience. This means any programmer with a significant body of experience has multiple opportunities at employment — no matter how big a jerk or chauvinist they are. While well-intentioned employers can fire people who continually cause problems, this shortage means that people who have been in the industry for long enough will show up somewhere and continue to have a negative impact on someone else's culture. This won't be changing anytime soon. It also leads to a temptation to allow "primadonnas" to continue bad behavior. Because of the necessary skill that experienced programmers bring they are often allowed to get away with things that other employees would be terminated or disciplined for.

3. Work experience is king.

Beyond the bias that exists for keeping experienced employees, getting into the industry with little or no experience is really hard to do. The big problem with this is that industry demographic transformation requires onboarding people with little to no experience. The fallback solution here is to go back to education, which underscores the impact of the first problem in the list.

There is only one real solution to this that I can see: employers must provide more entry-level positions. Demographic shifts take time, but they can be sped up or slowed down through intentional focus. The go-to answer for many companies, which is to recruit skilled employees from their peers, is a zero-sum game in which no real change is being made, other than the optics of one company or another.

One of our female programmers recently shared a vision with me that I thought was compelling: what if there was a team of programers on a project that was entirely staffed with women? This is not to say that women are better programmers (although there is some evidence of this) but I find it compelling simply because I have never seen it before.

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