This article takes a look at the apparent paucity of female programmers participating in technical computing areas online. We know that women do program on the Macintosh, and some suggest that despite traditional role models and some arguable odds against the possibility for success, women always have numbered among the most brilliant computer analysts, designers, engineers, and authors. Even so, women rarely appear on the nets in technical computing areas. Such a statement is not only difficult to suggest without sounding sexist, but also nigh impossible to document. Still, let’s see what we can find out.
Commercial Online Services — For discussion’s sake, take the current figures of 1.5 million CompuServe members and 700,000 America Online members. Programming support for developers centers around the Macintosh Developers Forums, the area of our interest. Personally speaking, I spent three years primarily answering questions in CompuServe’s Macintosh Systems and Developers Forums. As my skills grew, I still looked with awe at my colleagues who could correct code and doctor arcane resources. For over four years, between 1989 and 1993, I logged the message boards, looking for female peers, and found they did not exist. Message summaries came back with evidence of 99 to 100 percent male first names. How wonderful it would have been to have found role models back then!
David Ramsey, a programming sysop in CompuServe’s Macintosh forums says, "Yeah, it’s true: programming is still male-dominated… I don’t think it’s an issue of whether or not women are accepted in the field – all the ones I’ve talked to said they never felt intimidated or condescended to by their male colleagues – it’s just a reflection of current gender roles in society, where men are expected to be more outgoing than women."
Some may argue that an electronic address allowing only eight or ten characters to identify a person is not gender-specific. Perhaps it would help to point out that the Mac forums of CompuServe require real names and have the luxury of long name fields, which influenced my conclusion. Although "[email protected]" could be either a male or a female, "Chris," "Kelley," and "Bob and Pat" all turned out to be males in CompuServe’s Mac Developers Forum when I checked. I must admit, though, that the means to make a truly empirical argument elude me.
Brian Novack, Forum Assistant on America Online’s Macintosh Developers Forum, was kind enough to explain the difficulties surrounding determination of gender. "There is no way to accurately gauge such a value. America Online does not ask members to provide proof of gender when issuing a new account and/or screen name. Therefore, unless you conducted a survey of every America Online member who enters the Macintosh Developers Forum by personally contacting them, there isn’t any way to find the value you seek in terms of gender. Sorry, it just isn’t valid." Maybe, maybe not.
Usenet Informal Survey — To get the big picture, I recently did an informal survey on Usenet, asking people the question, "In your own experience, how many females [sic] regularly answer programming and technical questions in this newsgroup?" I posted this question to comp.programmer and comp.sys.mac.programmer. I proposed a 1,000:1 male to female ratio as a starting point. This was quickly corrected by an observer who suggested that figures be limited to people of both sexes who regularly participate – by his count, perhaps fifty.
Responses came from people at Apple’s Developer Technical Support, Apple’s Newton Team, Taligent, Claris, an ex-Microsoft employee, and companies and universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia. One European discredited the survey outright, and another thinks 1,000:1 is close to correct. One pessimist suggested a ratio of 10,000:1. American male respondents said 40 to 50:1 might be accurate. One American, of the four women who replied, seemed to think there were more women than the men did. Avi Rappoport and Jutta Degener were both mentioned, but most respondents could not or did not name a female programmer online. I think now, as was suggested by one respondent after poring over a day’s posts to comp.sys.mac.programmer, that 150:1 might be close to accurate.
To arrive at a ratio of any number to one, we need at least one! And that one is rare indeed. Male after male respondent wrote saying Amanda Walker of InterCon is the only female participant in comp.sys.mac.programmer. Although this may be a minor exaggeration, for 1,000, or 100, or 50 answers by men, Amanda Walker is holding up the other end of the fraction. She was generous with her comments about the male to female ratio in comp.sys.mac.programmer, saying her postings are "almost overwhelmingly answers, not questions." Fortune Magazine (07-Mar-94) interviewed Ms. Walker in a feature about the Internet. I would like to thank her for this clear and simple answer to my question above, "Well, there’s me."
"My guess would be that it’s somewhere in the several hundred to one range, but I’m not sure where. Because of the social dynamics on the net, women are not often accepted in technical newsgroups unless they truly are at the top of their field. Even I myself, with my mind full of random trivia, exercise care to only post an answer when I’m dead sure it’s right. Even so I’m occasionally wrong, but it serves to keep my baseline reputation pretty high."
Walker continues, "An interesting comparison would be to take a look at, for example, the proportion of women at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference. My experience is that there are actually quite a lot of women involved in Macintosh programming, but they tend to maintain a low profile, especially on the net."
Conclusions — Peter Lewis, author of Anarchie and other shareware for the Macintosh, said in response to my Usenet survey, "It’s a sad state of affairs, maybe it’ll change one day." With the advent of Women’s WIRE, the Women’s Information Resource and Exchange (TidBITS #212), I think it time to point out a little joke we have picked up in all the talk about "building" an information superhighway. In large measure, these highways already exist. Both casual and habitual users know the ropes, and they are quickly passing along instructions to new members of online services during the fastest period of their growth in history.
Why do we find such a lopsided situation? Answers tip-toe around sexism, with some suggesting that women avoid areas that allow flaming. It was also suggested that women do not like the intangible qualities of electronic text. But we know that neither theory holds, as there are thousands of women online in areas other than Macintosh programming. I was also surprised to find the notion that the under-representation of women in technical computing online arenas is thought somehow to be men’s fault. I should hope there is no need for either sex to coddle women programmers into participating in online exchange on equal terms with men.