Biz of Software 2010, Women In Software & Frat House “Culture”

The Cranky Product Manager had the pleasure of attending Business of Software 2010 last week.  Yes, she was there, but incognito.  It was a fascinating conference, chock full of interesting speakers and lots of learning.  Seth Godin was there.  He’s wicked awesome!

The attendees were mostly technical founders of small software companies.  Many were pre-venture financing, but many (most?) had no interest in venture financing and were bootstrapping. All were interested in learning how to build a thriving software business – whether the goal be building the next Microsoft, getting acquired, or just having a thriving business that funds a great lifestyle.

The Cranky Product Manager has a lot to write about this conference – it triggered a lot of new thinking for her.  Hopefully, there will be a few more blog posts.  (Let’s see if she gets around to it.)

But here’s an observation that struck her, powerfully, as soon as she arrived:

White Dudes Everywhere, As Far As The Eye Could See

About 85% of the ~300 attendees were white guys of all ages. Of the remaining 15%, about half were non-white guys, and half were women. 

Where were all the NON-WHITE guys? 

In Silicon Valley, the Cranky Product Manager is used to working with a LOT more Asian guys and Indian guys, in both technical and business roles. In fact, at many companies in this area, she’s often found herself to be the only white one in the room. 

Is this ridiculous skew an artifact of the conference being in Boston?  Or, well, ….what other explanations are there? The Cranky Product Manager is truly puzzled.  In this respect, she does not believe the demographics of this crowd reflect the racial makeup of most software startups.

Where were all the WOMEN? 

The Cranky Product Manager has truly NEVER been in such an overwhelmingly male crowd.  Seriously.  She even went to a Random Institute of Technology in the 90s, majored in Computer Science, took Physics, and was in Army ROTC.  Yet she has never experienced such a sausage-fest.  The line for the men’s room snaked down the hall, while the women’s room had copious empty stalls! 

The Cranky Product Manager was again puzzled, and tempted to dismiss this as an aberration – not reflective of the true demographics of our industry. 

But then she thought again and realized that in her experience at software companies, the percentage of women has been declining for years now. In fact, she suspects that the highest percentage of women in the software industry was probably around 2001 and has been on a downhill slide ever since.  Her suspicions are further confirmed by the National Science Foundation, who found that the proportion of women studying computer science has decreased from 37 percent in 1985 to 19 percent today.   A huge drop of nearly 50%!

Fascinating, however, was the absolute conviction of many conference attendees (especially the younger guys) that there were far more women in the software field today than 10 years ago. This just ain’t so, but perhaps each generation’s default assumption is that they are more socially equitable than the previous generation. (kids today, tsk tsk…)

All this got the Cranky Product Manager thinking: what happened to all the women?  Why is it getting worse?

The Typical “Why So Few Women” Theories

TechCrunch has been publishing a lot of articles that theorize on why so few software startups are founded by women.  Many apply these theories to software in general – startup or not. The typical reasons given for women’s poor representation include the following:

  1. Women prefer to focus on family & children instead of career, and software startups are too demanding to do both adequately
  2. There aren’t enough women majoring in computer science fields in college
  3. Parents, and society as a whole, discourage their daughters from studying computer science.
  4. And the often-thought-but-infrequently-verbalized-because-the-speaker-would-be-evicerated idea that women are just not as smart as men when it comes to computers.

A lot of these theories just don’t hold together from the Cranky Product Manager’s point of view, especially when you consider that there are now fewer women in software than ten years ago.  Something changed.

For #1 “Focus on families over career”  – Has the situation for women really changed so much in the past 10 years?  Are we really accepting a statement that far less women are interested in their careers today than 10 years ago?  Further, this statement would seem to affect any demanding field, not just tech.  Yet, the percentage of doctors and lawyers (extremely demanding professions) that are female has increased substantially in the same time.

For #4 “Women aren’t as good at tech” -  The Cranky Product Manager isn’t going to step in that one. It might be true for all she knows, but she still thinks it is obvious that the most brilliant women will bring more to the software field than average men.  Mean ability might differ, but the ability distribution within each gender are wide, and the gender curves overlap mightily.

For #2 “Not enough female CS majors” – Is this a cause or an effect?  Is it related to #3? If the opportunities for women in tech are not that great, then it stands to reason that the number of women majoring in it would decrease over time.

For #3 “Parental & societal discouragement” – Well, maybe this is the real culprit: that parents and society at large discourage our girls.  The Cranky Product Manager believes that there is something here. But as a parent herself, she doubts that is because parents assume that their girls are too dumb for software, or that software is too unfeminine.  Instead, her intuition (no stats to back this) is that parents might discourage girls from the software business because, well, it just isn’t that hospitable to women. 

Now, the Cranky Product Manager hadn’t really thought about this “inherent inhospitable-ish-ness-ity” before. It’s not something that the Cranky Product Manager necessarily feels as she works day-to-day in this industry.  Virtually all of the men she’s ever worked with are open-minded, are committed to equality in the workplace, and very much want to harness the intellect of top-performing women for their own gain. 

(Not that the Cranky Product Manager hasn’t experienced some outright sexism. She has. Maybe in a future post she’ll tell some stories.)

But maybe there is something else that makes this industry inhospitable to women — something more structural than personal in nature.

The Cranky Product Manager admits her thoughts are only partially formed on this point, and she hopes to consider it more fully and post on it later.  But here is one (maybe minor) idea about “systemic inhospitability” to women in the software industry: the prevalence of “frat house culture.”

Frat House “Culture” 

Too many software start-ups attempt to develop a so-called “corporate culture” based on frat house living.  Beer bashes, video games, foos-ball tables, pickup basketball teams, free soda, fantasy sport leagues, mandatory scavenger hunts and team-building nonsense (inevitably on the weekend), etc.   Oh yeah, did we mention the beer?  FREE BEER!   Now THAT’S a WICKED AWESOME COMPANY CULTURE!

The dude from Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, spent a lot of time at Biz of Software describing how awesome their culture was because of all these “perks” or whatever.  No thanks.  (This is not meant to bash Scott: he raised many other interesting points about starting successful software companies.)

From the Cranky Product Manager’s female (and older) vantage point, this all seems so stunted and sad.  Like a geeky 11-year-old boy’s idea of paradise.  She knows that many women don’t fit into such “cultures” (they were never meant to, after all) and never quite feel at home in them.  The Cranky Product Manager knows she never really did, although she played along.

Maybe if instead of aspiring to this type of immature fantasy, software companies could attract and retain more top-performing women with better support for families and for having a life outside of work? Just an idea.

How about more equitable parental leave policies – not just for pregnant women, but also for Dads and adoptive parents?  If you improve Dads’ ability to contribute at home, you will TOTALLY improve lives for the professional women who married them. Or maybe offer more help with finding and paying for quality childcare?  Especially options for childcare when the kid is sick, or if you want us (Moms and Dads alike) to travel out of town at the last minute.

Conclusion

Hah!  Fooled you.  There is no conclusion here. The Cranky Product Manager has no ground-breaking ideas or anything.  It occurs to her that the few ideas she proposed are very mom-centric, and don’t explain how to attract and retain the women without kids.  

Maybe you have some better ideas?  Please contribute them in the comments!  (Hopefully, they are ideas that are not out of reach for startup companies.)

And this post doesn’t explore whether it is even essential to attract and retain top-quality women anyway.   Maybe it isn’t. The software industry as a whole (plus that douchebag Michael Arrington) certainly acts like it isn’t much of a priority. The Cranky Product Manager intuitively thinks it is important, but aside from her own self-interest she doesn’t really have a lot of proof.

What do you think?

90 comments

  1. Tim Johnson

    There’s truth in every premise (as well as some untruth). But your point on culture bears further discussion. Frat-house culture is great for 20-somethings with no families or mortgages and is admittedly hostile to women and older guys, too. My weekends (and many evenings) are pre-committed to school concerts, Boy Scouts, Honey-dos, baseball games, church and the occasional date with the woman who wears my ring – if we aren’t too tired.

    Perhaps what’s needed is a different corporate/working structure that allows you to work on your own terms and schedules.

  2. Adrian

    I think the “frat-house culture” is more symptom than cause.

    My bet is a variation of #3: With the shift from home computers to game consoles in the 90′s girls might have lost the (very minor) fascination they had for computers. Maybe the mix gets better again in the next 5-10 years with the recent developments around mobile and social media – though that’s probably just my sexist prejudice on what interests girls :-)

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      That is indeed an interesting idea – one that Cranky PM hadn’t really considered before.

      But it also reminds her of another topic related to Biz of Software 2010. One of the speakers did a very cute/good lightning talk on “Software for Underserved Markets”, i.e. women. It was cute and entertaining, but suffered from trivializing the software needs of women – who are a very diverse group that comprie over half of the world’s population – as primarily centered around knitting, bingo, and Farmville.

      That’s a rant for another time.

      • Patrick McKenzie

        That was not the takeaway I was going for. You may recall that there was a slide in there about my next project, which is a revenue generating product for an overwhelmingly female segment of small business owners. Also, the bingo thing is not about bingo, it is about getting poor girls to “shake with excitement” about *math class*.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Dharmesh, so flattered that you dropped by. The Cranky Product Manager ADORED your talk. You brought so many new ideas to the table.

      But on the “inherent inhospitable” issue, the Cranky Product Manager was hoping you could elaborate on HubSpot’s “No Vacation Policy” policy and how it relates to MATERNITY leave.

      The Cranky PM asks because maternity leave benefits typically suck in the software industry (only 6 weeks of leave, typically), and thus most of us are forced to save up and then use as much vacation time as possible. She strongly suspects that a “no vacation policy” policy would make it extremely difficult for women (and definitely for men and adoptive moms) to take parental leave.

      The Cranky Product Manager would really appreciate your elaborating on how HubSpot handles this.

      • Bill Seitz

        Didn’t you say most of the attendees were *small* software companies? (How small are we talking, here?) What kind of leave policy would such places have, anyway?

      • Peter

        It should be easy to find out if poor maternity/vacation leave policies discourage women from the software industry. Just compare USA, to a country with publicly mandated vacation/maternity such as any of the Scandinavian countries (Sweden?). If your thesis is true, they will have much larger numbers ( % ) of women in their software industry.

  3. Steve Johnson

    You might enjoy reading “Why Gender Matters” by Leonard Sax. His conclusion is that our school systems steer women away from the “hard” sciences, largely because these courses are most often taught by men. Boys and girls are different, and need to be taught differently, yet our high schools have a “one size for all” factory approach. And as I read his text, it’s gotten worse in the last few years, not better.

    The book is fascinating and might explain why science fields seem to be dominated by men.

    • Kirsten

      Steve, I haven’t read this, but I will. I have a 15 yr old soph girl who is very bright, though not a national merit candidate. She has chosen voluntarily (and never talked to me, her PM mom) to take Pre-AP anything math and science…. and I have found for her freshman and soph start to the school year, I have spent many hours helping her learn how to study these subjects (I was once pretty good I think, and there is always google and wiki, right?) There is something to men teaching to women, regardless of age. She performs very, very well once she grasps the “how” to study part.

  4. dave wilson

    I believe this is a major problem and getting worse. Over 50% of grads are women – but the numbers coming into our industry is falling! We are obsessed with glass ceilings, but really who cares about how many Meg Whitman’s there are. It is the mainstream backbone that is broken. The more the big companies are obsessed with IP issues and the way we all sign these outrageous contracts, the more they seem to own us body and soul. Add to that the inherent pace of technology and you get something so overwhelming that there is no room for life. You cannot do a 120% performance for a 3 day week. Every industry has a transition process for women – except ours – teaching, healthcare, etc. We have no place for families/ women – and women are really effective in our game. We CAN and will change this is (and BTW, the same applies to workers over 50 – you are toast)

  5. Tom Leung

    One theory: some people may sub-consciously be more inclined to hire people with whom they identify with more easily. I.e. ,some men may identify more easily with other men than they identify with women.

    E.g., Hiring Manager Bob from XYZ fraternity and such-and-such New England research university is more likely to hire his younger clone competent Candidate Chip instead of slightly superior but female Candidate Jane (or slightly superior but non-white male Candidate Joe for that matter).

    I suspect the % of women and non-white folk in product management has actually gone up over time, it just takes a few trailblazers and subsequent “generations” for the ripple effect to make noticeable changes in the industry. Exacerbating this problem for women could be that one of the prime hiring ages for people who hire IC PM’s is 30-40 which is also an age where some seasoned woman group PM’s may elect to take some time off and thus not be able to give Candidate Jane an equal opportunity since Bob (or even Chip) is the hiring manager once again.

    Tom

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Tom, the Cranky Product Manager respectfully disagrees. As explained in her post, she believes that the number of women in tech – including product management, for which a technical degree is often required – has been declining year over year for close to a decade.

      At this rate, the ripple effect you speak of will be noticeable when there are basically no women left.

      She does think you might be on to something though, about the age group. Perhaps the field has been attracting far fewer women over the years. There is probably a much smaller pool of 30-year-old female PMs now than in 2001. And then the pool gets even smaller as women take some time off (be it a few weeks or a few years) to have kids in their 30s.

  6. Don MacLennan

    Kudos to CPM for taking one of the big issues head-on. The “frat house” culture comment resonated with me. In some respects, it doesn’t matter if it’s a symptom or a cause. Some percentage (high?) of otherwise qualified women are going to be deterred from joining such an environment.

    I wonder if there is a corollary about high-tech women in larger companies where such cultures are toned-down or don’t exist. Have they gravitated to these larger companies instead? It can’t explain the overall decline, but perhaps start-ups are the most acute case of female flight.

  7. Lauren Hoernlein

    I can’t believe you were there and I missed you (or maybe I didn’t?)! I went to BoS last year because I found out about it reading your blog, and was disappointed you couldn’t be there. Since this was my second year, I wasn’t surprised to be surrounded by white guys.

    My observation is that the larger the company, the more women. So, for a conference for start-ups, you’re going to see way fewer women than at, say, an IBM office. My theory is that start-ups tend to start with just a few programmers, which are mostly men. They initially cover the other jobs that tend to have more women (technical writing, product and project management, marketing, etc.), and only when companies get to a size where they need to hire specialized people do you start seeing women join. When I started as a tech writer at IBM, I had five levels of female managers. When I joined a small software company, I was the first woman in the engineering department. I also think that women running businesses tend to have more service-oriented businesses like consulting or freelancing, so they aren’t going to be acquired or IPO and become millionaires, and then be invited to give a talk at this conference.

    The latest A List Apart survey shows these results: 12.8% women in 2-5 person businesses, 18.4% self-employed, and 22.1% women in 3000+ businesses.
    )

    As for the lack of non-white guys, I think it’s because most of the attendees are from the Midwest, Europe, Australia, and other places that are way more white than the Bay Area. Why Silicon Valley isn’t showing up in force at this conference is another interesting question.

    I love the conference, but I’d really love to see more diversity of speakers and attendees too!

  8. Paul Walsh

    Very interesting observations.

    I don’t have any conclusions either but you would have thought that software startups would actually *suit* anyone, male or female, who needed flexible hours for juggling family, etc. Not every moment of every day in StartupWorld is glorious, but at least those hours spent in endless pointless meetings and the commute from a distant workplace might be reduced.

    I think the root is one of proportional sampling – there just aren’t enough women coming through from engineering and computer science degree courses and that gets reflected in the stats of who does software startups. All things considered, the gender make-up of software engineering hasn’t changed much (at all?) since the 80s. So when the software companies are hiring, the cultures they try to offer are mimicking what they find in colleges i.e. they are not *causing* the problem, just perpetuating it.

    And it isn’t just women who are alienated by the ‘frat house’. You could have re-written this article from a “it’s all *young* white males” perspective and made a lot of the same points. Doesn’t bother me much, but a lot of ‘em are also *wealthy background* young white males too.

    A couple of days back I read a blog on hiring open source developers (http://bit.ly/9HRg3w) that opened: “But do you really want to hire someone who spends their time exchanging flames with members of their own community in public forums? Someone who greets newcomers with “I have forwarded your question to /dev/null, thanks” and other RTFM answers?”.

    Kinda funny (and do read the rest of the piece) but it captures the macho bragging of geek culture that many women I know find extremely boring and pointless.

  9. Steve Wilkinson

    In some ways, it’s even worse over here in the UK. Try as we might, in my last start-up we couldn’t find female developers to join the dev team whereas we had no trouble recruiting male developers. On the flip side, I was running product management and I pretty much only employed woman – often the female candidates were of a higher standard and turned out to be much better at the job. (Dangerous generalisation, I know).

    Personally I think it is something to do with sociability – programming is fairly anti-social and most woman are pretty social animals…

  10. JohnO

    Women aren’t in computing fields because whatever those fields value are not what women value. Simple. Finding out what women value (being a guy, I have no freaking clue) is step 1.

  11. Saeed Khan

    Cranky,

    Great set of observations. My experience is that while the # of women working as software engineers is low (and may in fact be declining), there are a lot of women in related areas, such as QA, Technical Writing (dominated by women), technical support, product management, product marketing and marketing in general.

    Those at the top though tend to be men and I’ve definitely seen a form of male tribalism — the boss tends to hire people he knows or people like him which tend to be men. Women on the other hand — and I once worked in a company where 2/3 of the SR. execs were women — can’t get away with that.

    BTW, I think the comments by Steve Johnson’s comment is spot on. There is a big systematic problem that starts very early in the education process. A girl or young woman with a technical bent has to overcome a lot of social pressure to pursue a science or engineering field of study. My graduating physics class (oh so many years ago) was 95% male. More recently, my 12 year old daughter was the only girl on her school’s Lego Robotics team. And there were very few girls on other school teams as well.

    Saeed

    It’s definitely a topic worth

  12. Tim Johnson

    Okay, so why have several women retweeted this blog and NOT commented on it? All the commenters are guys.

    This is a serious topic, not only for women in product management, but for women in tech (oh, heck, for women in the work force). Top earning years are 30-40, which also are most common years for child bearing. Do you take most of the decade off to have a couple children or 12 weeks and struggle with “balance”, guilt, career impediments, etc.? A different structure for companies and working would go a long way towards solving this.

    Then there’s the problem of getting young girls back into hard sciences. Adrian suggested the advancement of consumer tech may drive more interest. Judging from the number of girls at the Santa Cruz County math contest the last two years (half or more), there’s plenty of girls good at math. Retaining their interest is the key.

    But I’d still like to hear other women wade in on this.

  13. Mark Littlewood

    I enjoyed your post and made a similar observation, albeit somewhat less seriously… http://thebln.com/2010/10/you-know-you-are-at-a-geek-conference-when/

    You might have a point about Frat House Culture but actually for every Frat Software House I think there are more that have well developed cultures that are open and welcoming to women. Redgate Software in Cambridge is a great example of a company with a very distinctive culture that includes Foosball (I think we call it Table Football in England), and a table tennis/ping pong table. I don’t think you could describe their culture as frat boy. The last couple of times I have been there women have been dominating the ping pong table.

    I think you are being unfair on Scott from Atlassian. He specifically talked about beer being a great way of guerilla marketing – http://thebln.com/2010/10/scot-farquhar-business-of-software-10-commandments-of-startups/ I think that shows he knows his market, when it comes to trade shows. The ‘bonding stuff’ that they were doing felt much more considered and entertaining.

    I wish there had been more female speakers, Youngme Moon was awesome. She was different. I would have loved to have heard you too – I think you were going to speak at one point? The more intelligent, public, female role models there are in the industry the better.

    Just an observation to finish. A lot of industries spend time wondering why there are so few females and talking about how this balance can be addressed. Whether this imbalance is down to unwelcoming work environments, frat house cultures or something else is a moot point. Whether this is always a bad thing is sometimes questionable.

    Perhaps the population as a whole of males and females is different – whether for biological, cultural, social reasons. Here are the numbers published by the UK government for one particular ‘industry’.

    Any idea what the industry is?

    Men: 81,062
    Women:4,263
    Total: 85,325

    Guess before you look at the answer at the bottom of the comment…

    This is the current prison population of the UK.

    Maybe developers and entrepreneurs have more in common with criminals than they might think…

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      The Cranky Product Manager is not sure that she was being unfair to Scott from Atlassian. His talk DEFINITELY espoused that frat house vibe. Beer was mentioned quite a few times, not just in the context of marketing for trade shows. For his discussion of business models, he put up a slide of a bunch of scantily (skankily?) clad fashion models even though it was absolutely peripheral to the content, save the word “model”. And then the whole scavenger hunt thing.

      It seems that, often, the purveyors of frat house culture are so embroiled in it that they do not realize that the majority of people their company will employ (women, minorities, and people over 28) don’t necessarily share these ideas of “fun.”

  14. Linda

    Great post. I had never considered the “frat house” culture theory, but it does ring true. As some others have said, the gender gap seems wider for programming than other tech disciplines that may fit with other degrees (my background is economics and I’m currently in the PM discipline).

    I’ve read some other studies on gender gaps in schooling and there are some findings that show girls are discouraged, unintentionally, from math and science from an early age by teachers (mostly women) who themselves display a lack of confidence or fear of math and science.

    I think there is also a stigma about being a “nerdy” female. If you are a nerdy male, you still have a large circle of nerdy male culture to fit in with. There isn’t much of a nerdy girl culture to embrace when you reach those pivotal teenage and early 20s years where identity and aptitude come together to shape your adult life and personality.

    Finally, I think you and other commenters nailed the issue of flexible schedules and options for working parents. I’m fortunate that my husband will be willing and able to stay at home when we have children (which will be soon) since I’m the more career-focused person in our relationship. While some start-ups may offer the flexibility, they also require many more hours and offer very little when it comes to job security and benefits. Most parents would be unwilling to risk that. And since most startups and tech companies are already dominate by young men, there isn’t much sympathy for the needs of working parents, which breeds resentment when a nursing mom requests a private room for pumping milk or someone wants to leave early to watch their kid’s game.

  15. Matthew Glidden

    Thanks for the write-up, Cranky.

    Your article uses “frat house” for common startup culture. What do you think of “casual” instead? Ditching arranged desks, professional dress, diplomas, and 9-to-5 shifts gives folks an alternative to typical offices, which some really want.

    As an occasional visitor to Hubspot, it seems like Dharmesh keeps the temperature right. It’s easy to find some free beer or a game of foosball, but those perks feel peripheral to their vibrant, competent employees.

    If you interviewed with Dharmesh, would you focus on his ideas and the buzz from other employees? Or feel put off because they throw office parties and have a competitive foosball ladder?

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Well, given that the Cranky Product Manager has worked with LOTS of software startups, it is a given that she focuses on the IDEAS and the VISION. Otherwise she would have left this industry a long time ago and perhaps never have entered it. She’s willing to look past the macho-yet-infantile frat house culture in many of these instances.

      Clearly she is willing to put up with ALOT. Once she was on an important phone call with a customer while Nerf projectiles were being shot all around her. This s@#$ doesn’t even go on at the Cranky Kid’s preschool, yet it does at work!

      But remember, the CPM is ALREADY in the industry and staying. What about all the brilliant women who never even enter the industry, or who depart too early. So her opinion does not really matter here.

  16. Stacey Browning

    So I’m an extraverted woman responsible for IT and product strategy for my company. I loved the conference, but not for the networking. I did not find the mostly male, mostly introverted crowd approachable at all – with a few exceptions. In fact, I tried inviting myself to dinner with a few groups, only to be rebuffed in every instance. I might suggest to the men to be more self-aware and inclusive of anyone different than themselves. You never know what great big idea or opportunity you could be missing.

    PS: I actually found the women equally inward – I only really talked to one who was a delight (Betsy)…hmmm was that you cranky pm? Actually I wished I would have known you were there so I could have spent my mostly solo time playing my own version of Clue, observing in the corner calculating your real identity among the 25 of so of us women there.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      The Cranky PM considered “live blogging/tweeting” or whatever from the conference, but as soon as she showed up and saw the lack women she scrapped that idea. Way too easy to be found out. I kept a really low profile at the conference and didn’t social much because
      1) I am naturally an introvert and shy (although I fake being an extrovert at work)
      2) I wanted to spend as much time with the CrankyKid, who made the trip to Boston with me.
      3) I knew I’d write this post and a few others. So I aimed to be as forgettable as possible.

  17. Linda Merrick

    Hi Cranky,
    Another datapoint to add to the discussion. At our University of Washington Software Product Management program, we have seen declining numbers of women enrolling since about 2004. Prior to that, we had about 40-45% women enrolling. I think we hit bottom at 15%.

    And this year, we are back to nearly 50%!

    No clue as to why, unfortunately. Hope it’s the start of a positive trend.

    I also used to volunteer to speak at career days in local high schools about women in tech, only to find the guys sitting in the front row asking all the questions, and girls in back- silent.

    My own daughter avoided computers like crazy growing up because to be considered geeky was nearly fatal. Now, in her early 30′s, she’s quite tech-savvy.

    My conclusion: We need geeky Barbie dolls, asap!

  18. Justin

    Another possible viewpoint on the prevalence of frat house culture in startups. From a business perspective, the subset of employees that might find this culture attractive (young, single males come to mind) are also probably on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of salary and fringe benefits, and also willing to work longer hours and put in more time for that lower salary. In addition, these “benefits” of beer, games, etc. are fairly cheap to employ when compared to other more substantial benefit packages and may encourage employees to spend more time at the office, work late, come in on weekends, etc. I suspect that this may be more of a ploy for the bootstrapper to maximize productivity on a tight budget.

  19. Rich Mironov

    And perhaps not every single young male techie fits our narrow frat concept of fun. Beer, ropes courses and endless discussions of local sports? Never been my cup of tea (um, pitcher of margaritas).

    We all suspect that women are smarter. At least I do. Maybe they are quietly going where they feel less unwanted. (Not just doctors and lawyers, but candidates for national office…)

    Some years back, I decided that every time my boss voiced a sports analogy (“we can only have one quarterback”), I’d reply with cooking version. (“too many cooks in the kitchen…”). This was entirely an effort to make my staff feel less disenfranchised: a tremendously talented group of women, non-sports-fans, parents and “my weekend isn’t for corporate ropes courses” folks.

    Let’s own our prejudices and look for ways to make the workplace more inclusive. Although I’m hoping to retire before my whip-smart daughter is running whatever company might still employ me…

  20. Veteran But Not Grizzled

    Another reason why women don’t go into software engineering is that it just isn’t the sure path to riches and glory that it used to be in Silicon Valley’s salad days. I worked at one of the powerhouses of the industry for many years until the layoffs started. One department I supported laid off all of the women in the first round, plus miscellaneous “misfit” guys whom the boss never liked. Middle-aged women walk around this industry with targets painted on their foreheads. Young women have too much sense to follow.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Yeah, that happened to the Cranky PM too. The dot-com crash happened, and in the first round 12 of 60 employees were let go. 10 were women (including the Cranky PM). Of the remaining 50 employees, only 2 were female – the office manager and the company’s sole user experience designer.

  21. Eric Murray

    There were more women in Silicon Valley in the 80s than now. One company I worked at had about 1/3 women engineers and managers. But this was before modern startup “culture” innovations like cramped cubicles instead of offices, insane deadlines and crushing workloads. Young unmarried men and married men with stay at home wives are both more likely to tolerate working all the time than women are. So I think cause of the decline in the number of women is a small, unconcious bias on the part of (nearly always male) hiring managers for employees who are going to fit in to the working all the time culture.

  22. Edwin

    Truth be told: even the Great Crankyness is not as emancipated as she thinks. She confesses to wearing a skit and makeup. And I won’t be caught dead in either.

    People are social creatures. We try to be the same as the group we’re in and different from other groups we’de like to dissociate with. It starts when we’re babies as our parents pick our babyclothes and decorate our rooms. Parents want their kids to fit in, and the most obvious group to fit in is gender based.
    As kids try to find their identity they look at what seems to be normal. So basically it is group psychology that prevents us from true emancipation.

    It takes a lot of guts to be different. I bet the Great Crankyness has been called names just because she was being emancipated.
    So women tend to do girly things and men do what guys do for the most part, simply because it’s easier.

    Ever wonder why for the most part women do the cooking at home, but all chefs in restaurants seem to be male? Can’t be because they are better at it. I think it’s because men are taught to be more authorative while women tend to be more social.

    Even in the Netherlands where it’s quite normal for both men and women to work part time (I have a “daddy-day” and my wife has a “mommy-day”), things are not equal. A lot of woman I know ideally like to work no more than 20-30 hours a week. That doesn’t help their careers.

    So when men do the hiring they think to themselves: will she get pregnant and be gone for months at a time? Will she want to work less afterward? They don’t even consider these things when they hire expecting fathers.

    Also the bad economy doesn’t help. In the Netherlands, child care has become more expensive because the government is less willing to chip in. The result: Women quit their jobs (not men!) because working part time simply isn’t paying enough when you take the cost of daycare into account.

    My guess is that these past years both men and women weren’t too preoccupied with being emancipated. So things fall back into their “natural” state, which isn’t nessecarily all that natural to begin with.

  23. Edwin

    #1 one reason for hiring female: 50% of your potential customer base is that weird skirt wearing variety. It would be real silly indeed to ignore that annoying fact. Maybe hire one or two to find out what they think? Hell, they seem to understand our own variety better as well. :)

  24. Ken

    Interesting post! I was a co-founder in two venture backed companies, and we had women engineers in both. One of the companies had a female co-founder. Neither company had a “frat house” culture. Well… at least I didn’t think so. We had a professional atmoshpere during the work day. We did provide opportunities to blow off steam, and these may have been more male oriented, now that I reflect on it. (More likely to have a video game tourney than a knitting bee, that’s for certain.)

    There have never enough women in engineering, which I have always believed was from a lack of interest in the profession. There won’t be female engineers if there aren’t many graduating from college, and there won’t be many graduating from college if they aren’t taking heavy math and science courses in high school. When I was in high school it was probably 80/20 male/female. I wonder what it is now?

    I’m a bit suprised you threw out number 4 as a possibility. Many of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with are women (both in software and hardware), and unfortunately all of the worst ones were men.

    Lastly, I wonder if we went to the same “Random Institute of Technology”, although clearly not at the same time, as when I was there in the dark ages there were NO women.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      While the Cranky Product Manager does not know the exact breakdown of girls in advanced math and science classes in high school, she does know that
      1) 48% of the class of 2013 is women, at her alma mater, Random Institute of Technology.
      2) For every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same.
      3) In 2001, at least, in California, girls enrolled in high school science and math classes at a higher rate than boys.
      http://www.ppic.org/main/pressrelease.asp?i=309 . The same article pointed out, however, that a huge discrepancy still exists for computer science specifically.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      Via the College Board: 49% of US High School students that sat for the 2010 AP Calculus exam were girls. For the AP Biology test, 58% were girls. 47% girls for AP Chemistry. 35% for AP Physics.

      But for the AP Computer Science Exam – girls are a mere 19%.

      So, indeed, girls ARE taking heavy math and science subjects in High School. But not computer science.

      See for more.

  25. The Cranky Product Manager

    While the Cranky Product Manager does not know the exact breakdown of girls in advanced math and science classes in high school, she does know that
    1) 48% of the class of 2013 is women, at her alma mater, Random Institute of Technology.
    2) For every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same.
    3) In 2001, at least, in California, girls enrolled in high school science and math classes at a higher rate than boys.
    http://www.ppic.org/main/pressrelease.asp?i=309 . The same article pointed out, however, that a huge discrepancy still exists for computer science specifically.

  26. krush

    As a woman in the software industry, I can tell you that proving that I can write software just as well as, if not better than, a man is a never ending battle. I’m only as good as my last line of code. After 13 years in the industry, when I start a new gig I have the inevitable first few months of incredulous looks and insults until I intellectually castrate and severely punish my superiors for their doubts with my dazzling and unending displays of brilliance.

    In contrast, I’ve worked with male “talkers” who could not code to save their lives and there is an almost opposite effect — they usually have to do many, many horrendous acts of coding incompetence before the same “superiors” will acknowledge that the person they hired is a useless buffoon.

    I’m not going to stop trying to change the minds of people around me, but as the industry gets less and less challenging and the business layer in most companies gets more involved with staffing and technology decisions, it becomes less interesting to me, and I imagine to most women. Do I wish I had gone to medical school? You bet. I never wanted to be in a field where I would be fighting these battles. My ivy league education would have put to better use elsewhere (I’m just sayin’).

    Kudos for writing the article. I’m sorry it’s 3 down on my search results for “women in software” on google. I had to read through a blog entry by some guy on the subcontinent who believes that women aren’t smart enough to be geeks before I found this article. Makes me thinking we women in the industry need to organize and do something about this.

  27. sondra

    Your observations and recommendations are spot on.

    I worked in software engineering for over 15 years. One day I threw off the golden handcuffs to become a preschool teacher. My family and friends would ask me how I liked my new career. My response: “I’m still working with two-year olds.”

  28. sondra

    I believe the decline in the number of women in the software industry began during the DOT COM era with the burst of web development. At the onset of this period, most female engineers were coming from universities. But coding for the web was new and curriculum hadn’t caught up. Education took a back seat to real world experience, and as IPO fever spread, the ranks were filled with self-proclaimed “gurus” – mostly young male hacks who’d learned coding on the streets.

    The resulting influx of 20-something males created a workaholic environment that was unfriendly and uninviting to women: man caves that thrived on caffeine, salt and sugar. In a short time, if you were over 30 – or a woman – you were too old or too out of touch, or just too uncool.

  29. Lee

    I took some years off to raise kids, came back, and am stunned at how few women I see in the office compared to before. Where did they all go?

    Maybe the industry and all the coders in it were young and childless back then but as time went by the women dropped out while the men continued…

    All that said I have yet to see any sexism. There are some dorky jokes followed by “sorry” in my direction but never any harm intended.

  30. nimzo

    I think Krush hit it on the head. This isn’t about the software industry being less interesting to women, this is about the software industry being less interesting in general. I’ve been in the game for 16 years and its not anywhere near as fun as it was 10 years ago. There is no real innovation anymore, just re-branding and re-spinning the same technology. The bloom is off the rose, which is frankly why this blog exists. I don’t see a site called “The Cranky Oncologist” (that’s a tough tough job they should be cranky). Maybe women were just smart enough to realize this years ago.

  31. Pingback: The High Cost of Product Line Complexity (plus Proof the Cranky Product Manager is Female) — The Cranky Product Manager
  32. ilen

    Just wanted to point out to you one very practical way this can be changed. Teach women somewhere other than CS programs:

    http://workshops.railsbridge.org/

    Less than two years ago, the San Francisco Ruby Meetup routinely drew just one or two women to an event of 50 people or more. Female attendance at regional conferences hovered at 3%.
    Twelve workshops and six hundred students later, meetups now routinely draw 15-20% women.

    • The Cranky Product Manager

      What a great idea! I love it, and so glad that you are seeing success with it.

      Don’t be surprised if I attend one of your workshops someday. I would love to learn Ruby (and Python and Map-Reduce and more about security and many other technical topics) in a female-dominated group.

  33. Ophir Kra-Oz

    I think some of these symptoms are American specific and not global, but the numbers in Israel are not much different.
    However, most of the start-up’s in the world are in USA, Israel and Texas :)

    Having free beer and strippers at work is an American concept I never understood, in software or in any other business, unless it is the Soprano’s line of business.
    It is not “Start-Up” culture. I’m not sure if ti is a culture at all.

    I try to hire as many smart and bright women software developers as possible. In general, they are much easier to manage than immature counter males.
    Unfortunately , as it comes to team leaders the number is reduced drastically and even further at the group manager level.

    Here is another theory. Many man don’t like software development anymore after 10 years and try to move to other fields ( music, theater, HR ). Most of the man I know have returned to Hi-Tech after couple of years.
    To some extent, they returned because they had no choice. The salaries are much higher. Most of left women developers that left Hi-Tech did not return. That does not explain everything , but it is another angle.

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