Will Agile lead to the end of gender bias in IT?

pairing
This is a touchy subject and one where I realise I am treading on thin ice by making sweeping generalisations on an emotive topic, however it is a topic that needs addressing.

Surveys show that while the professional workforce in the USA is composed of 57% women – yes that’s right men are a minority.  In computing fields, the numbers are very different where only 25% of the computing related workforce are women – anecdotally the number of programmers is closer to 1 in 10 but there is a lack of data on this – one recruitment agency quoted around 10% of programmers placed were women.

So why the big disparity?

It may not be what you think, whilst discrimination may occur in the workplace, it’s impact is not statistically evident. If you look back to university only 25% of computing related degrees are awarded to women but again women account for approximately 55% of all graduates. So the workforce statistics almost exactly match the university statistics. This suggests that the impact of any discrimination or negative presentation has occurred (mostly) prior to university. My female friends and co-workers tell me that subtle discrimination is prevalent throughout their lives and this can lead to life choices being swayed by that, but that discrimination direct and indirect still regularly occurs.

Exclusion from computing and software is a choice.

Women have effectively self-selected to avoid the profession, so the real question is not why are women excluded, but why do women feel excluded or are simply not interested? Do social pressures on both women AND men dictate their career choices. Men statistically are drawn to the higher paying professions, so perhaps they too feel the social pressure of a different kind and are possibly selecting careers based on potential financial reward. Women seem to be drawn to careers that are perceived as more rewarding (vocational) but less financially rewarding, so it could be considered that in some respects women have greater freedom of choice (lack of social pressure to earn). 

However, the choice to enter software careers may well be the accumulation of negative influences discouraging women, or the lack of female role models, or male dominated media presentation of the industry. We need to understand what happened in their early lives that discourages women from entering what is generally a rewarding career path.

I have heard people suggest that it is a boys club and they don’t feel welcome, but the same could have been said about medicine a few years ago, in the UK in the 1960s only 10% of doctors were women, by 2017 it is expected that there will be more women than men and in the under 30s women outnumber men 61%-39%.  The USA is a little slower but women account for more than 1 in 3 and this number is growing. The latest figures show 48% of medical students are women.

The one hypothesis I have heard that resonates with me (and beware the man that uses generalisations) – Is that there is a tendency for women to measure their self-identify in the context of their relationships, their cliques, teams, peer groups or family. They find pleasure, reward and satisfaction from working in groups or choose professions that are rewarding.  Whereas men more often see their concept of self as measured by career status or in their work and select a career based on earning potential.  So women generally prefer work that involves people, whereas this may not be a priority for men.
Please do not see any implication that one of these outlooks is better than another or that it is a rule to be applied, I see them as different choices and priorities neither is right or wrong or better or worse. I offer them as generalizations that may help understanding. In effect both genders behaviour may be the result of social conditioning.

Whilst this is likely just one factor in a complicated decision I feel it is a reasonable hypothesis to explore. We are coloured by our experiences and this reflects what I have observed in the workplace, and in my opinion mixed teams are so much better: they are generally happier more productive and better at interacting with 3rd parties – compared with single gender groups.

So how could Agile help?

Education and the media present software and computing as being a solo activity, and worse as anti-social.  Images of men surrounded by energy drinks working all night on their own.  For socially stimulated people that is an unpleasant and negative impression.

The reality with agile teams is so radically different from this.  The coding element of software creation is actually much less than people realise, and even then it is generally not a solo activity, pairing is now prevalent which means you are rarely if ever working alone.  Software is very much a team activity with group discussions dominating the working day. Scheduled short meetings or impromptu discussions intersperse the day and rooms are rarely quiet. Software is not just coding, Agile encourages cross-functional teams and your typical team member may be doing analysis, design, development and QA, likely also support and customer interaction. And I may have mentioned this already – rarely alone. All of these activities are team activities.

Software development is a team activity.

For a group that measures self-identity based on their relationships I am hard to pressed to think of a more social activity than an agile software team. It is one of the most social structures I know, to the point where it can be difficult to disassociate the individual from the group. It is very difficult to measure individual performance. The true measure often comes down to how well you integrate with the team, and how well you can communicate.

As for unsociable hours, that is a thing of the past. Agile promotes sustainable pace, that means that teams set a pace that can be achieved week after-week, after-week, no more death marches, no late nights. In fact most agile software groups tend to have very flexible hours, with the weight put on to team contribution. Some teams choose to work early mornings and leave early, others later in the day.  And with pair-switching happening frequently and effort put in to knowledge sharing – avoiding single dependencies and silos it is actually pretty easy to have part time people that are effective and active members of the team with little if any detriment.

Diversity

And then of course there are huge benefits of having diverse teams. Teams of mixed genders are more effective, a lot more effective.

So if we accept the hypothesis that women have the wrong impression about software development and that the software industry post-Agile is more inclusive, more social, more compatible with part-time work and flexible working.  And that the industry could benefit hugely from a more balanced and diverse workforce.  How do we get that message out?

How can we fix the negative perception?

How do you persuade education – both university level and earlier, to teach that software is a team sport, that the most important skills for success are the ability to work well with others to be team players, cooperators and collaborators.  And how do you educate the media to stop presenting IT professionals using negative stereotypes? 

Software development is fun, a typical agile team environment has a buzz: talking, laughing, sharing ideas, collaboration and caring for each other. Not that they are not professional, most of the buzz comes from the desire to do the right thing for the customer and the users of the software. The buzz comes from the thrill of creating something new and amazing with a group of people you respect and admire and enjoy their company.

Taking the game to the students

I’d like that to be taken to the classroom, get the message out that in real life you don’t work alone you contribute to a group, that in software development especially you succeed because you are a team and the better you work together the more we can achieve.

As part of our Agile training we play a variety of team learning games that simulate iterative development and learning. They promote team thinking and team retrospectives how working together you can be more effective and how by reflecting you can improve.

I’d like to take a cut down version of that activity to some schools and see if on a small level we can change young people’s perceptions of IT.

Of course the media could help with some better role models and presenting software development in a more positive light, but that may be too much to hope for.