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<nettime> Julia Carrie Wong: Women considered better coders
Patrice Riemens on Wed, 17 Feb 2016 12:56:13 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Julia Carrie Wong: Women considered better coders

Original to (with pics):

(bwo Barbara Strebel)

Women considered better coders – but only if they hide their gender
By Julia Carrie Wong
The Guardian, Friday 12 February 2016

Researchers find software repository GitHub approved code written by 
women at a higher rate than code written by men, but only if the gender 
was not disclosed

When a group of computer science students decided to study the way that 
gender bias plays out in software development communities, they assumed 
that coders would be prejudiced against code written by women.

After all, women make up a very small percentage of software developers 
– 11.2% according to one 2013 survey – and the presence of sexism in all 
corners of the overwhelmingly male tech industry has been well 

So the student researchers were surprised when their hypothesis proved 
false – code written by women was in fact more likely to be approved by 
their peers than code written by men. But that wasn’t the end of the 
story: this only proved true as long as their peers didn’t realise the 
code had been written by a woman.

“Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent 
overall, bias against them exists nonetheless,” the study’s authors 

The researchers, who published their findings earlier this week looked 
at the behavior of software developers on GitHub, one of the largest 
open-source software communities in the world.

     Researchers found that code written by women was approved at a 
higher rate (78.6%) than code written by men (74.6%)

Based in San Francisco, GitHub is a giant repository of code used by 
over 12 million people. Software developers on GitHub can collaborate on 
projects, scrutinise each other’s work, and suggest improvements or 
solutions to problems. When a developer writes code for someone else’s 
project, it’s called a “pull request”. The owner of the code can then 
decide whether or not to accept to proffered code.

The researchers looked at approximately 3m pull requests submitted on 
GitHub, and found that code written by women was approved at a higher 
rate (78.6%) than code written by men (74.6%).

Looking for an explanation for this disparity, the researchers examined 
several different factors, such as whether women were making smaller 
changes to code (they were not) or whether women were outperforming men 
in only certain kinds of code (they were not).

“Women’s acceptance rates dominate over men’s for every programming 
language in the top 10, to various degrees,” the researchers found.

The researchers then queried whether women were benefiting from reverse 
bias – the desire of developers to promote the work of women in a field 
where they are such a small minority. To answer this, the authors 
differentiated between women whose profiles made it clear that they were 
female, and women developers whose profiles were gender neutral.

It was here that they made the disturbing discovery: women’s work was 
more likely to be accepted than men’s, unless “their gender is 
identifiable”, in which case the acceptance rate was worse than men’s.

Interviews with a number of female developers who use GitHub revealed a 
complicated picture of navigating gender bias in the world of 
open-source code.

Lorna Jane Mitchell, a software developer whose work is almost entirely 
based on GitHub, said that it was impossible to tell whether a pull 
request was ignored out of bias, or just because a project owner was 
busy or knew another developer personally.

Her profile on GitHub clearly identifies her as female, something she 
won’t be changing based on the results of this study.

“I have considered how wise it is to have a gender-obvious profile and 
to me, being identifiably female is really important,” Mitchell said by 
email. “I want people to realise that the minorities do exist. And for 
the minorities themselves: to be able to see that they aren’t the only 
ones ... it can certainly feel that way some days.”

Another developer, Isabel Drost-Fromm, whose profile picture on GitHub 
is a female cartoon character, said that she’s never experienced bias 
while working GitHub, but that she normally uses the site to work on 
projects with a team that already knows her and her work.

Jenny Bryan, a professor of statistics at the University of British 
Columbia, uses GitHub as a teacher and developer in R, a programming 
language. Her profile makes clear that she is a woman, and she doesn’t 
believe that she’s been discriminated against due to her gender.

“At the very most, men who don’t know me sometimes explain things to me 
that I likely understand better than they do,” she writes. “The men I 
interact with in the R community on GitHub know me and, if my genderhas 
any effect at all, I feel they go out of their way to support my efforts 
to learn and make more contributions.”

Bryan was more concerned with the paucity of women using GitHub than she 
was with the study’s results. “Where are the women?” she asks. One 
possibility she raises is the very openness of the open source 

“In open source, no one is getting paid to manage the community,” she 
writes. “Thus often no one is thinking about how well the community is 
(or is not) functioning.”

That’s a pressing question for GitHub itself, which has faced serious 
charges of internal sexism which led to the resignation of co-founder 
and CEO Tom Preston-Werner in 2014. GitHub did not immediately respond 
to a request for comment on the study.

In 2013, GitHub installed a rug in its headquarters that read, “United 
Meritocracy of GitHub.” The rug was removed in 2014 after criticism from 
feminist commentators that, although meritocracy is a virtue that it is 
hard to disagree with in principle, it doesn’t do much for diversity in 
the workplace. CEO Chris Wanstrath tweeting, “We thought ‘meritocracy’ 
was a neat way to think of open source but now we see the problems with 
it. Words matter. We’re getting a new rug.”

As the researchers of the pull request study wrote, “The frequent 
refrain that open source is a pure meritocracy must be reexamined.”

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