Study: Women Are Better Coders on GitHub, If Gender is Not Disclosed

By Ellie Martin

Ellie Martin is co-founder of Startup Change group. Her works have been featured on Yahoo!, Wisebread, AOL, among others. She currently splits her time between her home office in New York and Israel.

code-820275_640A new announcement in the tech world has revealed another layer of the bias against female coders. A recent independent study conducted by researchers from California Polytechnic State University and North Carolina State University has yielded some troubling results: in the open-source marketplace GitHub, contributions from female programmers were accepted at a higher rate—but only when the gender of the programmer was not revealed.

These results reinforce blatant sexism within the programming world. Women create better code, the study suggests, but their contributions to open source projects are rejected more frequently than those of male programmers when the gender of the contributing coder is clearly known. While all contributions are generally rejected more frequently across the board when gender is made public, female coders experience a much more significant drop in gender-public acceptance rates, going from 78.6% acceptance (vs. 74.6% for men) in gender-blind contributions to 62.5% acceptance (vs. 71.8% for men) in gender-public contributions.

The results come in the wake of the tech industry’s long-standing and widely-publicized struggle with sexism and gender disparity, but this study adds a new wrinkle to the issue, one centered around the source of the study’s data. GitHub is widely thought of as an open frontier, a forum by coders, for coders. While the heavy-hitting tech industry corporations have long struggled with a lack of women in tech roles, GitHub has frequently been touted as a true meritocracy, focusing less on the coder and more on the code. This statement alone should be taken with a very large grain of salt, as statistics reveal that only 6% of GitHub users are women.

However, some detractors have pointed out holes in the report, noting that it hasn’t been peer reviewed and it reported the findings through graphs, which have been criticized for being deliberately misleading and exaggerating the extent of the results. The fact that women’s contributions were accepted more often than men’s in the case of repeat contributor gender-public projects had some people scratching their head, as it seems to go against the findings of the rest of the survey. Additionally, there are many factors involved when it comes to accepting contributions on GitHub, such as the size and scale of the suggested contribution. Some argue this study did not effectively account for those variations in the report.

All else equal and neutral, some go as far to argue that women are better coders because they have to be due to the competitiveness of having to overcome gender bias in the industry. Regardless of the reason, it can be encouraging to conclude that the bias against women has no basis in real, quantifiable skills and output. Women have every right and qualification to excel in the programming world.

Women’s absence in tech, then, can be combated with the knowledge that it’s not about being “good” at coding; female coders have the skillset. It’s about finding endeavors that give the many female programmers the inroads they need to get a firm standing in the coding world. Whether it’s scholarships for female coders specifically targeted at open-source contribution or awards for women in open source aimed at identifying and honoring the outstanding achievements in the open-source community, there are initiatives out there already devoted to breaking down the barriers of gender bias and making strides toward establishing the truly equal workforce tech should be. Hopefully the results of this study will only help in getting the biases out in the open, where people can continue to have dialogues about how best to solve this ongoing issue.


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