Diversity in Software Development: Where Are We at and Where Should We Go Next?

Diversity has been a growing concern in the world of software development. What have we achieved so far and what are the next steps?
October 24, 2022
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A lot has changed in the last decade in regard to the software development culture. The “bro” culture (or brogrammer) that was mainstream in the business is slowly but surely being seen as an issue and not a condition. Gaming software giants like Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft have been in the spotlight because of their toxic environment and sexual abuse allegations. 

Stakeholders and financiers are paying attention to the corporate social responsibility index (CSRI) to guide their investment decisions, and diversity is a big part of the social impact an organization has on their community (and even worldwide in the case of giants like Microsoft), so even the most profit-driven businesses have to acknowledge diversity.

Knowing about diversity and doing something about it are 2 different matters entirely. People can preach about how culturally diverse teams are more creative, or put LGBTIQA+ flags on their social media profiles, but that doesn’t mean that they strive for diversity in their workplace. 

I don’t want to paint a grim picture, because that would be extremely unfair to the amazing efforts we have made to get where we are. We have grown, but there are still places to go. Diversity is not binary. It is not as simple as being diverse or not. Diversity is a process that involves changes to some of our most fundamental beliefs and practices.

Where Are We at Regarding Diversity?

According to Zippia, in 2022, around 79% of self-declared software developers in the U.S. identify as male, while only 21% identify as female, with no data available about nonbinary developers. To make matters worse, we’ve seen a shrinking trend, for the last decade or so. The amount of female software engineers has shrunk from a more significant 29% back in 2010.

For every $1 earned by a male software developer, a female software developer earns around $0.94, in other words, male developers have an average yearly income of $92,520, while females average around $86,511. Now, we’ve all heard the argument “women are less willing to work overtime” and “women are more likely to take time off or go on leave because of pregnancies and family issues.”

Can those differences be explained by biological dispositions? Maybe, but to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, let’s first get rid of social inequality, our biases, and the systemic problems that plague our culture and our society. Then, and only then, can we talk about biological differences between human beings. 

The truth is that statistically women are more likely to be harassed by co-workers, and are more likely to be assaulted on the street, which in turn means that they tend to feel less comfortable in the office, and are less likely to work jobs where they have to be alone or work late at night. Is that the case for every woman? Of course not, but it’s enough of a trend that it could explain the difference between work schedules and choices.

From a race perspective, things are faring much better. In the U.S. 56% of software developers are white, around 29% are Asian, 7% are Hispanic, 5% are Black, and the rest are distributed among other ethnicities. In this case, we are seeing a different trend, with each passing year seeing more BIPOC developers finding jobs and the percentages shifting, slowly but surely.

Now, keep in mind that 60% of the American population is white or predominately white, so distribution-wise it’s to be expected that the vast majority of positions are filled by white developers. But here is where things get funky: Around 6% of the U.S. population is Asian, 19% is Hispanic, and 13% is Black. And yet Asians make up the second biggest ethnic group in software development. It’s not hard to see that there is something else going on beyond simple population distributions.

What are we doing wrong? 

Diversity as a Process

Diversity is not an issue that can be solved by enforcing strict race quotas, or by sending a team to a weekend sensibility seminar. It has been proven time and again that the best way to deal with racism is not through seminars, but to get people from all ethnic groups working together.

Gender stereotypes are still prevalent in our culture and enforce certain expectations from us: Men are the rational engineers, while females are the caregivers and empathic ears. Diversity is a systemic issue that can’t be solved with a change in company politics. Most schools around the planet are changing their curriculum for a more diverse and culturally respectful approach to education, but it’s going to take decades before we see if the new generation can transcend our deep-seated beliefs.

In the meantime, we have to keep pushing for a more welcoming environment for people from all walks of life. As we’ve mentioned before, offshore outsourcing of our work is a fantastic way to bring together a culturally diverse team from different ethnicities, giving us new insights and taking on our projects.

But there is more that we can do than simply hiring diverse developers: We can support projects, ONGs, and private organizations like Django Girls that focus on promoting software engineering in historically marginalized groups. This kind of endeavor seeks to democratize computers and technology by helping others familiarize themselves with all aspects of computer science.

To put it bluntly, lower middle-class families are less likely to promote a technologically rich environment and are less likely to stimulate their children cognitively, which translates to lower interest in computers and informatics in general (remember, these are trends, not absolutes). The result? People who could become engineers and developers do not have the opportunity to explore this world from an early age.

A friend of mine once told me a great metaphor to explain privilege: Imagine a 100-meter foot race. Everyone is using the same shoes and has the same training, but some runners have a 50-meter head start, while others don’t. Can someone who starts at the 100-meter mark win? Yes, but the odds are not in their favor. 

That’s how privilege works, and these institutions are trying little by little to shorten the gap by promoting more opportunities. In the meantime, we have to keep fostering better and more culturally sensitive work environments. Think of it like preparing the soil to plant the seeds. The more we push for a welcoming environment, the more people will look at us and aspire to join us.  

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