Are women better coders than men?

Women's code is accepted more often on open-source software site GitHub – as long as their gender is unknown. So why doesn't Silicon Valley have more female programmers?

Alfred A. Knopf/AP/File
Part of the cover image from the book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" written by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of Lean In, a nonprofit focused on empowering women.

A new study of the open-source software-development website GitHub found that women coders have work accepted at a higher rate than their male counterparts. The caveat: this is only true when the coder’s gender can’t be identified.

This is not what the researchers from North Carolina State University and California Polytechnic State University had expected to find. Surely, the team hypothesized, because of gender bias, women coders' work will be evaluated more harshly and accepted less frequently than men’s.

“The hypothesis is not only false, but it is in the opposite direction than expected; women tend to have their pull requests accepted at a higher rate than men!” the researchers reported in a draft paper that has not yet been reviewed by other scientists.

The researchers' cynical hypothesis was not surprising. It reflects previous gender bias research and the hiring trends among leading American technology firms, where employee diversity is lower than in the rest of the workforce.

Firms like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, based on their own reporting, on average employ less than 20 percent women in tech positions.  

On GitHub, the researchers evaluated 1.4 million coders whose gender they could infer by mining contributors’ Google profiles. They matched coders with their code contributions, or "pull requests" as they are called on GitHub, a crowdsourcing platform used by 12 million developers to contribute code to open-source software-building projects.

They found that code from women was accepted at a higher rate, 78.6 percent, than code  from men, 74.6 percent. That acceptance rate dropped for women who were not well known within the GitHub community and whose gender was identifiable – from their profile photos, for instance.

Researchers looked at a number of factors to try to explain this. Were women more likely to respond to urgent project requests? Was their code shorter and easier to evaluate? Were they using preferred programming languages? Was their code selected because they are women?

No, no, no, and no. So ... why? 

The paper authors have some speculations, but say that more research needs to be done.

“While our big data study does not definitely prove that differences between gendered interactions are caused by bias among individuals, the trends observed in this paper are troubling,” wrote the team in its paper draft.

“The frequent refrain that open source is a pure meritocracy must be reexamined,” they concluded.

At one time, the technology industry was seen as a hub of opportunity for anyone with a computer and a million-dollar idea.

That image crumbled as technology companies started to release data about the diversity – or, more accurately, the lack of diversity –of their workforces.

Intel has reported that 76 percent of its employees are male. Microsoft looks similar, with a bigger gender split among managers, 88 percent of whom are male, as Mashable has reported. This trend is reflected among most major tech companies, nearly all of which are also majority white.

"To be honest, no one is really getting it right," said Candice Morgan, who last month became the first head of diversity at Pinterest, to Mashable. "I think that intentions are good, but because this is a younger focus for this industry, all of us have a lot to do."

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