There Are No Women On StackOverflow… Or Are There?

For a long time, years in fact, I used the site as a reference. You have an error message, and you can search for it, and find a lovely discussion of fixes, problems, etc. I had joined a year ago, but got some grief and didn’t login in again for a year.I’d run into a very difficult bug and posted it (Facebook deep linking on Android emulator). A guy answered in 4 minutes and helped me troubleshoot- there was no clear answer, but I was grateful for a sane head and new set of eyes. Full of good karma, I decided to give back. I made some classic newbie missteps before I got my footing. Of course, I ran into some douchebag opinionated guys, (“you don’t know what you’re talking about.”) but still pushed through, until there I was, up late one night, in a chat session with some high school student writing their first iPhone app. It was karma, and also wanting the +10 associated with being the correct answer.

As I got into the various features, I started exploring the user profiles. That’s when I realized that I’d only come across one visible woman’s profile, among the hundreds, or thousands of profiles I’d seen up until then. I posted an innocent question to a women’s engineering list:

Lately most of my annoying-male-behavior stuff comes from StackOverflow, which led me to think, are my lady programmers on there?

I’m enjoying the “roulette” style questions, going to “unanswered” and seeing if I know anything. And also trying to give back as it’s saved me a few times in the last week.

Anyway, I’m me on there, if you’re on there it’d be nice to know your username.

I was hoping to see maybe one or two – or to just see if they got nasty responses to their questions like I did. What happened is an 11-day discussion, 57 emails, from women about how largely they disliked the site, lurked, or joined and left.

So there’s good news, there are women on StackOverflow. The visible ones are far below the representative % of women in the industry.* So you can safely determine that it’s an unfriendly-to-women place. Many “men” are women. Some women have two profiles, one that they use to ask what they consider dumb questions, one where they answer questions.

Here’s a list of comments from our 57-thread discussion about why women aren’t on StackOverflow:
- The blatant one-upmanship of the site turns them off
- There’s nothing they can contribute (seriously, many women feel that way)
- They don’t want the grief of getting downvoted (because they are a woman) * (more on this later)
- Like me, just didn’t consider contributing
- They use neuter or male profiles
- One or two women were early users and got turned off by the online behavior of the sexism and discrimination they endure in real life.

We are now discussing creating a hosted, private question and answer site similar to SO. I honestly don’t think that’s a good idea for improving the visibility of women in tech. As one mailing list programmer wrote to me, “It’s a battle some of us just don’t want to fight.”

My Short History on Stack Overflow
Milestone #1: My first post- an answer (kinda ballsy!) Notice: no upvotes. Still, proud of it, and the content was solid.

Milestone #2: My first accepted answer! On the site, the question author selects the correct answer. I was chosen of 3!

Milestone #3: Answering (and being selected as the answer) in a language you don’t consider yourself all that great at. Oh, and people are grateful?!?!

Tips To Having Fun On StackOverflow
I largely use SO as a place to gain confidence, and a good prep for interviews. I also use it to procrastinate. I am a geek, so I like to browse it much like a bookstore, looking up issues or languages that have crossed my path recently. Mainly, of course, I use it to find answers to questions.

If you want to participate in the community, and not lurk, there are some tips to having fun:
- Post code. Your answers will be up-voted, and selected, if you do the effort of actually writing a sample few lines of code, or finding old code and popping it in. Most developers don’t read non-code formatted text, it’s true.
- Be polite, but don’t grovel, apologize, use disclaimers, or caveats. Simple, and direct.
- Don’t chat – use the chat tool if it gets to be a back-and-forth discussion.
- Comments are comments, answers are answers. That was my newbie problem, getting them mixed up; putting comments in the Answers box and vice-versa.
- Use tags – in searching, in finding questions to answer, in writing your question. It makes site more usable and faster. It took me a few days to find the use for it, and it is very useful.
- Don’t rise to the bait, avoid attention-seekers, etc. There are douches here, just avoid them. Let the moderators do the policing.

* Check out this Fiery discussion on “meta” StackOverflow regarding just this issue of women lurking, but not joining, StackOverflow, has quite a few references to QuantCast, a demographic analysis engine. One comment (that I didn’t verify its veracity) says 26% of degrees in CS are awarded to women. The QuantCast statistic reported in the thread is that 20% of those viewing the site are women (how it can determine this, I don’t know), with the author experientially saying “no women were in the active/leader board” for StackOverflow.

* Downvoting without reason: this is a pernicious behavior on StackOverflow that occurs to men, as well. Basically site users with a certain site-age can up or down vote answers, comments, questions, etc. The etiquette is to add a reason, if you downvote. Women perceive, that it happens more to them than men. We can only really verify it with the site statistics, or perhaps a sociological experiment of some kind? I’ve experienced downvoting, but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s from my age-level on the site (I think that has a serious impact) or my gender. Or, of course, it’s a bad answer (never!).

  • Hermione333

    I am a female human being and I am on StackOverflow; I do not think those 2 things are related in any way and I discourage phrasing the discussion in terms of why women do this or think that. Women (and Men) don't think. People think, in that we use our brains and not our sexual attributes or role in reproduction to think. It is a known fact that the tech community has a big sexism problem. Let's not encourage them through bad semantics. Some people are strong enough to break the mold, and others are not and will not be part of the social change of my generation. If you encounter someone openly sexist on SO or anywhere they should be ashamed of their ignorance and lack in critical thinking, not you. That said, if someone gets bullied is not their fault but how they react to it is their responsibility (run away? take the lead and change the world?). If you are a more advanced thinker (as are people that understand intelligence is not bound by sex,gender or skin color), it is your responsibility to create an environment that will make others smarter too.

    p.s. I love contributing on SO (for what I can). Everybody has feelings of inadequacy , especially on StackExchange, because it can be a very judgmental community. Get over them :-)

  • My friend sent me this link because my slowly surmounting fury for SO
    just boiled over today. My grief has nothing to do with gender issues,
    though your findings don't surprise me at all.

    My ultimate reasoning for leaving is the same thing everyone else complains about. The machine caters to the diehard losers--*AHEM* users, who spend all their time doing menial tasks to secure points, and then lording their power over casual users who make newbie mistakes and/or may have a different outlook. Ultimately, computer science, esp where it applies to web/app development is more an art than people realize. There are a lot of cool ways to do things.

    I was punished for asking questions that people thought were stupid. (The only stupid question is that which is not asked.) I was punished for asking theoretical questions, because they generated too much discussion. Two questions got so many downvotes that I deleted them. Then today a similar scenario led to me getting banned when I deleted a question and tried to reword and repost in order to appease the content nazis. Getting banned was the final insult, so I filled out their form and told them to delete my account. I don't need that kind of crap. I'm just a budding web developer who could use some feedback!

  • cwaigl

    I'm on Stackoverflow with a non-negligible reputation rank and pretty obviously female (http://stackoverflow.com/users..., but then I tend to stick to small, circumscribed topics, have Python and i18n (both with very *nice* communities) as my topics of predilection and tend to stick to the point. 

  • I'm now wondering if I''ve ever really participated in SO itself. Ask Ubuntu (the Ubuntu-specific StackExchange site) and ServerFault, sure, but I'm not sure about SO. I've definitely found useful things there, but I rarely come across questions that are still unanswered that I know the answer to.

  • lsblakk

    Wow, thanks for writing this.  I always shied away from contributing to SO even though I often find answers to my questions on it and would love to give that same favour back to others.  Your article has given me great tips and I will try now to use them and see if I can build up some confidence on SO.

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