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Women in Software Development

Barbie has embarked on her 125th career, as a computer engineer, and Microsoft has launched Digigirlz, which offers high-tech camps for middle and high school girls as well as free online HTML/ web development courses. The message: Computing is for females, too. The goal: In the future, software development and other related computer fields will be more gender-balanced.

A recent Forbes Magazine survey found that Women Software Developers earned nearly equivalent salaries to those of their male counterparts.

But what if you're considering the field, and you’re already 18... or 38? How does it feel to enter a field that is predominately male? What organizations should you join, and where should you seek employment? Here's a look at the current status of the software development profession, as well as some of the more promising recent developments.

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Image: Obstacle and Opportunity

Why the self-imposed roadblock? Some suggest it's about image. Software development -- though popular in many circles -- is often thought of as a "nerd" profession. Indeed, Microsoft New England Research and Development goes by the acronym NERD. The image may be attractive to some. It isn't attractive to the young girl who doesn't identify as a nerd -- or as a tomboy, which is another common stereotype. If software development programs only lure those who self-identify as having more boyish interests, they're missing out on a lot of talent.

Industry leaders understand that females can not only achieve but enjoy the profession if they're lured in at a young age and shown that the career is not at odds with their image. That's the premise behind the Microsoft Digigirlz website. The feminine look and feel of the website doesn’t reflect different expectations. Microsoft encourages females to apply for academically rigorous internships. The Microsoft Research website includes reflections by a young lady who started out in DigiGirlz and went on to work on speech-enabled “help software” -- while still in high school.

Finding Role Models

There are also opportunities for mature females to learn basic coding and find role models in software development. Girl Develop IT has chapters in four U.S. cities (Austin, Columbus, New York, and Philadelphia) as well as in Sydney and Toronto. There are workshops in basic coding (HTML, CSS) and Android development, as well as introductions to PHP, MySQL, and Ruby on Rails. Members may attend combined social event/ social justice development events (Hackathon for Humanity). The founders are working not only to increase women’s computing confidence, but to give software development a more stylish image.

For those who want to go further -- earning a baccalaureate degree in a related field -- there are additional resources at the school level. Women and other underrepresented groups can also seek out online mentors.

The Software Development Lifestyle: Practical Concerns

It’s not all about role models and societal views. There are also practical concerns. In a 2005 paper "Inclusion, Diversity, and Gender Equality", Yuwei Lin cites multiple obstacles including gendered software and long work hours. Software development has traditionally been a more than forty hour a week profession, and females may have more competing roles that make it difficult for them to put in the time.

Some companies are working hard to bring diversity into the profession. Flexible scheduling is among the tools. Microsoft is again among the leaders. New mothers are eligible for up to eight weeks of paid leave. (Fathers and adoptive parents may be eligible for four.) There are also work-from-home and job share opportunities.

Salary is another bright spot for women in the profession. While women represent only about a fifth of the workforce, their earnings are nearly equal. Forbes reports that computer female computer programmers enjoyed a median salary of $62,000 in 2009, almost as much as their male counterparts. This was not the case in many other professions.


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