Why There Are No Women On Stack Overflow… Or Are There?

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During the hackathon, we’re constantly evaluating whether “it’s worth it” on any given problem. By Anna Billstrom (iOS & Facebook App Developer, Self)

For a long time, I used Stack Overflow as a reference for error messages while programming. You can search for your error and find a lovely discussion of fixes, problems, etc.

I joined a year ago, but got some grief and didn't login in again for a year. I had run into a very difficult bug and posted it (Facebook deep linking on Android emulator). A guy answered in four 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 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 Stack Overflow, 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 that I received 57 emails from women in the next 11 days - about how they largely disliked the site, lurked, or joined and left.

So there’s good news. There are women on Stack Overflow. 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 Stack Overflow:

  • 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 Stack Overflow

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 Stack Overflow, 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 Stack Overflow.

Downvoting without reason is a pernicious behavior on Stack Overflow 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!).

This post was originally posted at Banane.

About the guest blogger: Anna Billstrom is an iPhone and Android mobile developer, specializing in social apps. She's worked at Momentus Media, a startup that made the “8 Bit Your Pic” for Black Eyed Peas app, which saw 2 million users in 2 weeks. She's done the gamut of OLAP DB modeling to Java development and Ruby on Rails. Follow her on Twitter at @banane.