Researchers find software repository GitHub approved code written by women at a higher rate than code written by men, but only if the gender of the programmer was not disclosed. When a group of computer science students decided to study the role of gender bias in software development communities, they assumed that other coders (programmers) would be prejudiced against code written by women.
After all, women only make up 11.2% of the software development workforce – according to one 2013 survey – and the presence of sexism in all corners of the overwhelmingly male tech industry has been well documented.
So the student researchers were surprised when their hypothesis proved false – code written by women was in fact more likely to be approved by their peers than code written by men. But that wasn’t the end of the discovery: this only proved true as long as their peers didn’t know the code had been written by a woman.
“Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them still exists nonetheless,” the study authors write. The researchers, who published their findings earlier this week, looked at the behavior of software developers on GitHub, one of the largest open-source software communities in the world.
Based in San Francisco, GitHub is a giant repository of code used by over 12 million people. These developers can collaborate on projects, scrutinize each other’s work, and suggest improvements or solutions to problems. When a developer writes code for someone else’s project, it’s called a “pull request”. The owner of the code can then decide whether or not to accept the submitted code.
The researchers looked at approximately 3 million pull requests, and found that code written by women was approved at a higher rate (78.6%) than code written by men (74.6%). Interviews with a number of female developers who use GitHub, revealed a complicated picture of navigating gender bias in the world of open-source code.
Lorna Jane Mitchell, a software developer whose work is almost entirely based on GitHub, said that it was impossible to tell whether a pull request was ignored out of bias, or just because a project owner was busy or know another developer personally. Her profile on GitHub clearly identifies her as female, something she won’t be changing based on the results of this study.
“I have considered how wise it is to have a gender-obvious profile and to me, being identifiably female is really important,” Mitchell said by email. “I want people to realize that the minorities do exist. And for the minorities themselves: to be able to see that they aren’t the only ones … it can certainly feel that way some days.”
Jenny Bryan, a professor of statistics at the University of British Columbia, uses GitHub as a teacher and developer in R, a programming language. Her profile makes clear that she is a woman, and she doesn’t believe that she’s been discriminated against due to her gender.
“At the very most, men who don’t know me sometimes explain things to me that I likely understand better than they do,” she writes. “The men I interact with in the R community on GitHub know me and, if my gender has any effect at all, I feel they go out of their way to support my efforts to learn and make more contributions.”
Bryan was more concerned with the scarcity of women using GitHub than she was with the study’s results. “Where are the women?” she asks. One possibility she raises is the very openness of the open source community.
“In open source, no one is getting paid to manage the community,” she writes. “Thus often no one is thinking about how well the community is (or is not) functioning.”
Read Article (Julia Carrie Wong | theguardian.com | 02/12/2016)
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