Biases against women in the workplace have been documented in several studies, but it turns out that popular opinion that women perform less well in technical jobs could be wildly wrong. A recent study by US researchers has found that computer code written by women tends to be rated more highly than that written by men. However, women’s work is more highly-approved if their gender is not mentioned, the study suggested.
The study, entitled ‘Gender bias in open source: Pull request acceptance of women versus men’ has been released online on PeerJ under preprints on February 9, 2016. It is probably the largest study to date on gender bias. However, the study has not yet been peer-reviewed, and thus the findings should be considered as preliminary.
The researchers analysed the behaviour of over a million users of Github, a code-sharing website where users can collaborate, post their work, and have others give them feedback. They paid particular attention to ‘pull requests’ – code submissions contributed to a project by a developer. After receiving a pull request, the owner of the project can choose whether or not to accept it. They found that pull requests from women to projects they were not involved with were accepted more often than those from men. But when the women’s gender was identifiable – through information on their Github profile or elsewhere – their pull request acceptance rate dropped by 9.3 per cent, taking it below the rate for men. The researchers chose GitHub for their study because it is the largest open source community, claiming to have over 12 million collaborators across 31 million software repositories.
Looking for possible explanations for the disparity, they examined whether fixes made by women were more needed in certain projects, or whether they only had an advantage in certain programming languages. However, no correlations were found. The researchers concluded, “Our results suggest that although women on Github may be more competent overall, bias against them exists, nonetheless.”
If accurate, the study would reinforce the perception against women in the tech work environment, where gender disparity is common. For example, only 18 per cent of Google’s global technical staff is women. In a 2013 survey of the more than 2000 open source developers who indicated their gender, only 11.2 per cent were women. Recent research has also suggested that diverse software development teams are more productive than homogeneous teams.