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Paradise Unplugged

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2016-09-21
Keywords: Diversity

Ford2016 Denae Ford, Justin Smith, Philip J. Guo, and Chris Parnin: "Paradise unplugged: identifying barriers for female participation on stack overflow". Proceedings of the 2016 24th ACM SIGSOFT International Symposium on Foundations of Software Engineering, 10.1145/2950290.2950331.

It is no secret that females engage less in programming fields than males. However, in online communities, such as Stack Overflow, this gender gap is even more extreme: only 5.8% of contributors are female. In this paper, we use a mixed-methods approach to identify contribution barriers females face in online communities. Through 22 semi-structured interviews with a spectrum of female users ranging from non-contributors to a top 100 ranked user of all time, we identified 14 barriers preventing them from contributing to Stack Overflow. We then conducted a survey with 1470 female and male developers to confirm which barriers are gender related or general problems for everyone. Females ranked five barriers significantly higher than males. A few of these include doubts in the level of expertise needed to contribute, feeling overwhelmed when competing with a large number of users, and limited awareness of site features. Still, there were other barriers that equally impacted all Stack Overflow users or affected particular groups, such as industry programmers. Finally, we describe several implications that may encourage increased participation in the Stack Overflow community across genders and other demographics.

Computing as a whole has a diversity problem, but its online communities are even worse. This careful study explores why by looking at Stack Overflow, and finds five barriers to contribution that are seen as significantly more problematic by women than by men:

  1. lack of awareness of site features
  2. feeling unqualified to answer questions
  3. intimidating community size
  4. discomfort interacting with or relying on strangers
  5. perception that they shouldn't be "slacking"

Surprisingly, "fear of negative feedback" didn't quite make this list, but would have been the next one added if the authors weren't quite so strict about their statistical cutoffs. The authors are careful to say, "…we are not suggesting that only females are affected by these barriers, or that these barriers are primarily due to gender, but rather that five barriers were seen as significantly more problematic by females than by males."

In a better world than ours, this list would lead to a series of papers and tools that directly and explicitly tackled these challenges and measured their success not by ad revenue but by how well they addressed the systemic failures of our profession. In this world, I'm less hopeful, but would be very happy to be proved wrong.