The Real Truth About Women in Technology

John Hennessy, Maria Klawe, and David Patterson

August 22, 2017

“Recently, a (now-former) Google employee publicly speculated that the underrepresentation of female software engineers is due to an inherent biological difference.[1] Although admitting that implicit bias and explicit bias may exist, he wrote

“I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

It’s an ironic conjecture historically, since many early programmers were women [2].

We make four points in rebuttal.

First, we know implicit bias exists, and that most of us have some. Such bias has also significant effects on observed performance

Hence the need for effective programs to overcome unconscious biases [5].

Second, established research and common sense both tell us that members of underrepresented groups are more easily discouraged because they face daily biases that others don’t. Coaching programs can compensate. While anyone can selectively pick papers to support one’s version of “the truth”, virtually all scientists who have studied these issues agree that implicit bias and stereotyping are significant barriers for members of underrepresented groups:

We’ve tried to counteract these barriers as faculty and administrators, and seen women flourish under our tutelage [8]

Third, many predict a dramatic shortage of software engineers [9] over the next five years, which will limit the growth of an industry that plays a vital role in our economy [10]. To be competitive in this critical industry, we must be able to draw from the entire US population, not only the one-third who are non-Hispanic white and Asian men. Moreover, a diverse leadership is correlated with successful institutions [11] of all types : companies [12], universities [13], government [14], the military [15], and so on.

Fourth, we see important benefits of discussions on such sensitive issues, but we advise they be face-to-face so that discussants can see the impact of their words and to rapidly learn flaws in their reasoning before circulating them widely. Electronic communication unfortunately can lose the nuances and the quick feedback of live conversations, and can lead to long-lived texts that demoralize the underrepresented [16]. Even the author cited by the former Google employee disagrees that sex differences explain the limited diversity in the workplace. [17]:

Using someone’s biological sex to essentialize an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm.”

Dispiriting words can also have the unintended side-effect of condoning discrimination based on gender, race, or ethnicity.

We don't see this controversy as political, as egalitarianism should be the American way [18]. It's about fairness, civility, and common sense. A real meritocracy demands nothing less.

The authors are prominent academic computer scientists with longstanding industrial ties. Hennessy was the tenth President of Stanford University, founded successful startups, and serves on Alphabet’s Board. Klawe is the fifth President of Harvey Mudd College and served on Microsoft’s Board. Patterson was chair of UC Berkeley computer science and the Computing Research Association. Klawe and Patterson are also past Presidents of the Association of Computing Machinery, the largest and oldest professional computing organization. Thanks to Dr. Alana Conner (Senior Research Scientist, Stanford University) for help in locating many of the references. URL to the online version with citations.


  1. Google's Ideological Echo Chamber,
  2. Women in computing,
  3. Hill, Catherine, Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St Rose. Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. American Association of University Women. 1111 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington, DC 20036, 2010.
  4. Nosek, Brian A., et al. "National differences in gender–science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement." Proc. National Academy of Sciences (2009): 10593-10597.
  5. Emerson, Joelle, “Don’t Give Up on Unconscious Bias Training — Make It Better,” Harvard Business Review, April 28, 2017.
  6. Else-Quest, Nicole M., Janet Shibley Hyde, and Marcia C. Linn. "Cross-national patterns of gender differences in mathematics: a meta-analysis." Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 136, No. 1, 103–127 (2010)
  7. Martens, Andy, et al. "Combating stereotype threat: The effect of self-affirmation on women’s intellectual performance." J. Experimental Social Psych. (2006) 236-243.
  8. Staley, Oliver. "Harvey Mudd College Took on Gender Bias, and Now More Than Half Its Computer Science Majors Are Women." Quartz (August 22, 2016).
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  10. Kvochko, Elena. "Five ways technology can help the economy." World Economic Forum. 2013.
  11. Ayman, Roya, and Karen Korabik. "Leadership: Why gender and culture matter." American Psychologist 65.3 (2010): 157-170.
  12. Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince. "Why Diversity matters." McKinsey & Company 1 (2015).
  13. Williams, Damon. A matter of excellence: A guide to strategic diversity leadership and accountability in higher education. American Council on Education, 2013.
  14. U.S. Office Of Personnel Management, Frequently Asked Questions Diversity And Inclusion (2017),
  15. Lt. Gen. Julius Becton, Jr., Adm. Dennis Blair, Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, Hon. James M. Cannon, Lt. Gen. Daniel Christman, Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. Max Cleland, Adm. Archie Clemins, Hon. William Cohen, Adm. William Crowe, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, Lt. Gen. Howard Graves, Gen. Joseph Hoar, Sen. Robert Kerrey et al., Amicus brief for Grutter vs Bollinger,
  16. Kovach, Steve “Female employee on the Google memo: 'I don't know how we could feel anything but attacked by that',” Business Insider, August 13, 2017.
  17. Feldman, Brian "Here Are Some Scientific Arguments James Damore Has Yet to Respond To," Selectall, August 11, 2017
  18. American Way