Barriers to Stack Overflow Use for Females

September 12, 2016 at 7:08 am 11 comments

Stack Overflow is an often used resource by programmers today. It’s also a barrier to women entering computing. Here’s a blog post summarizing a recent study on why women find Stack Overflow so unwelcoming.

There are many movements to get women into programming, but what about keeping them there? If they don’t feel comfortable using the resources that are available for all programmers then that is a big problem for retention in the field. To do our part in being more proactive in welcoming women into the field, we sought to uncover some reasons for this low participation.

Source: Paradise Unplugged: Barriers to Stack Overflow Use for Females | fordable

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  September 21, 2016 at 7:12 am

    I would first ask whether “Stack Overflow” is actually a help in the field or merely a large social environment that is propagating and continuing weak and distracting views of computing …

  • 2. rademi  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:04 am

    This sounds like blaming the messenger for the message.

    It would be an interesting project, I think, to graph the internet’s reach and to compare that against the rise of stack overflow’s irrational comments. I do not think we would get any definitive answers from this (you would need a considerably more sophisticated approach than that), but I think we would get some hints.

    I also suspect that those hints would point at some things both obvious and not socially acceptable to discuss. (Which, ok, covers a lot of ground. We tend to saturate on a variety of issues.)

    • 3. alanone1  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:12 am

      I meant that Stack Overflow” might not be worth any efforts to use it.

      (Perhaps too harshly) it pretty much represents “flat earth” thinking in computing, and I certainly would recommend to both women and men that they look elsewhere for “rounder” ideas to advance their thinking.

      • 4. rademi  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:17 am

        It does have a lot of garbage on it, yes. (I have my own personal theories about this.)

        It was not too long ago that it was useful, though (just a few years). And it still can be worth reading for treatment of obscure error messages (at least, this year).

        • 5. alanone1  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:23 am

          I would respectively disagree that it was ever useful for facing up to what computing is really about and what needs to be done to grapple with the real field. It was always like a “pop culture” caricature of the real thing. (And this goes for the other rather similar forum websites.)

          • 6. rademi  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:24 am

            I never used it for that.

        • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:45 am

          That StackOverflow “still can be worth reading for treatment of obscure error messages” is Alan’s point, as I read it. StackOverflow tells us how to get around some weird bug in Java 7, and what this weird error message is in Python, or how to get the serial port working in Ubuntu. It’s not a forum for asking why Java 7 has weird bugs like that, why we’re getting error messages at all if what we’re trying to do is reasonable, how should we design error messages to be reasonable, and what are the right abstractions so that we don’t fight serial port drivers. Those are much more important questions. There’s a huge amount of energy going into StackOverflow, to achieve not very much. Why is computing in this sorry state today?

          One of my favorite papers at ICER 2016 was on Python’s object-oriented programming features. Python methods require you to parameterize ‘self’. Craig Miller and Amber Settle actually measured the cost in student errors of that decision — it’s enormous. It swamps out all other kinds of errors. They’re asking the bigger question, “Why is Python designed like that? What’s the cost? How could we do it better?” I suspect Alan would like to go further than critiquing one aspect of Python, but I think it’s in the right direction — to challenge the current state of computing, rather than figure out workarounds.

          Finally, the suggestion that as the Internet increases in size then StackOverflow just got meaner — maybe. I believe that StackOverflow is poorly designed as an on-line community in that it rewards (literally) inappropriate behavior and has no safeguards to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. It is possible to design a community (even a mostly male one) that safeguards the minority in that community (in StackOverflow, females) even as the community grows. The US Constitution defined one of these.

          • 8. rademi  |  September 21, 2016 at 3:04 pm

            Why is computing in this sorry state today?

            Because: people.

            There is a constant push for simplification – people are impatient, lazy, and sick of _____, and whatever else. And, for good reason. So we just want to get past that all and get to the partying / family life / lulz / sleep / important stuff / …

            Throw in foreign language issues, authority figures with responsibility for civilian and military crisis, an awareness of history, public unrest, population growth issues, and all the intrinsic conflicts and compromises that all of those entail, and connect everyone together and you get what we’ve got.

            If you could solve people, you could solve computing.

  • 9. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  September 21, 2016 at 8:12 am

    I haven’t found StackOverflow to be all that useful. I question if it is as helpful as it’s boosters like to claim that it is. It’s so very different from what I think a tech support community should be. I know teachers who send students there to ask, answer, and look for answers but I worry about the attitudes towards all beginners there.

  • 10. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 22, 2016 at 2:07 am

    I still find Stack Overflow useful. I never ask or answer questions on it now (I used to answer some), but it often comes up in response to a Google query, and the answers there seem to be as good or better than many of the other Google hits (unless I get lucky and something is already in the documentation for the system I’m using).

    I don’t encourage students to post questions there (you have to have a really tough skin to do that), but I regard it as one of the better sources for answers to obscure questions.

  • 11. Harvey  |  October 1, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Stack Overflow is useful but the environment is really negative. It is intimidating when your questions or answers got down-voted, criticized or some time deleted by moderators or people with high points. These days I hardly participate on the site any more. I simply use it as a reference because there are good stuff there.

    We have a small community of local programmers and we have our own community Q&A site on so we can more freely discuss questions.


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