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On the role of female coders in software development

Since the beginning of computing, women have consistently played a pivotal role in software development that has frequently been overlooked; from Ada Lovelace developing the first algorithms for modern computers to Margaret Hamilton’s crucial role in the development of on-board guidance software for NASA’s Apollo program.

However, despite women’s exceptional contributions to the field, they have often received less credit than their male counterparts, and their place in the field is questioned.

Today, efforts are being made across the software development ecosystem to address these historical biases. While efforts have been made to promote women to get involved in the historically male-dominated field, there is still considerable work to be done. 

Data and technology are not free from bias. Past applications and software development projects have demonstrated the need for input from diverse groups2.

In this chapter, we specifically explore the involvement of women in software development. According to our latest global developer survey (Q1 2023), nearly a quarter of all developers (22%) self-identify as females, the highest proportion since we began asking respondents about their gender.

This is a small increase from two years ago, since Q1 2021, when female coders accounted for 19% of all developers. 

This slight increase in the proportion of developers self-identifying as females can be partially attributed to the rise in the representation of women among early-to-mid-career developers. Women currently make up a quarter (25%) of developers between the ages of 25 and 34, the highest proportion of all age groups, up from less than 20% in Q1 2021.

This is followed closely by 23% of developers between the ages of 18 and 24. The highest proportion of women falling within the 25-34 age bracket indicates the possible beginning of a positive trend for the future of women in the tech industry. This is the age when people begin to settle into their careers and is a point where people are likely to develop additional skills that allow them to cross-train and enter industries of their choosing.

Further to this, we are also seeing an increasing presence of women in certain regions that are leading to an increase in the proportion of women in technology overall.

Specific highlights include the Middle East and Africa, where the proportion of women in technology in this region has gone from 10% in Q1 2021 to over 20% currently. Similarly, women made up 15% of developers in East Asia in Q1 2021 and now makeup almost 30% of developers. 

Overall, a higher representation of women in the software development ecosystem is a great development. Not only do they bring critical perspectives and approaches to the work being undertaken, but diversity in the workforce offers fresh experiences that can help businesses address underserved needs.

It also enhances efforts to make spaces that are less hostile to women in both overt and subtle ways, allowing even more women to follow their interests in the technology space.

The proportion of women among developers varies substantially depending on the types of projects they are involved in. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) projects have the highest proportion of women, at 33% and 28% respectively, followed by games (28%). 

On the contrary, backend services and web application projects have the lowest concentration of female coders, at just 13% and 16%, respectively.

With these sectors selecting those with formal degrees at higher rates than other areas, and a 10 percentage point difference between men and women having such a degree, this may be one factor in the lower presence of women.

Undergraduate degrees in computer science or equivalent are held by 45% of backend developers and 43% of web developers, compared to 37% of all developers.

Further, the lower proportion of women working in backend services and web application development may, in part, be attributed to the historically male-dominated culture within these sectors. Addressing cultural differences3 and fostering a more inclusive atmosphere can contribute to balancing representation and mentorship opportunities within these sectors.

Further, there may be potential unconscious biases in hiring practices derived from existing workplace culture, which may prevent certain development areas from harnessing the full spectrum of talent, and benefit from the input of individuals with diverse backgrounds.

Examining the sizes of organisations that female developers work for throughout various stages of their life and career could indicate that company characteristics have an influence on women’s decisions in the technology sector.

Like young men, young women are more likely to work as freelancers relative to other age groups and only return to similar proportions among developers aged 55 and above. Additionally, younger female developers (18-24) tend to work for smaller companies, whereas older female developers (45+) are more inclined to work for larger organisations with over 10,000 employees.

Examining a particular age group, women between the age of 35 and 44, may offer an insight into issues women have with progressing through their careers. Previous research into women’s careers in the software development sector has highlighted that women are promoted at a lower rate than men4.

However, when looking at the roles women self-identify with, we find that at mid-market companies (251-1,000 employees) and enterprises (1,001-10,000 employees) the percentage of women in management positions (20% and 29%) is significantly higher than at other organisation sizes (13% on average).

These organisations could offer better opportunities for career growth, decision-making, and leadership. In larger companies, management roles might be more hierarchical and bureaucratic, leading to less autonomy and slower career progression.

In smaller companies, limited opportunities due to their size might result in fewer leadership positions being available overall, and with women being a minority in software development, there are fewer women in leadership positions.

Further, there is an underrepresentation of women in certain leadership roles. 11% of men list their role as CIO, CTO, or IT manager, and 14% identify as technical team leads, compared to just 9% and 8% of women. This could create a cycle whereby there may be fewer mentorship opportunities for other women.

When there are fewer female leaders, it has been found in a range of fields5 that it can be harder for women to progress in their careers, and it can be more challenging for aspiring women to find mentors who can guide them, provide valuable insights, and help them navigate their career paths. 

However, while still a minority of those in such roles, 25% of those in CEO or management positions are women, compared to their position as 22% of the developer population.

While only a small percentage difference, given their underrepresentation in other leadership roles, this represents an area where women are getting leadership positions. Among the previously discussed issues women may face, women are also less likely to apply for leadership positions where they do not fulfil all of the requirements than men6.

This may be leading women to also self-select towards management positions that are not solely dependent on technical skills. 

The observation that women hold a higher proportion of CEO/management roles compared to men (7% against 5%, respectively), particularly in companies with more than 250 employees (8% of women to 4% of men), could indicate a positive shift in gender representation and diversity in leadership positions.

This trend might be driven by a changing corporate culture that is increasingly recognising the importance of gender diversity in leadership, leading companies to seek out and promote women into these roles6 proactively.

Embracing diverse perspectives at the decision-making level can result in better organisational performance and decision-making.

Another factor that may contribute to this observation is the growing appreciation for women’s leadership styles, which tend to be more collaborative, participative, and relationship-oriented. These qualities are often valued in today’s business environment and might make women particularly well-suited for CEO/management roles.

Moreover, women, through their skills and abilities, are likely actively contributing to this positive trend, demonstrating that they are well-equipped for leadership roles. Despite women remaining a minority in leadership this growing representation in CEO/management roles is a step in the right direction, highlighting the benefits of diverse and inclusive leadership.


Language Communities; Who leads the way?

The choice of programming language matters deeply to developers because they want to keep their skills up-to-date and marketable. Languages are a beloved subject of debate and the kernels of some of the strongest developer communities. They matter to toolmakers, too, because they want to make sure they provide the most useful SDKs.

size of programming language communities in 2023

It can be challenging to accurately assess how widely a programming language is used. The indices available from sources like Tiobe, Redmonk, Github’s State of the Octoverse, and Stack Overflow’s annual survey are great but offer mostly relative comparisons between languages, providing no sense for the absolute size of each community. These may also be biased geographically or skewed toward certain fields of software development or open-source developers.  ​

The estimates presented here look at software developers using each programming language globally and across all kinds of programmers. They are based on two pieces of data. First is SlashData’s  independent estimate of the global number of software developers, which was published for the first time in 2017. According to it, as of Q1 2023, there are 35.6 million active software developers worldwide. Second is the large-scale, low-bias Developer Nation Global survey which reaches tens of thousands of developers every six months. In these surveys, devleopers are  consistently asked about their use of programming languages across 13 areas of development. This gives a rich and reliable source of information about who uses each language and in which context. 

JavaScript remains the most widely used language. 

For the 12th survey in a row, JavaScript continues to take the top spot for programming languages, with 20M active developers worldwide. Notably, JavaScript is still experiencing growth, with a further 2.6M developers joining the community in the last 12 months. JavaScript’s lead is unlikely to be challenged in the near future, as its community has almost 3M more developers than the next closest languages. Moreover, JavaScript’s popularity extends across all software sectors, with at least 20% of developers using it in their projects. 

“Close to eight million developers joined the Java community in the last two years.”

In 2020, Python unseated Java as the second most popular programming language, but in Q1 2023, Java returned to just matching Python, with both languages now counting just over 17M developers. Java is one of the most important general-purpose languages, and although it is over two decades old, it has seen incredible growth over the last two years, gaining close to 8M users. This corresponds to the highest growth in absolute terms across all languages. Java’s growth is not only supported by traditional sectors such as cloud and mobile but also by its rising adoption among AR/VR developers, in part due to Android’s popularity as an AR/VR platform. 

Despite Java catching up, Python keeps adding new developers. However, in the last 12 months, only 1.3M developers joined the Python community, compared to the massive 5.6M developers who joined between Q1 2021 and Q1 2022. A major driver of Python’s growth was the rise of data science and machine learning, where 70% of developers involved were using Python in Q1 2022. However, this has decreased to 60% in Q1 2023, with other languages, such as Rust, Java, and Mathematica, receiving small increases and likely reducing Python’s growth. ​

The group of major, well-established languages is completed with C/C++ (13.3M), C# (11.2M), and PHP (8.8M). PHP has seen the second-slowest growth rate over the last 12 months, growing just 11% and adding 0.9M developers to its community. PHP is a common choice for backend and web developers but has seen decreasing popularity. 

PHP was used by almost 30% of all developers in Q3 2020 but by 25% of all developers in Q1 2023. This decrease in popularity is particularly apparent amongst web developers, for whom it has gone from the second most popular language in Q3 2021 (34%) to the fourth most popular language (25%) in Q1 2023, behind JavaScript, Python, and Java. Despite PHP 8 addressing many of the concerns developers had expressed about PHP, perceptions of it being insecure or outdated may persist.​

C and C++ are core languages in embedded and IoT projects, for both on-device and application-level coding, but also in desktop development, a sector that accounts for almost 45% of all developers. On the other hand, C# has maintained its position as one of the most popular languages for games and desktop applications. Overall, C/C++ added 2.3M net new developers in the last year, while C# added 1.4M over the same period. 

ranking of programming languages

Kotlin’s growth is beginning to slow

In previous editions of this report, Kotlin and Rust were identified as two of the fastest-growing language communities. If Kotlin’s growth continues, it will soon overtake PHP and join the ranks of the most popular languages. Kotlin’s growth has been largely attributed to Google’s decision in 2019 to make it the preferred language for Android development. It is currently used by 19% of mobile developers and is the third most popular language in the space. However, Kotlin may be showing signs of slowing its exceptional growth. Kotlin now has a community of more than 5.3M developers and has added more than 2.5M developers in the last two years. However, in the last year, there has only been an increase of 0.5M developers. Kotlin’s explosive growth may have resulted from a high demand for developers with Kotlin experience to fill a market need that may be approaching a level of market saturation. Despite Google’s preference for Kotlin, the inertia of Java means that it is still the most popular language for mobile development and still experiences immense growth.

“Rust has more than tripled the size of its community in the past two years”

Rust has more than tripled the size of its community over the past two years and currently has 3.7M users, of which 0.6M joined in the last six months alone. Rust has overtaken Objective C in the last six months and is the 11th most popular language in our survey. Rust has seen increased adoption in IoT, games, and desktop development, where it is desired for its potential to build fast and scalable applications. Rust was designed to handle high levels of concurrency and parallelism. Thus it can handle increasing amounts of work or data without sacrificing performance. Furthermore, Rust has built a loyal community of developers who care about memory safety and security.

Swift currently counts 5.1M developers, adding more than 1.6M net new developers over the past year. This growth continues to stem from Apple making Swift the default programming language across the Apple ecosystem, which has the effect of phasing out the use of Objective C. Despite this, Objective C has also shown strong growth, adding 1.0M developers in the last year alone, resulting in a community of 3.4M developers. This is primarily through its use among IoT developers, who are increasingly turning to it for their on-device code, as well as a growing number of AR/VR developers. Nonetheless, Objective C has fallen behind Rust, whose more modern approach may be more appealing to developers.​

Go and Ruby represent two of the smaller language communities that are important in backend development, but Go has seen substantially more growth over the last two years. Go’s developer community has more than doubled in the last two years, adding 2.3M new developers to its population, which stands at 4.7M developers. Similarly, Ruby has added 1.0M users to its community of 3.0M developers, showing impressive growth but trailing further behind Go. 

“Lua has added almost 1M developers to its community in the past year”

In the past six months, Lua has overtaken Dart to become the 14th most popular programming language. Lua has shown massive growth over the past year, going from 1.4M developers in Q1 2022 to 2.3M in Q3 2023. Lua is an alternative scripting solution for low-level languages, such as C and C++, and has seen more developers in IoT, games, and AR/VR picking it up. This could mark the beginning of Lua’s momentum and see it become increasingly popular, especially as the IoT and AR/VR spaces continue to grow. Dart has seen steady but slow growth over the past two years, predominantly due to the Flutter framework in mobile development filling a useful niche. However, with 13% of mobile developers currently working in Dart, a decrease from 15% in Q1 2022 may see Dart’s growth remain low, and its place within mobile development remain a minority language.