Original question from Quora:
Why are most programmers white males?
This might not be the most popular answer, but I’m going to give it anyway. I’m a white male who’s been writing code for I guess about 2 decades.
I taught myself to code when I was like 11 or 12 years old. That was 20 years ago. I got my first internet capable computer in 1995, just before Windows 95 came out and I think we had AOL 2.5 or something.
I fell in love with computers and I wanted to make my own games, so I learned C using the book Teach Yourself C in 21 days. I was one of those nerdy kids who would spend my nights and weekends playing video games, surfing the internet, and reading 600+ page books on code or sci-fi novels or whatever.
I was not cool. I didn’t have much of a social life outside of my small group of friends. Girls weren’t interested in me, even if I was in them.
I was/am a nerd. But, 20 years ago nobody wanted to be a nerd. Geek culture wasn’t remotely popular. Nobody had computers or understood the internet.
I was the only person I knew interested in computer programming out of a graduating class of 220 students. There were fewer than five people in the whole school remotely interested in computers and code.
So, twenty years ago when the internet was first happening, it wasn’t cool yet to be a programmer. Thus, there were not a lot of people interested outside of the super nerdy kids. That alone limits the demographics quite a bit.
From my experience back then, it skewed heavily male. Girls weren’t interested in computers or video games at all. Fast forward 20 years and it’s totally different now.
But, if you want to look at what is happening now, you have to look back to when people were picking careers and such, so when I was in high school, computers weren’t a hot field. Most people I knew wanted to be teachers or lawyers or scientists or be involved in sports.
Also, in terms of ethnicity, part of the issue is that the overall population in America is 72.4% white (according to Wikipedia). And in the main working age group, it’s say 65-75% white. By default, you can expect 2/3 of the programmers to be white.
However, if you consider the cost factor it’s more prominent. 20 years ago the cheapest computers you could buy were $1,500. My dad used his stock bonus or something to buy us a computer. I pestered him for the better part of a year to get one.
Think about that for a second. Only a handful of people had computers and the ones that did were upper middle class families. It took another decade for sub $1,000 computers to be commonplace. Now you can buy a capable computer for $200-300 dollars.
Again, if you look at the demographics, if a lot of the minorities were not in the upper middle class 20 years ago, did they get computers as early as say upper middle class white kids did? Probably not.
So, there was likely fewer people given the opportunity to even buy a computer because $1,500 was a lot of money back then, and it still is today.
There is one other reason I think you see fewer women and minorities as software developers. People tend to do things that they see other people who are “like them” doing.
We often follow in our parents footsteps or pick careers that we see people around us doing. For example, a lot of people become teachers because they were exposed to teachers every day of their life for 12 years.
When you see someone who is like you do something, you are more likely to believe that you can do it to. That belief drives a lot of behavior.
So, twenty years ago, there weren’t as many female or minority “computer people” who young people could look up to who were “like them”. Instead, twenty years ago famous African Americans were often athletes, musicians, religious figures, or actors. Famous women were often singers, actresses, politicians, authors, teachers, moms, etc.
As a nerdy white teenager, I could look up to Bill Gates and say, “he’s nerdy like me. I want to be the next Bill Gates.” in the same way that some kids wanted to be Michael Jordan.
So, when you roll up all of that - computers were nerdy, unpopular with girls, expensive, and just plain not cool to younger people, it is no surprise that the demographics are what they are today.
To me, they’ve always been this way. It’s surprising that people are freaking out about this because all you have to do is look back to when people like me were getting started.
It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t a good way to make friends. It was hard. It wasn’t inviting. It wasn’t a get rich quick scheme that anyone understood.
It was flat out unpopular and the only people I found that were really into it were nerdy white kids like me who somehow tricked their parents into buying a computer.
In 20 more years, diversity will be commonplace because everybody now is born into a world where computers are practically free and every adult carries one in their pocket. That was an impossible dream when I got started.
Progress takes time.
P.S. I unpack more ideas in Creative Genius.