Jeffrey Zeldman recently announced that "An Event Apart commissioned a fact-finding mission...to find out everything that is actually known about the percentage of women in our field." In his post, Women in web design: just the stats, he acknowledges that they haven't sifted through all the information yet, but says that what they are seeing is "disturbing":
- Men outnumber women in this workforce by over three to one.
- The percentage of women employed in the field is declining instead of growing.
- Women who participate in the field may not be promoted as often or as high as their male colleagues.
The numbers I've seen are even gloomier. For a while now I've had a running survey of designers on this site—Who's Designing the Web: A Survey of Us. The majority of respondents were from the United States (44%) and the United Kingdom (34%). Out of 142 respondents, 73% were male; only 27% were female.
Of course, those numbers might not be correct. This survey is not controlled, and I have no idea if the people who filled it out are truly representative of web designers as a group. In the absence of a single, leading professional organization, the only way to get more accurate numbers is to look at the enrollment of popular mailing lists, such as css-discuss, or the attendance at large conferences like SXSW. At this year's SXSW, it looked to me as though women made up a quarter of the audience—but that estimate is hardly solid proof.
In the end, though, perhaps the exact numbers don't really matter. Whether it's a third or a quarter, it's clear that the percentage of women in IT and web design is dismally low. The real question is why?
Is technology seen as a "masculine" profession—a traditionally male domain, like auto mechanics or construction work, that few women dare to venture into? Why not? Are they apprehensive about discrimination, sexism, or something else entirely? Are girls being discouraged from studying subjects that could lead them toward the profession? If so, what discourages them? If most designers are self-taught (my survey suggests nearly 94%!), could that be a factor in this gender disparity?
These are the truly important questions, and until we answer them and address the issues, we aren't likely to see an increase in the number of women going into the field. Given the immense talent and creativity lying dormant out there, that would be a real tragedy for the web.