According to an analysis completed last September by a Facebook engineer, code written by female engineers at the company gets rejected 35 percent more often than that written by their male peers. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that an employee whose identity remains unknown used several years of company data in her calculations to bring “insight into how the review process”—whereby employees’ code is assessed by other colleagues—“impacts people in various groups.”
In response to internal criticism from employees, who raised the issue at a town-hall meeting with CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook leadership did its own analysis and disputes the engineer’s findings. Her review didn’t include engineers’ ranks, and Facebook representatives say those account for the bulk of the gap: Lower-ranked engineers get rejected more often, and they are disproportionately female. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook has an “open repository of code-review data” that allowed the engineer to find each code-writer’s gender and the length of her tenure at the company, but not her rank. The analysis Facebook prepared in response included ranking data inaccessible to rank-and-file employees.
Of course, having the few female Facebook engineers (women make up just 17 percent of tech roles at the company) clumped in the lower ranks isn’t something to cheer about, either. Women believed their code wasn’t getting approved as often as the men on their teams, and they were right. They believed men at the company were getting promoted and hired into higher-up positions more often, too, and the employee’s analysis seemed to prove their point. Facebook’s spokespeople have been quick to deny the accuracy of the engineer’s claims, but their explanation won’t do much to quell disquiet among female employees’ very real, evidence-based concerns about how women are treated in their workplace.
The Facebook hubbub recalls a 2016 study of GitHub, an online community of developers who share, add to, and improve one another’s open-source code. Researchers analyzed millions of pull requests—suggested changes to an author’s code—and found that code changes proposed by women were accepted more than those proposed by men, but only among women who had gender-neutral profiles with gender-neutral usernames and no photos of themselves. (The study was not peer-reviewed.) That bias against coders who were visibly women went away when researchers looked at women who contributed code to team members or people who knew them, indicating that familiarity with a specific woman may mitigate any unconscious bias against female coders.
At the time, there were several theories floating around about why women ended up getting their code accepted more than men in a gender-blind environment. Some, including the study’s authors, suggested “survivorship bias,” another term for the age-old argument that women and people of color have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It’s hard for women to get hired in tech at all, and when they do, sexist treatment and professional discouragement makes it hard for them to stay. The ones who persist, then, are better on average than the average male developer who’s had an easier time getting by, the theory goes.
Even if Facebook’s female engineers aren’t better than the men in their ranks, if their code is getting disproportionately rejected, Facebook is missing out on a valuable diversity of perspectives that impact its user experience. Most developers have probably heard the cautionary tale of Clippy, the overenthusiastic Microsoft Word helper who became one of the software’s least popular features. Male engineers were responsible for Clippy’s original design; women in focus groups complained that, with the paper clip’s half-lidded eyes, it looked like he was “leering” at them. The men went ahead with the design anyway, disregarding focus group results they’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain, and introduced a feature that flopped with women. Whether or not their code is getting scrapped because they’re ranked lower than the men, women at Facebook aren’t getting the same traction on their work that men are. That’s good news for skeevy office supplies, but bad news for Facebook users.