Software teams could use more women, but they aren’t lining up yet
I read and summarise software engineering papers for fun, and today we’re having a look at Gender diversity and women in software teams: How do they affect community smells? (2019) by Catolino et al.
Software development teams in western countries largely consist of males or are even male-only. Hiring policies that favour women over men can help restore the balance somewhat, but are also controversial. Do these policies actually make economical sense? Spoiler alert: yes, they do.
The key to good software development is good communication and collaboration between team members. Women tend to be better at these things, but most software teams don’t have even a single female member.
Since communication is such an important part of software development, one might expect that teams with women are better equipped to avoid so-called “community smells” and thus outperform male-only teams.
The authors compared data about communication flows from 20 male-only open source projects with 20 open source projects from teams with at least one female member.
Development teams without women indeed suffer from more community smells than teams that have any positive number of women – even if it’s just one. Given what we already know about social group dynamics this is hardly a surprise.
There are many types of community smell, but the authors chose to further analyse four types that are likely to be affected by the presence of women:
The community consists of multiple organisational siloes that don’t communicate much with each other – and when they do, communication is handled by just one or two group members;
Community members are overwhelmed by a black cloud of information due to a lack of structured communication;
There are lone wolves who work on their own and do not collaborate or communicate with others;
One member handles all communication across two or more subcommunities and thus results in radio silence.
The presence of women clearly affects whether the black clouds and radio silence smells (which are related to quality of communication) occur.
It’s not as clear for the organisational silo and lone wolf smells (which have to do with organisational structure), as the authors only find a partial relation between gender diversity and the two smells.
The results confirm that gender diversity in teams is a good thing to strive for and underlines the importance of team composition as a way to combat community smells.