Recently, Jay Hanlon, EVP of Culture and Experience at Stack Overflow, wrote a blog post that many have interpreted as accusing the community and some members of it being racist and sexist. This is my personal response.
I want to quote Jay directly because I don’t think he says what you’ve heard:
Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.
He didn’t say that Stack Overflow is sexist or racist. He didn’t say you are sexist or racist. He said some people experience the site as hostile or elitist. Then he highlighted some groups that are especially likely to experience Stack Overflow as hostile or elitist. It’s an important nuance because of the nature of the data.
A good place to start is a paper entitled Someone Like Me: How Does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow? You might recognize the author, Denae Ford, who helped us with our mentoring project last year. Allow me to quote an important finding of that paper:
Using first names as identifiers as a gender, we define parity as instances where there are many distinct women on a thread and non-parity as threads that have only one distinct woman. We find that although there are less women participating on parity threads, the women on parity threads reengage sooner in the community.
In other words, when women see other women participating on a question (either asking or answering) they are more likely to ask or answer another question sooner than if they don’t see women. This study suggests Stack Overflow is not a comfortable place for women because they are a distinct minority here. Paradoxically, women using names that don’t imply their gender might be part of the problem.
This year’s survey found women less likely to feel a part of the community:
The survey found people of color were also underrepresented:
Here again we see evidence for problems with diversity and inclusion. We see higher proportions of developers of color in students than professional developers. This year, 7.4% of professional developers in the United States identified as black, Hispanic or Latino/Latina, or Native American while over 10% of students in the United States identified as a member of one of these groups.
Presumably the same dynamic is in play for minority groups other than women. If you don’t identify people similar to you, it leaves a feeling that you don’t belong.
Like many people, I’ve read “Suffering on Stack Overflow” and I find many of the complaints misunderstand the way things work around here. Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of misunderstanding, including in academic papers. It’s been easy to dismiss those critics as just not getting it. I’ve more than once flipped the bozo bit on someone who thought the mere existence of downvotes proved we are terrible people. We’ve kinda steeled ourselves against these arguments by pointing to the higher cause of content quality.
It obviously isn’t clear from the blog post, but we at the company still value content quality. Even people who don’t want anything to do with this community admit they use the site’s content when they search for programming answers. Thanks to the community’s hard work creating and curating content, Stack Overflow is the most trusted name in Q&A. We are committed to quality for the long-haul.
Part of our company’s mandate (which is aligned with our business interests, to be fair) is to ensure there is a next generation of Stack Overflow users. If students find us rude and unwelcoming, we might have a problem. If whole groups of people know Stack Overflow as hostile or elitist environment, it will be hard to change their mind. We believe that once you get to know us, the community is an egalitarian meritocracy. But that’s not what we (the company) communicate all the time.
Ultimately, getting to know the community is the key to understanding it. We don’t have to look very hard to find people who think of the site as a free consulting service or really ought to spend some time learning about basic programming before asking a question or who seem incapable of civil interactions. Telling that sort of user that this isn’t the place for them seems like a good idea. The tragedy is the type of person who wants easy answers aren’t listening. Instead, people who haven’t yet tried the site are learning they shouldn’t bother—it’s not for them.
Please direct comments to the original post.