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Gender differences in coding styles?

June 9, 2008 2 Comments

In my earlier post on the “thermocline of truth“, I wrote:

Second, IT engineers by nature tend to be optimists, as reflected in the common acronym SMOP: “simple matter of programming.” Even when an IT engineer doesn’t have a given subsystem completed, he tends to carry with him the notion that he whip everything into shape with a few extra late nights and weekends of effort, even though he may actually face weeks (or more) of work. (NOTE: my use of male pronouns is deliberate; it is almost always male IT engineers who have this unreasonable optimism. Female IT engineers in my experience are generally far more conservative and realistic, almost to a fault, which is why I prefer them. I just wish they weren’t so hard to find.)

Now, a post over at the Wall Street Journal cites what I think is a more controversial (and harder to support) claim — by a female VP of Engineering — that female programmers tend to write clearer and better-documented code than male programmers:

Emma McGrattan, the senior vice-president of engineering for computer-database company Ingres–and one of Silicon Valley’s highest-ranking female programmers–insists that men and women write code differently. Women are more touchy-feely and considerate of those who will use the code later, she says. They’ll intersperse their code–those strings of instructions that result in nifty applications and programs–with helpful comments and directions, explaining why they wrote the lines the way they did and exactly how they did it.

The code becomes a type of “roadmap” for others who might want to alter it or add to it later, says McGrattan, a native of Ireland who has been with Ingres since 1992.

Men, on the other hand, have no such pretenses. Often, “they try to show how clever they are by writing very cryptic code,” she tells the Business Technology Blog. “They try to obfuscate things in the code,” and don’t leave clear directions for people using it later. McGrattan boasts that 70% to 80% of the time, she can look at a chunk of computer code and tell if it was written by a man or a woman.

I’m not sure that I could make the same claim without some serious research into a broad range of coding samples. But the article is worth reading for the comments that follow it, which (as you can imagine) are quite intense.  ..bruce..

About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

Comments (2)

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  1. inactivist says:

    I guess I’m female, then, even if I am burdened with male physical attributes 😀

    I always consider those who follow in my footsteps, even if I sometimes fail to live up to my ideals in every situation.

    And I’m appalled by those who seem not to care about those who live downstream when dumping toxic waste into the stream (coding without care for those who follow.)

    But then, I’ve had to do maintenance programming, on my code as well as the stuff produced by others. Nothing makes you more sensitive to code quality, IMO. If one has to generalize, I’d say: Beware those who never have to maintain their product.

  2. Glandu says:


    Still late reading, but I agree with the lady : Girly code is my goal in life(even if I’m a man). Girly code is beautiful, and lacks any unnecessary technical prowess.

    I tend to think more girls than boys write girly code(I’ve done my share of maintenance). But it does not matter. What does, is the goal : everyone should aim to write girly code.

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