For 15 years, Stack Overflow has been the main hub for discussions of computer programming and development. It’s where users who are facing a tricky conundrum or are hitting a wall in their code can come to ask questions of fellow users.
And historically, it has been a male-dominated space. In the organization’s annual survey of its users conducted in 2022, 92 percent of respondents identified as male, and three-quarters as white or European. The platform acknowledged then that it has “considerable work to do.”
But in 2023, Stack Overflow’s survey, published on June 13, stripped out questions about gender and race.
“I kind of would understand if they decided not to ask about people, but they still ask geography, age, developer type, years of coding, and a bunch of things about salary and education,” says Sasha Luccioni, a member of the board of Women in Machine Learning, an organization lobbying to increase awareness of, and appreciation for, women in the tech sector. “But not gender. That’s really screwed up.”
Luccioni says the decision to not collect data on gender balance—particularly after previous years showed it to be so highly skewed—is avoiding, rather than confronting, the problem. “This is very symptomatic of the tech industry,” she says. “It’s not just about AI, it’s also in general. Like, who, who codes our code? Young white male people.”
In 2022, just one in four researchers who published academic papers on AI were female. The likelihood of at least one man appearing as an author of research on AI is twice as great as an AI publication having at least one woman.
“We did not exclude demographic questions from this year’s survey to skirt our responsibility there,” says Joy Liuzzo, Stack Overflow’s vice president of marketing. “We removed the demographic questions due to concerns about personally identifiable information, given the increasingly complex regulatory environment and the highly international nature of the survey.”
Liuzzo acknowledged “there’s a lot of work to be done to make the field of software development more diverse and inclusive, and Stack Overflow has a big role to play in that work.” She says the organization has published a new, more inclusive code of conduct in recent weeks and has overhauled the process of asking questions on the platform. She hopes this will reduce barriers to entry, which may historically have caused underrepresented groups to shy away from the site. “We recognize there is much more to be done, and we are committed to doing the work to make change happen,” she says.
However, that’s small comfort to Kate Devlin, a reader in artificial intelligence and society at King’s College, London. “It’s common knowledge that tech has a gender problem,” she says. “If we are serious about increasing diversity in tech, then we need to know what the landscape looks like.” Devlin points out that it’s difficult to measure progress—or regression—without a baseline of data.
Whatever the reasons for removing key questions about who’s using the platform, the survey results—or lack of them—highlight a problem with Stack Overflow’s user demographics, and a broader issue across tech: Non-male participants are woefully underrepresented.