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New study: Software teams with more women communicate better

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on March 31, 2020

A new study shows why smart companies should focus on recruiting more women into their IT organizations. Currently, the IT sector employs just one woman for every seven men.

Women in IT

Lulu Tang

The new study, “Gender Diversity and Community Smells: Insights from the Trenches,” follows up on previous research showing software engineering teams with more women tend to communicate better. But do people working in software understand the importance of gender diversity on communication quality?

Apparently not. The researchers found both men and women underrating the importance of women in software engineering teams. In some cases women rated gender diversity as less important than men.

The study also indicates that gender exclusion is a self-reinforcing problem. They found that the less experience someone had with mixed-gender teams, the more likely they were to discount the importance of gender diversity.

So why does communication matter in software engineering? And what does gender have to do with anything? Let’s dig into the research.

The importance of communication in software engineering

Suboptimal communication practices costs companies an estimated $37 billion per year. Software engineering is no exception to the rule.

“In software engineering, communication is a crucial factor in project success,” the authors of the study write. A previous paper by the same team, “Gender Diversity and Women in Software Teams: How Do They Affect Community Smells?” demonstrated that the presence of women on a team improves communication and collaboration.

Gender and “community smells”

These two papers are part of a body of research into so-called “social debt.”

Social debt is analogous to technical debt in software engineering. Both types of debt result from “accumulated” decisions concerning people and their interactions, and will similarly gum up the works if organizations don’t pay it off.

Similarly, “community smells” are analogous to code smells, which are choices in software that often lead to critical flaws or failure. The authors define community smells as “patterns indicating suboptimal organization and communication of software development teams that can lead to unforeseen project costs.”

If unaddressed, community smells cause social debt the same way code smells cause technical debt. Not only are the two analogous, but they’re also linked. Teams with more community smells are also more likely to have code smells.

For the study, the authors looked at four types of community smells:

  1. Organizational Silos. Groups in the community don’t communicate with each other, except through one or two of their respective members.
  2. Black Clouds. Community members are overloaded with information because communication isn’t structured well.
  3. Lone Wolves. Defiant, disrespectful contributors won’t listen to others.
  4. Bottlenecks. One team member wants to be the only way information moves between sub-communities.

Previous studies have shown that women are fundamental to reducing community smells and avoiding accumulating social debt for teams in other industries. But these studies show that women increase team efficiency and organizational quality on software engineering teams specifically. Teams with no women have 7 mean community smells compared to 3 for teams with at least one woman. These results are statistically significant (p-value < 0.05) and have a large effect size (d=0.68).

Community smells with and without women

Lulu Tang

They also build upon previous research showing more gender-diverse software teams enjoy higher productivity.

Gender diversity remains underrated

This paper looked at whether people who work in software are aware that gender diversity positively impacts team communication. To find out, the team surveyed 60 software practitioners across a variety of roles, including Software Analysts, Delivery Managers, Project Managers and Developers.

The team surveyed 60 software practitioners across a variety of roles

Lulu Tang

The software pros agreed that good communication skills are fundamental to success. But they largely disagreed with the idea that the gender makeup of a team impacts that team’s communication.

Why people think gender doesn’t matter

Some software workers responded idealistically with responses like, “Gender should not matter.” But it’s interesting to note that people with less experience with gender-diverse teams were less likely to recognize how much gender matters. This makes sense, as previous research has shown that people tend to minimize the importance of factors they know less about.

Going forward

Research indicates companies are foregoing considerable profits by failing to hire and retain female talent on their software engineering teams. And one reason they’re failing to focus on gender is that they don’t realize how important it is to communication effectiveness, and by extension, revenue.

This research also points out how gender exclusion can be a self-reinforcing problem. If you’ve never experienced or have little experience with mixed-gender teams you likely don’t understand how powerful they are. Studies like this can help break that cycle by showing hiring managers that even if they haven’t experienced gender diversity themselves, there’s still solid evidence that it will help the company’s bottom line.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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