Someone Like Me: How does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow?

Women who are answered by other women on Stack Overflow reengage sooner.

However, they do not have higher reputation.


It’s pretty challenging to post online when you don’t see many people like you. When multiplied with the fact that the community size can seem intimidatingly large, users can be even further discouraged from participating. In a recent study we conducted about Stack Overflow participation of women, subjects mentioned that one reason they not post on Stack Overflow is that, “They are just not even on the same race track.” In this work, we investigate how exposure to peers can affect the likelihood of further activity. We call this notion of observing people on the same “race track” or having similar individuals to compare oneself peer parity.

What is Peer Parity?

When an individual can identify with at least one other peer when interacting in a community.

With this definition, parity could be in the instance of men, but since there exist many more occurrences to where men find parity than women, we decided to serve the underrepresented community of women for this study.

How we did it?

Data set. Using Stack Exchange’s data archive, we extracted user and post data. Then we generated the genders of the user extracted by modifying an existing Gender Computing Tool. Our modified tool uses the first name of user display names on Stack Overflow and achieves higher precision among identifiable women. Of the 5,987,284 users we extracted, we identified 363,133 women. Of the women we identified, only 32% of have ever posted a question.

For this analysis, we had a strict definition of peer parity:

Parity = more than one distinct woman on a thread based on Q&A

Non-Parity = threads that only have one distinct woman

For example the figure above demonstrates a thread that would classify as parity.


Step 1. Selected 1000 women who posted more than 1 question

Step 2. Record their reputation points and badges

Step 3. Record date of their first and second activity

Step 4. Identify if first and second activity was parity or non-parity

Step 5. Statistical comparison!


We found a significant difference in types of second activity after participating on a parity or non-parity thread (p = 2.799e- 06, α =.05), which was either posting a question(N = 833) or posting an answer(N = 167). We found a significant difference in the time between posts for women who asked a question on parity threads in comparison to non-parity threads (p = 1.83e-05, α =.05). The cumulative time differences by posts are demonstrated in the figure below. However, we did not find a significant difference in reputation points or number of badges.

Simply put:

Women who are answered by other women reengage sooner.

However, they do not have higher reputation.


Sharing success. The very idea of being transparent about a community problem may have played a factor in the increased interest in the site. Perhaps one way to inspire and increase others to participate is to showcase top-rated questions asked by women. This will not only demonstrate how to post successful questions on Stack Overflow, but also shows the diverse set of users contributing.

Paired guidance. As we found peer parity can influence participation, we hypothesize that building mentorship programs around shared identity can be a strong way to build communities and encourage participation for a broad audience.Mentorship is a bidirectional relationship—both parties have something to gain. Encouraging users to seek guidance can benefit both the mentor, providing guidance, and the mentee, seeking guidance.

Revealing user identity. It can be difficult for users to separate from their identity in public spaces, furthermore, they should not have to. We should embrace and support users who wish to disclose this information. Allowing users the opportunity to bring their whole self into a community where they seek help may just be the encouragement they need to be active contributors


Our research paper, Someone Like Me: How Does Peer Parity Influence Participation of Women on Stack Overflow? by Denae Ford, Alisse Harkins, and Chris Parnin was recently accepted this year at VL/HCC, IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing. This year’s conference will be taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina from October 11 -14, 2016. The paper is now available online.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let us know below!


Paradise Unplugged: Barriers to Stack Overflow Use for Females

Only 5.8% of users identified as females. We identified barriers for female contributions on Stack Overflow using semi structured interviews and surveys to validate these barriers. In this approach, we also found barriers that affected the entire community. As the big picture here is making sure all users feel comfortable using this resource, we also supplement these findings with an outline of potential site design modifications.

What is Stack Overflow and why do I care?

Stack Overflow is a popular question and answer site that many programmers go to for quick solutions to problems they encounter. Many have referred to it as “a programmer’s paradise”. Though this site is considered “a heaven sent” it is far from a true utopia. There has been much criticism of the lack of female participation on the site. In Stack Overflow’s 2015 and 2016 developer survey only 5.8% of users identified as females. The sad part about this is how often the conversation about this disparity often gets shut down with negative votes and closed as off topic discussions by moderators.

Stack Overflow does acknowledge the disappointing number saying:

Software development has a gender balance problem. Our internal stats 
suggest the imbalance isn't quite as severe as the survey results would
make it seem, but there's no doubt everyone who codes needs to be more 
proactive welcoming women into the field.

There are many movements to get women into programming, but what about keeping them there? If they don’t feel comfortable using the resources that are available for all programmers then that is a big problem for retention in the field. To do our part in being more proactive in welcoming women into the field, we sought to uncover some reasons for this low participation.

What did we do? 

We identified barriers for female contributions on Stack Overflow using semi-structured interviews and surveys to validate these barriers. In this approach, we also found barriers that affected the entire community. As the big picture here is making sure all users feel comfortable using this resource, we also supplement these findings with an outline of potential site design modifications.

How did we do it?

Interviews. In order to find out to figure out what is hindering the community we went straight to the users. We interviewed 22 female users and asked them about their experiences when they posted a comment, edited and times when their activity was not as high. Other questions asked included how people communicate on the site, personal incentives, potential scenarios that may occur when using the site and potential modifications to the site that could increase usage. From our semi-structured interviews we transcribed audio recordings, performed a card sort, and 14 distinct barriers emerged. The 14 barriers are described in the table below.


General Survey. After identifying the barriers we wanted to find out which barriers varied across genders. We distributed the survey to the general developer population. We sent targeted emails, posted to programming forums, contacted large corporations, and posted in computer science Facebook groups. We received responses from 1470 females and males by the time we closed the survey.

With this survey we were able to identify 5 statistically significant barriers that females rated higher than males. These barriers include being aware of site features, not feeling qualified enough to chime in, the large intimidating community size, the discomfort of online strangers, and the perception of slacking on the job. All statistically significant barriers have been starred below in the diverging stacked bar chart of all barriers identified.

Barriers to Stack Overflow usage for females and males. Red star indicates a statistically significant difference (p<.0012)

What Now?

As mentioned before, the ultimate goal is to make sure all users can feel comfortable relying on this resource. Using the results from our interviews and survey, we propose some design choices to consider as Stack Overflow grows to be more popular and inclusive.

5 Min V.S. 30 Min Questions. It is a bit of a task trying to identify which questions will take 5 minutes to answer versus 30 minutes manually. Research is needed to create and sustain a ranking algorithm of questions response time per user’s skill and question difficulty. This features would encourage a wider range of users with varied availability.

Quality Questions. Instead of discouraging users from posting questions, enhance the posting process by automatically providing feedback on the quality of the question in terms of how fast and how likely it will be answered.

Sub-communities. Sub-communities should be an available option to users who are interested in creating a more approachable group to interact with.

Mentorship. Retention of one-day flies and other contributors may increase if  a per user mentorship program is incorporated.

Many of these design choices have been shared with Stack Overflow affiliates and are now in the implementation phase. Keep your eyes peeled to see what Stack Overflow has up their sleeves in the future.

Read More

The formal research paper, Paradise Unplugged: Identifying Barriers for Female Participation on Stack Overflow by Denae Ford, Justin Smith, Philip Guo, and Chris Parnin was recently accepted at FSE, ACM SigSoft International Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering. This year’s conference will be taking place in Seattle, Washington from November 13 -19, 2016. A version of the paper is now available online.

Just plain curious about the work? We welcome you to check out the paper,message us with inquiries, or comment below.


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