Facebook Says Its Female Coders Are Not Victims Of Gender Bias. Sort Of

Written by Dana Sanchez

A former Facebook employee analyzed five years of data and concluded that code written by female engineers was less likely than code written by male engineers to make it through Facebook’s internal peer review system.

Facebook refuted the analysis, saying it was incomplete, inaccurate and used incorrect data. It conducted its own analysis and concluded that it was rank, not gender, that determined whether code got accepted. Facebook has more female engineers at lower levels than at higher levels.

The internal Facebook analysis found no statistically significant difference between female and male engineers within the same level, Facebook said.

The original analysis was posted in September, and Facebook’s own analysis was posted in October. Both were shared internally at Facebook in 2016, but have become part of a national debate after this week’s report by the Wall Street Journal. The Guardian says it has independently confirmed the report.

A longtime Facebook software engineer studied Facebook’s code review process, looking at the number of times code was rejected, commented upon, or updated; how long it took for code to be accepted; and demographic data about the coder, such as gender and length of employment, the Guardian reported.

Female coders received 35 percent more “rejects” and 8.2 percent more comments on their code, the former Facebook engineer found. Facebook says it did its own internal analysis of its code review process in October, according to The Guardian:

Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of engineering, told engineers internally that the company had conducted its own analysis of the code review process “using confidential employee data so we could gain a better understanding of what is happening.”

The Facebook analysis took into account engineers’ “level” within the company and found “no statistically significant difference” between female and male engineers within the same level.

Parikh attributed the difference that the original analysis found to “the difference in gender distribution between levels”, meaning the fact that Facebook has more female engineers at lower levels than higher levels.

Both studies show that female engineers who work at Facebook may face gender bias that prevents their code from being accepted at the same rate as male counterparts, The Verge reported.

The studies raise questions about Facebook’s ongoing diversity efforts. The company’s workforce is 33 percent female, with women holding 27 percent of leadership positions and 17 percent of technical roles.

The former employee’s findings seemed to suggest that a female engineer’s work was more heavily scrutinized, according to The Verge. Findings by Facebook’s Parikh suggested that the code rejections were due to engineering rank, not gender:

However, Facebook employees now speculate that Parikh’s findings mean female engineers might not be rising in the ranks as fast as male counterparts who joined the company at the same time, or perhaps that female engineers are leaving the company more often before being promoted. Either possibility could result in the 35 percent higher code rejection rate for female engineers. (Facebook has eight engineering levels that determine hierarchy.)

A Facebook spokesperson said the company has already acknowledged “that representation of senior female engineers both at Facebook and across the industry is nowhere near where it needs to be,” the Guardian reported

Lori Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources, said that leaking internal conversations is counterproductive to improving diversity, the Guardian reported.

“A key factor in our ability to recruit more women in engineering is our recruiting brand,” Goler wrote in an internal communication. “Unfortunately, a story based on factually incorrect data that paints us in a negative light will almost certainly hurt our ability to attract more women, and it isn’t great for those of us working here, either. In other words, this moves us in the exact wrong direction.”

Code written by women is actually more likely to be approved by fellow coders than code written by men – but only if the female coders hide their gender, according to a study by Github, the open source program-sharing service.

Female coders with profiles that made their gender identifiable had their code rejected more often than male coders. This suggests a bias in that community, BBC reported:

“Women have a higher acceptance rate of pull requests overall, but when they’re outsiders and their gender is identifiable, they have a lower acceptance rate than men.

“Our results suggest that although women on Github may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless,” the researchers concluded.

Parikh rejected the idea that Facebook should move to a blind code review process, the Guardian reported:

“As engineers, we might be tempted to build tools to deal with bias, but I don’t believe that this bias is easily addressed in mechanical ways,” he wrote. “Hiding the identity of authors or reviewers is counterproductive from an engineering perspective. Instead we should learn to recognize cases where reactions are affected by bias and move to correct them.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said gender bias was an “issue” when questioned about the findings during a workplace Q&A session last week, according to The Wall Street Journal.

If only male programmers are helping shape the digital fabric of the online world, Facebook runs the risk of excluding viewpoints and considerations important to half the human populace, The Verge reported.