South Korea Needs More Female Developers

A year ago today,Tteuppeukkeu, her internet alias, was getting into the third year of her career. But the office worker felt like she was already hitting a dead end in her career, with no promising career development in other jobs at the same time. It was time for her to dive into a new field of expertise that piqued her interest – computer programming. 

However, Tteuppeukkeu had zero knowledge of computer programming. She studied liberal arts in college, which meant she had to start her study from the very beginning. But Tteuppeukkeu knew that she was ready. She registered for a computer programming learning course at an academy, completed it within a few months, and settled on a job as a software developer soon after.

“I secured a salary level higher than most developers who are not a computer programming major,” Tteuppeukkeu told 4i Magazine. “The company provides various welfare benefits, so I’m very happy about where I am now.”

An increasing number of people have been dreaming of becoming software developers in recent years in South Korea, as Tteuppeukkeu did. For example, Code States, a computer programming education service start-up based in Seoul, added almost 3,000 more students in the first half of this year. Another computer programming education service, Team Sparta’s number of students increased by 184 percentage points compared to last year’s period.

The software industry is also in need of more developers. Software Policy & Research Institute, a Korean government-run research agency, predicted that the software industry needs to add more than 353,000 developers to keep up with the current pace of growth until 2025. Still, the expected number of available developers is far behind that, hovering above 324,000.

To complement the lack of developers, the industry can review the gender distribution in software developing jobs. Many developers in the industry today are males. A 2022 global software developer survey showed that nine out of 10 developers who responded to the survey are males. In South Korea, four out of five developers are males, according to the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Unfriendly Working Environment for Female Developers

One reason for the lower number of female developers is excessive working hours that disturb the work-life balance of working moms.

In a 2021 report, Korea Women’s Development Institute surveyed female workers planning to take or was on maternity leave. According to the survey result, female developers said they work 41.8 hours per week on average. “Returned workers,” meaning workers who are back from their maternity leave, said they work even longer hours than that – 45.8 hours per week on average – and 28 percent of them work over 52 hours weekly.

The respondents told the research team the working hours become longer because “the tech industry requires developers to take care of technical issues without delay” and “developers often have to stay late until admins make decisions” on technical updates.

There’s also not much support for people who leave work temporarily due to pregnancy and childbirth. Sixty-one percent of the survey respondents said that their companies guarantee maternity leave, but only 25 percent of respondents had ever used it. The rate is even lower among people with fixed-term employment contracts.

female developers

Almost eight out of 10 respondents said they didn’t see many senior female developers at their workplaces. Five of them said that it is because of the discontinuity in their career due to marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare. One said it’s not easy to maintain a work-life balance while working as a developer. Worse, there aren’t many senior female developers they can benchmark and learn from.

The numbers of newly employed developers by gender and age also demonstrate there aren’t many senior female developers. According to the Korean Information Society Development Institute, more than 60 percent of new employees in the tech industry will be females among 20- to 24-year-olds in 2021. The percentage quickly dropped from 30 and hit rock bottom at the 50 to 54 age range – 19 percent. The institute added that only three out of 10 female workers could come back to work in the tech industry after maternity leave. 

We Still Need Female Developers More Than Ever

Nevertheless, the need for female developers is reaching a consensus in the industry overall, especially to train tools backed with artificial intelligence without any bias or misconception.

One example experts mention when discussing biased AI tools is “Lee Luda,” a chatbot that was shut down in early 2021. The speech of this chatbot with the persona of a 20-year-old woman could be trained through users’ messages unfiltered. As a result, the chatbot started to use a range of hate speech, for example, expressing her “hatred” against social minorities. Some users also input messages that sexually harass the chatbot.

Officials from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family suggested software developers hire more workers from “various cultural backgrounds.” The ministry said that no AI tool is trained from an “ethical vacuum,” a state where no social bias, prejudice, and perception exists, and to filter out discrimination and hatred, people who represent different cultures, ethnic groups, genders, and age groups should participate in the development of AI tools. 

However, fewer females participate than males in the development process today. “Only 19 percent of AI software developers at companies and 3.1 percent of company executives are female,” the ministry said in a press release.

“We need to increase women’s participation to at least 20 to 30 percent out of research and development resources,” Oh Hye-Yeon, director of the AI Integrated Research Center at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, said. 

Continued Efforts and Hopeful Results

To train more female developers, regional governments are opening computer programming courses. Seoul Woman Up, a city-owned job centre, received applications from unemployed females for an introductory course about computer programming focused on the iOS system. It also opened courses with different focuses, such as big data, cloud services, and more.  

There is also a grassroots organisation that promotes female technicians and developers. Tech Femi, a feminist study group, founded in September 2016, holds regular study meetings and shares information about careers in the tech industry. In 2020, the group held a conference titled “Women Invented Programming,” inviting reputable developers to talk about their experiences and efforts to survive in the male-dominant industry.

Tteuppeukkeu also said she’s recently noticed many female developers around her, both on the internet and in the real world. She also adds that people don’t have to be scared to start their studies in computer programming. 

“Many posts on the internet try to scare people that computer programming requires a natural-born talent and will be difficult for a non-computer-programming-major to study,” she said. 

“I’d say people should try studying it first, instead of wasting their time being worried to jump in. Bootcamp or government-funded courses range from four to six months. It’s not a long time to master something new. If you feel like computer programming is not for you, you can simply just move on to another expertise.

“Don’t worry about whether you have majored in computer programming or were born with talents. Try studying it first, then find it out for yourself.”

Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.