Google Research

Destructive Criticism in Software Code Review Impacts Inclusion

Computer Supported Cooperative Work (2022)

Abstract

The software industry lacks gender diversity. Recent research has suggested that a toxic working culture is to blame. Studies have found that communications in software repositories directed towards women are more negative in general. In this study, we use a destructive criticism lens to examine gender differences in software code review feedback. Software code review is a practice where code is peer reviewed and negative feedback is often delivered. We explore differences in perceptions, frequency, and impact of destructive criticism across genders. We surveyed 93 software practitioners eliciting perceived reactions to hypothetical scenarios (or vignettes) where participants are asked to imagine receiving either constructive or destructive criticism. In addition, the survey collected general opinions on feedback obtained during software code review as well as the frequency that participants give and receive destructive criticism.

We found that opinions on destructive criticism vary. Women perceive destructive criticism as less appropriate and are less motivated to continue working with the developer after receiving destructive criticism. Destructive criticism is fairly common with more than half of respondents having received nonspecific negative feedback and nearly a quarter having received inconsiderate negative feedback in the past year. Our results suggest that destructive criticism in code review could be a contributing factor to the lack of gender diversity observed in the software industry.

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