Robin Hauser Reynolds says her new film, a study of gender in Silicon Valley, was sparked by a call from her daughter.
This was about a year and a half ago, and her daughter was away at college. Sounding distraught, she told Reynolds she was dropping out of her computer science major, because she was underperforming. “Of course, she was doing just fine. She was in the top third of her class,” says Reynolds, a filmmaker based in San Francisco. “But she was just one of two women in a class of 35.”
The incident stayed with Reynolds, and she soon realized her daughter’s anxiety was symptomatic of a much larger problem—a problem that went well beyond gender. She started noticing headlines, almost daily, that pointed to a growing need for computer scientists in the job market. One report, by way of the White House, said that if trends continued, there would be 1.4 million computer-science-related jobs available by 2020 and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills needed dot fill them. “This is not just a gender issue,” Reynolds says. “It’s an economics issue.”
The result is a new documentary film called CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which explores the glaring lack of American female and minority computer science engineers, as well as the many reasons behind this shortage. In the film, Reynolds speaks with coders, computer science teachers, brain specialists, psychologists, top tech executives, and many others across the tech world and beyond, including the newly appointed White House CTO Megan Smith. Reynolds and her team recently wrapped the movie, and it’s slated for release sometime in 2015, after the team raised more than $86,000 on Indiegogo.
The documentary is part of a much larger battle to close the gender gap in the tech world, bring additional diversity to the workforce, and indeed improve the economics of the hiring in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. Over the past year, the topic has risen to the forefront of public awareness, as behemoths such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have, one by one, released the diversity statistics of their workforce. These stats show that, yes, most tech workers inside these giants white and male. But like so many others, Reynolds says it doesn’t have to be this way.
With the film, Reynolds sought to answer one simple question: Why aren’t women being hired? Studies say women outpace men in college enrollment—females are 33 percent more likely than men to earn college degrees—so why is the ratio of male-to-female computer science majors so unbalanced?
After interviewing so many people across the industry, Reynolds found that the old excuse was true: women weren’t being hired in big numbers because there weren’t as many women to hire. Like her daughter, so many women drop out of computer science courses, or don’t enroll at all, because they didn’t feel like they fit in. They don’t experience what Reynolds calls “ambient belonging.” “Women and people of color don’t feel comfortable in this space. It sends a message, immediately: ‘Maybe this is not for you, maybe you shouldn’t be here.’”
Very few women are exempt—even those who, outwardly, appear to enjoy great success. Reynolds points to Danielle Feinberg, Pixar’s director of photography for lighting, who appears in the documentary. The 18-year Pixar veteran can still recall the difficulties of being in the minority in her computer science classes at Harvard. “She tells this story of how she used to have to email everybody in the class just to figure out who her partner would be for a project,” Reynolds says. “It was like being the last person left on the field when people had to pick their teams.”
The Difference Between Men and Women?
According to Jennifer Raymond and Allen Wyler, two neuroscientists Reynolds interviewed for the documentary, there is no physical evidence you can find in men and women’s brains that would suggest one gender would be inherently better at coding than the other. “If you take two people with the same exact IQ, and you give them the exact same education, there would be no reason that one would be better or worse at programming than the other,” Reynolds says. “Your brain is formed by experience.”
Indeed, the gender gap hasn’t always been this pronounced. For decades, in the 1960s and 1970s, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. Then the mid-1980’s hit, and the percentage of women in computer science flattened out. Shortly after that, things got even worse. A recent study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in the mid-1980s, 37 percent of U.S. college computer science graduates were female, a far cry from today’s figure: 14 percent. “In the present,” Reynolds says, “there are very few women and people of color who can serve as role models in this industry.”
Another surprising insight Reynolds discovered in the process of filming CODE: In other technical fields, say medicine, when a woman decides to leave her job, her next job will typically still relate to medicine somehow. But when when a woman leaves her job in computer science, she tends to leave completely.
The problem is one of perception. But psychologists say that once a stereotype takes hold, it can take generations to reverse the impression. “The number one influencing factor is a person’s parents,” Reynolds says. “And beyond that, it’s going to be pop culture. As long as we have Hollywood reaffirming these stereotypes—in Barbie books and TV shows about Silicon Valley—stereotypes will prevail.”
Why Diversity Is So Needed
The scale of the problem is massive, Reynolds says, when you consider that today, technology permeates almost every area of humanity. “It’s in our pockets, in our cars, in hospitals—it’s everywhere,” she says.
There’s the computer science talent shortage to consider. But it’s more than that. If technology isn’t shaped by people with diverse views—at the coding level—our tech products won’t serve the greater good. The idea is that when you don’t have any diversity, says Reynolds, you end up creating products that serve the population that’s most like you.
“How many more Snapchats do we need?” Reynolds asks. “What we need are apps that are going to solve world hunger, medical issues, and environmental problems.”
What can push us in this direction? Reynolds points to the efforts of a group called Code for Progress. The Washington, D.C.-based initiative recruits a dozen social activists and puts them through a 5-month-long bootcamp to learn coding. Afterwards, the fellows are challenged to develop digital products, like apps and other services, that address issues of inequality. The twist is that the activists themselves are often re-emerging citizens. In the first group of fellows, for instance, three-fourths were women, most never went to college, and five out of 12 identified as LGBT. The effort represents more of what we should be hoping for—in more ways than one.
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