“Never send a boy to do a woman’s job.”
That was Angelina Jolie, playing computer whiz Kate “Acid Burn” Libby, in Hackers, the 1995 cult classic. But in the two decades since the film’s release, “hacking” has become entrenched in popular culture as a largely masculine pursuit, best reserved for sunlight-shy nerds and brawny brogrammers.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that just 0.5% of the college degrees awarded each year in the United States go to women majoring in computer science. After they graduate and enter the workforce, women’s representation in technology declines even further.
That dismal state of affairs was news to documentary film director Robin Hauser Reynolds. She started her career in finance, a firsthand witness to harassment and grabby hands on the floor of the London stock exchange. Reynolds knew little about the gender imbalances in Silicon Valley. But as she began to interview women technologists, starting in February of last year, their stories resonated with her. The result is captured in her new film, CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap.
“Why is the stereotype of the feminist a bad thing?” Reynolds asks, as we sit down to talk in the chaotic days of promotion following the world premiere of CODE at the Tribeca Film Festival. (The film plays this evening and Sunday, as well.) “It doesn’t mean I’m offended if a guy opens the door for me; it just means I should be respected and treated as one of their peers.”
That theme of respect runs throughout the film as Reynolds celebrates women’s contributions to technology, from Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first algorithm designed for a machine, to former Facebook director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein. CODE makes the case that women have just as much natural ability to offer as men, and that having diverse perspectives represented in product decision-making is better for business–and for our greater society (an example of what that means: the lack of tools for tracking menstrual cycles in Apple HealthKit, among other recent oversights).
There is growing momentum in support of that argument, from toys like GoldieBlox to career bootcamps like Code for Progress. But for mainstream audiences–and even some technology leaders–encouraging women to code remains low-priority.
“Even CEOs of startups told me—‘I don’t need to worry about who’s coding, I just need bodies,’” Reynolds says. “I really felt it was important for people to understand why this is an important issue for them and how it really will affect everyone.”
She’s been eager to gather feedback from educators, in particular, and hopes to raise enough funding to adapt a version of the film for classroom audiences. “Everybody perks up when you say, this an economic issue that affects your kids, your future kids. I wanted to get that across.”
CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap Theatrical Trailer from Finish Line Features, LLC on Vimeo.
The situation facing my younger sister, a junior at a public high school in Wisconsin, is in many ways typical of the millions of girls that Reynolds is hoping to reach. Her school only offers computer science every two years; this year, she decided to focus on the math and science classes closer to her interests, like Chemistry AP, rather than learn to code. Plus, she says, “If you’re going to be a girl in that class you don’t want to do it alone. You want to get a friend to do it with you.”
For the few girls who currently stumble into coding classes, programming can catch on fast. Last May I visited a computer science class at Boston Latin Academy, a selective public school in Boston’s Roxbury. The school year was nearing its end, and students were working on their final projects while rain drizzled outside. Xiu Na Liang, 17 years old and one of the few girls in the class, stepped away from the maze game she had been developing in Java to sit down with me and talk about her experience.
“It was just a class that I did to fill my course list,” she said. “I didn’t really choose it, but I like it. Now when I’m playing a game I think how it would be programmed, what goes into it and stuff.” The class had encouraged her to think more seriously about careers in science and engineering: “When I finish a project there’s that feeling of accomplishment. That’s what I like.”
Her comments came back to me as I watched CODE debut to a packed-house audience last Sunday. Toward the beginning of the film, Danielle Feinberg, who works at Pixar as the director of photography for lighting, describes the way in which her team had used code to give Brave heroine Merida spunky red curls equal to her personality. There was a sudden chorus of “aahs” from the crowd: For the first time, it became clear how code could help make art–or get a job done.
“There are so many real-world problems that can be solved,” Reynolds says.
One “aah” at a time, she’s doing just that.