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Code Documentary Maker: 'This Is a Rosie the Riveter Moment'

The lack of diversity in technology "is a serious issue that’s going to affect our economy and everything else."

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The problem of a lack of women in technology runs deep. It can’t be easily fixed. But perhaps one way to step forward is to bundle together statistics, anecdotes, history and role models into a polished feature-length documentary.

That’s the aim of “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap,” debuting today at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film places much of the blame for tech’s lack of female representation on self-fulfilling stereotypes that coders are anti-social dudes (and, more recently, misogynistic brogrammers).

It traces the drop in women computer science grads in the U.S. from 37 percent in 1985 to less than half that today. And it proposes that the start of a solution would be a U.S. computer science high school graduation requirement.

On the eve of the film’s premiere and before its broader distribution plans have been set, Re/code spoke with Robin Hauser Reynolds, the film’s director, about the dwindling ranks of women in technology today. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Re/code: How does this documentary fit into the larger discussion about women in technology right now?

Robin Hauser Reynolds: We’re the first feature-length documentary out on the subject. And there are so many women in tech that have been feeling these micro aggressions, and what they’re describing as “death by 1,000 cuts.” We talk about how this is a Rosie the Riveter moment and an economic issue [that there are increasingly more technical jobs than technically trained people], so this is not a whiny female film. I’m not some raging feminist. I believe in feminism, I believe in equality. But it’s more about, “Hey, we all need to pay attention to this.”

Do you personally feel like in another life you would have been a coder?

Robin Hauser Reynolds
Robin Hauser Reynolds

I went to New York and took a coding class several months ago. I really enjoyed it because of the puzzles. I’m a very detailed person. I do remember taking Basic in 1984 at UC Berkeley. I think if I had known about the artistic side of things, like the Danielle Feinberg side of things at Pixar (Feinberg, the director of photography at Pixar, is featured in the documentary) — because I’m a very visual person, I think that it might have been a cool thing. Not if I thought it was an isolating job, three in morning drinking Red Bull and eating stale pizza. If I had looked at the stereotype? Not at all.

At some level, you’re blaming the media for stereotyping hackers as geeky males and how that correlates to the falloff in women computer science majors after the ’80s. Do you think those tropes can now be changed, and how?

It’s a deeply embedded stereotype and mindset about what a person who works with computers is. As you see in the films, these kids — whether 10 years old or 14 — they all have the same impression that you have to be a nerdy person. I think a point in the film was, we’re going to have to change the stereotypes so we can get girls and people of color to see themselves in this space. Could Hollywood have a role? Absolutely they can.

You say how the male perspective distorted the development of major products, such as Microsoft’s Clippy, the animated helper. Women thought the Microsoft Office computer helper was dumb, but their feedback wasn’t incorporated. It was an example of how male teams making products were made worse because they don’t have a full perspective. What are some ways you think the world’s technology companies might be different if they were founded and run by women?

If companies were founded by women, I think they’d have more women in them, because we tend to hire people like ourselves. Diverse thinking is key to creating products that serve a greater depth of humanity. If you have a more a diverse socioeconomic team, more diversity with gender, race, sexual preference, then at that table you’re going to have more opinions about applications and devices that can be created that will serve a greater depth of humanity. How many Snapchats do we really need?

I asked that question in part because I was trying to get at how intolerant the Internet has, in many ways, become — comments, forums, trolling, Gamergate. Do you think it would be any different if women ran the show?

Personally, I do. I think it needs to be not just women, it needs to be collaborative, people from all walks of life. There was an interesting thing called “the Female Factor” published in the Harvard Review in 2011, which said regardless of the individual IQs of people on a team, when you add women to the mix, the overall IQ increases. I’m not an advocate for all-women teams, no. But I think it’s really important we get more women in board rooms and more women in leadership positions.

At the end of the film, you make a case for creating a U.S. computer science requirement. Do you think that is going to happen? Is it in sight?

I think we’re really behind. The U.K. just made it obligatory. College graduates have got to have some understanding and knowledge of what code is and how it’s baked into every aspect of life these days. So here’s the problem with the pipeline. You enter a college class, and it’s 101-level. And you enter that class and suddenly you find yourself predominantly among men and most of them have a foundation for code.

Because they’ve been gaming, because they have been finding cheats when they’ve been playing Minecraft, and so they understand the basics of logic that underlie coding. A woman walks into that class and thinks this was an entry-level class, but she can’t keep up. And so it’s intimidating, and she drops out, because it’s uncomfortable to be one of two women in a class. So we’ve got to start earlier.

I saw that the film had a lot of corporate backers. Do you think these organizations are walking the walk, too?

I think that they’re trying to. I’m really grateful for their support. I had full creative control. I made it very clear they’re all just fiscal sponsors. At every single one of those companies there are a handful of people that are passionate about bringing women to the discussion, to encouraging their daughters, to making the space more diverse. I think they’re making every effort to do that, but it’s not easy.

That goes for even the really successful ones you cite in the film — like Etsy’s tech team is only 31 percent female, and that’s with significant effort.

I’ll tell you a story. One of my very first meetings, when we were still doing R&D, was with a young woman who was an engineer at Uber. So we sat down at some coffee shop, and I said to her, “How many female coder/engineers are there on the team at Uber?” And she said, “Oh, we’re pretty good actually, we’re probably at 10.” And I said “10 women?” And she said “No, 10 percent.” And it shocked me. I thought, we’ve got a real issue here.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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