Tech & Work

Debugging the gender gap: New documentary explores the complicated matter of the lack of women in tech

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap's director and producer Robin Hauser Reynolds tells TechRepublic why tech's diversity problem affects everyone, not just women.

Image: CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

Filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds saw a seemingly simple situation that didn't make sense: there are tons of open tech jobs, and the promise of good jobs right out of college, but so few women are employed in those jobs.

When she and the team behind the new documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival, started exploring it, she quickly realized it's a complicated issue.

"At first I said, well, they're just not hiring women, then I realized there are very few women coming through the pipeline and then we began to explore, well, why is that the case?" Reynolds said.

She saw a prime example in the struggles of her own daughter, an otherwise solid student who was a computer science major in college but felt so out of her depth that she wanted to drop her major.

"She began to call home with doubts and concerns and she told me she felt as though everyone else in the class was much further ahead," she said.

She was one of two women in most of her classes. In reality, she was in the top third of her class, but against the boisterousness of classmates who had been messing around with computers and gaming since childhood, her impression was that she was failing.

It's not an uncommon experience for women in computer science programs, and it's just one of a great many hurdles to clear along the way to a career in tech.

SEE: CNET's series "Solving for XX" on the critical issue of women in tech

Reynolds said they constructed the documentary in pods of sorts, highlighting stories from various women in different positions. They all represent different aspects of the current state of women in the tech industry. Take Evelyn Cordner, a 26-year-old software engineer at Strava who played lacrosse for MIT. Strava's made an effort to create a culture that differs from the brogrammer culture -- employees tend to bond over athletics -- and she feels satisfied in her job despite being one of only two or three female engineers.

There's also Courtney Nash, who grew up in foster care, in Compton, California, and had to overcome a multiple obstacles as a woman, a minority, and a member of a typically marginalized socio-economic segment of the population to earn a B.A. from Loyola Marymount University and set off on a career in computer science.

Reynolds and her team were also able to talk with people like Megan Smith, who is the current CTO of the United States, as well as engineers at companies like Spotify, Github, Facebook, Twitter, and Pixar. The documentary took about 14 months to produce.

With particular regard to Smith, who was previously at Google, Reynolds talked about the dearth of female role models in computer science and STEM subjects in general. Young children might know who Marie Curie is, and an older crowd might have heard of Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace, but they probably couldn't even explain who they were or what they did, let alone knowing the women who programmed the ENIAC (the US army's first digital computer).

"These were all women who were incredibly influential in the history of computing. If you ask someone in this day and age, if you said to someone 'name some famous people that are related to computers,' they tell you 'Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates.' They're all these modern-day male role models," she said.

SEE: Photos: The women who created the technology industry

This isn't about belly aching. And it's also not an issue that merely stays buried in the short-circuited careers of women over the course of decades.

One of the big ideas behind CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap is that the lack of diversity in tech is, as Reynolds put it, not just a gender issue for the sake of being a gender issue. The White House projects that there will be a million unfilled jobs in tech by 2020. If Americans can't fill those jobs, they'll go over seas.

"Since technology is the fastest-moving industry of our time, it has the potential to completely stall out our economy," she said.

And that's part of the point -- the gender gap affects everyone.

Along those lines, Reynolds is also hoping that this is a documentary with takeaways for everyone, both from an entertainment and educational standpoint.

"I didn't want it to be a film that spoke only to people in the industry. I wanted someone to be able to walk away and think, wow, I didn't realize that this really is important and we really have code at the base of so much of what we do day to day," she said.

And the hope is that watching this documentary might make the audience consider biases -- blatant or unconscious -- they have as parents, teachers, co-workers, and bosses, and also the way we're impacted by the culture stereotype of the programmer.

"How do you change a stereotype?" she said. "The stereotype that we have of a computer science programmer is absolutely de-incentivizing young girls from going into STEM and computer science fields."

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