Provocative Documentary ‘CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap’ Asks, “Where Are All the Women in Tech?”

Early in Robin Hauser Reynolds’s new documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap (which premiered yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival), Pixar director of photography and general badass Danielle Feinberg tells a story from when she was a teenager, taking a class in mechanics, in which they would take apart a broken lawnmower and put it back together, trying to fix it in the process. She was the only girl in the class. At the end of the project, they all lined up to try (and fail) to start their lawnmowers; she went last, and the kick of watching it roar to life is a feeling she still holds on to. It’s thrilling to buck expectations and thrash stereotypes — even if, in the case of computer science, said expectations and stereotypes are so confounding.

Among the many revelations in CODE is the rich history of women in computing, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper; in fact, in the early days, women were considered the more logical creators of what we now call software, and by the mid-’80s, gender parity was nearly in place in the industry. But then something happened — or, more likely, a number of somethings, from targeting and marketing to a shift in perceptions and gender roles. The image of the introverted genius computer programmer guy (always a guy) took hold. Now, Reynolds reports, though 57% of college degrees are earned by women, only 18% of them get those degrees in the area of computer science.

Still image from "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap"

The result is a workforce dominated by men — and a culture to match, one that increasingly discourages, ignores, underestimates, and harasses the women in its ranks. Many of those women appear here, telling their war stories; they’re joined by executives, creatives, developers, educators, entrepreneurs, and even a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, who patiently explain that, no, sorry Larry Summers, men aren’t innately predisposed towards math or sciences.

CODE is an activist documentary, and it unfortunately leans on some of the common stylistic crutches; you will probably not be surprised to learn that it ends with a “call to action” card, sharing the URL you can visit to help solve the problem. But as with most docs of this ilk, the question at CODE‘s center is a two-parter: why does this problem exist? And how can it be fixed? The second question was discussed in greater detail, and by some of the folks on the ground, in a “Tribeca Talks” panel following Sunday’s premiere.

Among the panel of tech professionals, the mantra was a simple one: role models. “The more that women see women in those roles, they go, ‘I can become that,'” explained Tamar Elkeles of Qualcomm — and that doesn’t just go for adults. “I said to my ten-year-old daughter, ‘Honey, do you think you can be a coder?'” recalled Auguste Goldman of GoDaddy. “And she was like, ‘No, Dad, that’s what you do.’ And I was like, ‘No, honey, you can do it, let me show you.’ So we did this hour of code and it was phenomenal, and she really liked it.”

Tamar Elkeles, Robin Hauser Reynolds, and Adi Robertson at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap"

Yet simple computer science is surprisingly absent in the modern school curriculum — according to the film, a mere 10% of high schools offer it — even though it’s one of the few real growth industries in the modern marketplace. As Reynolds notes, “By the year 2020, there are gonna be one million unfilled jobs in coding, in the US alone. So if we don’t pull from people of color, if we don’t pull from different socioeconomic groups, if we don’t pull from women, then we’re not gonna be able to fill those jobs.”

The difficulty, as Elkeles points out, is that “the technology’s moving a lot faster than our educational system. Our educational system is really lagging behind, and it’s gotta catch up.” But there is one reason to be hopeful here. As Goldman explains, paraphrasing Chief Technology Officer of the United States Megan Smith, “This is a problem this industry not only can solve, but solve faster than other industries. We can debug this problem. And the industry is very agile; we can move very quickly… We can get ahead of this better than other industries.”

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap screens this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.