Grace Hopper

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

I went to a screening at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross of CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, a crowd-funded film released in 2015, directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds.

This film laments the state of female software engineers in tech in the United States today, where computer science is not part of the national curriculum (although it is in the UK).

It is also a celebration of those successful women already proudly leading the way in tech, and a manifesto outlining what we need to do.

It featured some of the most prominent women in tech today, but the resounding message was that there are not enough. Grace Hopper, the founder of modern programming, is now a historical figure.

The number of women majoring in computer science peaked in the 80s, with a gender split of almost 50:50, but numbers have been steadily declining ever since.

Today, only 17% of computer science graduates are female, despite women holding 57% of all college degrees.

And all this in a climate of a tech skills shortage – something needs to be done.

Innate gender differences?

Even as films like CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap are raising awareness, stimulating conversations and making inroads to increased diversity in the tech industry, others still refuse to admit there is a problem.

The opening scenes of the film show a class of children who are asked to describe their idea of a computer scientist. Each one claimed they believed the scientist would be male.

Strong opinions still abound on the innate genetic differences between men and women, resulting in cultural stereotypes like women not being as ‘adventurous’, ‘technical’ or ‘hard-working’ as men. Some even go so far as to insist that women just aren’t ‘naturally’ drawn to technical subjects like software engineering.

One of the reasons given for the lack of gender diversity in tech is that women have simply ‘chosen’ not to pursue those careers because they are ‘too hard’.

There can be a suggestion that your gender predisposes you to certain traits, but research shows that just because something is ‘innate’ does not mean it is not influenced by experience.

According to neurologists, the human brain has equal potential across genders, and life experience is the greater determinant of ability – rather than genes.

What we can do

The modern world is a technological one and code is in almost everything we interact with. The importance of everyone learning technical skills is critical, like learning to read and write.

We also need more women who are changing the course of history – the female Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates.

Women and other underrepresented groups need to become better represented in the tech industry to benefit all members of society.

To achieve these goals, we must remove the barriers that are stopping girls from pursuing careers in tech.

  • Computer science must become compulsory in the national curriculum (just as it is in several other countries, including now in the UK)
  • More qualified teachers need to be trained to teach computer science
  • Discrimination and gender bias at college level and in the workplace must be tackled
  • Women need to voice their experiences of harassment and discrimination to demonstrate the issues we are facing
  • A positive welcoming tech culture must be created that welcomes all social groups

Me at the screening

Image: Me at the screening

Overcoming the problems

Many women in the film shared their experiences of subtle discouragement from friends and family when pursuing their computer science degrees, and others reported more open displays of hostility and aggression from professors and colleagues.

Director of Photography at Pixar Danielle Feinberg talks about being the only woman in her computer science class, while the other male students refused to let her join their study groups – this was at college level.

Though totally on her own, Danielle’s unquenchable enthusiasm for coding – and, eventually, animation – led her to where she is today. She now gives inspiring talks to young female students, and says, “Role models are hugely important.”

With this in mind, lots of amazing female-oriented initiatives were showcased in the film. They are aimed at improving diversity in the tech industry.

For example, Goldieblox is a toy company founded by Debbie Sterling, and creates awesome toys, games and entertainment for girls, designed to develop early interest in engineering and confidence in problem-solving. Goldieblox has gone from crowdfunded prototype on Kickstarter with more than $1m of pre-orders, to now being stocked by retail giants Toys ‘R’ Us and Amazon.

Many amazing coding groups were also mentioned, including Black Girls Code, Code for Progress, and Kodable.

A call-to-arms

Men and women in the audience were both affected by the issues it raised. There was laughter and also palpable disapproval, as it raised some difficult issues.

Women still face hostile behaviour in the workplace, or are singled out in their computer science classes for being female. Even if they do manage to forge successful careers in tech, hostility and subtle dismissive attitudes make the journey even harder.

The film is gaining traction and features in upcoming London Technology Week. It provides a focal point, telling the story of the struggles women are facing as they try to build their careers in the tech industry.

The problem is real, and it won’t away until we consistently do something about it. If you haven’t watched the film already, do it now. Some parts may make you feel angry but, male or female, you will also feel motivated to effect real change.

This film was a call-to-arms for everyone. Women must learn not only to consume technology – but to produce and create as well.

This is the mission of Code First: Girls, who teach coding classes for women all around the UK. Find out more about how to get involved.

If you liked this blog post and fancy something similar written for your website or blog, get in touch with me to find out how we can work together. 

Top image: Grace Hopper, first modern programmer

About the author

Catherine Heath

I’m a B2B freelance tech blogger and content writer. I have a thing for psychology, diversity, tech and startups. Learning to code.

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