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The Mary Sue Interview: CODE: Debugging The Gender Gap Takes On The Tech Industry’s Treatment Of Women

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One of the most anticipated documentaries to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year is Robin Hauser Reynolds’ Code: Debugging the Gender Gap. The film addresses head-on the alarming fact that there is a disturbing lack of women studying and working in the computer science field. She also looks at the sexism causing this big problem, rampant in education, business, and popular culture – along with the efforts being made to fix this nationwide problem.

The movie explores not just the stereotypes that women have to overcome, but also the historical evidence which shows that women are just as “inherently” capable of learning and developing code as their male counterparts. Reynolds also interviews and profiles a number of the women attempting to challenge these stereotypes, proving that, by being more inclusive in the field of computer engineering, there will be more diversity in the digital world as a whole. I spoke with Reynold during the festival about her new film, and what sparked her interest in turning her attention to this alarming problem.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): What did you want to accomplish with this documentary?

Robin Hauser Reynolds: There is a fine line between wanting to do justice with a film and trying to show what is really going on in the industry. What the industry is really like for women like Julie Ann Horvath and other women in the industry, which is still a boys club, while still inspiring girls to get into coding and not scaring them away from the field. I knew there would be a lot of people who would be upset and frustrated if I didn’t address some of the egregious things that have gone on, and continue to go on, in the industry.

TMS: Reading notes on the origins of the film, I understand the initial spark for the project was seeing the issues which faced your daughter in school?

Reynolds: The truth is, I was focusing on this because she was planning to major in computer science. And she’s interested in computer science, she’s always been interested in computers. So she was studying it, but she called during her sophomore year and said, “I hate this, I’m no good at it, I don’t fit in, and I’m dropping the class.” The first time she said that to me, I told her to go talk to her teacher, who said, “What are you talking about? You’re doing great.” But then she took another class and ultimately said she wanted to drop the class, and I asked, “If you were getting an A, would you like it more?” And she said of course, but she was getting a B. And for a lot of girls, getting a B isn’t good enough, and she ultimately dropped the major and started studying art history.

But she is now studying graphic design, which is the perfect combination of the two, and has since gone back to complete another coding class, and computer science might be her minor. But what that sparked my interest was, it prompted me to ask the question, “What is going on that professors and schools aren’t actively trying to keep all kids in their classes?” The tech industry is growing three times faster than we are creating computer science majors. So what is going on? It was shocking that schools weren’t redesigning their classes to encourage everyone to take them.

TMS: Thee story you mentioned about your daughter, and the anecdote in the film about the classroom study done on how expectations alter classroom results, really hit me, having experienced it first hand after being diagnosed as dyslexic. Feeling discouraged can effect classroom success in such a big way, and professors still haven’t figured out how to teach to students of all types and learning styles. When you spoke with teachers about the way coding is taught, what did they say had changed, or needed to change, to fix this gender gap?

Reynolds: Well, I can’t speak for all universities that teach computer science, because I’ve only been to a few. But I can say there are some professors doing an amazing job. Maria Klawe is the president of Harvey Mudd College, and she has done an amazing job at getting her classes up to 50% women. Harvey Mudd is known as an engineering school, so there are already more men than women in that school. But what she’s done is say, we have to make the environment better for women so it isn’t intimating to go into that first 101 classroom. And Colleen Lewis, another professor, said the same thing. It’s about that first class and that first homework assignment you give them, that it isn’t intimidating and shows them that computer science can be creative. So there need to be introductory classes which show the breath of what coding can be.

There was an interesting man I spoke to who didn’t make it into the film, who started teaching introductory classes in coding called CSKickstart. And the idea was to bring women into a four or five week long class in the summer, to introduce them to coding so they were starting from the same point as the men when entering the 101 class. And he did that because he saw that men had been gaming since they were 7 or 8, and most women hadn’t, because there are fewer computer games which appeal to women. So already, the girls get into a 101 class and feel like the boys know so much more than them. So what Dan Garcia did was create this kickstart class, and he found those 101 classes retained more women.

TMS: Did the rise of the gaming hobby coincide with the rise in computer science 101 courses having this gap?

Reynolds: I think a lot of the men get into coding because of that initial interest in gaming. And one of the problems we see is that, because there are fewer games which appeal to girls, they are exposed to less of it at an early age, so men seem further along when they get to college.

TMS: And up until recently, it seems girls were discouraged by society to even be gamers.

Reynolds: Absolutely, and we touch on that in the film. It is importance to note that culturally, we let boys sit in front of computers and game longer than girls. It seems like bit of unconscious bias by both moms and dads which start when kids are very young. We give more scientific answers to boys’ questions than we do to girls. We let boys play in the sandbox and build things alone, while we encourage girls to play together with their dolls or pretend kitchens. As a culture, we still tend to steer girls and boys in different directions, which is kind of shocking to think about as a mother. But there are also huge stereotypes, which, say, to be a computer programmer, you would be a nerdy loner. And that was why Danielle Feinberg was such an important person to have in the film, because she shows young girls that coding can be cool and creative and collaborative. Her entire department at Pixar created the code that gave Merida hair that movement in Brave, and developed the way an entire school of fish moved in Finding Nemo.

TMS: During your research, how did you find the examples of these big companies that left women out of studies? For example, when women were left out of the airbag study or the less catastrophic example of when Microsoft had those leering paperclip characters as part of Office Assistant?

Reynolds: I loved that story. It is one thing to hear people say “This is the way it is,” but I’m very pragmatic and wanted to see examples. So when people would say, “We’re making changes in the industry,” I would always ask for concrete examples. And I asked for an example of a time when something failed because of that lack of diversity. And sometimes people felt put on the spot, or that they didn’t want to talk about their company. But that particular example with the paper clip characters was brought up by Roz Ho, who had been at Microsoft but left years ago; she didn’t have any trouble talking about that.

TMS: And the most interesting finding from those two examples has to be that men excluded women not because they were trying to hurt women, or are sexist – but even so, they still truly overlooked half the population.

Reynolds: And how interesting is that? How much does that show that when you have a group of twelve men in a room, they won’t see the problem until a woman points it out to them?

TMS: One of the most scathing things you brought up was the fact that even if a woman gets through school with a degree in computer science, they are still likely to face sexism in the work place from their colleagues.

Reynolds: And what was so interesting with the Julie Ann Horvath case was it wasn’t blatant sexism in the work place. They weren’t saying “sleep with me or you won’t get the job or a promotion.” What happens now are a series of micro-aggressions. In some cases, I do think it occurs on an unconscious basis, but even saying that is somewhat excusing men. And in start-up culture, someone needs to stand up and say, “We’re grown men, we can’t be doing this.” What women talked about with this kind of sexism is what’s referred to as “5,000 cuts.” They are small transgressions which, over time, make going to work everyday exhausting and stressful.

TMS: Did you notice that there was a rise in that kind of sexism with the rise of the start-upa, because they lack the rules of human resources departments and codes of conduct?

Reynolds: Well, I haven’t worked in the tech industry personally, so everything I know is from interviews I did for the film. But my theory is that these workspaces are not geared towards just work anymore. And Google was really the first company to do this, making the environment so comfortable that everyone will want to stay at work. There’s alcohol at work, there are ping-pong tables, video games. The areas between work and play becomes a grey area. Whereas, if you’re working in a bank or something, and after work you have to go out to get a drink, it is easier to separate work and personal life. Whereas in the tech industry, it is really all mixed up. So as Julie Ann said, put a woman in that environment and it’s like blood in the water. It makes things a little confusing, especially because of the age of most people working at these start-ups.

TMS: And then you have the problem of women who do complain or want to address the problem being told to lighten up.

Reynolds: Exactly. I used to work on the London Stock Exchange, which is completely a man’s world, and if you were a a young women walking past bond traders, you felt like you were putting yourself at risk. It never deterred me, I learned to just hold my own; but I completely understand women saying working in that kind of environment all day, everyday, would become exhausting. The problem with these micro-aggressions is they aren’t provable in court, because they aren’t blatant examples of sexual harassment.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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Sam Maggs is a writer and televisioner, currently hailing from the Kingdom of the North (Toronto). Her first book, THE FANGIRL'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY will be out soon from Quirk Books. Sam’s parents saw Star Wars: A New Hope 24 times when it first came out, so none of this is really her fault.