Silicon Valley has been dealing with its diversity issues only for the past year and a half, but already, there is a documentary that chronicles the issue. Specifically, “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” dives into the tech industry’s lack of women in coding roles.
"Code," produced by filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds and former tech marketer Staci Hartman, premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and has since been screened at the White House, by several tech corporations including Microsoft, and was set to make its California premiere Friday at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
The documentary, which took just 15 months to complete, dives into the history of women in tech, looks at the efforts being made to get more women to code and touches on why bringing diversity to Silicon Valley is important. At many tech companies, the representation of women is typically in the 25 to 35 percent range, but even that already-low figure falls off drastically when narrowed down to tech roles.
Reynolds, who directed the film, spoke with the International Business Times to chat about the film, the impact it has had so far and the state of diversity in the tech industry.
International Business Times: What was the catalyst for this documentary?
Robin Hauser Reynolds: My daughter has always been a very academically competent woman, and for the first time in her academic career, she started expressing doubts in her ability when she began studying computer science in college. She felt very strongly that it wasn’t for her and that she knew a lot less than most of the other people in her class even though they were entry-level classes.
At the same time, the White House issued a report that by the year 2020 there would 1 million unfilled jobs in computer science-related fields, and it just shocked me that there were so many jobs out there, we couldn’t fill them and yet we’re missing half the population. I couldn’t understand why she was one of two women in a class of 35 when these jobs were so lucrative and plentiful.
IBT: What was your goal for the film? What’s its purpose?
Reynolds: It’s a discussion starter mainly. It’s a great way to expose employees to some interesting issues, some difficult issues and some sort-of entertaining issues as well. There are some stories in the film that show the efforts that are being made to diversify and the benefits of diversification.
When you can show examples like Etsy, for example -- which has a strong representation of women in tech roles -- that helps convince people why gender diversity is important. It’s not diversity just for the sake of diversity — it actually improves your bottom line. There are a lot of reasons for companies to take this seriously and pay attention.
IBT: You interviewed some major tech diversity leaders like Pinterest’s Tracy Chou and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. Is there anyone you couldn’t get that you wish you had?
Reynolds: Honestly, had Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer come to me and said she wanted to talk, we would have put her on camera, but I really liked the idea that we started from the ground up and that it was more important to share about this from people who are really in the trenches as opposed to just big-name people.
I certainly wouldn’t have refused an interview with Mayer, I think her story would have been very investing as well, but it was important to me to really go to the grassroots here and to see what it was like for women who were just coming through the pipeline.
IBT: At one moment, the film focuses on the auto industry's lack of diversity and the effect that had on making women more susceptible to deaths than men. Why was it important to you to include that?
Reynolds: That’s a perfect example where because the designers and the engineers of the airbag were white men, it never even crossed their mind that they would have to adjust the design for the frame of a woman or of a small child. It just never crossed their mind.
Another segment shows that Microsoft market-tested the Clippy character, and in the results, women said “Ew we don’t like it. This guy's leering at us. He's creepy. He makes us feel uncomfortable.” There was one woman and 12 men in the room and they were like “We don’t believe he’s creepy. That can’t be true.” So they threw away the data they paid for, and that just shows the blunders in design and in marketing when you don’t have a broad perspective.
IBT: Another scene candidly shows four teenage friends that are just hanging out and chatting about coding. How did you capture that and why did you decide to leave it in the film?
Reynolds: Well I could just have women in tech saying that girls feel like they don’t belong or that girls have an impression that all computer science engineers are nerdy. But you can’t just tell things, you have to show it.
I’d heard of this girl who had learned to code in 7th and 8th grade, and I asked if we could film her. One day I asked her if she would just invite over a few of her friends. I didn’t tell her why or what we were going to talk about. I ran camera for about 30 minutes until they got comfortable and acted like themselves. Then I said to her “Would you show your friends your website?” and that entire conversation was organic and came from that. It was a perfect example of how teenage girls have these impressions. I think that’s a very telling scene.
IBT: ‘Code' touches on the fact that African-American and Hispanic men are also excluded from tech, but it does so lightly. Why did you decide to focus specifically on women in tech roles?
Reynolds: That’s more my style as a documentarian. I’m more interested in digging deep into an issue rather than casting a wide net and making something that’s diluted. People run into problems when they make films that way. So we really did have to keep defining and keep stopping and reminding ourselves what this film was about, and it was about debugging the gender gap.
I’m very aware that these are the same issues for African-American and Latino men. I understand that there are other portions of society that have the same challenges, but we didn’t because most people don’t want to sit through more than an hour and a half for a movie. But more than anything that’s just my style: let’s pick one issue and dig as deep as we can with it. But again, I want to recognize that I am fully aware and I appreciate that this is also an issue for Latino and African-American men.
IBT: When can general audiences expect to see this movie?
Reynolds: It’s not available for purchase or download yet — and that won’t happen until some time in late spring 2016 — but for now, it is on theatrical on-demand, so if somebody wanted to host a screening for their community they could do that and companies can screen it at their corporations as well.
IBT: You mentioned your daughter’s struggles with coding inspired the film. If you don’t mind sharing, what was her reaction to the film and how is her career going?
Reynolds: She really enjoyed the movie. She’s very sweet to me in a daughter-mother way, rolling her eyes because the first film I made had to do with her as well, so she’s very tolerant of me being inspired by her.
She decided not to go into computer science programming. She did end up completing three or four classes of computer science, so she has a good understanding for it. But she’s interested in graphic design, and she’s interested in business. I think computer science is a valuable tool that she has now even if she uses it in a more creative way than traditional coding. I think she doesn’t regret at all the classes she took and I know that she’ll end up using those skills in some way, but she will not major in computer science.