A new documentary shows what happens when there aren’t enough women in tech

Apr 24, 2015

When film producer Robin Hauser Reynolds told her mother that she was making a documentary about the lack of female computer programmers, and her mother’s response was: Why does it matter who's doing the coding, so long as the work gets done?

That's an important question. Anyone who follows the tech press knows that women are underrepresented in computer science and technical jobs. As of the middle of last year, women held 18% or fewer of the tech positions at Pandora, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. And while some people find it self-evident that the tech industry should have a more equitable gender split, convincing the skeptics requires coming up with a good answer to Reynolds' mother's query.

Reynolds' film, CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which is currently being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, uncovers some pretty convincing ammunition.

To begin with, Reynolds zeros in the business case, highlighting instances where products intended to be unisex flopped because they were made by men, for men’s specifications. CODE recounts how early air bags failed to protect women because they didn't take female anatomy into account, and how the first voice recognition software programs didn't recognize female voices.

In the film, Reynolds interviews Roz Ho, a VP at Ericsson, who used to be an executive at Microsoft. Hoz explains how, in the late 1990s, Microsoft spent $100,000 on market testing when it was adding a paperclip-shaped office assistant character to its Office products. The female test participants overwhelmingly felt that most of the assistant characters were too male, and 90% of the women panelists didn’t like the characters. When Hoz shared that sentiment with the dozen or so guys on the team, they collectively replied that they didn’t view it as a problem. “They were ready to throw away data because they could not see it for themselves,” says Hoz, who was the only female executive in those discussions.

You may remember how that ended: The products, which ended up shipping with 10 male characters and two female characters, were widely lampooned and parodied, most famously on Saturday Night Live.

The film also points out the ways that the male domination of programming can be a vicious cycle, driving away the few women who do make it in the front door. Reynolds interviewed web developer Julie Ann Horvath, the first female tech employee at GitHub, who left the company after two years due to sexism in the workplace.

“For the first five years of my career, I thought that this gender discrimination and the attitude toward women were just something I had to put up with because I was career oriented,” Horvath explains on camera. “Males tend to project their nerd girl fantasies onto any women that they can in this industry and it makes it hard for women to be seen as professionals. As soon as women get introduced into the environment, it’s like blood in the water.”

Within an hour of leaving GitHub in March 2014, people began anonymously posting crude comments online that attacked Horvath’s character. One person even sent her an anonymous Tweet saying they were going to rape her.

Reynolds, who previously directed Running for Jim, a 2013 documentary about a high school running coach battling Lou Gehrig's disease, told Fortune that she decided to make CODE after learning that her daughter was one of just two women in her college computer science class.

The women she interviewed for the film just want a fair shot at success, says Reynolds. “There has to be a meritocracy, which a lot of women believe there isn’t in tech right now, especially in programming,” she says. “You have to make a woman feel she is not there to check off that status quo.”

The film does nod to companies that have worked to grow the number of women in their technology workforces. Etsy, for instance, has increased its female engineering staff from 3% of the department in 2011 to 31% in 2014.

GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving is an executive producer of the documentary. While the company is still struggling to ditch the sexist image earned by years of racy ads, Irving says he's also focused on increasing the number of women who hold technical jobs at GoDaddy. According to Irving, 40% of the company's 2015 programming interns are women, up from 14% last year.

Reynolds says she hopes CODE will to convince companies of the vital importance of creating a more gender-balanced tech workforce. That will require cutting through some old prejudices and stereotypes, which still exist at the highest levels of some tech companies, she says.

“In my first few informational interviews with company CEOs, I had three different men say to me, 'This is about women in tech? I don’t really see it. I don’t think you have much to go on,'" says Reynolds.

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