‘CODE’ addresses the gender gap in high-tech profession
In 2013, filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds’ daughter called home from college to announce that she planned to drop her computer science major.
The reasons were simple, but disturbing, according to Reynolds.
"She found, consistently, that she was always one of two women in a class of 35 or 40 students and, among other things, she found that everyone assumed that she would work with the other woman in the class and she felt the men in the class knew more about computer science than she did," Reynolds told The Park Record. "She simply felt like she didn’t belong and found that discouraging."
That conversation led to Reynolds’ documentary "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap" that will be screened for free as part of the Park City Film Series’ Reel Community Series at the Jim Santy Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 14. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion (see accompanying story titled "Panel discussion will break down ‘CODE’").
The film exposes the lack of American female and minority software engineers, explores the reasons for this gap, and raises the question: what would society gain from having more women and minorities code?
"The interesting thing was that when my daughter called, there were front-page articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle that basically said if you want a good job out of college, you should know something about coding and that the most lucrative jobs were in computer science," Reynolds said. "That same year, the White House issued a report that said by 2020 there would be 1 million unfilled computer science jobs in the U.S. alone."
After reading the stories, one question nagged at Reynolds.
"Here are tons of well paying jobs, and we’re not encouraging more women to get involved," she said. "I couldn’t understand why we were missing half the population."
So, Reynolds, a documentary filmmaker, made the issue her next project.
"As a documentarian, my style is to jump in and start filming," she said with a laugh. "I didn’t have a script or anything, but in order to be a fair documentarian, I feel you need to just jump in."
Reynolds’ first interview was with Evelyn Cordner, a software engineer at Strava, which develops athletic apps.
"We interviewed her and learned about a woman who worked at the music-sharing app Spotify, so we went to Spotify," Reynolds said.
During that interview, Reynolds handed her 35-page film proposal to a PR agent, Ulysses King of the OutCast Agency, who represented the woman from Spotify.
" the time I finished the interview, he told me that I was onto something and asked me where else I would like to go with this," Reynolds said. "He had all of these different connections and in the end, we ended up interviewing at Google, Pixar, Pandora, Box, Skype, Facebook, Yelp, Pintrest and Twitter. The only place I couldn’t get into was SnapChat."
During the interviews, Reynolds learned how creative coding was.
"Many people may think it’s boring and isolating, but it doesn’t have to be," she said.
That is illustrated during the segment with Danielle Feinberg, Pixar films’ director of photography for lighting.
"Her job is to write code that controls the way light shines off a school of fish in ‘Finding Nemo’ or the way Merida’s hair bounces in the movie ‘Brave,’" Reynolds said. "I mean, if young girls, early on, see they can learn that coding can be used in so many different industries including the arts, medicine and fashion, it will show them that there are different opportunities available to them."
Reynolds also learned the shocking truth that there were more women in computer science and software engineering in the 1980s than there are now.
"The numbers have declined since then and declined even more since the year 2000," she said. "No one knows exactly why."
That led the film crew to interviews with professors at Stanford and UCLA.
"We tried to figure out what was going on and what the change was in the 1980s that caused women to drop out of the career," Reynolds said. "Carol Dweck [professor of psychology] at Stanford University has a theory that it was the evolution of the stereotype of the programmer going from it being women’s work into becoming a lasting and lucrative career for men.
"That was also a surprise," Reynolds said. "Because there shouldn’t be that much sexism in the start-up culture, right? How can a 25-year old be sexist if they are raised by parents like me? Was this a hangover from the fraternities or is it something that breeds itself?"
To find answers, Reynolds had to remain open-minded throughout the process.
"I knew I needed to go into interviews with a fresh attitude to get to the core and try to understand the issue," she said.
Reynolds also felt a keen sense of responsibility when making the film.
"I also knew there would be coders who are women who will see the film, so I needed to tell their story accurately, and at the same time show some incentives for young women to come into the industry," she said.
To do so, Reynolds refused to make a "whiny female film."
"I wanted men in the audience, so I constantly challenged myself and the team to remember we’re not here to complain, but instead, figure it all out and show how important this is to all of us," she said.
Reynolds also wanted to debunk the stereotype that programmers are nerds and geeks.
"I wanted to show that there are women in the industry that don’t fit the stereotype of what we think is a computer scientist," she said. "Some of these women are athletes and super social.
"That’s why we interviewed Evelyn Cordner at Strava," Reynolds said. "She is this gorgeous young woman who played lacrosse at MIT. She even admits she didn’t know how to work her own DVD player when she started out, but is very happy at Strava."
The Park City Film Series Reel Community Series, along with the Park City School District and the Park City Educational Foundation, will present a free screening of Robin Hauser Reynolds’ "Code: Debugging the Gender Gap," at the Jim Santy Auditorium of the Park City Library, 1255 Park Ave., on Thursday, Jan. 14. The film starts at 6:30 p.m. A post-screening panel will be held that evening. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityfilmseries.com .
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Park City Film’s in-person screenings will include a string of Academy Award-nominated films.