Girl Code

A big documentary on Silicon Valley’s sexism problem

Illustration: Laura Breiling

There’s a scene in Code: Debugging the Gender Gap in which two twentysomething male software designers present their satirical app to hundreds of developers at a 2013 hackathon sponsored by the website TechCrunch. “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits,” announces David Boulton, one of the designers. He says this is fun because, while men enjoy staring at breasts, “women just aren’t that warm to it.” As he talks, a cartoon of a woman slapping a man flashes on the screen behind him. Some bros cheer.

That response is hardly surprising; it’s predictable by now to point out the tech world’s antiwoman bias, especially after books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and court cases including Ellen Pao’s. There are many nonprofits trying to fix this. The biggest is Girls Who Code, a three-year-old program that teaches tech skills to girls. But Code, which played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is making the festival rounds before being distributed next year, is the first feature film to expose the issue. Director Robin Hauser Reynolds, founder of documentary studio Finish Line Features, goes about it like an activist. She first raised $86,000 on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, then convinced Capital One, Citigroup, and other corporations to donate to her cause.

The statistics alone are damning: Barely 15 percent of Silicon Valley software engineers are women, and of those, an estimated 41 percent will leave the field within a decade. Only 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women. Code is stuffed with figures like these, which it brings to life in interviews with successful female programmers. With their manicured nails and serious coding chops, they buck the male hacker stereotype.

There’s the senior engineer at Etsy who was once dubbed The Intimidator because she was deemed too overbearing. There’s the director of platform engineering at Pivotal Software who gets mistaken for a secretary. “It’s little things that, if I were to bring it up in a situation, [people] would say, ‘That was nothing, why can’t you just brush it off?’ ” says Tracy Chou, a Pinterest software engineer who’s often told she doesn’t look like one because she’s a young woman. “When it happens every day or every week then it all adds up.”

Gender equality in Silicon Valley isn’t just an altruistic ideal but a way for women to start earning fair wages. According to a 2014 White House report, more than 1 million jobs will be created in computing and related fields by 2020; less than 1 percent of those will go to American women. The average salary for a Bay Area software engineer is about $130,000, says San Francisco placement firm Riviera Partners. “I really think this is a Rosie the Riveter moment,” says Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook. “The jobs are here, and we don’t have the people to fill them.”

It wasn’t always so uneven. Early in the industry’s history, women were thought to be more innately skilled at making software. In the mid-’80s, tech was split evenly gender-wise. Today, girls and boys perform equally well at math in middle school. When they get to high school the girls start falling behind. The reason, Code explains, is that they’ve been culturally groomed to assume that science- and math-based fields are for men. By the time they’re adults, women shy away because they don’t have faith in their abilities. “I was the kind of girl who didn’t know how to work her DVD player. I thought I could never be a software engineer,” says Evelyn Cordner, who majored in computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology after taking a required Java course and now works as a software engineer. The director was inspired to make the film after her daughter dropped a computer science major.

Code can get preachy at times. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, declares in one scene that “the lack of coding access for women is the most important domestic issue of our country’s time,” which, let’s be honest, is a bit of stretch. The film would also be more powerful if it got the industry’s worst perpetrators to talk on camera. Only once does the movie include a man who doesn’t see Silicon Valley’s culture as a problem. It’s former Business Insider Chief Technology Officer Pax Dickinson, who was fired after writing a series of tweets inspired by the Titstare incident. (One example: “A man who argues on behalf of feminism is a tragic figure of irony, like a Jewish Nazi.”) In Code, he admits he didn’t take the Titstare controversy seriously. “From my experience, it wasn’t a big deal,” he adds with a shrug. His body language says it all.

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