When Women Code

A Q&A with the director of the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which looks at the cultural reasons behind the male-dominated world of software engineering

Robin Hauser Reynolds

Code builds things: websites, games, this story you're reading. But what code hasn't built, as the tech industry proves again and again, is gender parity among the coders themselves.

That's the central issue in CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, a documentary that premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film dives into why deep-seated cultural stereotypes have permeated an industry that's supposed to think different, to move fast and break things.

Maybe it's because Barbie, the film's narrator muses in one scene, teaches girls they can be computer engineers—but only if they let the boys solve the problems. Maybe it's because male allies at women-focused conferences tell women to simply have faith that wage inequality will eventually work itself out. Maybe it has to do with the difficulty of proving sexism in the workplace.

Whatever the case, the film's director, Robin Hauser Reynolds, traces how American culture has shaped the perception—perpetuated by men and women—that coding is just for men. She offers a history of the technology industry, and conducts interviews with subjects ranging from the White House chief technology officer to teenage girls who are taking after-school coding classes.

I spoke to Reynolds earlier this week about how she approached this sensitive—and sprawling—subject, and what she learned along the way. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Shirley Li: When we talk about women in coding, as the film acknowledges, we also have to talk about people of color in coding, and women in tech, and women in the workplace, and gender parity in pay, and child care, and a dozen more topics. Did you feel pressured to make the film's subject matter more expansive?

Robin Hauser Reynolds: There were people who were like, “Are you going after Sheryl Sandberg? Are you talking to Marissa Mayer?” But I really wanted to get this from the ground up, to talk to the people who are doing the coding. I mean, would I have turned away an interview with Marissa Mayer? Of course not. But I felt that it was really important to get the real story of what it’s like to be a woman in coding.

And we didn’t go the traditional documentary, character one, character two through different acts of the film. We had sort of pods of character sketches. In most cases, we just had little segments of characters that exemplified what we were talking about in that moment. I didn’t go to documentary school, so I felt like I didn’t have to follow any rules, you know?

Li: The subject matter requires a serious tone, but there are lighthearted parts to the film. Like the anecdote that Clippy, the Microsoft Office assistant, came from a male-dominated team. What went into your decision to approach the topic this way?


Reynolds: I didn’t want to make a film about complaining, I'm not a fan of it. But I realized there was a huge responsibility for me not being a woman in tech, that I had to do justice to what was really going on in the industry. That meant showing women happy in their space, women that weren’t happy that left, and showing that some women are there and are sort of suffering quietly. I think it’s just important to show all of it.

Li: You also spend some time on footage of women away from their workspaces—like Aliya Rahman, the program director of Code for Progress, and Julie Ann Horvath, the first female programmer hired at Github who quit after making allegations about gender-based harassment.

Reynolds: I think it’s really important to show them being human. I mean, I don’t think it would be that interesting to just film women at their computers, so I thought it was really important to show a human side and show their character a little bit. And Julie Ann had a very, very public exit from Github, and I think there were a lot of people that were concerned, but I didn’t want to get into the “he said, she said” of her whole issue with Github.

Li: While that's true for Horvath's story, you did approach that "he said, she said" idea when you spoke with Pax Dickinson. He's notorious for his inflammatory comments on Twitter and for supporting Titstare, which The New Yorker called "The Unfunniest Joke in Technology." How did that interview come about?

Reynolds: I have to tell you one of my main concerns for that was how he was going to come across, and what people were going to think about that, and how he was going to think about that. But then again, everyone agreed to these interviews, everyone sat down in those chairs! It was my most difficult interview for certain. I approached him right after the whole Titstare debacle, after I read a piece called “Technology’s Man Problem” in The New York Times. And he said, “You gotta talk to Elissa [Shevinsky, Dickinson's co-founder at Glimpse],” and so they finally agreed to do the interview. They were very careful about what they wanted to say, how they wanted to talk about it. It’s a fascinating interview in and of itself because there’s a lot of him looking to her for reassurance, like, “Is this okay what I’m saying?”

Now, I don’t know if we label Pax a "brogrammer" or not—I think he would not consider himself one—but I think his character’s very telling of men that are in the tech industry... I am being a little careful, but all I know from Pax is what he shared with me and what he said was, “Well, I didn’t even think about it. It was funny.” I believe that that is truly how a lot of the guys in the industry feel, like, “Come on, Titstare was absurd, I didn’t take it seriously.” But they didn’t take the next step and think, “How would that affect women? How do women feel? How would that affect a female programmer, someone who was maybe on my team?” That wasn’t happening but maybe should have, and I think they’ve gotten away with that for a long time because it’s so predominantly male.

Li: Where do you think we should start debugging the gender gap?

Reynolds: It’s a pipeline issue, to go back to the beginning. Computer science education is not mandatory in schools here yet. That’s essential, but it’s also a cultural thing. In the U.S., it’s not cool for a girl to be a computer science engineer or in STEM, right?

I will tell you that I believe that the fact that there are so many computer-science games and games that are directed toward young adolescent men and boys, that’s one reason why they are further along, and why they’re more comfortable with computer science by the time they get to college... I would have really liked to bring in Gamergate a little bit more at the last minute, but it came in toward the end, and we decided we wouldn't have been able to do it justice. It's practically its own film.

Li: What about pop culture? You cut in scenes from films like Mean Girls and TV shows like Silicon Valley throughout the documentary to show how pop culture reflects our own attitudes.

Reynolds: You cannot be what you cannot see, right? So I believe that if we start seeing women in leadership roles in tech, in films—like, Silicon Valley, when that came out, didn’t have a leading woman in it. The woman you see is an assistant, she’s not in the main cast, and she should be. That show has its tongue-in-cheek bit, but truly it’s just perpetuating a stereotype.

Li: It mirrors what's said in the real world. Last year, Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Google's Alan Eustace made comments about how women just had to ask for higher pay to achieve it. What's your take on that?

Reynolds: Alan Eustace was the one who said “try harder” on the male allies panel and, I mean, in his case, it is like walking through a minefield. I get it. I don’t believe he really meant what he said—he was on stage, he was asked to be part of this male ally panel so he obviously considers himself an ally. But it’s a perfect example of how if you’re not careful with the way you’re articulating things, you have to become conscious of what you’re saying and how that affects the people around you. I really believe that we have to help educate men to understand how to talk in the space, but I think it’s up to them. It’s not just "What can women change, What can women do?"

That’s the frustration that so many women have. It’s microaggressions. This is death by a thousand cuts, it’s day in and day out these little things that are happening. Can you prove that? No, it’s really hard to prove.

Li: But even though the subject of women in tech has been getting more attention, there's criticism that doing women-centric programming, like the separate TEDWomen conference, is more marginalizing than helpful to women.

Reynolds: That's very interesting. You know, somebody asked me what it was like to be a female director. But I said I don’t know what it’s like to be a male director, so I really can’t answer that question. I’d like to be known as "a director." And so I understand that argument, but at the same time, I think that a lot of young women and a lot of women want their voices heard, and they feel safer voicing their concerns and opinions in the right atmosphere and the right environment.

Li: If we're looking from a broader perspective, then, how do you see your film fitting into the discussion around feminism as a whole?

Reynolds: I mean, I didn’t go about this to necessarily make a feminist film. I am a feminist—of course I’m a feminist. I care about how I’m treated. I care about how my daughter’s treated. But I think there needs to be an effort on both women and men to make change, and I hope that this film has an impact across a broad reach of people. I would love to inspire change in startup culture, in the educational system, in the way people of color and girls see themselves in the tech space. I mean, if this film even inspires two people in the audience, then we’ve done our job as filmmakers, right?