Debugging the Gender Gap: Filmmaker Warns of Economic Crisis in Tech

As a former stockbroker, Robin Hauser Reynolds knows what it’s like to be a woman in a field dominated by men.

Over the past couple of years, the San Francisco Bay Area film director and self-described feminist has immersed herself in another industry that has become notorious for its gender gap: tech.

Poor gender diversity statistics within Silicon Valley’s tech giants—particularly in technical departments—and high-profile allegations of sexism and misogyny at tech startups have erased some of the luster of an industry that has been enjoying a post-recession boom in venture capital investments and company valuations.

Tech’s diversity problem has been a big topic in the press in recent months. Now, Hauser Reynolds has added her documentary, “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap,” to the conversation. In it, she interviews top female engineers at companies like Airbnb, Etsy, Facebook, Pinterest, and Yelp, as well as teenage girls interested in coding; leaders of advocacy groups; the (male) chief technology officers of Airbnb and Twitter; university historians, psychologists, and administrative leaders; and U.S. CTO Megan Smith.

“CODE” explores the role women have played in the rise of computing, including coding pioneer Grace Hopper. The late U.S. Navy rear admiral worked on America’s first programmable computer during World War II, and her experience finding an actual bug (a moth, to be exact) in a computer is associated with the emergence of the term “debugging.”

More importantly, the film tries to help audiences understand the nuanced mix of factors that have contributed to the glaring dearth of women and people of color in software engineering jobs and leadership roles at U.S. tech companies—and the consequences for America’s economy and society if the problems don’t get solved.

The documentary debuted in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. On Thursday, Hauser Reynolds will be in Madison, WI, for a screening and panel discussion with entrepreneurs, investors, and a recent graduate of the YWeb Career Academy, a local program that teaches women and people of color how to develop software. (Click here to register for the screening and panel discussion.)

Robin Hauser Reynolds

Robin Hauser Reynolds

Xconomy spoke with Hauser Reynolds about the film and what she hopes it will accomplish. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What was the most surprising thing you heard from the people you interviewed for this film?

Robin Hauser Reynolds: The most surprising thing for me was the fact that there were more women in computer science engineering in the mid-1980s than there are now. Women are actually dropping off. The numbers are getting worse. I didn’t expect that at all. That was shocking to me.

And along those lines, it was equally shocking to me to think that the majority of startups are run by, call it, 24- to 30-year-old men—white men. And that there’s actually quite a bit of sexism and misogynistic behavior going on in startup tech. I have a 20-year-old son. It absolutely shocked me that kids just five years older than he is are behaving this way or have this kind of mentality. Because you know the chances are they were raised by parents who care about gender equality.

X: Tech’s gender gap and lack of diversity have been hot topics over the past couple of years, at least in the tech press. Do you think the conversation is starting to move more mainstream?

RHR: I think so. This really has only been on my radar for the last, I’d say now, two years. But I think that just given the amount of attention it’s received in the newspapers, radio talk shows, etc., I think absolutely, it’s a big issue now. We are the first feature film that’s really come out to try to drill down on exactly what’s going on.

If you talk about gender equality for the sake of gender equality, you’re going to catch a certain audience. And if you talk about diversity for the sake of justice, you’re going to catch a similar audience. But when you talk about an economic crisis, everybody tends to look up from their iPhones. Suddenly, a lot of people care and a lot of people pay attention. This is a looming economic crisis.

The fact that there’s going to be 1 million unfilled jobs by the year 2020, which is just four and a half years from now, is pretty shocking. And if we want to consider ourselves, the United States, the forefront of the tech industry, we have to wake up and figure this out.

X: This seems like a movie that should be seen by venture capitalists, startup accelerator participants, entrepreneurs, etc. What is being done to get the movie in front of more people in the innovation community?

RHR: I absolutely agree with you. I will tell you I went to visit several different venture capitalists about this project. I offered them sponsorship opportunities. My sense without knowing too much about it, but certainly my experience with the access that I did have, is that venture capitalists are concerned about return on investment. And if they don’t have an ROI, they’re not as interested. Venture capital, the last numbers I checked, were less than 6 percent of funding was going to women CEOs or woman-owned companies. That’s a whole different documentary. But it’s a problem. And it’s a big problem. [Editor’s note: The problem might be even worse—a 2014 study by Babson College pegged the number of venture-backed companies with a woman CEO at just 2.7 percent.]

X: So have you made a push to get the film in front of people within the tech community?

RHR: Right now we’re on the film festival circuit. We’re hoping to market there. We’re in the process of doing private screenings. There are so many requests coming in to us that we haven’t even reached out as much. We’re just sipping from a fire hose. We’re booked through March for private screenings and conferences and sponsorship screenings. That said, we are just about to engage with a distributor that will help us do that so we can start scaling things.

Right now, I’m running around doing screenings. We’ve screened at Expedia and Heidrick & Struggles, a big recruitment firm. We have screenings with Intel and Microsoft, and there are tons of them coming up, which is great.

X: A colleague of mine attended a women-in-tech panel discussion recently, and she said their big piece of advice was, “Be nice so they won’t feel threatened by you.” What’s your advice for women struggling to contend with the “old boys network” and the “brogrammer” culture?

RHR: Honestly, can you imagine someone saying that to a man? It’s a problem because a strong man is a leader. A strong woman is what—a bitch. It’s just true. It’s just what happens. A strong woman is a bulldozer. A strong woman is aggressive. Just like an emotional man is empathetic, sensitive. An emotional woman is a basket case or hysterical.

There are scientific reasons that you benefit from bringing women on to your team. There was a study at Carnegie Mellon in the 2011 June Harvard Business Review, called “The Female Factor.” It was a detailed scientific study that you can read about. Basically, what it says is … Next Page »

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