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 regardless of the individual IQs of a team of men, if you add one woman to that team, regardless of her IQ, the collective IQ of that team rises. Add a woman to your team, and productivity rises, efficiency rises, profitability rises. So there are actual reasons to incorporate women on to your team.

You could probably bring the same logic over to diversity … if you’re designing products. There’s some great applications that have been made by the average 27-year-old white guy that dropped out of Stanford. What are we missing? How many more Snapchats do we need? They have an enormous user base and they’re phenomenally successful, and that’s great. What about apps for good? What about apps that help people find clean drinking water? Or help a woman who is a single mother living in a housing project to be able to put together a bunch of applications for new housing and do one common application? Could your average white male from Silicon Valley think about that need? Probably not. It’s just not in his wheelhouse, not in his perspective. So, by diversifying socio-economically, gender, race—you’re going to have all these different ideas coming to the table that can create much more innovative products.

X: Have you come across any areas of tech or companies that are more inclusive than others?

RHR: The example we use in the film is Etsy. It’s New York-based, actually in Brooklyn. It’s an online marketplace. One might say, “Well, that’s because it’s shopping, women do the shopping.” Interestingly enough, Airbnb for example, the user base is predominantly female, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the engineering department is predominantly female.

Etsy is almost 31 percent women in their engineering department. What they did is diversified their interview team. It’s human nature that we tend to hire people like us. That’s who we’re comfortable with, that’s who we can identify with, that’s who we feel safe with. So, if you diversify your interview panel … it really helps you in the discussion of bringing on more diversity.

Then it’s also about retaining women once you have them—creating a support structure within the company so if a woman wants to voice a concern, it’s important she feels like she’s being heard. I’ve heard a lot of women say they felt like they were the object of, not even discrimination, but sort of nuances—death by 1,000 cuts. It’s irritating things where you feel like you can’t sit down and do your job because people are hitting on you … or sending porn around.

It’s a matter of, if you have a complaint or constructive criticism, being able to go somewhere in the company and feel like your voice is being heard.

X: Are companies starting to implement that support structure?

RHR: I know that Etsy has, and it seems to have made a difference. I would hope to think that companies are. I have not been inside a lot of companies, and it’s been several months since we finished filming, so these are ways we’ve learned that companies have begun to make a difference.

Here’s the thing that’s interesting though: having a diversity and inclusion department, even having this discussion about gender equality, about where the diversity is in the company, that implies that you’re at a point where you have the time and wherewithal to actually consider that. Most startups are just scrambling. Most startups are working so hard that they’ve said to me, “I really, honestly don’t care if it’s a man or a woman or somebody in between coding, I just need coders.” They’re trying to keep up with the demand, racing against the clock with their startup idea.

Expedia in the last month or two started an inclusion and diversity team. Think about how old Expedia is now and how successful they’ve been. I applaud them for what they’re doing now. They’re doing a great job. This last week, up in Seattle, they held their diversity week. But they’re now at a point where they have the ability to do that. And it’s great. They need to do it, and it’s wonderful. And it brought a lot of men into the audience, and a lot of them were receptive to this.

But I understand why, and if I could tell a group of four guys that are just coming up with an idea and brainstorming in their parents’ living room, “You guys, right now, go find a woman—a totally capable woman. Bring her onto your team, not as a secretary, but as programmer, designer, lead marketing, whatever. If you do that now—bring a lot of socioeconomic diversity on your team now—you’re going to benefit and profit.”

Plus, it’s much easier to continue to bring in diverse teams and more women if you already have someone on there. It’s really hard to hire your first woman.

X: Do you blame these small startups for being so focused on surviving that they’re not so cognizant of diversity? How do you view that?

RHR: I think blame is a strong word. Do I blame them? No. Do I understand what’s happening? Yes. Do I think it’s right? No. I think my judgment about this as a documentarian is more just exposing it’s happening. Clearly, I’m convinced diversity is better for your company.

I had a woman actually stand up at a conference in Silicon Valley, in Santa Clara. And she said, “My team of engineers are all men. And we are over 50 percent ahead of where we thought we were going to be, our goals. We are killing it. I don’t want to disrupt that groove. I don’t want to feel the pressure to have to hire a woman or [increase] diversity on that team because we’re killing it as is.” One woman from IBM on the panel said, “What you’re saying is just wrong.” She went after her on a humanitarian level.

[Editor’s note: Hauser Reynolds was also speaking on the panel.] I said to her, “Here’s the problem: you have no idea where it could go. You think this is great? Throw a woman in there, the right woman.” Women don’t want to be hired because of the status quo, they want to be hired because of merit and used to the best of their abilities. My point was you have no idea of the potential. You might be growing at five times now, but you might be growing at 10 times a year from now. That’s what studies are showing.

X: Do you think the conversation has focused so much on lack of women in tech jobs that we have pushed to the back burner the problem of lack of minorities? Or are concerned people speaking loudly enough about both issues?

RHR: Women are minorities. But let’s talk about people of color. This is also a huge issue for a Latino man or an African-American man. Because it’s more my style as a director or documentarian, I really decided it was better to focus on one issue. We really focused on the gender gap. I felt like I couldn’t make the film without touching on diversity and mentioning it. So, we do talk about people of color. A lot of this relates to them as well.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that a Latino man or an African-American man has some of the same struggles in terms of fitting in. They don’t have the same gender thing—the misogynistic, objectification nuances. But they definitely will feel “ambient belonging,” which is the sense that they don’t really fit in, because they’re not going to see a lot of people like them around them. It doesn’t mean they don’t belong there. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to add special things. It means you have to be a special person to handle that.

Somebody asked me what it’s like being a female director. My response, without trying to be coy, is “I don’t know what it’s like to be anything other than a female director.” In other words, I don’t know that somebody would go to a male director and say, “What’s it like to be a male director?” They’d say, “What’s it like to be a film director?”

I’m not letting that stop me. I’m just doing what I’m doing. But I used to be a stockbroker, so I’ve dealt with being in a man’s world. Why’s the focus always on gender? Why can’t it be on merit?

X: Did your experience as a stockbroker influence the making of this film?

RHR: I think what it has done for me is I understand what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. So, it’s not that I pretend to know what it’s like to be a female coder on an engineering team, because I don’t. But I can appreciate what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. When I was in my 20s, I didn’t really have an issue with it. It didn’t bother me. I grew up in a household where I was always sort of fighting to be taken seriously as an individual and not being limited to anything because I was female. But I think that it has made me obviously empathetic because I know the feeling of being a minority.

But there is a certain type of woman that makes it as a woman in tech, as a woman stockbroker, as a woman in finance. And I think that those are women who have been raised with parents who have instilled an enormous amount of confidence in them. They’re women who, yes, to a certain extent can let things roll off their back, but also are women that can stand up for themselves when they need to and when they know something has crossed the line. And I think that’s what it takes.

Hauser Reynolds interviews Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, at The Impact Hub in Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of film's website. http://www.codedoc.co/press-kit/

Hauser Reynolds interviews Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, at The Impact Hub in Oakland, CA.

X: Lack of diversity in tech is not something that’s going to be solved overnight. But what’s one concrete action that can be taken in the next year that you think could help?

RHR: Hire women and promote women. Pretty simple really, when you think about it.

X: But is there something structurally that we can change to speed that up?

RHR: I think once you hire a woman, you have to make sure she’s landing in a welcoming environment. So, what does that mean, and how do you train people within the company to look at their own biases? That’s a long thing.

If you want to get more into it, let’s convince Hollywood to change the stereotype. If you want to get more young women interested in pursuing science as a career, then you have to make it look appealing. So, therefore, show them how creative it is. Show them that coding is what programmers use at Pixar to make the light shine off of a school of fish in “Finding Nemo.” Show them that code is at the base of Facebook and Pinterest. Show them that it can be collaborative, that you can work in pairs when you’re coding, that it doesn’t have to be this solitary confinement.

When you think about it, code is at the base of almost everything we do now. It’s in our cars. It’s in the hospitals. It’s in animation. It’s in our apps. It’s in our phones. It’s in fashion; our watches. It’s cool. It’s everywhere.

Seriously, the average kid, the average person probably, but especially a young person—and this is how we open the film—if you ask them to describe what a computer science engineer looks like, they’re going to tell you he’s wearing glasses, a hoodie, is kind of nerdy-looking, doesn’t have a lot of friends, and often works alone. That’s not really enticing to a young girl.

Ultimately, the message I want to send is the importance of exposing what’s happening because you have to expose something to face a problem before you can actually fix it. That’s what the documentary is about. It’s about showing what coding can be, it’s about showing why we don’t have more young girls and women pursuing it, and what can be done to fix it. Ultimately, we’re hoping to inspire.

Jeff Engel is Deputy Editor, Tech at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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