Are boys better than girls at computers?

The obvious answer to that question is no, but you'd be surprised how much American culture has contributed to the stereotype that men are more gifted than women when it comes to computer science.

The new documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, exposes some of the startling facts about how women have been marginalized in the U.S.'s male-dominated tech sector, which now suffers from a severe lack of gender diversity. 

Directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds, whose previous documentary Running for Jim focused on legendary high school cross-country coach Jim Tracy, CODE  makes a compelling case that the lack of women in tech poses a significant threat to America's future. One of the ways the film drives this point home is by underscoring how critical diversity is in every field, not just computer science. The strongest example comes from the U.S. auto industry's all-male teams of engineers that designed the earliest air bags, which wound up killing many women and children whose smaller body frames were not accounted for.

"It's not gender parity for the sake of gender parity," says Reshma Saujani, founder of non-profit organization Girls Who Code.

Perhaps the most compelling data point demonstrating the need for more women in the U.S. tech sector is the Bureau of Labor Statistics' estimate that by 2020, there will be one million unfilled software engineering jobs in the U.S.

Deleted History

Though women have played a significant role in the development of computer technology ever since the 19th century, as White House chief technology officer Megan Smith explains in the film, their accomplishments have in many cases been written out of history. 

One of the most significant contributors to the field of computer engineering was Grace Hopper, a Navy admiral who was instrumental in inventing the first computer programming language in the 1940s. She is even credited with coining the terms "bug" and "debug" after finding an actual moth in an early computer.   

While women's participation in computer science grew steadily during the second half of the 20th century, it peaked around 40 percent in the 1980s and has been in decline ever since. Among 2014 U.S. college graduates who majored in computer science, only 18 percent were women.

Death by Bias

So what accounts for the decline in female computer scientists during the past 25 years?

As CODE explains, women have been discouraged to pursue computer programming due to a gender bias that persists everywhere from traditionally male-dominated college computer courses to workplaces where men have in some cases created downright hostile environments for females. Other factors contributing to the trend include popular culture and entertainment that perpetuate the "brogrammer" stereotype that computer engineers are all nerdy, antisocial men.

Amazingly, this type of gender bias has extended all the way to the leaders of higher learning. In 2005, Harvard president Lawrence Summers apologized for public remarks suggesting there were "innate differences" that make women less capable when it comes to succeeding at math and science.

Though CODE's overall message feels distinctly negative at times, the documentary's tone shifts during the second half of the movie by focusing on the some of the brightest female minds in computer engineering. A number of female software engineers featured in the film--ETSY's Lara Hogan, Pinterest's Tracy Chou and Yelp's Jen Wang--practically radiate with a passion for programming and a belief that changing tech can happen one woman at a time. Women and minority-focused organizations such as Black Girls Code and Code for Progress also suggest that getting more women in tech will come down to making college computer courses and instructional programs more comfortable environments for girls. 

"I'm hopeful because I think that the tech industry could move the fastest," says the White House's Smith. "If we see the problem, we can debug it."

Published on: Apr 27, 2015