Robin Hauser Reynolds describes her daughter as a good student, a strong athlete and a confident young woman. So she was surprised when her daughter called home her sophomore year, sounding insecure about one of her classes — computer science.
“She’s a strong woman, and she would call home saying, ‘Mom, I so don’t belong here,’” Hauser Reynolds said. "‘The men here know so much more about it.’”
It wasn’t just that all the male students seemed to have a head start on programming compared to her, Hauser Reynolds said. It was that there were so many of them, and they seemed to fit into the tech world better than she did.
“What was fascinating to me was not so much that she was intimidated by the workload, but by the idea that she didn’t belong. I think that’s a common perception,” she said.
In her new documentary, “Code,” Hauser Reynolds and her filmmaking team wanted to explore the gender gap in computer science. When the average person thinks of a computer programmer, some tend to picture either a socially awkward nerd or a cool tattooed hacker type. Either way, what they think of is a guy.
“Code” premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in May, and the Madison Chamber of Commerce is hosting the Wisconsin premiere on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Sundance Cinemas, 430 N. Midvale Blvd. The film will be preceded by a networking reception, and followed by a panel discussion at 7 p.m. featuring Hauser Reynolds and representatives of Madison’s tech industry. Tickets to the event are $25 via greatermadisonchamber.com.
Boys overwhelming flock to computer science — at a recent summer camp by iD Tech on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, all but one of the students in a Minecraft programming class were male. Men are overwhelmingly hired to work in computer science, creating a culture of “brogrammers” that’s indifferent or even hostile to a woman’s presence. The numbers are actually getting worse; only 26 percent of tech jobs in 2013 were held by women, down from 35 percent in 1990.
The multi-billion dollar video game industry is still largely oriented towards male consumers, and the rare female character in a video game is usually of the buxom Lara Croft variety. Even portrayals of computer programmers in television and film reinforce the stereotype.
The result, Hauser Reynolds argues, is not just that the male-dominated tech industry keeps out women. It’s that women don’t try to get into it, taught since childhood that computers aren’t really for them.
“I think we all as parents need to look at our gender biases,” she said. “Do we assume that our daughters want pink girlie toys? Do we let boys stay in front of our computers more than the girls?”
Combating gender stereotypes in computer science may not just be the morally right thing to do, but the economically necessary thing. Hauser Reynolds said the United States is expected to have 1.4 million new jobs in computer science by the year 2020, and only 400,000 qualified employees to fill them. If half the workforce thinks it’s not welcome in such a growing field, that could put America at a serious disadvantage with other countries.
In “Code,” Hauser Reynolds interviews female programmers and designers at companies like Yelp, Etsy, Facebook and Pixar about their careers. The women have varying experiences; some find themselves in progressive-minded companies that are working to correct the gender imbalance, while others feel alienated. When engineer Julie Horvath complained about a sexist culture at programming networking GitHub, she was subject to a barrage of online harassment and abuse, including rape and death threats.
“I think it happens all the time,” Hauser Reynolds said of Horvath’s case. “What was interesting was what happens when somebody does speak out. I think that’s shocking. As she says in the film, a lot of guys couldn’t believe that even existed.”
The film offers a host of prescriptive ideas to debug the gender gap in tech, including putting more women in leadership roles at tech firms and making computer science mandatory in schools. But she said breaking the stereotype should start in the home, well before the kids even get to computer science class.
“You need instill as much confidence in your daughters as possible,” Hauser Reynolds said. “They can do whatever they want to do. No job is outside of their reach.”