Documentary Film Screening & Panel – A Reflection by Colin Katagiri
I had the pleasure of attending a local Seattle Meetup that was hosted by ChickTech Seattle. ChickTech is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is focused on retaining women in the tech industry and working to increase the number of women and girls that pursue tech-based careers. This particular Meetup was centered around the 2015 documentary “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap”. Working around the tech world as a heterosexual male with Japanese-American ethnicity, I have both recognized the benefits of privilege and experienced various systems of oppression. Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in the topics of intersectionality, social justice, and diversity, so this event seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to learn a bit more. Overall, I think the film did a great job of presenting both problems and solutions, but what really hit it all home for me was the panel that followed the screening.
Highlights from the Film
The creators behind CODE interviewed developers from across the tech industry from a wide array of familiar companies and organizations. The film features developers from Twitter to Facebook, Pinterest to Etsy, Yelp to GitHub, and presents stories and statistics of injustices against females and minorities that have roots in introductory tech schooling and branch all the way up through the culture within the industry. Their stories were disheartening to say the least and covered misogynistic work atmospheres, widespread victim shaming on Twitter, and even death threats against some of the interviewees. But, through all the grief and despair, CODE presented solutions from some organizations and universities such as Harvey Mudd College, Code for Progress and Black Girls Code. For example, Harvey Mudd talked about the radical changes they have made to their mandatory introductory computer science (CS) program, which can be seen on their website:
“In 2005 the percentage of women CS majors was around 12%. Since then the percentage of women in the major has climbed to around 35-40% where it remains steady. We made three changes to our program that led to the increase in women in our major:
- The new introductory courses, described above;
- Trips for first-year women students to the Grace Hopper Celebration Women in Computing; and
- Research experiences for women students after their first year.”
Diversity is important for a myriad of reasons that the film touched on (I don’t want to spoil the entire film, go watch it!), but one of the darker takeaways from the film revolved around something known as Standard 201. Standard 201 was a set of regulations on the automotive industry pertaining to a “second collision” or collisions that occur when a body hits the interior of a car. Up until 2011, the standard crash-test dummy used to calculate Crash Test Safety Ratings was a 50th percentile male. CODE alludes to the fact that the team that designed the first round of airbags in the 1970s were all white men and that because of this, they used the average of their team. What does this mean? Sadly, a large majority and disproportionate number of fatalities in automobile accidents are smaller women and children. This raises the question: would these accidents have been prevented with a more diverse team?
Today, automobile manufacturers are required to test with both the male and female dummies. This is why you may have seen a drop in the NHTSA Crash Test Safety Ratings of your vehicle drop from 5-stars to 2-stars over the course of one production year. CODE does a great job of placing their claims in context of real-world events. They claim that diversity is important and then present us with the reality of what that really means.
Media Changes the Narrative
Although computing was originally a female-driven industry and women are largely responsible for the concept with pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, women have become increasingly underrepresented in the field in recent years. In the 1980s, The United States nearly had gender parity in university computer science programs. The National Center for Women & Information Technology reported that in 1985, 37% of US computer science undergraduate degree recipients were women. In 2013, women constituted only about 17.9%. What happened to cause this drastic decline? CODE brought forth evidence of media forming the narrative of a counterculture, geek, male hacker. This male hacker narrative was reinforced formed in movies, video games, and advertisements, which they assert makes it more difficult for women to feel welcome and integrate themselves into the field.
Beyond the counterculture geek, many more have become familiar with the term “brogrammer”. Media described him as the rebuttal to the basement-dwelling hacker, but this attempt tried too hard to make him look cool. Again, it was a “him”. This stereotypical cool guy is the Type A macho man, which further helped to create a heteronormative and hostile culture.
Local Solutions from the Panel
Today, outlook on the industry is positive from the local executives and it seems like the audience was too. The audience was met with local solid insight from:
- Cynthia Tee, Executive Director of Ada Developers Academy
- Sarah Bird, CEO of Moz
- Rebekah Bastian, VP of Product at Zillow
- Margaret Cobb, Director of OEM Technical Sales at Microsoft
- Raquel Van Hofwegen, Junior Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Major at the University of Washington (UW)
Beyond their titles and various affiliations, the entire panel was passionate and hopeful for a more diverse future. They aren’t starry-eyed dreamers either. The panelists gave concrete evidence of movement in the industry by referring to efforts within their organizations that related directly to specific issues that were raised in the film. For example, Raquel described a few of the methods that the University of Washington has been using to get more people into the major and create a more welcoming atmosphere.
As a teaching assistant (TA) for some computer science courses, Raquel noted that there are many undergrads with minimal prior programming experience, which seems to indicate that the subject is becoming more approachable. Students with minimal experience may be a result of DawgBytes, UW CSE’s K-12 Outreach program. She also praised UW for having near gender parity too. It is also estimated that women comprise about 40% of the undergraduate CSE TA community. It was quite uplifting to hear about the work that these universities are doing to achieve a more diverse and innovative community.
A big part of changing results is changing the narrative. And it is not just about saying people can change, it is about showing people that change is already happening.
By screening CODE and bringing together a panel of activists and leaders, ChickTech showcased examples of the efforts being made around our country and within our own city. The film showed us the most viral examples and the panel told us about the most personal and probably relevant examples. I am hopeful that these disparities will eventually become non-issues, but until then, we must all make an effort to ensure that we are not creating unnecessary barriers for our students or the educators that we work alongside. The power to eradicate these disparities is in our hands
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