What do you think are the biggest roadblocks preventing a better gender ratio in tech?
First, it’s a cultural issue, then it’s an educational pipeline issue. Then we have a ton of issues in the tech start-up culture. It is not a welcoming environment for women. One main reason we can’t retain women in the workforce is we don’t have a child care system with flexible work hours that helps women who want to stay in the industry. We also have a stigma about fathers who stay home with kids. It’s not something society embraces.
What surprised you the most during your filming?
It surprised me to learn what a great contribution women made in the history of computing—Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper—that they weren’t more common household names given how much all of our lives depend on computers. I thought at first women just weren’t being hired, but then I realized it was a deep cultural issue. That women aren’t coming through the system primarily because of stereotypes we have. The gaming industry I think is really a problem. We need a lot more video games and games that are oriented toward girls or that are gender neutral, as opposed to marketed toward a male teen audience. What happens is they’re so much more prepared. Even if they haven’t taken computer science classes in schools, they’re familiar with the architecture, so that puts them ahead.
So this pipeline issue starts at a young age?
There are a lot things we do in society that confirm the stereotype. We let boys stay in front of computer games longer than we do our girls. We push our boys toward legos and engineering blocks and bring the girls into the kitchen to bake cookies. All of these things add up. It reinforces to a girl, “I’m not supposed to be good at math, or good at science — I’m not supposed to be interested in these things.”
That’s what they believe about themselves. They believe you have to be a guy to be good at STEM. By the time they get to college, the reason the classes are over three-quarters men is because they’re not intimidated by the subject because they’ve had more access to it through video games.
Your daughter was a major inspiration for the film, but despite starting college as a computer science major she doesn’t want to become a programmer. What happened?
We knew there were tons of jobs in computer science, and my daughter was always interested in computers. But from the beginning she said, “I’m so not a computer science engineer.” And I remember saying, “How do you know? That’s just a stereotype.” And she loved her first [computer science] class.
She said, “It’s kind of weird that there’s a lot of guys in here.” She got to the second level class, she said, “I’m not sure that I’m good at this, everyone seems to be so much further ahead than me.” It just got increasingly difficult, and there wasn’t a lot of support. Finally, she bailed on it. I think it’s too bad the system isn’t doing more to retain women who have an interest.
Have you experienced gender discrimination, working in male dominated industries?
I was a stockbroker. When I was 28, I remember working on one of the oldest trading floors in London. I had to be escorted across the room because it was too dangerous for a young woman to walk through the bond traders area. At the time I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s kind of ridiculous, but I’m glad I have someone walking me through here.” It never stopped me. I was brought up to have a lot of confidence and belief that I can do what I set my mind to.
Sure, there are times when I felt uncomfortable. If we can instill confidence in our daughters, they can have what it takes to get through being in a male-dominated world, and being in a class with less than half women. Even with confidence, it’s not easy, surely what we need to do is change the environment. But I think that helps, and it’s an important part.
At a recent screening, a Qualcomm representative mentioned that flexible work environments helped them retain a diverse staff, while Etsy was applauded for growing their engineering ranks through their Hacker School partnership. PowerToFly is a start-up connecting women with remote jobs. Are these solutions making a difference?
They are. One of the co-founders of Airbnb said that the hardest thing to do is bring in the first woman engineer. Who wants to work on a team that’s all men? Once you get one or two women in there, it changes the behavior of the entire team. It’s much easier to retain.
What do else you think it’s going to take for things to change?
We have to make computer science mandatory in schools. Education has got to keep up with technology. Academia is far behind. We have to stop the bias going on in the workplace. There’s no such thing as unconscious bias. This is just bias now, and we have to change. We have to make corporate culture a safe place for women.
What about for people of color?
In both cases, there are very few role models. If a young woman, white, black or Latina, doesn’t see anyone who looks like her, it’s very difficult to think you could become a computer science engineer. Thanks to Megan Smith, there are more role models stepping out now, but we need a lot more. If you’re a young African-American man or Latino man, who do you look up to in tech? It’s 3 percent black and less than 6 percent Latino — that’s not a great incentive.
There is a scene in the film when one of your interviewees call this a “Rosie the Riveter” moment. Can you elaborate on that?
That quote came from Jocelyn Goldfein who was an engineer at Facebook. The supply and demand ratio is so skewed. By the year 2020, there are going to be 1 million unfilled computer engineering jobs in the U.S. We can’t fill the spots if we’re only filling from half of the population. It’s a great opportunity for women. We have all these jobs, and we need more people to fill them. It’s the same thing with people of color. There are jobs, let’s go!
Do you have advice for young women who have an interest in computer science or another field that may seem intimidating?
Look for a role model, get a mentor — that’s really important. Don’t be deterred by numbers. Keep remembering that the opportunities are out there. Be strong and charge ahead. We’re starting a Web site called ShesCoding.org. People who want to volunteer as mentors can sign up there. If you want to learn how to code, you can do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or mid-career and want to change; there’s great opportunity to join up with one of these programs like Hackbright. Major companies are looking for people who know coding languages and to see what have they made.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
I hope to inspire change. It depends who you are in the audience. If you’re a male CEO in a company, I hope that I inspire them to say, “We need to diversify our interview panel, we need to try to bring more women in, and change our corporate culture.” I hope that if it’s a young girl or someone of color, I’ve hope I’ve inspired them to look beyond the stereotypes, and realize that coding can be collaborative, creative, rewarding and lucrative. And if you’re an educator, I hope I’ve inspired you to really push to have computer science become one of the daily activities in school.
Marie Elizabeth Oliver is the managing editor of PowerToFly, the fastest-growing network connecting women with remote jobs. She was formerly an editor at The Washington Post.