‘Code’ Documentary Looks at Getting Girls Interested in Computer Science

By Mark Walsh — June 22, 2015 2 min read
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Early on, the documentary “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” asks whether girls are as good as boys at computers. The 78-minute film goes on to prove that they are.

But women are underrepresented in the college study of computer science in the United States, the film says. They earn 57 percent of all college degrees, the film says, but only 18 percent of computer science degrees.

“I really think this is a Rosie the Riveter moment, because the jobs [in technology] are here but we don’t have the workers to fill them,” Jocelyn Goldfein, a former director of engineering at Facebook, says in the film.

This film, directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds, played at the American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS festival in Washington over the weekend.

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap Theatrical Trailer from Finish Line Features, LLC on Vimeo.

Appropriately, one festival venue the film played was the Naval Heritage Center, part of the U.S. Navy Memorial in the nation’s capital. The film devotes some time to Grace Hopper, a rear admiral in the Navy, who was a computer programming pioneer credited with the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches, based an an actual moth that she found in an early machine. We learn that Hopper could curse with the best of them and was once the recipient of a Navy Department “Man of the Year” award. (Hopper died in 1992.)

“Code” has some other fun history of the role of women in computers. In 1967, Cosmopolitan magazine profiled “The Computer Girls,” described as an insightful look at women who were thriving in programming. However, when IBM advertised for computer programmers during that era, it asked, “Are you MAN enough to command electronic giants?”

There are more recent episodes about expectations for girls—the Barbie doll programmed to say “Math class is hard” and the flap over then-Harvard University President Larry Summers’ 2005 comments about “innate” differences between men and women when it comes to science.

But much more of the film is about today’s programs to spark interest and to support girls and women in computer science. We see young girls having fun at coding events, and hearing from women with good jobs in engineering and computers and animation. We see groups such as Kodable, which provides coding curriculum and programs for girls (and boys, too) to make up for the fact that only 10 percent of U.S. high schools offer computer science in the curriculum.

I would strongly encourage girls from aged 12 and up, and educators with an interest in helping them get interested in computers, to watch this film, but with one caveat. “Code” has a section about the male-dominated “bro” culture of Silicon Valley, a necessary part of the discussion. But Hauser Reynolds includes a reference to an episode in which one female programmer was tagged with a most unfortunate slur that is based in part on a vulgar reference to the female anatomy.

The director has the right to put what she wants in her film, but I think the point about Silicon Valley culture could have been made without that word. Then, girls and parents and schools could really embrace this fine film.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.