Documentary film CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap had its world premiere this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, and while the film touched only lightly on the relationship between gaming's gender gap and coding's gender gap, creators and industry professionals agreed that the connection between the two is real in a panel discussion following the screening.
CODE has a simple central message that doubles as a justification for the film's focus demographic disparity: Everyone should code, because in an increasingly computerized world, code is everywhere. But if there is a second message CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap voiced over the course of its 78 minutes, it is the severe lack of computer science education in the American classroom, until college. America has no standard computer science curriculum, only 10 percent of U.S. high schools — public and private — teach it at all, and most U.S. states don't even have teacher certification procedures for the field.
When students hit introductory college computer science courses, CODE explains, they fall into two categories. Those who have had the inspiration and the vitally important means to experiment with computers and programming in their spare time, and those who are only just discovering an interest that school and social expectation had never presented to them before. The gap between those students is real, and intimidating, despite the fact that the latter category is by all rights experiencing a quintessential collegiate experience.
But where does that first category get the impulse to look into coding and computers in the first place? For many young programmers, the answer is gaming. If the coding profession already skews heavily male, it doesn't help that the main source of media that inspires its professionals is overwhelmingly marketed to, and perceived to be for, an exclusively male demographic.
In the mid-80s close to 40 percent of computer science majors were women. Today, women make up less than 20 percent of computer science majors.
During the Q&A after the screening this weekend, one audience member brought up the common path of gaming as a hobby leading to coding as a profession. Considering that CODE focused primarily on the characteristics of the educational system and the workplace that discourage women from creating careers in coding, she asked the panel — consisting of industry professionals and the director of CODE — what they suggested be done about this other aspect of the programmer training pipeline that can make the profession hostile to women.
Directer Robin Hauser Reynolds agreed immediately that gaming's gender gap affects coding's gender gap.
"I think that when a woman gets to an entry-level class in college and she thinks she should be able to walk in knowing nothing and she finds that most of the men in the room know a lot more, it's because they've had more experience with gaming, because I think that gaming is more oriented toward boys than it is toward girls. There's some amazing people even here at this festival that are doing things to change that which is really fun. But I do think that's a very valid point. And that is something that we would have liked to put in the film, [we] just didn't have enough time."
CODE also pointed out that very few computer science curriculums include any education on the history of computer science, effectively erasing the presence of pioneering programmers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper by allowing students to assume that the hyper-masculinized hacker/programmer/brogrammer is and has always been the norm, rather than a relatively recent rebranding. In the '50s and '60s, the documentary established, 30-50 percent of programmers were female, and in the mid-80s close to 40 percent of computer science majors were women. Today, women make up less than 20 percent of computer science majors.
Tamar Elkeles, chief learning officer at Qualcomm, said that the solution was more role models.
"I think that there's stereotypes in this world, everyone's dealing with bias, right? So that's what's happening ... Part of that is you've got to see more women in gaming, got to see more women who are coding, got to see more women who are in those spaces, and that will start to dissipate. It's going to take time. And again, I can't believe I'm saying that in 2015. We were talking about 'Well, we were doing great in the '80s.' Think about what we're saying. But I do think that over time there's going to be change, with films like [CODE]. Putting the awareness out there, I think, is critically important."
Auguste Goldman, Chief People Officer for GoDaddy.com (GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving served as one of CODE's executive producers), pointed towards robotics and robotics competitions as a gateway hobby that many of the female engineers he's talked to have in common. This was somewhat after he'd spoken candidly about GoDaddy's realization that in creating a reputation for hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized advertisements, the company was alienating the majority of its potential customer base of small-business owners — a group that's 58 percent women. The response of Jason Wong, director of engineering and infrastructure at Etsy.com, brought the discussion back to solutions within gaming.
"What I like that I'm seeing about the gaming paradigm," he said, "is with our mobile phones and the move toward causal gaming — that I feel is slightly less gendered, a lot more fun sometimes, and less aggro – more than traditional video game platforms. We're all becoming gamers in some sense, on our subway rides, on our plane flights, those types of things."
In other words, a culture in which games are available to a much wider swath of young people, not simply in terms of gender but also race and socioeconomic status, is one in which a much larger group of young people are introduced to the idea that they can make things with computers. And those young people are the folks who are going to help shape the future of computing.
Here's the trailer for CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap: