CODE - Debugging the Gender Gap, A Retrospective

By Emily Moss • March 15, 2016

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A few weeks ago, we screened Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, in partnership with PyLadies Chicago. This is a guest post from Lorena Mesa and Jess Unrein. Lorena and Jess organize PyLadies Chicago and are both alumni of Dev Bootcamp; Jess works as a software engineer at Shiftgig and Lorena works as a platform engineer at Sprout Social.

In late January PyLadies Chicago hosted a viewing of "CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap" followed by a Q&A panel at Dev Bootcamp. We first heard about CODE through Systers, the Anita Borg Institute listserv; their response was overwhelmingly positive. Although PyLadies typically works in Python, we are first and foremost a community for Chicago women. Hence we felt it was important to bring CODE to the Chicago tech community.

A majority of participants self-identified as software engineers. The next highest category self-identified as student. With a projected 50-60% gap between data science supply and demand in the US by 2018, it was exciting to see that approximately 10% of the audience came from this background. The event was open to anyone, regardless of gender. We did, however, market the event specifically to diversity-focused tech groups.

Given the diversity of our audience we chose coders (or those that work with coders) from a variety of backgrounds for our post-discussion panel:

Coraline Ada Ehmke, Principal Developer, Healthfinch and Founding Member of and Contributor-Covenant

Michelle Fowler, Managing Director of Development, Neurensic

Dalal Alrayes, Giftr Co-Founder and Write/Speak/Code Chicago Organizer

Dr. Aaron Zerhusen*, Professor of Mathematics, Dominican University

Alex Burst, Community Manager, Girls Who Code Chicago

After the screening, all of the panelists acknowledged the physical absence of women to be the primary way they understand the gender gap. In fact Michelle Fowler, a developer for over 14 years, mentioned it was not until recently that she began to work with any women developers at all.

Gloria Steinem once said, "Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven't been a part of history." To explain the absence of women from coding CODE interviewed author Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, about his latest publication The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

One point Isaacson emphasized relates to how women's contributions are preserved in the written record. Women have systematically been written out of history or their contributions have been diminished. Consider that in the 1930s women were sought out to instruct the computer, rather than building it, because the belief was that the "instructing" was easier than "building". However, once programming was identified as satisfying and well paid work, job opportunities were increasingly marketed to men. Additionally, personal computers in the 1980s were marketed almost exclusively to boys. This led to a skills gap for incoming computer science majors in the coming decades, further widening the gender gap. Over time early women programmers (like Grace Hopper or Jean Jennings) were excluded from programming history.

Panel Question: The "celebration of nerd culture [as] a way to signal your abilities" was mentioned in the film when defining what it meant to be a "hacker". What is your thought of this and how that has manifested itself in the public image of a "coder"?

Many of the panelists agreed that this image has been difficult to confront. If being a coder is associated with being a hacker, that's not a socially acceptable identity for a woman. Hackers are seen as aggressive, intelligent, antisocial men. To show off your skills you forcefully penetrate systems you don't have access to. Even more problematic is the emergence of the "brogrammer", an overtly masculine identity, that has been used to try attract more [men] to programming. Common cultural signifiers in job postings, like mentions of kegs, ping pong, or bacon can act as flags that an environment is designed for "brogrammers" and might not be hospitable to women.

Panel Question: One thing that's sometimes listed as a difference between women who leave the tech industry and those who stay is "attitudes toward failure". Could you describe what you think your attitude toward failure is, maybe with an example of a time you've "failed"?

Many of the women on the panel described their attitude towards failure to be a complicated one. Understanding that you can fail is the first step but knowing that you can learn from that failure is the second step. Dr. Zerhusen commented that he overwhelmingly saw that women students take failure harder when compared to the men counterparts. Michelle Fowler also noted that owning up to failure in the workplace can lead coworkers to believe you're lacking. If everyone else in the office is quick to pass the blame, it's easy to fall victim to stereotype threat and be viewed as less competent by your peers. However, when you don't own up to your failures, it can lead to skill stagnation or atrophy, making it even harder to advance in the field.

So if we know that women have been written out of history as coders, the perceived identity of a coder isn't associated with being a woman, and that women may have different attitudes towards failure than men, what can we do? The biggest takeaway from the panel and audience discussion was that community is fundamental for retaining women in the field. Pipeline is one problem, but retention is arguably an even bigger one, a community of peers and mentors is essential.

Screenings of this documentary will be held at each of our campuses in the coming months. Join our meetup groups to stay tuned for this opportunity as well as other community events.
New York City
San Francisco
San Diego

*Note: Dr. Zerhusen, the only man on the panel, previously reached out to PyLadies to discuss if his participation in PyLadies events would be permissible. His willingness to meet PyLadies on our own terms in accordance with our Code of Conduct is a major reason why he was invited to participate in the panel.
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