'CodeGirl': Panel Addresses Yawning Tech Gender Gap and Finds Hope

Courtesy of FilmBuff and Invented by Girls
A scene from 'CodeGirl.'

“Men and women don’t have any true differences in science and math,” says 'CodeGirl' director Lesley Chilcott.

Midway through Lesley Chilcott’s inspirational new documentary, CodeGirl, a teenager says, “You can’t be what you don’t see.” It’s one of the biggest obstacles to her dreaming up a new app when she knows 80 percent of app producers are men. The line is part of the reason Chilcott made the movie focusing on five teams of high school girls from Nigeria, India, Brazil and the U.S. (Silicon Valley and two from Mass.), who are finalists in the Technovation Challenge, a non-profit 501c3-funded contest open only to high school girls. Over three months, each team develops an app addressing a problem facing their community.

You may have already seen CodeGirl on YouTube where it was available for free until Nov. 5, in Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese. In four days it received 800,000 views. If you didn’t see it there, you can see it in limited theatrical release and VOD starting Nov. 6.

“I made it for teen girls. They're completely aware of the lack of women in technology,” Chilcott told The Hollywood Reporter at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood where she was on a panel called Digital Game Changers as part of the Women in Entertainment Summit before a screening of her film. 

Joining her were Beatriz Acevedo and Maiah Ocando of Latino mobile network MiTu, moderator Jennifer Jolly of The New York Times, and Julie Ann Crommett, Project Manager of Computer Science Education in Media at Google, who cited discouraging numbers from a Google study that showed women make up only 18 percent of computer science grads in the U.S., reflecting similar numbers around the world. What’s worse, the prognosis looks dim – twenty percent of girls used words like “loner” and “hacker white guys in a closet with no friends,” when it came to people in tech science.

The contestants in CodeGirl certainly don’t fit that description. Instead they are your typical teens, bright and optimistic, a little shy and awkward, and for the girls in India, Brazil and Nigeria, starry-eyed at the idea of getting on a plane (some of them for the first time), and traveling to San Francisco to compete for $10,000 to finish their app and get it to market.

“Men and women, boys and girls, don’t have any true differences in science and math,” says Chilcott, producer of the 2010 doc, Waiting for Superman about public education. “It’s only when they get older that there are these cultural stereotypes. These girls in the film, some of them have never coded before and they’re like, I can do it! I like technology! You can see these light-bulb moments. They’re aware of the gender gap in technology they’re kind of determined to make it go away.”

There’s a dose of tension when some of the overseas contenders are confronted with visa issues, but eventually each of the five teams is given due consideration for apps dealing with issues like waste disposal and water conservation. In the end, the winner is anyone who thinks diversity is important in a field that has a profound impact on our socio-economic fabric.

“I think there’s a lot of unconscious bias,” offers Chilcott, echoing a theme that resonated throughout the event. “People have been talking about it in the background for years, but this year it seems like everyone is talking about it – Patricia Arquette talking about it at the Oscars. I hope I’m not being too optimistic, but I feel like we’ve really got a shot at change.”

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