by Anam Alpenia
Only 7% of tech startups are led by women. Among the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, only 25 are women and 23 have an all-male boardroom. It was these startling facts that led filmmaker Lesley Chilcott to base her latest project around participants of the Technovation Challenge, which, in its sixth year, aims to redress a vast gender imbalance in the technology industry.
Chilcott, who made her name producing titles like An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Waiting for Superman (2010), first got wind of Technovation while making a short film, CodeStars, for Code.org. The event draws high school girls from all round the world to compete in creating their own mobile apps. “I came across some of the stats and saw how girls began dropping out of tech and science,” she says.
A trip round the world chronicling girls from far and wide ensued. Girls from Moldova made an app that maps the level of E-Coli contamination in drinking water. Team Charis, from Nigeria, created Discardious, a social media platform to help people safely dispose of waste. Other groups came from France, Brazil, the US and more – each vying for $10,000 investment into their idea.
What resulted was CodeGirl, a feature-length documentary that tracks the finalist teams and their personal tales. “I think you’re very impressionable when you’re a teen, and a competition is the best way to get motivated to do something,” says Chilcott. “Teens are so over scheduled, so people have to be clever about how to pique their interest.”
The global app market will soon be worth $77 billion. Over 80% of developers are men. “51% of people are not involved in the design of technology,” she adds. “If you don’t have a diverse team, you will make mistakes with things.
“Women have made a lot of progress worldwide, and arguments about the pay gap are real. But if women aren’t involved in the design of things, things will go wrong.”
Chilcott has received heady praise for exposing a rich and ubiquitous, yet rarely-documented area of inequality. She has been criticized for focusing on too many of the teams – over 5,000 girls from 60 different countries entered – which even she admitted to have struggled with, saying, “there’s no tension because you want them all to win.”
But above all CodeGirl is a vital examination of the gender gap in tech, at a time when controversies such as GamerGate have hit the industry’s image hard. “That was overt sexism, and it exists,” says Chilcott. “But what is even more rampant is this unconscious bias that everyone’s talking about,” bias exposed last March in a study of male and female workers’ resumes by Textio CEO Kieran Snyder.
“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with creating technology, but when you’re writing an app no-one knows where you’re from, or if you’re a boy or a girl,” she adds. “It’s a great equalizer.”
Chilcott also calls out tech’s current crop of female leaders, to help develop mentorship and enthusiasm for girls and young women to take up the baton: “56% of all degrees go to women now, but very few of them do computer sciences. There needs to be a longer study that says, not only do more women go into tech, but a lot of them don’t stay because the culture isn’t right for them – it might be sexist, it might be that there aren’t any mentors. I think a lot of women in tech are realising that it was hard for them, but that they have to reach out and nurture the next generation.”
CodeGirl will, Chilcott hopes, help. It was released first on YouTube, then on leading on-demand platforms such as Amazon Instant Video, Google Play and iTunes. It will soon appear on U.S. television, before migrating to Netflix on April 1st. Chilcott has also received over 800 requests to screen the movie, while Google has hosted associated coding parties. “I can’t even keep up with all the screenings,” she says.
“We came out at the right time, when it stands on its own as a movie but also that people are using it as a tool in their community, to ask what we can do.”