Wisdom//

We Need to Rethink How We Talk About Women in Tech

Reshma Saujani on how 60 Minutes ignored women's voices, stories, and expertise.

Johner Images/ Getty Images
Johner Images/ Getty Images

Almost a year ago, 60 Minutes producers contacted Girls Who Code. They were working on a segment about girls and computer science, and wanted to better understand what initiatives to close the gender gap in tech were seeing success.

Today, that segment was broadcast to the show’s 11 million viewers in the U.S. and around the world — without a passing reference to Girls Who Code or other girl-focused organizations like Black Girls Code, NCWIT, Kode with Klossy, and countless others. It was like a punch to the gut.

By omitting the expertise and experience of woman-led organizations pioneering efforts to bring more girls into computing, 60 Minutes is contributing to a long and ugly history of media erasing women in tech.

Girls, women, and thought-leaders who tuned in tonight instead heard about Code.org, an organization whose mission is not to close the gender gap in tech. (Nevermind that Code.org led a partnership with the Trump Administration, which has demonstrated time and time again it has no concern for the rights, wellbeing, and future of our girls.) And viewers saw a man, Hadi Partovi, presented as a savior of women and girls (ironically with the help of some of Girls Who Code’s own research, cited without attribution).

It was patently ridiculous to see the network uplift a man as the leader of a movement to get more women into tech — particularly at a moment when media, in general, should be acutely aware of sexist biases, and CBS, in particular, should be cognizant of its extensive shortcomings in this area.

As women do, we debated publishing our account. We went back and forth about who we might offend. We consulted with allies in our space, with our friends in media. We considered how we’d be perceived by those in power.

And then we thought about the very reason we exist: because for too long institutions like 60 Minutes have sidelined the work of women and women-led organizations in tech. We thought about the girls we’ve served: 185,000 of them across 50 states, half of whom are black, latina, or low-income. We thought about our alumni,13,000 strong, majoring in computer science at a rate 15 times the national average.

These omissions aren’t just an oversight. They are negligent, they are sexist, and they have consequences for efforts to close the gender gap in tech.

And they are part of a long history of erasing the contributions of women in technology.

Take for instance the women behind ENIAC — the first computer. Their male managers didn’t think to mention them at the ENIAC’s first demonstration. And the press never asked about the women, the first-ever computer programmers, working on the machine in photos.

Katherine Johnson calculated — by hand! — the orbital trajectory of the first manned American spaceflight. She and her black female colleagues were barely mentioned in coverage of that historic flight.

In 2015, a story about gene-editing technology CRISPR quoted six men, despite the fact that two of CRISPR’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, were women. To his credit, reporter Ed Yong published a later piece focused specifically on his own biased coverage. Adrienne LaFrance, who inspired Yong’s reflection and who regularly covers gender in tech, found that women made up just 25 percent of people mentioned in her stories.

Decisions like this mean educators, policymakers, and thought-leaders are less likely to hear about organizations like ours, with a deep understanding of what it takes for girls to succeed in this space. More importantly, they make it even more difficult for our girls to imagine a future in the field.

If 60 Minutes had included us, America would have learned that — contrary to what was said in the program — introducing girls to computer science earlier on (i.e. kindergarten) isn’t enough to close the gender gap in tech. Girls need support systems all along the pipeline. And tech companies need to do their part to root out harassment and discrimination.

If they had included us, America would have learned that access alone isn’t enough to bring girls into coding. In fact, we know from research that two-thirds of states with initiatives to expand access to computer science aren’t seeing any increased participation by girls. This is why Girls Who Code last year released a Policy Agenda for lawmakers with recommendations that go beyond increasing access, designed specifically to attract K-12 girls to, and retain them in, computer science.

Elite media must do better. These organizations are kingmakers that inform policy and pop culture, conversation and history. They have the power and therefore the responsibility to make sure that women make up more than just .5 percent of 3,500 years of recorded history.

Does it sting to be left out? Sure. But let’s be very clear. Girls Who Code doesn’t do publicity for the sake of airtime. We seek visibility so that we may bring more girls into computer science with programs that have been proven to work at every stage along the pipeline — in elementary and high school, in college, and in the workforce.

It’s our hope that we have impressed upon producers the importance of including the voices and experiences of women and girls working to close the gender gap in tech. If they had done so, and on the inaugural 60 Minutes episode of Women’s History Month, our girls would be better off.

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This piece originally appeared on Medium.com

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