How 60 Minutes Oversimplified the Gender Gap and Overlooked Women in Tech

Diversity and Equity

How 60 Minutes Oversimplified the Gender Gap and Overlooked Women in Tech

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Mar 7, 2019

How 60 Minutes Oversimplified the Gender Gap and Overlooked Women in Tech
LittleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdier works with a student at Marymount School in New York.

When Americans tuned in to watch last Sunday’s segment of 60 Minutes, they learned that the vast gender gap in the tech industry is shrinking, thanks to “one group that may have a chance to finally crack the code,” as the correspondent put it.

The group heralded throughout the 12-minute piece as the one equipped to correct the long-standing gender disparity in computing was, a nonprofit organization that has introduced tens of millions of students nationwide to coding.

It’s true that has played an integral role in getting computer science into U.S. classrooms and written into state laws. But according to the leaders of many women-run computer science organizations, the decision to feature's male founder, Hadi Partovi, as a “savior” figure in a segment about efforts to attract and retain women in computing was irresponsible, insulting and painfully ironic.

The leaders of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit whose mission is to close the gender gap in tech, and littleBits, a New York-based hardware company that uses educational kits to teach kids how to use technology, each responded to the 60 Minutes segment—which draws about 11 million weekly viewers—in separate posts on Medium that went viral.

As she describes in her article, littleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir was initially contacted by network producers last spring about being featured in a piece they were preparing on the gender gap. But when the final product aired Sunday, nearly a year later, it had been scrubbed almost completely of Bdeir’s interview and replaced instead with that of a man’s whose product reaches a larger audience.

The optics alone were problematic, say Bdeir and Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, in interviews with EdSurge.

“Representation matters,” Bdeir says. “I often meet women who say they get discouraged, they’re afraid … [because] they don’t see enough women in leadership positions speaking about this. If you don’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Saujani also acknowledges the seriousness of the representation issue. Girls today see and hear about Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Tim Cook and dozens of other male tech leaders who have become household names, she says. But they rarely hear women in the field celebrated and revered in the same way.

“It matters who you see on television and in culture, and we know that,” Saujani says. That’s why Girls Who Code has launched a program to highlight women like NASA’s Katherine Johnson and Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, who are pioneers in the technology industry but whose work has been largely overshadowed or forgotten.

Bigger than the issue of optics, both founders say, is that Partovi’s interview on 60 Minutes oversimplified the gender gap, leaving millions of people with a false impression of the problem and virtually no understanding of how the field systematically sidelines women and girls.

The interview focused on access to computer science—the idea that if you introduce kids to coding and get them interested at a young age, girls will enter the field at the same rate as their male peers. That explanation, Saujani says, creates a rosier picture than the reality and overlooks the complexities of the “pipeline problem,” which refers to the way girls lose interest or are discouraged from pursuing computer science at various points in their lives.

“We know that pipeline is leaking all throughout,” she says. “It’s not as simple as teaching them at third grade and then, boom, they’re in. Talking about it that way is dangerous.”

Reinforcing the Pipeline

Though computer science is more accessible to all students now, thanks to new state legislation and district-wide initiatives to offer coding classes, two-thirds of states with computer science programs report seeing no increase in participation from girls, according to research Saujani cites in her Medium post.

As a result, Girls Who Code is working on not only getting girls interested in coding, but keeping them engaged. That often means building their confidence and supporting them throughout their entire journey—from school, to college and into the workforce. The nonprofit has 6,000 clubs, 80 summer immersion programs, many after-school programs and 300 student groups meeting on college campuses across the country.

One of the things that sets Girls Who Code apart is it believes in single-sex education, which has been found to give girls more opportunities to speak up in class and more confidence to pursue STEM subjects. The girls can learn and fail together, and support each other along the way. It’s a way for them to find and connect with like-minded peers, especially at a time when boys still outnumber girls in computer science by about five-to-one.

“It feels isolating to be the only one,” Saujani explains. On college campuses, this can be especially intimidating; data shows that 50 percent of girls pursuing a computer science degree will drop out of their programs. So Girls Who Code campus groups are on hand as a support system. If someone has an interview at Google, Saujani says, they have a group of people encouraging them beforehand and asking them how it went after. If a professor keeps sidelining a student in class, there’s a place for her to vent or get advice. “Other sisters are rooting you on, teaching you how to be brave, not perfect,” Saujani says.

That idea of being brave, not perfect, is one Girls Who Code champions. “We’ve been taught from the time we’re young that we’re not good enough. If we aren’t getting all As, doubt creeps in to our mind,” Saujani says of girls. Girls Who Code’s efforts go well beyond the mechanics of coding and actually work with girls to “unlearn perfection,” she says.

Bdeir knows from personal experience how important it is to be courageous and confident in a field dominated by men. “I’ve pushed my way through this industry,” she says, noting that as an immigrant woman in engineering and entrepreneurship, she’s had to deal with sexism and discrimination and fight for her seat at the table. “But I’m tough. I don’t let it get to me.”

Deeply embedded in the design of littleBits’ products is an invention cycle that aims to build kids’ confidence and problem-solving skills. The four steps are create, play, remix and share. It’s designed to have students make a prototype in a few minutes—something that can’t be done perfectly in such little time—and then try it out.

The next step, “remixing,” allows them to iterate on their creation and improve it. “That’s where we’re getting girls comfortable with problem-solving,” Bdeir says. Finally, they share it, which allows them to “project what they did, inspiring another girl to do the same. It starts with kits but extends to everything we create,” she says.

LittleBits reaches primarily 8- to 12-year-olds, Bdeir says, which is an age when children begin pursuing hobbies and passions. Kids are able to use the magnetic “Bits” in each kit to build and invent things that excite them.

“It’s about trying to tap into girls’ existing interests,” she says. “If they’re interested in science, drawing, building with cardboard, doing sustainability projects, we become the tool they integrate into their existing fashion or hobby.”

Unlike Girls Who Code, littleBits’ products are used by boys and girls alike, Bdeir says. But both organizations have missions to elevate and retain girls in technology. And it’s not just them; the National Center for Women and Information Technology, Code2040, Kode With Klossy, she++, Black Girls Code and countless others are also at the forefront of this work.

By Saujani’s estimations—based on a report from Girls Who Code—the gender gap in entry-level technology jobs is on track to close by 2027.

“Absolutely we feel like we’re making progress,” she says, “but it’s not through one-and-done interventions. It’s more complicated than that.”

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