“The most Dangerous phrase is, ‘We’ve always done it this way,”

This was the famous catch phrase uttered by Grace Hopper, also known as the Queen of Computing, The Queen of Coding and the Grand Old Lady of Software.

Grace Hopper believed that challenges could be overcome, through bucking the system and was a living testament to this, by breaking down gender barriers within the male dominated field of software engineering to become a pioneer in programming the first large-scale digital computer and for creating the first compiler. Hopper also discovered the first computer bug (literally) when she found a moth stuck in one of the electrical switches of the computer she was using. Grace announced that they would have to ‘debug’ the computer, a phrase that has stuck and is now popular terminology within the computer science field.

Despite all of her accomplishments and contributions to the computing world, no doubt Hopper would be saddened to learn that the progress made by women within computer science hasn’t changed much since she began her coding career in 1941.

Last year, several Silicon Valley companies acknowledged for the first time, just how few women they employed in tech positions (fewer than twenty percent in most cases). While there was a significant rise in the proportion of female computer science graduates in the mid-eighties in the United States, by the late 2000s there’s been a precipitous decline, with 0.5% of the college degrees awarded each year going towards women majoring in computer science. This percentage declines even further once these graduates enter the workforce. Meanwhile, the pioneering female engineers like Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace have become footnotes in an official history that has been inundated with the work and achievements of male engineers and computer science technicians.

What makes the situation even more complex, is that as the technology industry continues to grow at a rapid pace, there becomes a greater need for coders. It is estimated that there will be 1.4 million jobs by 2020 in the computer science related field. Many CEO start up companies are worried that while they have the jobs available, they won’t have the bodies to fill them.

So considering the job opportunities for budding female and male coders alike, why aren’t there  more female programmers and what can be done about it?

A recent documentary that was unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year attempts to address this very question. “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” is a documentary by Robin Hauser Reynolds who came up with the idea after learning that her daughter who had been taking computer science classes, decided she wasn’t cut out for a career in computer science. She had called Reynolds saying that she didn’t fit in as she was one of the few females in her course and was perceiving herself to be doing badly, despite averaging a B grade.

This documentary has already been widely acclaimed at both the Tribeca Film Festival and the Rhode Island International film Festival, where it won first prize. The film celebrate’s women’s contributions to technology and also demonstrates the importance of having female input within the computer science field.

When Reynolds first described the film’s theme to her mother, her mother raised the question, “Well why does it matter who’s coding as long as we have the products?”

It raises an interesting concept: if women don’t want to code, what’s the harm?

In the film, Reynolds seeks out the less diverse engineering teams to determine whether diversity helps to improve the level of products produced. Indeed, in one scene she is interviewing Roz Ho, a senior vice president of engineering at Ericsson and a former Microsoft executive. Roz Ho recalled a time in the late nineties when Microsoft where looking at adding animated assistant characters (like the friendly Microsoft paperclip ‘clippy’) and had received negative results from their focus group tests. “Most of the women within the focus groups thought the characters were too male and that they were leering at them…of course I’m working within a team of eleven or twelve guys that are going through the results and they were so confused! They kept saying I don’t see it- I don’t understand what they mean!”

Ultimately Office Assistant (which these animations were a part of) flopped and Microsoft discontinued using it.

This was one of several examples in the film where diversity impacted on the quality of products being produced, or more simply the type of products being produced. It has been noted that the lack of diversity within Silicon Valley contributes to the range of new apps, websites and platforms being created. George Packer, a journalist writing about Silicon Valley in 2013 was quoted saying “after talking with some of the young entrepreneurs about their dating, take away and lift driving apps it suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are serving the needs of the twenty something male…because that’s who thinks them up”.

Reynolds argues that there needs to be a push for coders from underrepresented communities and minority groups, in order to create software that is needed for the world, not just a single demographic. “Programers need to be able to think about a broader perspective and a broader user base..however we’re all human and most of us are comfortable with what we know.”

Sounds like Silicone Valley could use a dose of Grace Hopper’s ‘ bucking the trend’ mentality. To find out more about the film and to view the “Code: Debugging the Gender Gap” trailer click here: