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Erasing Women in Tech: How ‘60 Minutes’ Ignored Women’s Voices, Stories, and Expertise

A response from the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Photo courtesy : Girls Who Code

AAlmost a year ago, 60 Minutes producers contacted Girls Who Code. The news show was working on a segment about girls and computer science and wanted to better understand what initiatives to close the gender gap in tech were proving effective.

Sunday, that segment was broadcast to the show’s weekly 11 million viewers in the U.S. and around the world — and it didn’t include a single reference to Girls Who Code or other girl-focused organizations like Black Girls Code, the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 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 Sunday instead heard about Code.org, a non-profit whose mission is not to close the gender gap in tech. (Never mind that Code.org led a partnership with the Trump administration, which has demonstrated time and time again it has no concern for the rights, well-being, and future of our girls.) And viewers saw a man, Code.org CEO 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 and 60 Minutes, in particular, should be cognizant of their 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 and 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 in 1946. And the press never asked about the women, the first-ever computer programmers, who could be seen working on the machine in photos.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson calculated — by hand — the orbital trajectory of the first manned U.S. spaceflight. She and her black female colleagues were barely mentioned in coverage of that historic flight, and their story was mostly unknown by the public until the book and Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.

In 2015, a story in the Atlantic 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, the reporter on that piece, Ed Yong, later published a 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 own stories.

Decisions like these mean educators, policymakers, and thought leaders are less likely to hear about organizations like Girls Who Code, which possess 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, its viewers 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, people around the U.S. 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 kindergarten to 12th-grade girls to computer science and retain them.

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 0.5 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 who are 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.

Update: Since publishing this post on March 4, the founder and CEO of littleBits, Ayah Bdeir, has come forward detailing her experience with 60 Minutes producers. In it, she discusses how she was considered and ultimately omitted from the segment about girls in computing in favor of a male spokesperson. You can read that piece here.

Founder & CEO @GirlsWhoCode. Activist. NYT Best Selling Author. Former Deputy Public Advocate. Mom @toddlershaan @stanleythepuppy. Wife @nihalmehta.

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