Only seven percent of technology companies are founded by women. This is a point that director Lesley Chilcott makes both in her new documentary, CODEGIRL, and in person when we interviewed her for Cambio. It's hard to find someone who disagrees that these stats are in serious need of fixing, but Lesley is making it her mission to finally do something about it.
Lesley, who has produced powerful films like Waiting for Superman and An Inconvenient Truth, followed teams of female high school students ages 15 to 17 who participated in the 2015 Technovation Challenge to create her full-length documentary, CODEGIRL. According to the organization, about 4,200 girls from 28 countries have taken part in the app-creating competition over the past five years, but throughout the journey, each girl has picked up tech skills that are no doubt going to last her a lifetime.
The film, which was released on November 1, was available for free for five days on YouTube, and more than 100,000 girls tuned in to watch it. If you haven't seen it yet, you can buy or rent the film here.
Just in time for Computer Science Education Week, we sat down with Lesley to find out what it was like to make CODEGIRL.
CAMBIO: How did you get the idea for this film?
LESLEY CHILCOTT: While making a piece for Code.org, I heard about the Technovation Challenge and I was like, "What's that?" Basically it's a contest where high school age [girls] from around the world have three months to design an app. The only prompt they're given is that it has to solve a problem in their community. I was like, "How cool is that? What does every high school girl have? A cell phone." So instead of saying, "Hello, smart high school girl, you're smarter than you think and you can code and you should because there aren't enough women [doing it]." It's like, "Look around, take out your cell phone, figure out how to solve a problem by using technology." And I just thought that was the weirdest, coolest thing I had ever heard. And I knew I had to make a movie about it. One of the girls in the film who is 15 says, "It's hard to be what you can't see," and so that's the other reason I made it.
How did the girls' ideas of coding change over time?
They all busted the stereotypes that we see, and interestingly enough, I just did a panel with some of the girls recently and...all of them but one said the hardest part was business plan, not the coding - and these are people who have never coded before. Beforehand most of them would have said coding. There are these stereotypes about the lone male coder in a nerd pile of crushed-up soda cans and pizza boxes and being some sort of brilliant misunderstood person that just has to code by themselves. The contest shows it's a group activity.
One of the girls said, "Nobody has ever asked me to identify a problem and try to solve it on my own and that's what I did with this contest." That changed her whole future.
What does #BUILTBYGIRLS mean to you?
The reason I called the movie CODEGIRL is because, to me, a codegirl is someone who solves problems. A codegirl is someone who looks around them and says, "Hey I see a problem, how am I gonna solve that using technology?"
In the future, we as girls and women can't just be avid users of technology, we have to write and create it. You can't have half the population not involved in architectural-type questions. What's that going to look like for the future? We're using and buying the apps and the programs and everything else, we have to make them, too.
What do you want girls to take away from CODEGIRL?
I want every teen girl to take a coding lesson. Even if you know that you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a ballerina, getting yourself familiar with computer science gives you confidence and it teaches you a logical way of thinking. "If I wanna do this, what are the steps I need to take to get there in any career?" So I think it's essential that every girl at least take a coding lesson. Go to CodegirlMovie.com, scroll down and take a lesson off the website.
What stuck with you the most after making this film?
Every country I went to, I would see a different girl looking at another problem differently. In my life, whenever I think I'm in a difficult situation...I'm like, "Well, how would they look at it?" Instead of going to film festivals or building up word of mouth, I'm like, "What 14-year-old girl goes to Sundance? I'm going to be like the girls and...solve my problem of distributing my film in a unique way. I'm going to give the film away on YouTube." I partnered for social outreach with Made With Code. It was scary, I gave my film away. But I learned I can be inventive and try to solve a problem the way they did.
This interview has been edited for length, brevity and clarity.