“In our school we have 67 cases of Hepatitis A, because of the water,” begins one of the high school girls behind Apa Pura, an app that maps the level of contamination from E. coli, hepatitis, and heavy metals in well water around Stefanesti, Moldova. People in Stefanesti drink well water because bottled water is too expensive. But drinking well water is causing a health crisis in the region.
Five girls from Stefanesti wanted to change that, so they designed a mobile app and entered it into the 2014 Technovation challenge, a contest that welcomes young women to try their hand at developing an app that solves a problem in their communities. The apps are judged not just on their functionality, but also on their potential as a business.
Apa Pura won the 2014 Technovation challenge, garnering the girls $10,000 to build their app for distribution.
This year’s contest drew 5,000 applicants from around the world. Of those, six teams were chosen to contend for the grand prize. The 2015 challenge is the subject of a new documentary called Code Girls, which is available to view for free on YouTube until November 5, 2015.
The film trails a diverse selection of applicants as they find mentors, learn to code, and develop their first app and business plan.
The film first takes us to Drochia, Moldova, where a group of girls who call themselves “Team United Smart Girls” are ruminating on local issues. We’re told there is no University in Drochia, no work. The former industrial sector is closed down. Unemployment wears on Drochia, and the town is becoming rundown. Garbage is embedded in its green spaces, and wild dogs roam freely.
“People throw the trash,” says one of the girls as she releases nothing from her hands and swings them low towards the ground. To help clean up the area, Team United Smart Girls wants to develop an app called Helply, which will connect people who want to volunteer with opportunities to do so.
When the girls struggle to explain their circumstances, we’re reminded they are not just teaching themselves how to code, in some cases they’re also teaching themselves a much broader set of skills, like learning English and pitching American executives. For girls coming from a town with so little means, this exercise is invaluable.
But of course not every team is floundering over the same hurdles. In Anaheim, California, another girl grapples with pulling together a Technovation Challenge team.
“Most of the girls were like, ‘Computer science is for boys,’ or the stereotypical responses that most people get,” she says. Luckily, she manages to convince some friends from other schools to form Team Psychos.
We’re also introduced to a few other teams: Tech Voca from Guadalajara, Mexico, and team iFrench. Of the four initial teams, only iFrench’s peer-to-peer rental platform for everyday objects advances. The team is one of 300 semi-finalists that will be whittled down in the next round to a group of six.
In total, the film profiles ten teams. App concepts range from social feeds with a focus on positivity to a game that teaches water conservation techniques and a platform that connects disabled workers with jobs.
Though watching the teams go from idea to presentation is interesting, the film’s most compelling vignettes are those where the girls are dispelling stereotypes about what it means to be a girl. Like one where a girl is seen quickly solving a Rubik’s Cube while her colleagues run ideas by her. In another scene, the principal of a Massachusetts high school asks team Woco’s coders what it’s like growing up as a girl, knowing that there are so few women in IT, to which one girl poignantly responds:
There would be articles writing about girls in technology or there would be seminars like specifically relating to “Girls, hey, come into technology,” but I found what they tended to focus on was the cute factor, so every time they would have extraneous elements that detracted from coding, I feel like, or the ability of girls to code. So it really reinforced the idea that, hey girls are getting the coding, but they’re going to bring cookies into the mix or they’re going to bring yoga into the mix. Kinda of like pinkify coding?
What she likes so much about the Technovation competition is that once she and her teammates create an app and release it to the public, nobody asks about the gender of the people who made the app. “It’s literally a matter of, can you see a problem in the community and can you find a way to use technology to defeat that problem.”
In one quick swipe this teenager knocks down a slew of sugar-coated programs that try to enlist girls into coding. She’s saying: Girls don’t want you making assumptions about what they like or what they can bring to the table; they just want the opportunity to show they’re capable.
A final anecdote that is as disheartening as it is illuminating hits upon a commonly misunderstood theme about why tech can be a hard sell for women. A girl from Woco (the same one who made the ‘pinkify’ comment) is explaining how she taught herself how to code in Apple’s new Swift programming language in less than a month. She geeks out over various design elements and the research that led her to the final user interface, and then she says:
I think part of being a female programmer is that you feel really lonely. It’s really difficult to want to be what you can’t see, because everywhere you look you don’t really see a lot of girls and you can’t get really excited about it in front of other people because they don’t share the same interests.
As this young lady so eloquently notes, it’s punishing to get involved in an industry that is already making judgments about who you are before they even know what your interests are, just because of your gender. It’s further distressing to know that even if you ignore the assumptions and mischaracterizations projected onto you, you’re entering into a place where there aren’t other women you can share your passions with (or your struggles, for that matter). Though working in the tech industry has a lot of tangible benefits, like high salaries and good benefits, it can come at a big quality of life cost for women.
Code Girl is free to view on YouTube until tomorrow, but you can see it in theaters starting on Saturday. If you’re interested in understanding what will encourage the next generation of female engineers, I hope you do.