Robin Hauser Reynolds on imposters, stereotypes and the tech gender gap

8 May 2015

Robin Hauser Reynolds, director of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap and Inspirefest 2015 speaker

Inspirefest 2015 speaker Robin Hauser Reynolds, director of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, talks to about imposter syndrome, stereotype stress and the media’s role in gender equality.

Robin Hauser Reynolds did not go to film school. She has directed and produced two films, the latest of which she recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, yet she doesn’t fail to tell me twice about her lack of formal education in film during the course of her interview.

What’s also clear to me from the interview is that Robin Hauser Reynolds is a clever, confident, accomplished, witty and talented woman who – despite declaring, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I wasn’t good enough” – suffers, at least a teeny bit, from ‘imposter syndrome’.

This psychological glitch prevents a person from recognising their own achievements, leading to self-doubt and the feeling of not deserving their well-earned power or influence. If you’ve spoken with high-achieving women, you will recognise it.

“I’ve identified with that,” said Hauser Reynolds, and jokingly asks herself, “When is everybody going to realise that I’m just, kind of, a normal person?”

We both laugh, but the joke is funny because it’s true.

Debugging the gender gap

Psychologists Dr Pauline Rose Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes, who coined the term in a 1978 article for the journal Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, observed that many high-achieving women tended to not believe themselves to be intelligent, despite being highly regarded by others.

It’s a subtle affliction, one you may not even recognise in yourself. But Hauser Reynolds did sense it from her daughter when she began studying computer science in college.

“She was just one of two women in a class of 35 men. [She said] that they were all so much better at it than she was, that she was failing,” Hauser Reynolds explained.

“Well, the truth is, she wasn’t failing; this was just her perception. She was in the top third of her class.”

Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

Seeing her own daughter struggle against this symptomatic self-doubt, Hauser Reynolds – already established as a documentarian after her 2014 debut, Running for Jim – was inspired to explore the issue on film.

Staci Hartman, producer on Running for Jim, noted a similar issue with her own daughter, who was working in a non-tech role at Snapchat, and described the environment as ‘a boys’ club’. Thus began the road that brought these women to create Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, a feature-length documentary exploring the dearth of American female and minority software engineers.

Talking to leading women in tech

Over the course of 14 months, and with help from a coding class to better understand the subject matter, Hauser Reynolds explored gender inequality in computer science in the US. The filmmakers interviewed a spectrum of people affected by this issue: from MIT graduate and ultramarathon runner Evelyn Cordner, who now works as an engineer for Strava, an online platform for athletes; to Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the US.

When asked to pick a favourite interviewee, Hauser Reynolds singles out Danielle Feinberg, director of photography at Pixar.

“Her team writes the algorithms that control things like the way Meredith’s hair is going to bounce and move in the Pixar animation, Brave; or the way light is going to reflect off a school of fish in Finding Nemo. All of that is done with code,” she said.

“It’s a perfect example of a blend of where you’ve taken computer science, and creativity, and a beautiful artistic eye, and put them together. And, I think that is absolutely the antithesis of a guy in a hoodie drinking Red Bull and eating stale pizza in the middle of the night in the basement.”

Role models on screen

Smashing stereotypes emerged as a significant theme during the production of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap and, at Tribeca, Hauser Reynolds formed part of a panel that discussed the importance of role models for young women.

While real-life people like Megan Smith exist to show us that women are well capable of securing high-level positions in tech, Hauser Reynolds knows that fictional characters can be just as impactful.

“When programmes like CSI started showing women in positions like the top detective or the top doctor or that type of thing, suddenly, there was a surge in interest from younger girls in those careers. So we do know that pop culture, that Hollywood and the media, have a lot to do with this, and the more that they can show strong, female leaders in the tech industry in television shows, in movies, all of that will then create role models for women,” she said.

It may be simplistic to believe that if we get used to seeing smart leading ladies on screen, we’re more likely to accept that as the norm in real life, yet we often can’t help ourselves defaulting to assumptions based on stereotypes – like the idea that women aren’t good at maths.

This wild accusation leads to something Hauser Reynolds uncovers in Code: the issue of ‘stereotype stress’.

Comic by xkcd

Comic by xkcd

“Girls aren’t as good at math, girls aren’t as good at computer science – that’s what society says. So, therefore, when a woman is in a room with a bunch of men and she is aware or conscious of that stereotype, she will, in fact, perform worse. Whereas if she was brought into a room and told that, in this particular class the women do as well if not better than the men, with that simple instruction and that confidence, she will actually perform equally or better than the men in the room just because she’s not burdened and preoccupied by the fear of confirming a stereotype,” she explained.

Homogeneity breeds bad products

Ultimately, Code advocates a shift in the dynamic, to include a more diverse cross-section of people in the tech industry.

“What we learned is that if you have a homogeneous group of peple designing projects and coming up with products, then you’re really going to have a very limited number of products that serve a very, very small, limited number of people,” said Hauser Reynolds.

By her reckoning, the US tech scene is primarily 25-year-old white and Asian men; most of whom have been to Stanford, MIT or Santa Clara; who are fairly privileged and from the same socio-economic background.

“How would men like that know how to create an app that would serve a woman who’s living in a housing project in New York City?” she asked.

“The more diversity that you have at a coding level, at a design level, at a programming level, the more your product is going to reach a greater breadth of humanity. And that is absolutely important.

“How many more Snapchats do we need? Not many,” she quipped.

We both laughed again. Because it’s true.

Code: Debugging the Gender Gap will premiere in Ireland at Inspirefest 2015, Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin, which also welcomes Robin Hauser Reynolds as a speaker. Book now to connect with sci-tech professionals passionate about bringing fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity to STEM.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.