“Why isn’t Lenna wearing any clothes?” I implored my friend, shocked at seeing the shoulders-up nude photo of a woman on a mundane Monday in the Duke library. I had been going through a MATLAB tutorial on computer vision, and the sample image was, surprisingly, a naked lady. Apparently, when the USC developers behind a computer vision algorithm needed a sample face in 1973, someone just happened to walk into the lab with a Playboy magazine. The face of the woman on the centerfold, Lenna, has since become the default data for computer vision classes around the world. Because, of course, it’s totally normal to walk into an academic setting waving around a copy of Playboy, which would naturally be the first place one would go looking for a face.
Unfortunately, seeing female objectification in professional programming environments isn’t exactly an isolated incident. With the advent of the “brogrammer” culture, women have reported being exposed to workplaces in which male programmers share porn over open communication channels, according to CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. When they’ve asked their male coworkers to stop, they were told, “Stop being such a girl.”
A showing of CODE was put on by RENCI, the Renaissance Computing Institute, and the
Carolina Women’s Center, on February 29 at UNC. RENCI, while addressing issues of staffing diversity within its own organization, was inspired to bring the issue to light in the greater UNC community. By 2020, we expect to see more than one million unfilled software engineering jobs. As of now, only 23% of technical jobs nationwide are filled by women, leaving a huge gap to fill in this important workspace.
The response of the largely female audience to the film was overwhelmingly positive. Lilly, a first-year math student at UNC, noted that the issues the film addressed were “obvious,” both in academic settings and in the online blogosphere. She appreciated the positive messages, such as in this GoldieBlox superbowl ad, that counter expectations of young girls to study more “social” subjects and encourage them to pursue science, technology, engineering and math. Addy, a first-year computer science student, noted that a supportive group of women in her CS401 class at UNC makes the dearth of women less noticeable.
Tabatha, a first-year computer science student at UNC, said that she feels intimidated in introductory computer science classes, where male students often have years of background knowledge that she doesn’t. She hesitates to show men her code until it is perfect, since she feels that as a woman, she has to prove that she is just as good as a man. This additional pressure and worry, CODE observed, often causes women to perform worse in quantitative classes. Tabatha, Megan, and Olivia attended the screening as part of a Women’s Studies class. Megan echoed Tabatha’s sentiment, relating that as a beginning programmer, she felt behind during HackNC, where most men already knew how to build apps.
Clearly, issues of female representation in tech persist into the university and industry level. However, CODE insists that we must remedy the problem during childhood, when girls receive societal messages that deter them from studying science and tech subjects.
If we’re going to be “changing/saving the world,” “making a better version of you,” and deciding how to “do the right thing,” (all rhetoric from the tech industry), we should probably have all genders and races represented in those responsible for effecting the change that will supposedly impact all of humanity.
For more information on CODE, check out shescoding.org.
By Olivia Zhu