Skip to content

What does Barbie have to do with women in tech?

By Sue Harnett, Founder and CEO of Rewriting the Code

In 2010, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media hosted a symposium in Los Angeles with a panel of writers, producers, directors, and executives from the motion picture and television industry.1

Also in attendance was Dr. Stacy L. Smith, associate professor of communications at the USC Annenberg School, and founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative—the world’s leading think tank on diversity and inclusion in entertainment. As part of Smith’s research, she examines film, television, and digital platforms to see how gender, race, ethnicity, disabilities, and the LGBTQ community are represented.

The Persistent Gender Gap in Film and Television

At the symposium, Smith discussed her recent study of on-screen gender parity in which her team examined 122 films released between 2006 and 2009.2 They found that of the 5,554 speaking parts, only 29 percent were female. In an earlier survey of 400 films going back to 1990, they found the male/female ratio was nearly the same.3 In twenty years, there had been no substantive movement. Smith wanted to know why.

She queried industry decision-makers whose responses were as discouraging as they were enlightening:

It’s teenage boys who most often go to the theatre, and most often go over and over again. As a result, studios make movies for that demographic.4,5

Challenging Misconceptions

The idea was pervasive—though not actually true. That year, the Motion Picture Association report showed that women and girls had been responsible for the majority of ticket sales. Boys and men were not the moviegoers the industry had believed them to be. In other words, actual data disproved the popular belief that was driving content, and the huge investment in that content. The impact this had on equity and representation was stunning.

Across the 122 films in Smith’s later survey, women represented just 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers.6 Overall, there were nearly five men for every one woman working on those films. It amounted to a sure way to perpetuate a limited perspective, as movies made mostly by men seem to be mostly about men’s experiences.

Women’s stories weren’t getting written, movies weren’t getting made, and women and girls weren’t seeing themselves on the screen. Meanwhile, they were looking for representation. Everywhere. Anywhere.

Reevaluating Industry Assumptions

Interestingly, in the decade that followed that 2010 symposium, the industry seemed to be waking up. One panelist, Laura Woolverton, had just written the screenplay for Alice in Wonderland—a release that would bring in $1.02 billion worldwide,7 making it director Tim Burton’s highest-grossing film ever.8

Two years later, a pair of movies—both with female leads and, curiously, an archery focus—made a lot of noise. The first was Brave, which garnered over half a billion dollars, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe.9 The second, The Hunger Games, grossed $695 million and over $3 billion across its four-film franchise.10 What followed was nearly a dozen box-office hits featuring female leads and women behind the camera: Frozen/Frozen 2 ($1.45B/$1.29B), Maleficent (written by Wolverton; $758M11), Rogue One ($1.05B), Beauty and the Beast ($1.26B), Wonder Woman ($824M12), and the Star Wars sequel trilogy ($4.4B).13

Of course, 2022 was the year of Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film of so many firsts and honors (including its seven Academy Awards) that it has become the most-awarded film of all time.14

This brings us to Barbie, directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig. At $1.44 billion, it wasn’t just the highest-grossing movie in the world last year—it was the highest-grossing movie for the entire century that Warner Bros. has been in existence. No film directed solely by a woman had ever brought in a billion dollars. Until Barbie.15

So, let’s return for a minute to Stacy Smith and her research.16 Forty-four percent of her survey respondents had cited “male market forces” as a driver of success:

“Stories with men sell better,” they claimed.
“Boys resist girls’ stories,” they said.

When asked directly, fully 97 percent of film industry leaders agreed that “girls will watch stories about boys, but boys won’t watch stories about girls.”

But those assumptions had been wrong. Moviegoers of all sorts are interested in girls and women as lead characters. Women and men, girls and boys, all buying tickets to watch stories about women’s lives. Women are writing, directing, and acting in compelling films, gorgeous films, and mega-successful films. Today, female-led films outgross those with male leads by nearly 40 percent.17,18

A fallacy had informed the executives’ decision-making, and a generation of girls and women did not see themselves onscreen. Only now is that industry reaping the financial and cultural benefits of telling stories about women’s experiences—and having women tell those stories

Beyond Hollywood: The Struggle for Gender Equity in Tech

What about other industries? Will the next ten years be different for women in tech, as the last ten were for women in film? 

A decade from now will it seem inconceivable that in 2022, over 91 percent of software developers were men?19 Will we be surprised that in 2023, women made up only 20 percent of all US STEM graduates?20 Or shocked that this percentage had been largely unchanged for two decades?21 Will college students in 2033 believe that from 2000 to 2023 about half of the women who began studying computer science in college changed majors after their first or second course?22 Will we all look back on a time when the women who had earned 40 percent of STEM PhDs made up only 28 percent of STEM professors and associate professors a decade and a half later?23 Surely we’ll be shocked that half of all women working in tech were abandoning the field by age 35.24 And that 20 percent would report sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and intimidation at work—with 40 percent experiencing harassment by a boss or investor.25

Will we remember how much worse it was for women of color? How, in 2023, Black women represented only 2.2 percent of people in tech and Latinx women only 1.9 percent?26 Or that in the past decade, the number of Black, Latina, and Indigenous women graduating with degrees in computing had plummeted by 40 percent, to 4 percent?27

And will we be astonished that with all that knowledge and these searchable statistics, there was not broad-scale implementation of programs and support?

Study after study reveals the relationship between greater gender diversity and greater profitability. The research also shows that across industries, the presence of women at all levels of an organization catalyzes innovation.28,29,30 A lack of diversity invites other problems too, as big tech companies know well, having experienced a high-profile drubbing around the issue of gender—and rightly so.31

The Need for Greater Inclusion in Tech

At the close of that 2010 symposium, Linda Woolverton related her experience,

Twenty years ago…99 percent of the time, I was the only girl in the room, the only woman in the room. That was just standard, it was expected. Maybe there was one other woman who would show up occasionally.

This is the very thing women in tech describe. One need only Google tech and “only woman in the room” to see the stories.

I would rather put my energy into finding ways to build forward so that other women don’t have to experience the barriers that I came up through. One of the hardest things is when you’re completely alone in a room, representing a group. You can start to feel a little bit crazy and doubt yourself.32

Over the course of the years, I noticed fewer and fewer female students in my classes. In high school, I was one of four girls in my AP Computer Science class, which had close to 30 students. Today, as a computer science major, I noticed on my first day of classes that I was the only female in a class of 22 students.33

I have been the only woman coder (or close to it) in a lot of technical work environments….Even though people were not actively being jerks in my direction (and unfortunately this is not the case for many women in tech work environments), there were still a lot of small, hidden costs.34

We—the global we—need more women in all the rooms. And support systems inside and out. One wonders if we will hear these statistics and once more continue to be shortsighted. One wonders if we will spend another decade or two without the vital input of half the planet. This story has been written again and again. What we should want is to read it as a history. To be looking back at it, and to be a long way from that shore. Tech should really know better.

Women belong in tech. Their input is necessary. Diversity of viewpoints is necessary. The collective work is necessary. In just two years, the US will have an estimated 3.5 million STEM jobs to fill, with over a million of those in computing.35 Last year, 70 percent of organizations reported a tech skills shortage.36

Who will invest in this? If we don’t begin addressing the biases and changing assumptions, we will continue to lose out on the unique brilliance of women innovators and an absolute powerhouse of capability.

Whoever decides to harness this—individually, locally, institutionally, globally—will create a movement. It’s what we’re working to do now: to unleash the strength, insight, perspective, and power of women’s work.

This is a call to action.

Sue Harnett is the founder and CEO of Rewriting the Code, an organization that supports and empowers college, graduate, and early-career women in tech through intersectional communities, mentorship, industry experience, and educational resources.

Test Test

Hire more women in tech with Rewriting the Code

Together, we can make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive. Becoming an RTC partner demonstrates your company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion while making a positive difference in the lives of underrepresented communities.

We’d love to connect with your team to learn more about your hiring goals and how to best showcase your company to Rewriting the Code members. Complete the form below to get in touch.

Are you a student? Join Rewriting the Code free here