New Film ‘CodeGirl’ Aims to Add Girl Power to the Tech Industry

The documentary follows high school girls from around the world as they compete for $10,000 at a coding competition.
(Image: Pivot)
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Feb 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama discussed a bold initiative that would teach all American students a key skill to help ensure they were “job-ready” out of high school: coding.

The president asked Congress to allocate $4 billion to states and another $100 million to school districts “so that our elementary, middle, and high schools can provide opportunities to learn computer science for all students,” he said. While most technology experts agree that learning to code is vital in the 21st-century economy, the number of women working in the industry is dismally low.

Despite the prevalence of mobile technology and that young men and women are glued to their phones, around 92 percent of software developers are men, and only 7 percent of tech companies are founded by women. As organizations grapple with ways to recruit and retain more female employees, most agree that encouraging girls and young women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers is the answer.

Getting more girls interested in computer science is what film producer Lesley Chilcott (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) hopes to do with her new documentary, CodeGirl, airing on TakePart’s sister network, Pivot, on Feb. 24. In the film, Chilcott travels around the globe, following teams of high school girls participating in the Technovation Challenge, an annual competition that teaches young women how to develop mobile apps, start a company, and become high-tech entrepreneurs. The finalists present their ideas at World Pitch in San Francisco, and the winner receives $10,000 in seed money to launch her app. Through the riveting competition captured in the film, viewers meet teams of girls from rural Moldova, urban Brazil, and suburban Massachusetts who are each tasked with building an app that solves a problem in her community. (Watch a sneak peek below.)

“The girls who get involved in the contest come up with these amazing ideas you cant believe aren’t out there in the market already,” Chilcott tells TakePart. Some of the innovative projects highlighted in the film include an app called iSwap, which helps people rent everyday items from people in their community, and Discard-ious, an app that aims to deal with waste disposal and disease prevention in Calabar, Nigeria, by allowing users to request carts to safely get rid of hazardous materials.

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What drew Chilcott to the Technovation Challenge was that participants delve into more than just apps.

“They learn to code, they analyze their competition, they work on branding, they write a business plan, and at the end of the 12 weeks, they have a working prototype,” she explains.

According to Chilcott, the whole process made for an interesting film idea.

Producer Lesley Chilcott. (Photo: Mike Pont/Getty Images)

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“When I heard about the contest, I thought it was cool because they’re doing something that maybe isn’t a stereotypical girl thing to do,” she says. “The juxtaposition of all of those things going on—I thought it could be a tech coming-of-age story. So I was really compelled to make it.”

Still, getting CodeGirl made was not easy.

“This was the most logistically complicated documentary that I’ve ever done,” she explains. “Even [if I had] unlimited funding, I would not have been able to get to all the countries and interview all of the teams and then predict the winner.”

To help pull it off, Chilcott turned to her subjects for assistance and incorporated some of the girls’ cell phone footage into the film.

“We had to enlist help from the girls themselves because we did not know which teams were going to go to finals. Since I made the film for teen girls, I wanted it to feel partially made by them too.”

Getting CodeGirl into the hands of girls also was important to Chilcott, which is why she initially partnered with Google to release the film for free on YouTube. Although distribution companies that didn’t understand her mission frowned on her decision, Chilcott was undaunted.

“Teen girls aren’t going to film festivals, and they’re not seeing a lot of documentaries in the theater, so I wanted to give the film away, and a lot of distributors did not like that idea,” she explains. Film Buff, a distribution company for independent filmmakers, came aboard and helped bring Chilcott’s vision to life.

“I wanted to get the film out because I wanted to inspire more teen girls to sign up for the competition this year, and that’s what happened,” she says.

“It scares me that 51 percent of the population is often left out of the design, architecture, and decision-making process,” Chilcott adds. “Women are huge users of apps and technology but not big creators of it. I think it’s going to have a huge impact on society if that doesn’t change.”

CodeGirl premieres Wednesday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT on Pivot, Participant Media’s television network.