How 60 Minutes cut women’s voices from a segment on . . . girls and women
I must have spent four hours on the phone on Monday. Half of that time with people congratulating me that my company, littleBits, had gotten a mention on 60 Minutes. The other half with people who were upset about the piece.
After the segment aired, Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, wrote an article titled “Erasing Women in Tech: How 60 Minutes Ignored Women’s Voices, Stories, and Expertise.” The piece went viral within a few hours. Critics largely agreed with her — pointing out that by spotlighting a man (Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org) in a segment about women and computing, the show was erasing the voices of the countless women-led organizations who have a unique understanding of the problems facing girls and women in tech.
To get some disclaimers out of the way, I believe the work Code.org is doing is impactful. They are getting lots of kids exposed to coding and are changing legislation in states around the country. I think the fact that 60 Minutes decided to cover the gender gap problem in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is insightful. They were able to break down what is widely considered a “techy topic” and make it relevant for a broader audience. I am not writing to knock on either of these organizations.
But there was more to this story than what was being discussed online.
Here’s the story of how my company was led to believe the segment was about us and our work in getting girls into STEM, how we were told that our voices would be central to making this a “terrific segment”… and, ultimately, how we were pushed aside in favor of a male spokesperson.
A story is born
In March of 2018, a friend introduced me to producers at 60 Minutes. We were thrilled to talk to them about our work in getting more girls into STEM and explain why the gender gap was a problem that was important to cover. We had an introductory call, and then I invited the producers to our office, we gave them a tour and showed them our work in action.
It has been a mission at littleBits since day one to close the gender gap, before it was trendy. It’s the reason why we created methods of making sure our products are gender-neutral; it’s what guides our marketing, the types of inventions we showcase, and the partnerships we take on. We are deliberate about it every day. As a result, there are over 40 percent girls in our community — four times the average in electronics/robotics.
A segment from 60 Minutes would give our work visibility, bring our mission to more girls and more importantly help shed light on one way to get more women into the STEM workforce. The producers were excited. When they received approval from CBS executives to move forward with the segment about littleBits and myself, they sent us an email saying, “I think this can be a terrific — and important — story, and that your voice will be central to making it so.” We couldn’t believe it was happening.
The producers asked us to NOT pursue national coverage around stats related to girls in our community. And so we halted our national marketing plans about the topic.
We spent the next few weeks in a whirlwind of calls, emails, and meetings with 60 Minutes producers discussing the segment. We shared case studies, invited them to our user testing sessions, and shared how we design play patterns that are gender-neutral to achieve our inclusivity goals. To give them more context, I suggested they get in touch with other organizations like Girls Who Code, Code.org, and Microsoft, as well as NYC Girl Scouts, Black Girls Code, and others. In April, producers visited one of our partner schools, Marymount. A few weeks after that, I spent an entire day in taped interviews with 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi. Everything was going so well.
After this, the producers said they needed time to edit. So we waited.
The new cut
In late August, I woke up to an email from the producer saying the focus of the segment had changed.
The piece would still discuss girls and STEM, but littleBits would no longer be a central part of the story. Instead, Code.org and Hadi Partovi would take center stage. We would get a brief mention. The producer said Code.org has more scale, and so my interview “became a casualty.”
He went on: “It’s not that the important points you made in your interview are ignored in the story, or that you didn’t make them very effectively,” he said, “they’re just made by others.”
Then, as I sometimes am conditioned to do, I rationalized the news:
- It’s true: Code.org has reached more kids than us.
- What if during the interview I didn’t express myself right? English is not my first language.
- 60 Minutes said they would do two online segments featuring our interview and littleBits, so maybe that would be enough to make a difference.
- The important thing is to get the discussion about gender gap in STEM to the forefront, I told myself.
When the piece ran on Sunday night, I started getting emails, calls, and Tweets from friends and colleagues asking me to respond. I’ll be honest: deciding how best to address this issue was not easy. Could I be grateful for being mentioned as a solution to the problem ... and also expect more?
Ultimately, I decided that yes — it was possible, even necessary, to be grateful, and also to expect more.
Representation is earned
Yes Code.org has bigger scale than us. Scale does help make an argument, but it shouldn’t be the only factor (and by the way, littleBits has reached close to 2 million kids, 30–40 percent of which are girls).
60 Minutes made it clear that they thought spokespeople were interchangeable; they are not. Who gets put on national television matters. Who tells their story matters. Who talks about their experience matters.
I’ve earned my stripes. I come from a family of four girls. I became an engineer. I was in an undergrad class of Computer Engineering where less than 10 percent of students were women. I experienced all the buzzword-y things you hear about: social pressure to leave the field, difficulty being taken seriously as an engineer, difficulty raising money for my startup.
I’ve never let these issues register in my brain, so they didn’t take up space. I decided to channel my frustration into a productive mission and learn how to navigate this world. The powerful upside of what I’ve been through is that I get to share it with others to help the next generation.
Totality of experience is needed to understand nuance
In my interview with Sharyn, we discussed my upbringing, how I was raised to be interested in STEM, my mom as my role model, difficulties of starting a company as a woman in tech (and particularly in hardware), why getting girls into the space is important. We discussed the pipeline issue, but also challenges around stereotypes and uneven standards that men and women are held up to later in life. These are some of the issues that arise after a woman is in tech fields, and often cause them to drop out.
As the Twittersphere noted, the 60 Minutes segment made it look like the solution to the gender gap problem is to get girls to code in kindergarten. It is not.
That is one lever, but we know there are systemic and frequent roadblocks ahead of girls in their journey from a social, psychological, and environmental perspective and they need support and mentorship throughout their lives to withstand the stereotypes and discrimination they are subjected to. Reaching girls at scale to try coding is great but it is the tip of the iceberg. When you don’t invite the richness of an experience to the table, you miss the nuance, and you risk becoming “hand wavy” about an important subject.
And more importantly, you risk replicating a pattern that exists in tech companies around the world, an issue that drives the few women in STEM to get dejected and want to leave.
Demanding more of the media makers
I am humbled to have had the opportunity to shape this story.
I was humbled and inspired by the allyship from the community following the segment.
I want to thank you for recognizing the work we are doing in helping reinvent education.
Nevertheless, this is about us as a society demanding more from leading news platforms and storytellers. I want every producer, reporter, and editor to take a pause and make sure they are representing stories completely and authentically.
Ultimately, and most importantly, I am proud of the work we’re doing on behalf of our girls. I’m proud that we continue to push that work forward, despite omissions like this one. It’s about the girls. It’s about empowering them with confidence and creativity, so that they become future changemakers who write their own stories in which they are not erased.
Update: Since publishing this post, Forbes published Google And 60 Minutes Take Aim At Gender Gap In Tech And Miss, Quartz published A 60 Minutes story about gender equality accidentally proved the persistence of patriarchy and Reshma Saujani and myself published an piece on Buzzfeed titled Opinion: You Can’t Solve The Gender Gap In Tech If You Don’t Understand Why It Exists. 60 minutes has yet to issue a formal response or to reach out for a discussion.