Hackathons tend to be dominated by men, and women who participate often wind up in team coordinator roles, rather than getting to show off their programming chops. People are more likely to talk to you about what it’s like to be who you are, instead of the project that caused you to lose a weekend’s sleep. At one event Iowa State University senior and seasoned hackathon veteran Cassidy Williams attended, the women’s bathrooms were even turned co-ed because of the gender imbalance.
Though female coders face similar situations on-the-job every day, this isn’t always the most inspirational environment.
It’s why Williams, an energetic undergrad who is already making a name for herself in her field, worked with Microsoft Research to organize the second annual International Women’s Hackathon, which took place in Washington, DC earlier this month. More than 2,000 college-age women from 50 different locations in 11 countries participated, many of them joining remotely via Skype sessions.
"Everyone was so much more collaborative, and—for lack of a better word—nice to each other," says Williams. Participants would put their own projects aside to offer substantive assistance to others, something Williams rarely sees. "I’ve been to hackathons where people steal laptops because they are so competitive."
As it looks to expand its own pipeline of female job candidates, Microsoft Research identified four themes that they feel help explain why many young women shy away from pursuing computer science, or why they end up later dropping off that track. It then designed the hackathon to address many of these challenges, says Rane Johnson-Stempson, a principal research director at Microsoft. The themes included: a male-dominated environment; the abstract and individualized nature of the first few years of a computer science degree; the fail-often-until-you-get-it-right mentality that can hurt women’s confidence; and lastly, the misperception that computer science isn’t socially impactful or isn’t addressing the world’s biggest problems.
At the event, teams were picked randomly out of a hat rather than as a popularity contest. Two socially-relevant challenges were given. One was to develop an app that helped prevent teens from texting while driving. Another was a bit meta: It asked students to design interventions to encourage more women to pursue science, technology, and engineering (STEM) careers. Finally, while there was a competitive element, some of the stressful edge was eliminated by making the deadline flexible. If a team wasn’t finished with the project by the end of the day, they could present their unfinished plans and pledge to complete and submit them within a month.
"What we’ve done is said we want you to get the project done, but if you don’t get it done, you can talk about what you’ve accomplished today and what you hope to finish," says Johnson-Stempson. "In a month, we’ll look at execution, strategy, and impact and pick a winner."
The range of projects to address both challenges reflected the diversity of the participants, says Johnson-Stempson. There was a quiz app that presented trivia to encourage women to pursue programming, such as a question about Ada Lovelace, the world's first programmer. Another was a career roleplaying game for younger ages. Students in Sri Lanka tried to design an SMS-based service to educate girls who don't have Internet access about computer science.
There's good reason to increase women in computer science fields, both for their economic health and that of the broader economy. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the U.S. within this decade, but there will be an overall shortage of applicants because not enough people are graduating with computer science degrees. It estimates that only 29% of applicants will be women.