Framing the Gender Diversity Conversation at Student Hackathons
And Some Organizational Tips
The call for “Gender Diversity”
In February of 2017, T9Hacks had its second annual hackathon. For a second year now, we’ve been a small team organizing a small hackathon. However, we’ve received some recognition being a gender and diversity focused event in a male-dominated field. As a result, I’ve received a few emails asking for advice about how to increase the number of women or how to promoting diversity. Here are a few of the emails I’ve received this year:
“Can you help us improve our gender diversity . . .”
“I want to pick your brain on how to increase diversity and inclusiveness”
“We have a hackathon coming up next month and we’d love to see more women involved!”
First and foremost, I’m thrilled that so many people and organizations really care about increasing the number of women at their computing and technology events. It shows that they want to create a diverse environment and I want to support their mission whenever I can. This is why I’m writing this article, so I can continue to help to advocate for this very cause.
However, there is one thing I want to make clear: promoting diversity or aiming for gender parity is not a one-step solution. It is not a to-do item on a list that can be checked-off and then forgotten about. The reason why there are so few women in computing fields is not because of one roadblock or challenge. It is a systemic problem. It is a million straws that, through their combined weight, break women and cause them to leave the field. Increasing diversity does not have one solution and it needs to be addressed at multiple levels. Fighting for inclusion means you will be constantly fighting microaggressions, unconscious bias, prejudges, and stereotype threats. All at once. Diversity efforts will need to be embedded into the very fabric of your organization and will need to be addressed at all levels.
I don’t make this statement to discourage or shame anyone. I just want to be clear about my approach to diversity. It’s holistic and broad-ranging. It’s also imperfect. I’ll be the first to admit T9 has room for improvement, but every year my team and I work to make the hacking experience better for everyone. Here is a list of things we did (or are going to change) at T9Hacks:
- We labeled it a “women’s hackathon” and targeted women specifically. We had language on our website that clearly stated our inclusion and diversity goals. We tried to build a culture where our diversity goals were very transparent and we were always striving towards this goal.
- We had women be the “face” of T9Hacks: women on our team visited classrooms, sent emails, went to social events, and welcomed everyone during the hackathon. We wanted to make it clear that our organizational team was full of people who came from diverse backgrounds. Promoting a “diverse” event when the organizational team only represents one gender, racial, or social demographic doesn’t build confidence in people from those other demographics. Your team has to represent the same diversity goals you want out of your participants.
- We had a “Sadie Hawkins” policy which allowed women and non-binary students to register alone or invite one male teammate. Initially, only 35% of our registered participants were women, but after this policy was implemented, 70% of our registrations were female. Creating women-only and women-centric spaces can be a controversial topic; it is a topic that members of our own organizational team have debated. However, we were driven to create an environment for women and non-binary students that was vastly different from what they would experience in any other average computing setting. Men dominate undergraduate computer science and computing fields. For 24-hours, we wanted to flip that ratio and create an environment where students of underrepresented genders could create and hack with people who were similar to them.
- We had a sign-up form and not an application. We had feedback during both years about women and first-timers feeling intimidated by the application process. Many potential participants didn’t even sign-up, since they assumed they didn’t have the credentials to even be accepted. We also encountered problems with the resume section on the sign-up, which leads into one of the changes we’ll be making next year:
- We’ll no longer be requiring that participants upload their resume on their initial sign-up. Though I firmly believe every student should create a resume (even freshmen!) and I know our sponsorship package promised participant resumes to top-tier sponsors, the initial sign-up form is not the right place or time to ask for a resume. Women and first-timers didn’t even finish completing the sign-up form because it required they upload a resume. The sign-up form is a participant’s first impression of your hackathon, and requiring a resume suggests that this is a professional or very serious event. We want our hackers to have fun, not to be worried if they have the right credentials to even participate. We would rather get them to sign-up for the event first and then ask for resumes in a later email.
- Finally, we left registration open and allowed people to register as walk-ins the day of the hackathon. Close to 50% of our participants who came to the hackathon either registered 7 days before the hackathon or were walk-in registrants. (Plus close to 60% of these late registrations were women!) We don’t see the need to close registration early or turn people away at the door. We created a hackathon so students can learn to hack, it shouldn’t matter when they decide to come, whether it be when registration first opened or 10 minutes before the event.
Hosting the Event
- We kept the theme of women being the “face” the event and had one woman leading opening and closing ceremonies and making all announcements. This kept it consistent with our advertising and created one person who could be a point of contact for the participants.
- For multiple meals, we had all veterinarian dishes with a meat option. This sounds like a minor change, but it made a huge difference for non-meat eaters. Instead of making vegetarians feel like they were an afterthought in the food selection, often leaving them with one “option”, we made vegetarianism the default and let everyone who needed meat eat from the side-dishes.
- Have a point-of-contact person for participants to talk to. This is one of the places where T9 is still improving. After the event, we heard from people about two sexist incidents that happened during the hackathon. Unfortunately, I had to learn about them after the event, because there was no formal process for participants to tell anyone. One of the incidents I learned from a good friend of mine and we were notified about the second incident in an anonymous email sent from a second party. I was heartbroken to hear that some of our participants had to face these problems at our hackathon, but it also showed my team that we had an obvious problem: we didn’t have any process in place to handle situations like this. Next year we’ll be making clear which members of our team participants can talk to confidently in-person if they are experiencing these types of problems. We’ll also be better preparing our coordinators about how to handle situations like this, even if that only involves reporting the incident to a T9 coordinator or MLH team member.
The Hackathon User Experience
- 2017 was the first year we had tracks (hacking competitions, sponsor prizes, etc). During T9Hacks’ first year we didn’t have tracks because we saw them promoting a competitive environment, which wasn’t the vibe we were going for. The second year, we tried low-key tracks that gave our participants goals to work for, while still being fun in nature. For example, our most prestigious prize was a competition for “Best Use of the Color Purple”, where participants had to use the color purple in an innovative or creative way in their projects. (T9Hacks’ theme color is purple, which is what inspired this idea.) The prize was two boxes of the Samoas, the purple-colored box of Girl Scout Cookies. We made sure that all of our categories and prizes were beginner-friendly, low-impact, and promoted our diversity goals.
- We hosted professional development workshops throughout the hackathon. Our first year, we had a photographer available for a few hours who took (free!) professional head shots for our participants. Our second year, one of our sponsors hosted a resume review workshop. We want to support our participants learning about hacking, but we also want to support their professional development. These two events were HUGE hits during their respective years and we’ll be hosting both events during our next hackathon.
- 2017 was also the first year we hosted programming workshops. T9Hacks promoted ourselves as a beginner hackathon where participants could come to learn new skills. We asked two instructors (one of whom was already a member of our organizational team) to host workshops on Mobile App Development and Front-End Development. The workshops were open-ended, where participants could learn at their own pace; however, we received feedback more guidance and structured instruction would be more beneficial. Jumping into different technologies can be intimidating and frustration, especially for first-time programmers. We are striving to build events and a system where our participants can feel supported and have access to the guidance they need.
- Next year, we’ll be discontinuing our use of slack as a mentoring tool. For two years now, we’ve had very little activity on Slack during our hackathon. In 2017 only 50% of our participants signed up for our Slack channel, and there were only 24 posts that asked for help or mentorship. Most of our participants had never heard of Slack, and we realized forcing them to learn and adapt to a new technology provided them no benefit. We often would find participants going directly to the Sponsor tables to ask questions in-person since they wanted to avoid posting anything on Slack. Though we are currently working on a better mentoring system, we’ve learned that a public messaging system with unfamiliar technology isn’t the best solution.
“we didn’t feel confident asking for help from the mentors or on the Slack channel, since everyone else seemed to have much, much more experience coding” —First-time hackathon participant
For hackathon beginners, they are already in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by more experienced coders, and creating with technologies they are unaccustomed to. For women and students of color, they are entering an environment that has traditionally excluded them, where they are now expected to perform and compete against one another.
For these students, participating at a hackathon takes courage.
Supporting and valuing all kinds of students should be a goal for all hackathon organizers. However, “increasing diversity” at a hackathon doesn’t involve a list of 10 steps or action items that you can work through and then move on from. Diversity should be seen as a core value of an organization, not a tangible goal.
At T9Hacks, our mission isn’t to achieve “gender diversity”. Be began by understanding the reasons why women don’t attend hackathons and our goal was to create an event that offsets and subverts those things. Our entire hackathon is designed to lower the intimidation factor, build confidence, and create an environment that is different from most computing programs.
We see “promoting diversity” as a fight against a systemic American culture that creates the stereotype of the elite, white, male, super-programmer who only sleeps, drinks coffee, and “dreams in code”. Middle School computing clubs are trying to fight this stereotype. Collegiate Computer Science departments are trying to fight this stereotype. Silicon Valley companies are trying to fight this stereotype. Student hackathons are no different. Your hackathon doesn’t have low attendance from women and POC because they aren’t interested. They aren’t attending because your hackathon is another example of a greater system that is saying they don’t belong there. As hackathon organizers, it is our job to try and counteract these stereotypical and negative perceptions of computing. If we don’t, we will be reproducing and mimicking elements of the same system that dissuades people from entering in the first place.
Brittany Ann Kos is the co-founder and lead organizer of T9Hacks, a female-and-genderqueer-centric hackathon. T9Hacks had two iterations in February 2016 and February 2017. It will have it’s third iteration during the 2016–2017 school year. Brittany is currently working on studying student experiences at hackathons for her PhD and is an advocate for inclusive practices at hackathons.