Why hackathons are a boys' club and how to change that

Female programmers discuss why they avoid hackathons and what could be done to make them feel more welcome

boys_club-290x218_0.jpgImage credit: flickr/Daniel Morrison
Why are hackathons like a boys club?

It's well known that women working in technology are a relatively rare breed but there's one area of the tech world where they seem to be particularly scarce: at hackathons. While I couldn't find any real statistics on the average male/female breakdown at hackathons, anecdotally at least, hackathons appear to be an almost purely male pursuit. But why do many of the few female programmers there are seem to stay away from this common developer activity? And what can be done to get more women to attend hackathons?

A recent thread on Quora sheds some light why women don't go to hackathons. Based on the responses, there seemed to be a couple of common reasons. 

Getting treated differently than men

Like men, women who go to hackathons just want to be a part of something fun, build something interesting and meet other programmers. They don't like being made to feel different or getting attention just because they're women. It can all add up to an uncomfortable experience.

"It seems that many people don't even care about what I built or which components I worked on. All that matters is that I was female." Anonymous
"Stop making it uncomfortable for the women who do attend hackathons by treating them like a ‘special' minority group. Not treating women like just regular people interested in programming will eventually drive them away." Manjari Narayan
"If I go, I won't just blend in. People will know I'm there. You can't just blend in as a woman, you know? I WILL BE WATCHED." Anonymous

Lack of confidence

Female programmers can feel intimidated at hackathons and not qualified enough to excel in that format. Of course, men can feel this way too, but already being minorities in the programming world can make women more susceptible to feeling inadequate.

"Being the only female in a world or male coders… it can be a little overwhelming to say the least. It's hard enough at work to not feel like a fraud and that you are just skating by, why put yourself in the lion's den where everyone will be paying attention to you?" Anonymous
"Low self-confidence. This is by all means a normal human quality which many of us fail to realize." Yezhisai Murugesan
"I am not really sure if I can think on my feet and code up a storm given a random problem to solve in a completely unrelated technical space." Ramya Sethuraman

Not wanting to code for 2 days straight

Women seem less likely to enjoy the stereotypical stay-up-all-night-eating-crappy-food-and-coding hackathon environment. Again, men may also feel this way, but women may feel more pressure from home and parenting responsibilities to not take part in such coding marathons. 

"I know a lot of my female AND MALE friends who just do not have the time as they're busy working (Yes, even on the weekends!)." Yezhisai Murugesan
"I am scared of the time commitment. I am a mom of 2 young kids and putting in 2 night outs for a hackathon just doesn't fit into my current phase in life." Ramya Sethuraman
"These days, I don't want to to give up a precious week/weekend time to coding around the clock. Other life priorities place higher." Shuba Swaminathan

OK, so there are a number of valid reasons women tend to stay away from hackathons. But what can hackathon planners do to get more females to attend their events? I found some women offering advice on this subject. Here are some suggestions for making your hackathon more female-friendly.

Amy Quispe, who works at Google and ran hackathons while a student at Carnegie Mellon University, writes that having a pre-registration period just for women makes them feel more explicitly welcome at your event. Also, shy away from announcing that its a competition (to reduce the intimidation factor), make sure the atmosphere is clean and not "grungy"  and make it easy for people to ask questions. "A better hackathon for women was a better hackathon for everyone," she writes.

Tess Rinearson, an engineer at Medium writing about how to run an inclusive hackathon, suggests that hackathon organizers should recruit a diverse group of judges and mentors to encourage more females to attend. Also, to reach out directly to women's groups to invite them, offer healthier food and to also pay attention to the language used when advertising the event. She feels that words like "ninja" "rockstar" and, yes, even "hack" can be off-putting to women. "I have heard young women say that they shied away from hackathons because they assumed they would be aggressive events about breaking into systems," she wrote.

Lauren Gilchrist, a co-founder of Hack'n Jill, writes about how her organization has attracted significant numbers of women to its hackathons. Among her suggestions were that organizers should make beginners feel welcome and to be aware of potential scheduling conflicts that could prevent women from attending. She also recommends making your attendee list public. "Women hackers will want to look at the ratio of men to women on your attendee list. If they see other women attending, they'll be even more likely to sign up."

Good suggestions to keep in mind when organizing a hackathon. Let's hope other people running hackathons will take some of these to heart. 

Read more of Phil Johnson's #Tech blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Phil on Twitter at @itwphiljohnson. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

This story, "Why hackathons are a boys' club and how to change that" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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