As if feminism and hacktivism joined forces, the all female-hackathon seems to be the answer for various communities looking to bring more women into tech.
Multiple female-driven events in New York this past month, including the AT&T-sponsored Girls Who Code Hackathon for high schoolers and the Monarq SheHacksNYC hackathon this past weekend, point to women’s growing interest in computer science, despite biases against women in the tech industry.
“When you put all the women together in a room, they naturally feel safer,” says Diana Murakhovskaya, co-founder of Monarq, a friendship-finding app for women.
Murakhovskaya and her business partner Irene Ryabaya, held their first all-women hackathon in April, in an attempt to find female developers to help program their app. But the greater purpose was to inspire more women to get into startups.
For the non-techies out there, a hackathon is an opportunity for programmers of all experience levels to come together and use coding to build something, such as a website or an app, which can often lead to real-life startups. All of the apps borne out of SheHacksNYC cater to women. Past projects have included apps to help women match with style services in their city, or to convert resumes into anonymous skill charts to help employers review job applicants without knowing their gender.
Events like those staged by Monarq and Girls Who Code are designed to encourage women to try to advance in an industry that’s primarily male-driven, says Brianna Collins, a participant in SheHacksNYC. “It brings women out of the woodwork, who have amazing ideas and amazing talent, and puts them in an environment that’s conducive to setting them up for success.”
Participants at both events say that one of the greatest challenges faced by female programmers, and women in general, is a lack of confidence. “Women have a tendency to underestimate their abilities,” says Tracy Huynh, who participated in Monarq’s original hackathon. “Older men [in tech] are condescending to women. We would all like to stop facing biases.”
While the safe space of an all-female hackathon may not accurately represent the realities of the tech industry, many, including Huynh, say participating in a female-only hackathon allowed them to assert their knowledge and build confidence.
High school senior Ekta Rana, who participated in Girls Who Code (GWC), a program that teaches coding to teenagers, as well as the GWC Hackathon says the hackathon challenged the stereotype that all programmers are “nerdy and antisocial” tech geeks.
“All-female hackathons are so important because it shows that tech companies are interested in hiring women and that this is a viable career for girls,” says Rana.
Indeed, tech companies suffer without female input — Apple’s first attempt at “Siri,” the iPhone’s voice-activated search tool, is a great example, Rana says. It was a hit, but it couldn’t recognize female voices. “The all-male team that created the software forgot to account for the fact that women tend to have higher pitched voices and that would need different frequency code,” she says, “It is a literal situation in which women’s voices are going unheard in this field.”
It’s hard for women to get into tech, and it’s harder for them to stay in it because the environment is so male-dominated, says 16-year-old Leslie Landes, another GWC hackathon winner. The app that Landes and Rana coded with their team, called “Empower Your Shower,” increases awareness about water conservation by calculating the amount of time spent in the shower and measuring how much water was used.
“It was great starting out to be only with women,” says Landes, “and it’s gonna be intimidating when I have to code with guys. While that can be scary, I have to rely on the fact that I do know how to code, I can do this, and I will do this.”