Jul 08 2013

Getting More Women on the Command Line with Hackathons

University organizations and youth-outreach programs work to correct gender disparities in computing.

In February, 395 women on 11 campuses in six countries came together to combat human trafficking as part of the first International Women’s Hackathon. Sponsored by Microsoft, Skype, IEEE Women in Engineering, the National Center for Women & Information Technology and the Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee on Women in Computing, the event took place over three days as women competed to develop technical solutions to aid the missions of three nonprofits — FAIR Girls, HumanRights4Girls and the Hindsight Group.

Rane Johnson-Stempson, principal research director for Microsoft Education and Scholarly Communication, says the hackathon served multiple purposes. It showed the participants how they could positively affect the world through computer science and gave them confidence to use their skills in a hackathon setting, and it supported Microsoft’s efforts to support diversity in computing.


The percentage by which the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in computer sciences declined in the first decade of the 21st century.

SOURCE: National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, 2012

In March, a similar women-only hackathon event, LadyHacks, was held in Philadelphia. While it took a collaborative approach to problem solving, the goal was much the same as the International Women’s Hackathon, Tristin Hightower says. With co-founder Sondra Willhite, Hightower designed LadyHacks as a confidence-building introduction to the world of hackathons.

“We noticed through general feedback that women weren’t participating in hackathons in Philly,” Hightower says, noting that at least one per month — and often more — is held in the city. Asking around, Hightower found a combination of things contributed to women’s lack of participation, from intimidation at the thought of possibly being the only woman in a crowd of men to a general lack of understanding of the term hackathon.

Because women continue to be underrepresented in computer sciences, hackathons are now part of a broader trend to support and encourage women in computing, both within and beyond higher education.

Sparking Interest in Computer Science

When Samara Trilling entered Columbia University in 2011, she intended to study international relations. Because she was interested in the intersection between politics and technology, and because the basic coding class for non-majors conflicted with her schedule, she found herself in a coding class for computer science majors.

“I ended up loving it so much that I decided to switch my major in sophomore year,” she says. Today she’s a board member of Columbia University Women in Computer Science.

These groups, found on many university campuses, help women who are studying or are interested in the computer sciences by providing camaraderie and mentorship. Otherwise, “it’s hard when you feel like you’re doing it alone,” says Dina Lamdany, Trilling’s fellow board member.

Kylie Taitano, undergraduate president of Women in Computing at the University of California–San Diego, measures the impact of the group by the women who approach members for help.

“A lot of girls drop out of the major because they don’t know where to turn to,” Taitano says, adding that her group strives to be a visible resource on campus.

“I ended up loving it so much that I decided to switch my major in sophomore year."

Like Trilling, both Lamdany and Taitano never intended to be computer science majors. Programs that reach out to students before they enter higher education settings can help spark an interest and set girls on a course to computing before they arrive at college. Microsoft’s DigiGirlz, part of the company’s larger YouthSpark initiative, is one such a program. Through free, daylong and multiday programs, DigiGirlz gives high school girls the chance to learn technical skills and connect with women in technological careers.

One DigiGirlz success story is Kara Fong. Today, Fong is a Microsoft program manager in the OEM division, but her journey toward a technology-driven career began in high school, when she attended a DigiGirlz event.

“Learning about how people were making careers out of something that they really enjoyed doing was very inspiring for me,” Fong says. “After you finish the DigiGirlz program, you leave hungry for more.”

For Fong, the program inspired her to take IB computer science courses, accept internships with Microsoft and pursue a degree in information science and human-computer interaction from the University of Washington.

Hacking the Change

It is likely that the variety of programs that target women and encourage their participation in computer science and related fields will continue to grow. While new private-enterprise programs, such as San Francisco’s Hackbright Academy, exist to help women looking to transition into programming long after their college days are over, colleges and universities also are encouraging women to enter computing by supporting outreach initiatives geared toward high school students and ensuring that women-in-computing organizations are supported on campus. Throw in a hackathon or two, and more women may discover the creative and inspiring side of computer science.


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