Can Hackathons Solve Tech's Gender Problem?

Anna Johansson

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Technology has always suffered from an extreme gender disparity. Years ago, it was rooted in a belief that women were inherently less skilled at math and science, the subjects needed to thrive in tech.

More recently, though, women have been subject to more explicit hiring and pay discrimination, to the point that employees at Tesla joked about changing the women's bathroom to a bathroom for men named Matt—there were more men with the first name Matthew at the company than there were women.

If companies want to bridge the gender gap, they'll need to make diversity a priority, but it will take more than that to adjust for decades of discrimination.

That's why women are taking the lead and starting hackathons, a group problem-solving activity where women are encouraged to collaborate and learn from each other while designing websites, developing software, or programming AI. By providing a supportive, educational environment—very different from the hostility women often face in corporate tech—hackathons help women build confidence and provide a pipeline to traditional tech employment or entrepreneurship.

Hack Against Bias

One of the most detrimental effects of the homogenous tech workforce is the fact that even AI that supposedly "learns" from its interactions can suffer from bias stemming from its initial programmers. For example, many facial recognition programs struggle to identify people of color because they have only been trained on white faces, while some voice recognition programs perform more poorly when listening to women's voices because they are only trained on men's deeper register.

The problem is that programmers typically can't see their own bias. At hackathons, though, those impacted by technological bias do not just identify the problem but are encouraged to develop a solution that meets their needs. Their solutions are evidence of just how much-added value women and other minorities can bring to the tech workforce.

Find A Model

Because women have historically been excluded from tech professions, those coming up today who may be better prepared to break those barriers often can't find role models and mentors to support them in their career development. At hackathons, though, women have an opportunity to develop these vital connections because participants come from a range of skill levels and areas of expertise.

In 2016, for example, Austin hosted the ATX diversity hackathon—and the participants were 68% female, 24% Hispanic, and 18% African-American, numbers very different from what you'll see in the average tech office. But more importantly, as one participant noted, "My teammates from the event have stayed in touch. I bonded with a classmate and met a mentor." Mentorship is how people grow in their careers—but minority tech professionals have had few opportunities to make such connections.

Aim Younger

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the future of tech, hackathons are reshaping the tech ecosystem by targeting a young audience—specifically young girls who are still deciding on a career path.

Akshaya Dinesh and Malavika Vivek, founders of Girls Make Apps, for example, provide free tech programming for girls of all ages, including coding camps for girls and women from middle school through college. We know from research that we have to reach girls early if we want to keep them from losing confidence and shifting out of math and science—and programs like this can help keep them on track and encourage their passions.

It will take more than hackathons to solve tech's diversity problem, but they provide the foundation for women to overcome the barriers to inclusion and entry, and they're fostering relationships that can help prevent attrition among women already in the field. We need to demand more of tech's leadership, but hackathons offer a way for women to support each other while we travel the road to employment equity.

Anna is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. She is also a columnist for Entrepreneur.com, Forbes.com, and more. Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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