It’s a hot Sunday in ewz Kraftwerk in Selnau: the second day of a two-day hackathon – but instead of an exhausted group of male IT students, the room is full of bright-eyed women of all ages. And a few kids are playing on the floor. The atmosphere is unusual and calm for a hackathon. It is also unusual because the event was designed specifically for women – but why is that necessary?
Female entrepreneurs are under-represented in the world of technology, particularly in what are known as the STEM disciplines. This is nothing new and is an undeniable fact. The question is whether and how the problem should be tackled. Some people might go so far as to ask why we should even bother.
Aleksandra Sokolowska and Diana Herrle from women ++, a Swiss non-profit organisation that supports diversity in the technology industry, have very clear answers to these questions. Diverse and inclusive teams have proven to be more productive not only in the workplace, but also most notably in the field of technology. Moreover, the Swiss federal administration and organisations and companies in the private sector have warned against an increasing shortage of skilled specialists, particularly in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). According to current forecasts, there will be a shortage of a half a million skilled professionals in these disciplines in 10 years. women++ decided to tackle the problem by highlighting the untapped potential of women; that includes women who are already active in technological fields as well as those who would like to change their career paths. That was how the idea originated for a women-friendly hackathon. One of the largest hackathons surveyed several dozen participants and came to the following interesting conclusion: women experience hackathons quite differently than men. Women often cannot participate in hackathons, since they generally work part or full time while also taking care of children. Family responsibilities also make it difficult to participate in overnight hackathons. An additional factor is that in most cases, female participants would stand out in a crowd that can be up to 90% male. That often makes women feel they have to prove themselves even more than their male competitors – and that can be intimidating. These factors are why so many female professional or amateur programmers do not register for this kind of event. women++ has tried to tackle this challenge by creating a different environment: With Hack’n’Lead, it has created a two-day hackathon that lasts from 8 am to 8 pm each day and which allows participants to go home during the day. It also offers childcare and computer classes for kids. It organised a preparatory event to give interested participants the opportunity to find out what a hackathon is all about, what to expect and the main goal of a hackathon: to provide a personal learning experience, and input and inspiration in order to take the next professional step or switch career.
Conventional hackathons predominantly involve winning a challenge. The participants’ main objective is to independently find a suitable solution for a specific challenge within 72 hours. This hackathon is very different compared with standard hackathons. That also makes sense if you believe the study data, says Diana: ‘Women tend to attribute success more to teamwork than men do, which is why women appreciate cooperation more than straight-up competition. We have tried to promote collaboration in this hackathon not only between participants, but also between the partners that have come together to create the challenge.’ Because this new type of hackathon for women is not yet widespread, women++ had to invest a lot of time and energy in order to find participants and sponsors for the event. Diana says: ‘It was a learning process for us as well. We had to figure out the right way to make specific arguments to make it as attractive as possible for our target group. And we were successful in the end!’ That is clear. We asked a group of five individuals (four women and one man) with different backgrounds about their experience so far. Laura Rettig, a data scientist, was interested in participating because she loves programming and communicating with like-minded individuals. She found the concept of female-friendliness very appealing: ‘The atmosphere was intimidating at other hackathons. I was worried I would not be able to keep up with all the other guys and that I might be discredited as a woman. It was not as difficult for me to register for this hackathon – I don’t feel like I’m representing my gender here. If I fail, I fail as a person, not as a woman. That is less stressful.’ And what is it like, as a man, to be in a minority at this kind of tech event? ‘To be honest, I was not sure that I would be welcome here as a man at first. But that apprehension changed as soon as I came here with my group – it’s great to work in such a diverse team with people from different fields. I even feel as though the quality of the final product is better. We benefit from the diversity and I feel that women are at a higher level of programming than men when they participate in this kind of event,’ says Igor Susmelj, a student at ETH and hackathon veteran who has participated in more than 10 hackathons.
The concept of a women-friendly hackathon seems to have worked so far. Nonetheless, the hackathon is only part of the journey on which women++ wants to encourage women to work in the technology industry or change their career paths. A lot more is necessary to truly achieve their goal, such as regular networking events, programming workshops and career-related advancement with assistance in the form of CV assessments or salary negotiations. These kinds of activities could encourage and motivate women to become more involved in technology. ‘Although companies have realised they need to react, they do not know how to go about doing so. Numerous companies host a diversity event and are then convinced they have done enough to get people interested. They need to follow a long-term strategy instead: research the subject, invest in training and actively make the environment more welcoming for women. Of course, that is difficult to implement if upper management only consists of men,’ emphasises Aleksandra. In addition to providing regular tech workshops and professional training, women++ also has partnerships with programming bootcamps and mentors in the community to offer continued training. In the long term, this should help create a more diverse workplace in the technology industry and sustainably promote further initiatives of a similar nature.