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Female Geeks Flex Their Skills At Ladies-Only Hackathon

Inside the movement to make the coder community more female friendly.

Female Hackathon
And yes, actual work was accomplished. | Photo by Rebecca Greenfield

It's a hot July afternoon in the Hamptons, but the pool at this cedar-shingled mansion is empty. A masseuse sits inside alone, her hands unburdened. Instead, the 16 women in the house are hunched over their laptops, debating the effectiveness of QR codes.

"Can we make them look like naked ladies?" says Izzy Johnston, a software developer with a mohawk. "I'm just saying, we'd get a lot of website hits."

Ladies Who Hack Ladies Who Hack Ladies Who Hack Ladies Who Hack Ladies Who Hack
Photos by Rebecca Greenfield

Surprise! This is a hackathon. But it's also a lot more than that: It's part of a movement to draw more women into programming. Organizers know that social stigma is a barrier—less than 20% of undergraduate computer-science and engineering degrees are given to women, and big tech companies are almost entirely run by men—so female coders are trying to carve out a niche in the hacking community, showing that there's plenty of room for them here too.

It's an important message. "Any country that's going to be competitive in the not-so-distant future is going to need a large developer community," says Evan Korth, a professor of computer science at New York University. "If very few women go into it, we're losing half of our eligible community immediately."

Hackathons seem like a natural place to start putting out the welcome mat. The one- to three-day marathon events gather tech geeks to crank out innovative applications and have become a celebrated part of coder culture. But given that men hold 75% of IT jobs, hackathons also tend to be sleep-deprived dudefests. "I spent my twenties going to hackathons, and I usually came away smelling like PBR and Axe Body Spray," says software developer Sara Chipps, who cofounded the female-centric hacker not-for-profit Girl Develop It.

At most hackathons, the main incentives are small cash prizes and bragging rights. When Chipps began co-organizing the Hamptons hackathon, she thought women would be more drawn to an altruistic goal: to build an online game that teaches users how to combat human trafficking in New York. That's how the event got its name, Hamptons Hackathon for Humanity.

"I like to generalize that men ask, Where's the money? and women ask, Where's the meaning?" says Alexis Goldstein, a founder of software-development and consulting firm Aut Faciam, which has worked with Girl Develop It.

Though the organizers did not limit the event to one gender, women represented the vast majority of applicants—and the most qualified, Chipps says.

So what does a more welcoming hackathon look like? Mostly a lot of typing, of course. And vegetarian rice pilaf and Chardonnay take the place of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Many participants occasionally adjourn to the sundeck to work, wearing bikinis beneath tank tops and cutoffs. And some do finally take advantage of that masseuse.

(Truth be told, one man is in attendance: one of the participants' husbands. "This is a male developer's dream," he says.)

This kind of female-friendly hacking has been replicated elsewhere. Just last January, for example, DonorsChoose.org hosted its first hackathon to help improve user engagement and social-media marketing. In attendance was Hilary Mason, chief scientist at Bit.ly. "The gender balance there didn't seem that off to me," she says.

But Mason says top priority should be reaching girls when they're young. Not-for-profits like Iridescent are setting the pace. This year, it hosted its second Technovation Challenge, a 9- to 12-week program that taught more than 230 high-school girls how to program and design their own Android apps. Similarly, Girl Develop It offers classes in coding and database manipulation to women with no prior technical experience.

Both students and teachers from Girl Develop It were represented in the Hamptons. On Sunday morning, after an 18-hour day, Christina Lutters, a front-end designer, and Johnston, the developer, relax on the back deck as cicadas buzz in the beach grass. At the time, Lutters had been enrolled in Johnston's "Intro to Android Development With Java" class. "This is my first hackathon," Lutters says. "I always felt a bit intimidated by the idea, thinking my skills as a designer would be deadweight."

The organizers' decision to include women of varied career backgrounds—not just programmers but also front-end designers, data analysts, and even business advisers—had enticed Lutters to come. "Creating applications should be a collaborative effort," she says.

Johnston, who describes most hackathons she's been to as "macho-endurance challenges," agrees. "There's been no ego here," she says. "Is that because as women we've struggled to get by in a male-dominated tech world, or because everyone here is just really cool?"

She pauses. "I don't know, but it seems to be working."

Related:
What It's Like To Be A Woman In The Tech Industry
Inside The All-Female Hamptons Hackathon For Humanity

A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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