Hackathons, those one- or two-day innovation sprints in which teams of like-minded, well-intentioned, super-excited people gather to develop solutions to a designated challenge, can often be less innovative than hoped. A root problem: They can be exclusionary. By operating under seemingly unwritten rules that many hackathons follow, gender diversity can be lacking. That’s a lost opportunity for everyone, and can be attributed to the origins of these events.
Hacker events, or hackathons, a term coined in 1999 for an event held in Calgary, Alberta, initially focused on code writing. Immediately popular as both a term and a concept, the event was quickly duplicated, with similar events operating under some unofficial guidelines. Groups of people gathered to work in teams, often competitively, to solve a problem within a tight deadline. Given their origin, the first generation of hackathons focused on coding and engineering challenges. They soon expanded to become make-a-thons, wider in scope, with teams working to design a physical device or digital solution within the day or two time frame of the event.
Today hackathons tackle an assortment of problems. Topics can range from coding to political and social issues. The American Bar Association’s Women in Law hackathon tackles gender disparity in law firms. The California Water Data hackathon looks for innovative solutions for safer drinking water.
A few things haven’t changed. For one, there’s a tendency to solve every problem with a “ta-da” solution–an impulse embedded in hackathon culture. Usually it’s something technical, and sometimes that solution is decided upon before fully identifying the problem. Another is that hackathons are competitions; at the event’s conclusion a winner or winners are announced by a panel of judges. And something that has been the case since the very first event, participants tend toward a specific, mostly male demographic. NASA, for example, reports that of the 25,000 people worldwide participating in its 2018 Space Apps challenge, just under 25% were women. And that’s up from 20% in previous years. Other organizers cite equally low percentages.
In response, a slew of hackathons have called for more non-men to participate in recent years. They include hackathons set up specifically for women and nonbinary people. Technica is an all-women hackathon hosted by the University of Maryland. T9Hacks at the University of Colorado Boulder is specifically created for women and nonbinary participants.
The reluctance of women to participate in male-dominated or mixed gender events is certainly not an issue of competence, although confidence may play a role. A research study in 2018 on software coding contributions at GitHub, an open source platform for coders, investigated the “competence-confidence” gender gap, finding that men tend to have too much confidence while women tend to lack in it, exhibiting more self-doubt in STEM-related topics. As we have all observed in life, competence and confidence levels often don’t align. But while feelings of insecurity on the part of women are unjustified, they are explainable. A well-publicized 2016 study, also focused on GitHub, found that contributions by female coders were accepted at a higher rate than contributions by males–but only when gender wasn’t identified. When gender was known, men were given preference. The GitHub studies follow a 2013 study at Ohio University that found scientific papers arbitrarily attributed to male or female authors were regarded more highly in the eyes of readers, female readers included, when attributed to male authors. Of course, the tendency to disregard or downplay women’s contributions in science and engineering dates back decades. But it continues in present-day practice.
To address the gender imbalance, many organizers have made efforts to reach out to women, encouraging more to participate, but with mixed results. Hackathons really need to be rethought from within. Where that’s been happening, there’s been great success.
In planning the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon last year at MIT Media Lab, organizer Catherine D’Ignazio and team went to extremes to assure diversity. For one, they placed focus on the cause, not the event. As you would expect, this topic is of great interest to women, so attracting their attention wasn’t difficult. The organizers prioritized the experiences of the participants during the event. To elicit the best from participants, a majority of whom were new to this type of gathering, they established an overall strategy of “joy and play.” In order to be creative and speak with an open mind, people need to be comfortable. And it wasn’t just about making “things.” While some teams at the event focused on products or technology, others focused on improving policies–in government and the workplace–as well as education.
Still, according to D’Ignazio, “the designs created at the first event reflected the needs and priorities of the hackers at the event: primarily white, well-educated knowledge workers with private offices, good health insurance, and disposable income.” Subsequent media coverage, which was plentiful, fixated on “who won,” as if a single creation would solve the problem–something the organizers afterward considered to be a “masculine, solutionist approach.”
For the 2018 event, the organizers built on learnings from that 2014 hackathon. They analyzed those shortcomings and rethought key aspects of the event. To ensure the space was welcoming to people of color, they enlisted 70% nonwhite participants by actively recruiting people through social media, personal connections, and by reaching out to Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and community organizations. Men, women, and nonbinary people participated. Comfortable living-room settings were arranged, along with a magazine library, an art gallery, and a “baby village,” the latter being a play area with toys, a diaper changing station, and a lactation room. Participants could choose to bring a partner or friend to assist in childcare.
Planning nine months in advance, locally-held “Community Innovation Programs” were held to finance participation from people in many different locations around the country–Boston, Detroit, New Mexico, and Mississippi–so that people involved with the topic became central to the event, including people working directly with low-income mothers who would benefit from the event’s innovations. They also invited experts in the field to discuss specific issues people are having, counteracting a typical hackathon tendency for participants to assume they already understand the problem and come to the event with the goal of playing out a preconceived solution.
Another organization, Girl Develop It, is a nonprofit group helping women of any age learn web and software development in a “judgment-free environment.” Samantha Provenza, an organizer of the New York GDI events, understands their plight. Participating in previous hackathons, “I didn’t feel connected, I felt like an outsider.” Their current goal is to welcome everyone. Similar to the MIT event, GDI eliminates judges, reimburses women for childcare expenses, and sets doable hours. Even with their focus on coding, they flipped the gender mix, with more than 90% females making up their recent hackathons.
Although many hackathons are arranged quickly and with limited resources, there are ways to increase parity, and to position these events as a platform for envisioning real solutions to real problems for real people. Following are five ideas that can be applied to virtually every event.
1. Consider social causes as themes
Don’t limit themes to those that simply lead to objects or technology-based solutions. There exists an abundance of social causes in the world that can benefit from innovative approaches.
2. Set schedules that are possible for a wide range of people
While working through the night is possible for some people, it’s not realistic for all. Not everyone can stay up all night at a hackathon, or even till 2 a.m. Such schedules will exclude a significant portion of the population, automatically limiting diversity.
3. Plan an event where “winning” is not the goal
Sharing is important, and the thought that any one idea would shine over the others is presumptuous. Designating a jury can also lead to less innovative strategies as teams try to second-guess the jurors in an effort to win. And it will result in secrecy among teams, not openness. It requires the event to conclude with each team making a pitch to the jurors about why their solution should be chosen over those of the others, a lost opportunity for everyone to participate in the conversation.
An alternative: Rather than a judging panel declaring a winner, the MIT event concluded with something akin to a science fair, providing a more social atmosphere that gave participants more of a chance to interact.
4. Consider the larger cause–think beyond the event
If the intent of your hackathon is to really make a difference, don’t expect any one solution to take you to the final goal. Start the event by encouraging participants to understand the problem and opportunities, not just jump to solutions. Introduce them to people who would be the beneficiaries of those solutions, hearing firsthand about the real-world issues. And to effectively expand public awareness, plan in advance for media coverage, don’t just expect it to happen. If the topic is worthy, the audience and champions for your hackathon event will reach far beyond the walls of the event.
5. Include networking as a goal
Remember that, while the hackathon is a time-limited event, the topic will live on. A hackathon provides a chance for participants to meet open-minded, motivated people sharing similar interests. The networking that takes place can ultimately be its greatest outcome. Make sure that networking happens, within and among the various assembled teams. It can be more successful for (later) advancing the cause than anything conceived within the hackathon itself.
A hackathon provides organizers the opportunity and privilege to spend a day or two harnessing the brainpower of a large group of motivated people. It’s in everyone’s best interest to both respect and take advantage of that opportunity. Hackathons offer the chance to tap into and expand on the thoughts of a large and as-diverse-as-possible assembly of energized brains–which will, without question, increase the chances of producing truly innovative results.
Dan Formosa consults with companies and organizations worldwide on design and innovation. He holds degrees in design, ergonomics, and biomechanics. He cofounded 4B, a collective focusing on opportunities for companies and organizations to better connect with the world’s nearly 4 billion females. He also cofounded the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.