Why Don't More Women Go to Hackathons?

01/21/2014 12:07 pm ET | Updated Mar 22, 2014

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by an Anonymous user on Quora,

You're going to have to take for word my background: I'm a female university student studying cs, have had several internships at top companies, and have gone to about 8 hackathons since I started to learn how to code three years ago. I've been to university, internal/company, and public hackathons.

I don't go to hackathons to try to win prizes; I go for the joy of building a prototype of something I'm passionate about with a team.


Fact: At 6 of the 8 hackathons I've been to, my team has placed in the top three or won a category.

That sounds great, right? So, what's the problem? I'm a woman and I apparently do well at hackathons. Woo hoo!

I have not gone to a single hackathon in the past 8 months. I don't know when I will attend one again.

I'm cracking under the pressure. I'm stressed out.

As I have progressed in my undergraduate studies, I am increasingly on the receiving end of comments such as these:

  • Here, design our front end. Girls are good at art.
  • You had male teammates on your hackathon team. They probably did all the work.
  • You won an award/got the job because you're a girl.
  • The bathroom is over there, in case you need to fix your make up. (Hint, I rarely wear make up.)
  • You wrote that component? Oh, probably with lots of help from that guy over there.
  • (After walking into the lab) Oh hey, it's the girl.
  • (At a hackathon) You the designer for the team?
  • What's your favorite <insert obscure topic here that I've heard of once before>? Oh, you don't know about this? What? Really? Wow, how can you call yourself a CS major? Girls are so dumb! scoffs
I don't just hear these at university. I've heard them at my internships. I've heard them at hackathons. I've heard it during an interview.

I don't know why people feel the need to throw these at others. I thought the hurdle was when I switched into engineering and people sneered at the thought. I thought that as upperclassmen with industry experience, my peers would recognize that I am competent and put my heart and soul into every project.

At one point, I lost all self-confidence in my computer science skills. You might think it's stupid for comments to get to you, but imagine getting at least one of these comments every day. It wears me down. There's only so much I can do to keep my chin up and keep going. I don't want to deal with this anymore.

The love that I've once poured into hackathon projects is fading away quickly. It seems that many people don't even care about what I built or which components I worked on. All that matters is that I was female.

Once, my team was interviewed for a local paper about our hack project. I was so excited to talk about the project! I had proposed the idea to my teammates, and the rest was history.

When the reporter turned to me, he asked what it felt like to be a woman at the hackathon.

Way to make me feel out of place! I talked to my team about it afterwards, and everyone was very uncomfortable about it. I'm lucky to have a supporting team who didn't pressure me to answer the question and instead highlighted that I was actually an asset to the team (who would have thought?).

I love the thrill of building that project that I have invested so much time to think about beforehand. I'd like to think that I'm a reliable team player who usually worked on back end components. Judges have deemed my teams' projects worthy of some sort of recognition, so the projects were probably good, right?

I can't believe I'm doubting my own skill set as I write this. I know what I can and cannot do. I won't lie about being somewhat clueless if you ask me to do something in python, because I spend most of my time with javascript and rails.

Now, I refuse to attend a hackathon without a solid team and well thought out idea. I'm afraid that failing to place or having a product that is less than adequate will lead to so much contempt from my peers. That stress will affect my ability to think clearly while I am put into a room to build a cool thing with a time limit.

It's another excuse for more people to tell me I'm not cut out for the field. It's a strike against women because we "aren't good enough." I don't want to fend off guys walking by our team's table making comments about how there's a woman in the house. It's a distraction to my team, and they don't deserve to have to deal with that.

These sound like excuses. Maybe they are. They're now what I think of first when I hear a hackathon is coming up.

Everyone is watching, because I am a woman.


Answer by Shuba Swaminathan, Tech. Entrepreneur, @shuba_s

Not claiming to speak for all women by any means, but I personally don't attend hackathons because:

  1. I don't enjoy the caffeine-driven, sleep deprived, artificial pressure cooker atmosphere. Been there, done that when I was a lot less experienced. I learned I do not produce my best work under these circumstances. By now, I have developed a strong sense of intuition about what will and will not work, and what coding decisions will likely come back to bite. This instinct is hard to explain to someone who doesn't have much real world experience. As a result, it's a drag to have to justify every single thing you are doing and have someone watching over your shoulder/second guessing your decisions.
  2. These days, I don't want to to give up a precious week/weekend time to coding around the clock. Other life priorities place higher.
  3. I hate being nominated spokesperson for my entire gender and it's all too common to be nominated as one like the other female responders have noted.
  4. By the same token, I hate being exoticized and don't deal well with being patronized. I am no longer the shy greenhorn who could be easily intimidated by young male swagger. I pull no punches if confronted with arrogance/idiocy/poor logic. That throws people off, not quite what they are used to from other women they've worked with.
  5. I have no issues feeling like an impostor. I am a damn good engineer and don't feel the need to back up that assertion, like most of my male colleagues. I will call BS when I see it. Not a good combination in a team with insecure, young, usually male engineers who haven't had a chance to get to know you or your technical capabilities, and will stereotype based on their limited experience. This affects team dynamics.
  6. I also happen to have a MBA and start-up experience, so I don't tolerate BS from that end of the spectrum either and require data backed arguments. Doesn't exactly endear me to the "you-are-an-engineer-let-me-help-you-help-yourself" type business folks.


My personal experience:

I actually got to build a team, designate work, create stories, build a mobile app prototype and win a "cool idea" award (for my app gestrMe )at LA Startup Weekend in 2011. It was a life changing experience. I did not go ahead and publish my app in the market because I was unable to pursue my app due to various life status changes, but the spirit gained that weekend always encourages me to participate even more even if I do not win anything.

As a software engineer, I try to attend at least 1 hackathon in one year. I look forward to meeting female engineers or designers or developers or managers, and I am disappointed every year when the strength of women in hackathon is almost less than 1%. Even if I find some on first day, most of them are gone the next day.

I also attend technical conferences. When I meet female engineers or developers, I notice they are very talented, but some of them lacked creative ideas or turn away from entrepreneurial discussions. The ones who have creative ideas did not want to share with a broader audience.

As a female engineer, I have to admit that:

1. If I pitched an idea other than Fashion or Movies or Health, it was not appreciated much by the audience. Last year, I pitched an idea for a sports related app, which got luke warm response from the audience. This was a bit discouraging.

I noticed several women participating in hackathons had little or no experience in engineering development or they are not interested in building a prototype. I usually observed them doing design work (User Interface) or Marketing (which are better than no participation), but this prevents you from exploring other talents you may have hidden.

2. Hackathons usually last for a weekend (say Friday to Sunday) and usually require working overnight with little sleep, especially when working in a group of people.

I hate being sleep deprived as it will reduce my productivity and creativity which are vital until the presentation day (usually Sunday in the evening).

I also hate waking up to see people who slept on a sofa or on floor or running around restrooms smelling bad.

I would much rather go home, sleep well, wake up early, quick bite for breakfast ,get ready and come to the group work place to finish the work. I have always have done that with no issues from my team.

3. I have a lot of female friends who are afraid to pitch ideas but secretly hope others do not pitch them. They are too scared to share ideas and openly discuss plans for prototyping.

This attitude, I believe, is doing harm to developing entrepreneurial skills.

If an idea is very close to your heart, fine, keep it to yourself. But you can still pitch other related ideas to understand or discover others' problem solving perspective to a given problem. If you do not participate & share, how do you even know the potential of your ideas ?

I believe hackathons are a great opportunity for a quick "startup and reset" boost. Why?

1. Learn how to pitch your idea in a few words. This is not as easy as it appears to be when you check out some youtube videos. Your 30 second pitch must compel people to vote/back for your idea and make it happen that weekend! Isn't this an awesome skill to acquire?

2. Learn to teach yourself to quickly prototype. This gives you a momentum requore to solve any problems in life. It helps in developing pro-activeness and productivity. This will surely help build (self)confidence & is a discovery tool of your unknown skills set.

I did not I know that I was quite resourceful to my team with good problem solving techniques, coding skills & preparing presentations until I attending my first Hackathon. I also got a chance to see how to take into account fewer assumptions and wider perspectives to solve a problem.

3. It gives a chance to meet people of different backgrounds. How often do you get to meet a VP from Disney or NFL or Investors or celebrities or Ashton Kutcher judging your presentation to invest in your idea? This stuff actually happens & it is exciting to hear feedback from them!!

4. People who participate want to feel how it be to be a Product Manager or coder or analyzer or tester or presenter. Where else can you find passionate people working together for a given idea and problem?

5. Attending hackathons creates a ripple and cascading effect.

After someone goes to their first hackathon, that person immediately begins asking when the next hackathon is, and the next thing you know, they have become evangelists themselves, inviting their friends.

Wow! Just typing that got me excited to search for hackathons for January 2014.

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