Future Tense

Hackathons Have a Gender Problem

And they might explain why it’s so difficult to attract women to work in cybersecurity.

Women in cyberspace.
Making hackathons more appealing to female audiences could help get more women into cybersecurity.

Image by WOCinTech Chat/Flickr 

Just less than one-third of American doctors are women, as are just more than one-third of American lawyers. Yet women make up just 10 percent of those working in information security. At a moment when computer security is receiving more attention than ever before, and as people become increasingly concerned about whether we are training enough security professionals to meet the growing demand, the lack of women in the field is especially striking—and concerning.

This isn’t only an issue because there is such huge demand for security workers—one that women could fill if only they thought the field was open to them. It’s also troubling because security problems often, if not always, have very concrete impacts and benefits to society—and research suggests that women often choose to study computer science because they want their work to affect the world. So why do we continue to struggle to get more women into cybersecurity jobs, and computer science–focused professions more generally?

Perhaps one problem is the increasingly dominant role of competitive hackathons in computer science education, training, and recruiting. Hackathons—events typically centered on coders competing against one another to build a new product or service—are very much in vogue right now. The word is invoked in the context of all sorts of different events and sectors to lend them a young, energized, and anti-establishment aura. Come hack the breast pump! Hack the medical system! Hack the newest, coolest, next billion-dollar startup!

The hackathon fantasy—and, often, its manifestation in reality—centers on a crowded, cluttered gymnasium-type room, filled with tables and laptops and folding chairs and pizza and soda. There are corporate recruiters and free T-shirts and participants stay up all night and curl up in hoodies on the floor to catch an hour of sleep when they absolutely can’t keep their eyes open a second longer. There are public presentations and internship offers and prize money and, of course, winners and losers. There are not, by and large, a whole lot of women.

“The way we train our girls, we don’t necessarily raise them to be competitive against other people,” said Marie desJardins, professor of computer science and associate dean at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “These hackathons are not very pleasant places to hang out. You’re supposed to think, ‘I’m gonna wear the same clothes and stay up all night working on this thing because I’m so brilliant and so dedicated.’ I think even the word hackathon is just a really unappealing word—it just brings up a certain set of images which aren’t usually very appealing to women.”

DesJardins added that when she talks to recruiters and people in the tech industry, they often stress the importance of applicants’ extracurricular activities—including side projects, independently designed apps, or hackathon participation—over coursework and grades. “You’re supposed to be in a tech major and also spend your free time going to hackathons,” she said. “That is so unappealing—who wants to work 60-80 hours a week on coding? I didn’t.”

Halie Murray-Davis, a senior mechanical engineering major at Olin College who does programming work in MatLab and Python, said she had participated in only two hackathons during college, both of them somewhat nontraditional—one, which she helped organize, was the 2014 International Women’s Hackathon; the other was the Unhackathon, which emphasizes mentorship and inclusion.

“Sometimes at hackathons you get these people who are really not very nice, not just to women, but to anyone they perceive as not being worthy,” Murray-Davis said. “If you go to one of those events, you’re sort of stuck there for a long time, and I just wasn’t in a position where I felt confident enough in my own abilities to take on that risk.” Instead, she ended up helping to organize the International Women’s Hackathon, which instead of gathering participants in one room with lots of strangers, allowed them to form groups on their own campuses and work on collective summer projects.

Allowing participants to work in an environment with which they are familiar alongside people they know was beneficial for female participants worried about encountering hostile attention, Murray-Davis said, as was the strict code of conduct in place at the Unhackathon.

“One thing that’s really important is making it clear what’s going to happen if something does go wrong, if someone is being disrespectful or abusive,” Murray-Davis said. “Just something like: If you’re having a problem, email or text this person—that goes a long way. It says, ‘We stand with you, we support you here, we’re willing to make a commitment to make you feel comfortable.’ ”

Hackathons may also not be the most constructive learning environment for many female computer science students, said Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor who works on data journalism at New York University. Broussard, who has written about her experience participating in hackathons, noted that they often involve a lot of public presentation and “selling” of participants’ work to a large audience.

“The bravado required for hackathons is probably not as reflective for women who want to learn,” she said. “I have a lot of self-confidence, but I think back on my younger self, and would my younger self have been confident enough to stand up on the stage in front of a bunch of strangers and on a livestream to the entire world and spin a story about how awesome this thing I just made is? No!”

Job ads that try to attract applicants who are “coding rock stars” or “coding ninjas” appeal to a similar sort of confidence or bravado that may be less common in women, she added. “Women don’t tend to brag about their capabilities the way that men do, so I think you’re going to get fewer women applying for a job that says, ‘Oh, we’re looking for a rock star,’ because women tend to undervalue their achievements while men overvalue their achievements,” Broussard said.

Making hackathons more appealing to female audiences—by emphasizing the social impact of the creations they encourage participants to build, or enforcing inclusive codes of conduct, or downplaying the competitive aspects—may help improve this format as a pipeline to get women into security and computer science, more broadly. But perhaps part of the answer lies in not placing too much emphasis on hackathon participation, desJardins and Broussard both suggested.

“It’s not that girls don’t like these things, but it’s one kind of thing. It’s one way of testing out scientific ideas and comparing them against other people, and in our society, it’s a very male way of thinking,” desJardins said. One that, when it comes to recruiting talented people in cybersecurity, just isn’t hacking it.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.