Learning How to Hack in a Bro’s World: A Women’s College Student Perspective

A skewed image of the interior of a building with interior brick walls, concrete catwalks, and stone staircases

Image courtesy of Cali Stenson.

This is a guest post from Cali Stenson and Karina Chan. Cali Stenson is a sophomore at Wellesley College majoring in computer science and minoring in math. She’s the co-hack chair of Wellesley’s Computer Science Club, a member of the Wellesley Whiptails Ultimate Frisbee team, and an avid believer in learning and sharing knowledge with others. Karina Chan is a junior at Wellesley College. She is majoring in Computer Science and minoring in math. She tweets all things technology and cat related.

The first hackathon we went to was PennApps over Valentine’s weekend in February of 2014. We thought it sounded really fun; who doesn’t want to spend their weekend making a cool app or website?

It wasn’t exactly what we expected. Hackathons are glorified as centers where people build life-changing and legendary projects; however, most of the students at PennApps seemed to just end up tired, dirty, and a little defeated. What went wrong? Is it the perpetuation of the no sleep/shower/brogrammer stereotype? We do know that we were two of the few women within an entire group of 1,200 hackers.

We didn’t have a great time, but we learned something. We found ourselves in an environment that unconsciously shuts women out, and even worse, women who are beginning hackers. We felt like we did not belong; our extent of hacking was worrying about having a top ten antivirus list available so we could keep our Twitters and Instagrams private and unhacked. We could not possibly be competent enough to compete with the guys who seemed so much better than us with their aggressive energy drinking and loud bragging. Not to mention, some unconscious aversion to showering. There is no moment where you have more impostor syndrome than when you meet brogrammer after brogrammer with a successful app/gadget at the end of a hackathon where you did not even get a basic website up.

This might seem like a surface-level and exaggerated assessment, but from what we’ve seen, getting that feeling of acceptance at a hackathon needs to begin at the ground level as well as the top level. Even with the plentiful conversation flowing about gender inequality in tech and the beginning of forced gender ratios at hackathons, it is important to change the “brogrammer” culture of hackathons. One of the major problems for women interested in hackathons is that it is intimidating to throw yourself into an unfamiliar environment, only to feel different and rejected. Why is this even a problem? In its purest definition, hackathons are havens where people who like to build things have time to build things. Impostor syndrome is distracting and needs to be addressed based on what women are looking for in hackathons and on how teams interact with one another. Are the needs of women different from men? How do we appeal to both audiences? Hackathons should foster an environment friendly to all skill levels and all people that encourages learning for the sake of it, and this is should be enforced not just by creating a magic ratio, but by changing how the internal culture is run.

Over the weekend of April 17-19th, Wellesley College’s CS club along with a group of CS students at Simmons College will be hosting a hackathon that aims to change the internal culture. We want to create a pure space that supports learning and developing while also creating opportunities for networking with current members of industry, i.e. alumnae of Wellesley college and professionals in the Boston area. We’re focusing on the target audience of undergraduate women in CS (will not exclude men), and we encourage students who do not thrive in the typical hackathon environment to come learn to hack with us. Our aim is to focus on the ground up and to address these questions: how do we get women to participate in the hackathon scene, and how do we get women (+ men!) to stay?

Editor’s note: For more information on attending the hackathon, sponsoring the hackathon, or being a mentor, please fill out this contact form, which sends email directly to the Wellesley CS Club.