How We Got 50 Women to Our Hackathon (And You Can, Too)

About a month ago, Hack’n Jill organized a hackathon with a simple goal: get 50 men and 50 women in a room to build something to improve their summers. By doing so, we could disprove a growing number of myths about women in tech – namely, that women hackers do exist, want to go to hackathons, and build awesome hacks.

The response we received was overwhelming. Of nearly 100 participants, 45% were female. 90% of the teams had at least one woman, and most were 50:50 teams.

What’s more, the vibe of the crowd was noticeably different. People were working with one another and helping one another constantly.  Everyone was laughing.  The hacks were creative, thoughtful, and really accomplished — 2 teams built fully-functional apps in <12 hours. Check out all the hacks here.

I wasn’t the only one that noticed the difference. Here’s just a sampling of the feedback we got from participants:

“I didn’t feel like an anomaly. I didn’t feel like my skills needed to be questioned. Hacker girls just like me were all around–in numbers that I didn’t even know existed.”

“I loved seeing women around everywhere I looked. You never see that!”

“Of all the hackathons I’ve been to, I’ve never seen one with a girl/guy ratio nearly that high, or where people have been even close to as happy and social as the attendees that weekend were.”

Ultimately, I think the greatest success of Hack’n Jill was proving that hackathons with lots of women are totally achievable — and that they’re awesome.  So if you’re looking to add a few more female hackers to your roster, here are a few tips to get you started.

Before the Hackathon:

  • Pay Attention to Your Tone: Read and reread your hackathon announcement. Send it to friends (guys and girls) and get feedback. Don’t skip this step – the little things really matter! Don’t let your casual joke become the next Sqoot fiasco.
  • Don’t Scare Away Beginners: Almost a third of our attendees had never been to a hackathon. To make beginners feel welcome, have friendly technical mentors on-hand to help out. Post an outline of what to expect at your first hackathon, along with a list of resources and best practices. Ultimately, beginners want to get their feet wet, validate their skills, and walk away a little prouder and a lot more curious. If your event can provide a great first experience, they’ll be all the more likely to attend another one (and invite a friend!)
  • Be Student-Friendly: A third of our attendees came from Columbia, NYU, CCNY, and Rutgers. Student hacker groups are great at getting the word out. Experiment with finding and incentivizing a student evangelist to sign up attendees on his or her campus, or partner with a student group directly to host your hackathon. And don’t forget to tune into student concerns – namely cost, transportation, and scheduling around midterms/finals – and be sure to offer non-alcoholic drinks for underage hackers.
  • Invite Awesome Women You Know: A personal invitation goes a long way towards guaranteeing sign-ups from your friends. Ask your female friends to submit ideas and form teams. Most importantly, ask them to invite their friends.
  • Make the Attendee List Public: Women hackers will want to look at the ratio of men to women on your attendee list. If they see other women attending, they’ll be even more likely to sign up. This is social proof at its best – so make sure your event management system allows public listings.
  • Strive for Balanced Ratios Across the Board: Do you have female judges? Female API evangelists? Female technical mentors? If you don’t, someone’s going to notice and wonder why not. Balanced ratios ensure that everyone feels represented and can comfortably speak their mind.
  • Ensure Your Event Schedule Works for Your Target Audience: Be aware of the scheduling concerns of your attendees – religious, student obligations, parenting, or otherwise.  We scheduled our API demos/meet and greet/team formation for Friday night, but the hacks started on Saturday morning. We got a lot of positive feedback for not hacking overnight, though many people didn’t have enough time (next event, we’ll bracket 12 straight hours to hack). There are always tradeoffs, but optimize for your target group as best you can.

During the Hackathon:

  • Feed People Well: Offer vegetarian-friendly options, salad, fruit, and wine in addition to the usual beer/pizza/redbull. We got at least a dozen thank-you’s specifically for having fruit with breakfast. Everyone likes healthy food – so why not go the extra mile?
  • Have an Icebreaker: Hackathons are awkward. If you don’t arrive with a team and an idea in place, it’s really hard to meet a bunch of strangers, pitch an idea, and find people to work with. Help out your attendees. Separate designers and developers with nametags or t-shirts. Ask attendees to write their languages or design focus on their nametag.  Plan a simple icebreaker or game to get people talking to their neighbors in a structured way (ours was rock, paper, scissors, but a scavenger hunt or peoplehunt would also work).
  • Proactively Welcome People: Stand at front the door and greet your attendees. Thank them for coming. Ask them how they heard about the event. Ask them if they’ve got any ideas they want to work on and if they have a team. Tell them you’re around to help if they need anything.
  • Solve Problems: Walk around the room and ask people what they are stuck on or need help with at every stage of the event (meet and greet, hacking, demos). Connect people with similar skillsets, problems, or ideas. A hackathon is a small enough environment where individual contributions can really affect the experience.

Most importantly, remember that the best way to get more women to come to your hackathon is to recognize that they’ve got a variety of reasons to attend and expectations about your event. Your goal as organizer is to listen — and to try to meet as many of those expectations as possible.

If you have questions on anything I mentioned in this post, ask them in the comments below, and I’ll answer as best I can.  I’m also happy to talk to you about how to get more women to your hackathon – shoot me an email at lauren [at] hacknjill [dot] com.

Hack’n Jill will be hosting another hackathon in NYC in early January. In the interim, keep an eye out for an announcement about a panel on how to build, manage, and grow a 50:50 engineering culture.

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  • Jim Blackler

    Sounds brilliant… very well done.

  • basicallydan

    Thanks for this, Lauren. Apart from having loads of good advice about getting women to attend this has plenty of good advice for making a hack day successful in general.

    • Lauren Gilchrist

      Thanks, Dan! We definitely learned a ton, it might be worthy of another post specifically on how to organize a hackathon.

  • a.


    i love the idea of getting more women engaged in software communities, so i welcome your effort! but looking at our free software communities i have a question to you: how many blacks were there?
    where i want to get with my question? in my eyes diversity is a bigger concern than the gender one and — in most cases — having a a variegate community is a sign that your community is a healthy one!

    still, you’re on a very good path! the hints you’re giving are good ones and seem apply to any effort to open up a community.


    p.s.: by starting on friday night and hacking through the whole saturday you managed to make it hard for muslim and jewish people to attend (it’s a bit strange to notice it in the section called “Ensure Your Event Schedule Works for Your Target Audience”)

    • Lauren Gilchrist

      Thanks for the feedback. You raise several good points.

      Our “success metric” for this hackathon was achieving a 50:50 gender ratio, so unfortunately we did not keep track of the heritages of attendees. Anecdotally, I thought it was a pretty diverse crowd of attendees, but feel free to take a peek through the pictures and draw your own conclusions:

      One of the inherent downfalls of focusing on just one ratio is that we’re missing other opportunities to encourage diversity. I certainly recognize that diversity is a larger concern than gender (and also that reducing gender to men and women is limiting), but I think a lot of these principles can be applied to promote diversity in any community, as you suggested.

      That said, we’re still a new community, and we’re learning as we grow while trying to accommodate everyone’s interests. You’re not the first that mentioned Friday night as a restriction, and we’ll definitely take that into consideration planning our next event.

      • Gregory Magarshak

        I’m Jewish, and I have to say I always have to sit out the first 12 hours of the TechCrunch hackathon (which begins on Saturday) so by the time I arrive, everyone’s already formed teams, made 12 hours of progress, some even went home etc. Not as exciting for me as it would be otherwise.

    • Dworin

      I was actually an attendee at Hack & Jill and had a great time. The atmosphere really was different and in a really positive way. To the earlier commenters who remarked that gender diversity meant overlooking other kinds of diversity, I had the opposite experience at Hack and Jill. Maybe it was a side effect of the push to be more inclusive, but there was more diversity across the board than at any of the other Hackathons I’ve attended. Our team had three women and two men, one of the women was African American, and while we never talked about sexual orientation, it was a pretty eclectic group with a lot of different backgrounds.

      There were also a lot of people outside the traditional startup/agency/programmer community – one guy I met worked in the MTA train yards during the day, but taught himself to code on his own and was there to practice his skills – which is a kind of social diversity that’s bigger than gender or skin color.

      P.S. – The prizes were pretty good too – awarding us a bottle of Scotch meant we had to stick around after and bond away from our laptops to enjoy it.

      • Lauren Gilchrist

        Thanks for sharing your experience! We also noticed that it was a remarkably diverse crowd, and have done our best to showcase that in our follow up pics & blog posts. I think you’re right that by pushing to be more inclusive of one group, we actually attracted a more diverse crowd.

        Moving forward, I think there’s value in capturing more details about our attendees (voluntarily, of course). I’m of the opinion that diverse teams build better products; it would be interesting to start collecting data from our events to see if we can empirically support that belief.

  • Raj Kadam

    If you are in the Bay Area, we’d love more women engaged in our hackathon meetup group:

    Hope to see you on there!

  • b.

    Diversity is awesome. Too bad it’s only *that* kind of diversity that always gets addressed, and all the other minorities in IT (blacks, as a. pointed out, are notoriously rare in IT) are ignored.

    Okay, everyone and their dog wants to get more women in IT. Why? Why not more blacks, or more poor people, or more, I don’t know, gays?

    There are groups other than women that have waaay more hurdles in their way to become an IT person. Why nobody cares about, I don’t know, setting up an hackaton in a poor suburb? Or in a black ghetto? Those guys probably need much more than the pat on the back you’re giving these middle class white women that you so much want to involve in IT.

    Please, this is just pathetic. This is not striving for equality. There are *no* barrier at entrance for a white middle class woman who wants to get into IT. If you’re a woman and you’re even a barely competent engineer, your road towards an high paying IT job is plated in gold – everyone wants you in the name of *diversity*, as this event testifies.

    • E

      This is unfortunate that you are so narrow minded that you feel you need to criticize this particular event because it doesn’t pander to your preferred group. There are groups out there like, spend your time supporting something like that rather than criticizing someone else’s work. Who knows how many of these women that attended were minorities? Certainly not you it seems, you are too high and mighty to attend an event like this. I am sad this is what the world has come to…

      • Ryan

        How on earth is your criticism of this guy wanting more minorities in tech that he is “narrow minded”? They clearly want to broaden tech’s horizons. I am absolutely, 100% baffled at how on earth you can call someone narrow minded when all they are asking for is for more minorities to be involved in tech??

        • W

          Yeah, diversity only by his definition and everything else is ‘pathetic’. Dude is obviously just a disgruntled troll.

        • sequoia

          Believe it or not, it’s possible to promote more involvement by minorities and other disadvantaged groups without invective towards all other efforts. Take a woman’s point of view (mine): All of these efforts deserve to be recognized and supported. Flinging personal assaults does not help anyone.

      • b

        I spend my time coding, as all of us who actually can code themselves out of a wet paperbag do. Every now and then I find out about events like these and I can’t avoid to express myself (of course, behind the veil of anonymity – once I was denied an interview with because of something not so politically correct I wrote on the internet, from that day on I make sure nobody can find out who I am when I express my thoughts).

        No wonder those events are always full of wannabees and the real coders steer clear from them – how can you take something like this seriously? What then, let’s celebrate the “help Jews get into finance” day? Again, are we serious? All a woman has to know to get a brilliant position in IT (a position someone else less privileged would have to sweat hard for) is to *barely* code in a group of people. We’re talking fizzbuzz level here. I’ve seen it, I’m sure a lot of other people has. Not that I care about that – I can and I do sweep them off the floor with my left hand – but still, a male with equivalent skill wouldn’t have been considered at all. If there’s inequality between genders, certainly is not the women who have the worst part of the deal.

        So yeah, I’m so narrow minded that I find outrageous that a group of people actively spend their time and energy to favour a group that absolutely needs no help, when there’s so many people out there who would *actually* benefit from their time and energy. Go organize a hackaton in the poorest public high school of your city, then I’ll praise you. But that’s wouldn’t be all frills and fanciness I guess, and poverty and desperation don’t seem to be so much in your preferences.

        I am too high and mighty to attend an event like that. Thank god I am – otherwise, given the jerk I am, I would be in dire straits. I’m just thinking what’s the real purpose of all this. It seems just politically correct for political correctness’s sake to me.

        • Chris Nicola

          It must be very hard for you to watch this industry begin to actually to ostracize misogynistic bigots such as yourself, instead of blithely tolerating them. My sincerest condolences.

    • a

      dear b,

      just to make sure that i’m not misunderstood:

      in my eyes, lauren’s goal and method is very valuable and i would love to have more women in our communities!

      my concern is that i would like to see her (and similar) initiative to be integrated into a broader move to get diversity into our programming communities.
      and by increasing they diversity make them healthier and better.

      we need it!

  • balanced views

    White american woman are already one of the most entitled demographics on earth. Why more special treatment for women? The ones who are really discriminated against are old people. (older than 40, say) Also – where is the love for blacks and mexicans in tech. You know – diversity.

    • sequoia

      All of these efforts deserve to be recognized and supported.We definitely need more women (of all stripes and nationalities) in IT.

      • Jim Blackler

        I would love to look around my dev studio and see a mix of people matching that I might see on the street outside; that includes race, gender and everything else.

  • Wadsok Lord

    Good that women are interested in hacathons, but trying to get 50:50 is just plain wrong. Imagine if someone tried to force 50:50 in companies, some women would prevent more qualified men from working in company and some men would prevent more qualified women from getting job.
    Also: “By doing so, we could disprove a growing number of myths about women in
    tech – namely, that women hackers do exist, want to go to hackathons,
    and build awesome hacks.” to do this you just should do 100% women hackathon.
    Sorry for “not supporting” but I am quite fed up with everyone forcing “equality” on everything and feminists calling every man rapists.
    As someone already said in comments: “Okay, everyone and their dog wants to get more women in IT. Why? Why not
    more blacks, or more poor people, or more, I don’t know, gays?” It’s feminism fault, claiming that women are oppressed and not allowed to do anything.

  • ozw1z5rd

    Can you tell me the average age in Hackathon?

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