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.