Hacking Women Helping Women

Hacking Women Helping Women

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Posted by Rob Knies

Rane Johnson-Stempson

By 2018, predicts the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.4 million technology jobs in the United States will be unfilled. At current rates for issuance of computer-science degrees, only 61 percent of those openings will be filled—and just 29 percent of the applicants for those will be women.

It’s quite a disconnect. A study has shown that 57 percent of women earn undergraduate degrees, but only 18 percent of them graduate with a computer-science degree—this in a clean, relatively well-paid industry. Why?

Aware of such trends, Microsoft representatives visiting universities across the world have been making pertinent observations, and they have learned that women find it difficult to be recognized for their technical capabilities—and often lack confidence in those abilities. Another factor is that the first couple of years of computer-science studies can be difficult, abstract, and solitary, making it difficult to see how the creativity and collaboration women want in a job might be applicable.

In addition, women are motivated to pursue opportunities to make an impact or give back to society, and they don’t see how computer science can help them do so. Finally, there is a death of women in computer-science faculties, so woman undergrads often have no role models.

But the situation, while dire, is not hopeless, and therein lies the momentum behind the second annual International Women’s Hackathon, being held April 25-27.

The event is designed to empower, encourage, support, and retain more women in computer science at the university level. Headquartered at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., the hackathon is being held concurrently on April 26-27 with the USA Science & Engineering Festival.

Universities Around the World

But the hackathon also is being staged at university campuses around the world, connected by Lync. Fifty universities in 11 countries will be holding events, expected to attract 2,500 university-level women.

For Rane Johnson-Stempson, principal research director in the Education and Scholarly Communication group with Microsoft Research Connections and co-organizer of the hackathon, the frustrating numbers of women studying computer science represent an opportunity.

“We know that we are losing women in computer science because they don’t see it as a field in which they can make an impact,” Johnson-Stempson says. “This is why we partner with nonprofits that make a significant societal impact. We want to show young women that if they stay in computer science, they can change the world and make a difference.”

Hackathons often can develop into male-dominated competitions, with the women in attendance chosen last by the competing teams. The International Women’s Hackathon is different. It provides a fun, safe environment in which to explore computing and is intended to encourage university women worldwide to become technological innovators and help solve global-scale problems.

The event features a pair of challenges sponsored by the nonprofits Johnson-Stempson mentions. UN Women, a United Nations organizations dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, will drive an exercise designed to increase women’s involvement in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math. Meanwhile, Teens Against Distracted Driving will host a project to encourage people to stop texting while driving.

Other sponsoring nonprofits include the Hindsight Group and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary.

The hackathon begins April 25 with opening remarks by Johnson-Stempson; Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology; and U.S. Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.). Mignon L. Clyburn, commissioner of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, will deliver a brief keynote before the hacking begins in earnest.

On the afternoon of April 27, the theme of The Importance of Computer-Science Education and Girls in Computer Science will be the subject of a panel discussion featuring:

  • Bonnie Ross, general manager of 343 Industries and manager of the Halo gaming franchise.
  • Sanders.
  • Ericka Senegar-Mitchell, biotechnology teacher, McKinley Technology High School, Washington, D.C.
  • Cassidy Williams, a senior computer-science student at Iowa State University and student lead for the event.
  • Pat Yongpradit, director of education for Code.org, whose goal is to bring computer-science opportunities to every school and student in the United States.

The event got off to a successful start last year, with 14 events spread over seven countries and more than 600 young women hacking computing solutions to help victims of human trafficking, setting the stage for the second edition of the event.

Johnson-Stempson listed five goals for this year’s hackathon:

  • To enable women to grow their confidence in their abilities.
  • For participants to see that there are women just like them all over the world.
  • For participants to understand the impact they can have on society.
  • For non-governmental organizations to see how women can make the technology solutions they need.
  • For women to have fun and enjoy programming, being creative, and collaborating on teams.

The event certainly seems to have gained plenty of momentum.

“It has been mainly word of mouth,” Johnson-Stempson says, “but the excitement for women to be able to participate in a women’s-only event that they get to organize has excited and empowered them.”

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