There were so few women at PennApps last semester that one of the women’s restrooms was converted into a men’s restroom.
This semester, little has changed. While 1,200 hackers flocked to the Engineering quad for PennApps, only a minority of them were women.
Clara Wu, an Engineering junior who is on the board of Women in Computer Science and is the Engineering lead at PennApps Lab, believes that the culture at hackathons can make women feel unwelcome. “There’s some inherent assumption that women aren’t great computer scientists,” she said.
While participating in PennApps last weekend, other hackers asked her if she was just “hanging out and watching.” She found the assumption that she was not participating “really offensive,” since none of her male teammates were asked the same question.
Wu has also observed a trend of assuming women are the “front end,” or aesthetic designers of an app. She says that women who would rather code are often asked to design since “you’re a female so [you] must have great aesthetic vision.”
Although PennApps does not collect demographic information about its participants, nationally, only 12.9 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and 10.6 percent of those in computer engineering were awarded to women from 2011 to 2012, according to the Computing Research Association, and the percentage of women who attend hackathons is about ten percent.
Kathryn Siegel, a sophomore at MIT who directs hackMIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s annual hackathon, says that in her experience, the participation of women at hackathons has improved to around 15%.
Wu thinks that PennApps should be doing more to increase the percentage of women who attend. “They could do a better job of reaching out to a community of women,” she said. In her experience, PennApps has never reached out to Women in Computer Science. She also suggested that PennApps set a goal number of women to include.
Engineering junior Brynn Claypoole, the director of PennApps, said that outreach for women has to be balanced by not “acting like we’re discouraging men.” She does not want women at hackathons to be perceived as not deserving to be there because they received special treatment during the admissions process.
“I want everyone to know that everyone who’s [at PennApps] deserves to be there,” Claypoole said.
Claypoole said that one way to increase female participation at hackathons is to encourage them to be confident. “Women are a bit harder on themselves,” she said, pointing out that women are more likely to underestimate their abilities.
She pointed to an all-female team from Penn which created the popular “Strugglebus” app at PennApps last semester and was subsequently featured on BuzzFeed. However, the app was never demoed and therefore never participated in the competition, “an example of not being confident even though they had something really cool,” Claypoole said.
Both Claypoole and Wu agree that the dearth of female role models in computer science also contributes to the lack of confidence in women. Claypoole has never known of a female top judge at a hackathon until PennApps had one last semester.
Claypoole and Wu also both said hackathons often do not take into account specific concerns many women have. Claypool said in her experience, women are more concerned about hygiene and health at hackathons than men.
This semester, PennApps provided toothpaste, breath mints and mouthwash in their bathrooms, although they could not provide showers in an effort to make physical accommodations at PennApps more hygienic for all participants.
In the past, a gym also served as a sleeping space for the hackers at PennApps. “A lot of women don’t feel comfortable sleeping on the floor with hundreds of men around them,” Wu said.
“Little things like that make you feel kind of out of place,” she added.