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This weekend, women in computer science were given the spotlight at the second annual FemmeHacks, an all-women hackathon. Students from as far away as India applied to be a part of this year's competition.

Credit: Alex Fisher

At a TechCrunch hackathon in 2013, two Australian programmers debuted their new mobile app: Titstare, an app for men to take pictures of themselves staring at women’s breasts.

While the app was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it was also what The New Yorker called “the unfunniest joke in technology,” emphasizing the male-dominated, “brogrammer” culture of the tech industry.

In response to the hostility towards females in the industry, FemmeHacks, an all-women hackathon, was started at Drexel University by Engineering sophomore Andrea Baric, who transferred to Penn from Drexel last fall. The second FemmeHacks was held this past weekend at Huntsman Hall.

“There’s just this culture at hackathons that’s really male-centric and really hard to get into,” College junior Amelia Goodman said. “As a woman at a hackathon, you’re either getting hit on or getting looked at like, ‘why are you here?’”

This year’s FemmeHacks was organized by Women in Computer Science board members Baric, Goodman and Wharton and Engineering sophomore Anvita Achar, along with Women in Computer Science Vice President and Engineering sophomore Elizabeth Hamp. The change in location helped the hackathon to grow and open it up to a greater number of participants.

Last year, roughly 30 students attended the first FemmeHacks, held at Drexel’s ExCITe Center — a number that quadrupled at this year’s event, which accepted around 120 out of over 400 applicants. While priority was given to students from the Philadelphia area, applications came from as far away as California and India.

“As Penn, we get a lot of resources that we take for granted, like a safe hacking space or getting to meet other women in computer science,” Achar said. “So we wanted [the hackathon] to be beyond the Penn community.”

FemmeHacks has branded itself as being open to women*, using the asterisk to indicate that it is open not only to cisgender and transgender women but to nonbinary or gender non-conforming students as well.

The event also featured workshops and panels led by Penn upperclassmen and industry mentors. In line with its mission of community building and networking among women in tech, all mentors and industry representatives were women.

The projects created at the event ranged from a version of the cat collection app, Neko Atsume, which allowed users to surreptitiously call 911 in times of danger, to a video game in which the user beats up 2016 presidential candidate and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump. The grand prize went to a team from Penn that created a program to analyze text and determine its level of gender bias.

Vassar College student Laura Barreto said that she appreciated how FemmeHacks seemed more welcoming and open than other hackathons she had attended.

“I think it’s really important to make events like these accessible to people who would otherwise feel a bit afraid or intimidated to go,” Barreto said. “The thing with a lot of hackathons is that they’re very, very competitive-oriented — I went to one in New York a few months ago and it was very ... ‘I want to win!’ and ‘Oh, you don’t know that many languages? I’ll go find another teammate.’”

Wharton freshman Lydia Chen also appreciated the event’s openness to less experienced coders.

“I’ll probably end up in the business world,” Chen said. “Even if I can’t go out and create a functioning code that’s really complex, just having the ability to look at it and understand what’s going on... is really helpful.”

Clarification: this article has been updated to reflect that the primary organizers of the event were Baric, Goodman and Achar. A previous version of the article indicated that just Baric and Goodman were the primary organizers.

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