Hacking While Female

A recent Twitter conversation has been sparked by an article posted on the Guardian by Matt Andrews where he noted the maleness and whiteness of Music Hack Days. He concluded by hoping people would respond. This is my longer-than-140-characters response.

There aren’t many women that participate in Music Hack Days no matter what statistics you choose to use. To my knowledge, women have not been largely involved in orgranising them; there are usually fewer that 4 women presenting hacks at the conclusion of a MHD (out of about 50 presentations); the general numbers on the floor of MHDs that I’ve attended average at about 15% women.

I don’t think the Music Hack Day community can be blamed for the lack of female participation. It is a problem much, much bigger than the Music Hack Day and extends into problems with attracting girls in school to tech fields and more general societal issues. It’s difficult to get women to attend if there isn’t a large pool of women to drawn from.

Much to their credit, I find MHDs to be far friendlier places than a lot of other hack days and other spaces where all geeks are supposed to feel welcome. I think this has a lot to do with the higher average social skill set and societal awareness of the MHD crowd as compared with something like a Yahoo! Hack Day. Also, much to Dave’s credit, when women sizes of MHD shirts were requested at the last London MHD, he immediately supplied them. He’s also tweeted during past MHDs his disappointment in the lack of women giving presentations.

There isn’t direct prejudice against women at MHD and certainly none directly from the main organisers. However, there are places where better encouragement could happen. These are things I think might help the situation. I will make no claims to being an expert (I just work in the field, attend hack days and read a lot of literature on the intersection of gender and technology). I do hope we can have a conversation that results in even better events.

  • Transparency It is easy to assume that everyone associated with planning and running a MHD is a white male. This might not be true, but it is difficult to confirm or deny as there aren’t very transparent methods of organising a MHD. Who helped put it together and, even more importantly, how can people become involved in planning future events? MHDs can be feel like a boys-only club however unintentional this may be. There might be a huge group of people with different backgrounds that help make these events happen, it’d be nice to know who they are.
  • Education There aren’t a lot of women with formal training in programming and those that do have formal training may only feel comfortable with MATLAB. Most of the women in computing I know are in academia (admittedly I have a very biased sample set). Teach web programming basics and provide tutorials on how to use a web API. There are a lot of really smart people that could build amazing things, they’ve just never used particular tools before.
  • Emphasise non-coding Good software is so much more than good code. Most hackers are willing to admit that a shiny interface covers up a whole lot of malfunctioning code. It is more likely that women have studied or have experience in design or other non-coding skill sets that greatly contribute to a project. They just might not realise that their input would be valued. This also leads into the next point.
  • Structured networking Community learning is difficult if the potential collaborators think you might want to sleep with them. Unlocking the Clubhouse noted that female (and minority) university students in a computer science degree are at a disadvantage as a significant part of the learning happens within peer groups. Students that don’t fit within a narrow definition, may find it more difficult to assimilate into a group and find it more difficult to learn. Providing more formal, structured spaces for people to meet may help eleviate some of these issues. It may also help with the above point by bringing together disparate skill sets.

In addition, there are many good guidelines and resources addressing these issues. See for example how to host women-friendly events and how to encourage women.

An excellent side effect of doing things that should help attract female participants is that the same things tend to encourage all kinds of people that don’t fit into the stereotypical participant profile. By actively trying to make MHDs as inclusive and positive as possible, we can hopefully attract all kinds of people who wouldn’t previously find themselves surrounded by hackers.

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