Penn undergrads create an inclusive space for women in computer science

Organized by three undergrads in the Department of Computer and Information Science, FemmeHacks, one of the country’s first all-women hackathons, was held this past February at Penn.

FemmeHacks
FemmeHacks is one of the country’s first all-women hackathons, welcoming straight, gay, and trans women, as well as those who are non-binary and genderqueer. Photo by Tyler Burke/Irena Xia

This past February, nearly 200 students from Penn, local universities, and high schools gathered together at Levine Hall and the Pennovation Center for a hackathon.

As with many other hackathons, the event was intended to spark excitement for programming by demonstrating the challenging and collaborative spirit inherent to it. But unlike other hackathons in the male-dominated field of computer science, this one was geared to a different crowd—women.

FemmeHacks is one of the country’s first all-women hackathons, welcoming straight, gay, and trans women, as well as those who are non-binary and genderqueer.

The event is geared toward women from the greater Philadelphia area, which isn’t usually associated with a strong tech scene. The founders hope to showcase what the city has to offer and encourage students to remain in the area after graduation.

Organized by three undergrads in the Department of Computer and Information Science—Andrea Baric, Anvita Achar, who is also a finance, marketing, and operations major in the Wharton School, and Amelia Goodman, who is also a gender studies major in the School of Arts & Sciences—the hackathon is now in its third year.

FemmeHacks
Nearly 200 women from Penn, local universities, and high schools gathered together for the most recent FemmeHacks. Photo by Tyler Burke/Irena Xia

Frustrated with the difficulties of finding other women in computer science to form study groups and discuss classes with, Baric started FemmeHacks in 2015 while she was a freshman at Drexel. When Baric transferred to Penn in 2016, Achar, who had attended the first FemmeHacks, and Goodman volunteered to help organize the event. Attendance has grown from 30 people at the first hackathon to almost 200 at the most recent event.

The founders say they wanted to create an inclusive environment different from the “testosterone-driven” and “caffeine-fueled” hackathons that currently exist.

“Lots of women are afraid of approaching hackathons not just because they don’t feel smart enough, but because of the culture in and of itself,” Baric says. “I wanted to create FemmeHacks as a space for people to engage in a friendlier and open manner, meet people from around the area, and learn from each other.”

Two of the problems for young women in the tech industry, Goodman says, are that there aren’t enough women and people of color going into the pipeline, and once they’re in, it is difficult to stay in because of the culture.

FemmeHacks tackles those issues by providing a space where beginners can feel more comfortable and be themselves, and by building a strong community and support network to encourage women to remain in computer science.

“The point is to ensure that we retain as many people as we can,” Achar says. “I think that by reaching out to high school students, enhancing the computer science experience in college for women, and making women feel empowered to build projects, we can plug those losses.”

This year, there were 30 mentors, almost all female, from different companies at the event to guide the teams through the process of putting together a project. In the end, 35 teams, each consisting of three or four students, presented projects.

“What happens in a lot of hackathons is that you work on something and then think it isn’t good enough to demo,” Achar says. “I think our high demo rate is indicative of the fact that people are proud of their work. Even if it’s not the most technically savvy project, we’ve created a space that’s inclusive enough for people just starting up. We don’t want to scare anyone off or make a project seem unattainable.”

Instead of giving cash prizes, the winning teams were given prizes like 3D printers, Raspberry Pis, and programmable drones, with the hope that the awards will encourage the women to continue learning and growing. 

“For me, the most exciting part is just seeing how many women show up, and then seeing their faces light up when they get their code to work,” Goodman says. “There’s such a diversity of talent, and race, and gender identity, and sexuality within our hackers. To see them all come together and be able to come to this one event and love it, is really rewarding.”

Originally published on .