Why the Nation’s Top On-Campus Women’s Hackathon Invites Men

All-female hackathons have become popular in recent years, mainly because they provide something very few tech companies and computer science departments can: a place where a woman who codes or wants to learn can do so with other women.

But if Pearl Hacks represents how the trend is playing out among millennials, then there’s another reason why the all-female hackathon helps the tech industry:

It’s not all-female, after all.

Pearl Hacks is an annual, student-organized, weekend-long hackathon hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill. In its second year, Pearl Hacks brings together college and high school women and girls from across the US. With about 400 women in attendance this year, Pearl Hacks has quickly become the nation’s leading on-campus all-female hackathon. This year, almost 25% of attendees were high school women and girls, who typically choose not to attend the co-ed, on-campus overnight hackathons that many of their male peers attend (for example, Hack-NC, held at UNC each fall). About one-third of Pearl Hacks participants were completely or mostly new to coding. Sixty percent of participants had never attended a hackathon before.

Pearl Hacks founder and UNC junior, Maegan Clawges, says she started Pearl Hacks when she had trouble convincing her female friends to join her at co-ed hackathons. “They’d refuse to come because they didn’t identify with this concept of being a ‘hacker,’ even though I knew they had the skills. I wanted to create an atmosphere they couldn’t say no to.”

Pearl Hacks sends busses to pick up participants at schools from Maryland to Georgia, and a handful flew in from as far away as California. The event includes workshops, coding sessions, and a competition for the best projects, but it’s also a slumber party, featuring a late-night swing dance lesson, an official midnight snack, and yoga and massage sessions. The Pearl Hacks website advises: “Bring your laptop, phone, chargers, toiletries, a sleeping bag and pillow, a change of clothes, and a well rested open mind.”

I had the chance to attend this year’s Pearl Hacks as a speaker. As I wandered UNC’s Sitterson Hall looking for my lecture room, I saw groups of young women huddled at their laptops, with power cords ranging through small mountains of sleeping bags, backpacks, and snacks.

But I also quickly noticed that not all participants were women. The atmosphere was thoroughly co-ed, with undergraduate men making their way around various classrooms, through the halls, and generally looking like they were supposed to be there. A good number of them sported shiny bow ties and suspenders in bright blue, green, maroon, and purple.

“Hm. Fancy.” I was puzzled.

With a few minutes to spare before my speaking slot, I asked Brea Dionisio, a UNC sophomore and Pearl Hacks organizer, about the presence of men. She told me that, although all registered attendees were women, Pearl Hacks had tapped “the guys” in UNC’s Computer Science department for help. In other words, the menfolk were not infiltrators. They had been explicitly invited to offer tech support and guidance, and they were volunteering their entire weekends to do it.

I later learned from Clawges that the choice to involve male volunteers was as much pragmatic as anything else. The event required about forty volunteers; that’s about the number of potential female participants she hoped to recruit among UNC’s Computer Science majors. “The goal was to have as many of our women participating as possible," said Megan, “We could have them running Pearl Hacks, or we could have them attending Pearl Hacks. We happen to have an incredibly supportive male community in our Computer Science Department. We couldn’t really stop the guys from coming to help.”

What’s more, I realized at Pearl Hacks, here was a behind-the-scenes glimpse into current attitudes toward gender among undergraduates in tech. The event’s logo, visible everywhere all weekend (on banners, t-shirts, stickers, etc), is the silhouette of a female hacker at her laptop. In the digital, online version, her hairdo is animated to change into different, bright colors and variable, edgy styles. Invariably, though, a string of pearls appears around her neck. The logo, with its contrast in conventional and non-conformist forms of femininity, sends the message: you can be feminine—or not; you can be traditional—or not; whoever you decide to be, you can code.

Accordingly, the bow ties and suspenders were in part a nod to the figure of the fine Southern gentleman tending to the needs of his pearl-strung lady. If this strikes you as mawkish (as it does this northeastern transplant to the so-called New South), rest assured that many a millennial “gentleman” added a string of bright, oversized, plastic “pearls” to his get-up (like so), subverting (oh thank goodness) the gender binary that dominates mainstream discussions of gender in tech.

As for the female participants themselves—the Pearl Hackers in real life— they looked like run-of-the-mill college students, mostly wearing jeans, t-shirts, pajamas, and hoodies. Some were more conventionally feminine, others a little edgier—nothing out of the ordinary except, perhaps, what struck me as total earnestness when it came to coding. Gender itself seemed partly unimportant alongside the work at hand and partly a source of ironic amusement. It’s a big deal to the students in a certain sense, of course; they believe the gender divide in tech is unjust, and they want to address it. But they do that partly by treating gender, on an interpersonal level, as kind of no big deal. Your gender? Whatever. Let’s code.

In other words, involving men helped deflate the gender issue itself so that everyone could get down to work.

Judging from my own, several encounters with the bow-tied volunteers, they were a friendly, energetic, and supportive group, committed to answering all manner of questions (from “Where’s the bathroom?” to “What’s Arduino?”), fixing tech glitches, fetching dongles, keeping things on time, and generally helping to make the event a success for their female peers.

The all-female hackathon is smart. Involving men is even smarter. If we’re serious about integrating more women into tech, then we need to welcome and involve our male counterparts as partners in that effort. Pearl Hacks is encouraging. Among the millennial set, hackers of both genders are making smart choices and good progress when it comes to moving beyond the gender divide in tech.

Anna Lewis

Posted in Article Category: #News & Culture