On Hack ‘n Jill and Changing the Ratio

In this post 2012 hackNY Fellow Sophie Chou describes Hack n’ Jill #hackyoursummer hackathon.

I consider myself both a Computer Scientist and a Hacker. The Scientist part came easily as I had been involved with great science programs since high school and grew up with a father who encouraged me to play with his old computer parts instead of dolls as a little girl (I put old mice in a briefcase and considered them my pets). The Hacker part, however, came much later and with much more difficulty. If being a female Computer Science student is rare, being a female Hacker is rarer still. Having been a gymnast and a dancer for all but five years of my life, the last thing in the world I wanted to do as a teenager was spend 24 hours in a room full of pizza, beer, and men who had not showered in at least a day.

I have since, of course, overcome this stereotype. When I entered my first hackathon this past winter at Columbia University’s DevFest, in the comfort of my home turf and among my peers, I quickly realized that, believe or not, hackathons were fun! It was cool to build things and break things, and there was a sense of excitement and camaraderie that was contagious. Being a Hacker is not about sitting in front of a laptop all day, wearing glasses, or spending Friday nights inside instead of going dancing (although those are all wonderful and valid options and I fulfill all three sometimes). But as self-proclaimed “girly girl”, it wasn’t easy for me to realize that. Even with my evangelism, many of my female CS friends continue to refuse to attend events.

Enter the Hack n’ Jill #hackyoursummer hackathon, thrown last weekend by Lauren Gilchrist and Eugenia Koo at the grand AppNexus office space, a perfect solution to those girls who may be afraid of such a testosterone-charged atmosphere, and the men who are equally tired of bro-ing it out 24/7. The idea behind Gilchrist’s and Koo’s event was a simple one: build cool apps as usual, but with one minor adjustment: teams were encouraged to be 50-50 male and female, and attendance was tweaked to ensure a healthy ratio.

And the results? Everything was, well, business as usual! Or, should I say, hackertastic, as usual. Ideas flew. Teams formed. Snacks were a-plenty. Caffeine, overflowing. People nerded out, made projects as quickly as they broke them, and demos were presented to an especially rambunctious and enthusiastic crowd. No one seemed to complain nor frankly care that the girls were pulling out their laptops and punching in the code, too.

Now, there is of course an argument to be made that the sad lack of female participants in technology companies and startups is fundamentally an institutional problem: change the engine, and the machine, too, will change. Others believe that simply tilting the scales (such as Rachel Sklar behind the #changetheratio movement) by putting more women into tech will automatically shift mindsets. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

To me, it is of no importance: they are both equally delicious. And under all the normalcy at the Hack ‘n Jill hackathon, there was something a little extra. When I walked into the room, I didn’t feel like an anomaly. I didn’t feel like my skills needed to be questioned. Hacker girls just like me were all around–in numbers that I didn’t even know existed. One of my good friends, a Computer Engineering student at Columbia, came to her first hackathon and fit right in. Heck, we even won a prize for best use of the Yipit API for our app, Wing Woman. In fact, I was probably supposed to write about that, but the idea behind the hackathon itself seemed much more noteworthy.

Hack ‘n Jill was the first (well, not even female-centric!) female-promotion event I had ever attended in the New York start-up community. It was a great experience, and I wish that one day a ratio of equality will need no reinforcement. No matter what the statistics say, I hope that at least some of that attitude of acceptance and normalcy that Hack ‘n Jill helped cultivate will persevere, and moreover, thrive.