WWCode’s Diversity Hackathon tackles stereotypes in computer science

Morgan O'Hanlon

Computer science sophomore Brianna Vargas hadn’t experienced gender discrimination until her first hackathon, when the three male students in her group callously brushed off contributions from her and her female friend.

“They literally shooed us away,” Vargas said. “They were getting mad because they just wanted to win prizes, but that wasn’t really the point of the event. It was to get experience, learn and work in groups.”

Holly Gibson, the founder of Women Who Code Austin, is trying to change discriminatory attitudes like this through events such as their annual Diversity Hackathon. When she and her co-founder realized the lack of minorities in hackathon events around Austin, they decided to organize one that was free and geared toward beginners during fall of last year.

“We wanted to make an event where everyone would be welcome to come,” Gibson said. 

This year’s Diversity Hackathon, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday, will be the event’s second anniversary and is set to host more than twice the number of people it did last year. Gibson said she’s most excited to see what people create this weekend.

“When you have more diverse teams, you’re going to build stronger applications, be more profitable,” Gibson said. “The different backgrounds help teams to solve problems.”

Gibson illustrated this statement by mentioning a mistake made by Google last summer, when some of their recognition software categorized black people as monkeys because the coders hadn’t scanned enough pictures of people of color for their program to know the difference. 

“Coding faces many problems like this,” Gibson said. “But they could be fixed by expanding the number of different backgrounds in the field.”

Computer science senior Mia DuBose agrees that people need to break the limits on diversity in coding, but said that often, “it’s hard to take that first step.” DuBose is a member of Women in Computer Science (WiCS), a group that also promotes the inclusion of women in computer science. The organization aims to achieve this through programs such as the Nell Dale Mentor Program, in which DuBose serves as a student mentor. 

“I think the reason there’s so few girls is because of the stereotype that it’s a guy’s thing,” DuBose said. “You go into class and it’s very hard because there are all these guys who seem a lot more confident. There are guys who will ask questions to show off, especially during freshman year. It’s like a dick-measuring contest.” 

According to DuBose, this battle of egos is exacerbated by UTCS’s low number of women, who make up only 19 percent of the program. But she said the real obstacles she faces are the gender roles which establish the tech field as strictly masculine.

“I’ve got an 8-year-old sister who loves Minecraft,” DuBose said. “She has a giant Creeper backpack. One time a boy came up to her and told her ‘that’s a boy game, you don’t really play that.’” 

Dubose said gender norms need to be broken early in life in order for girls to learn skills they may need later in life.

“You have to get girls and boys to do the same activities together,” DuBose said. “That’s where collaboration happens. In real life, you’re going to have to work with everyone in the workplace. Most tech companies are extremely collaborative.”

For this reason, DuBose said she thinks diverse hackathons could provide a good opportunity to surmount the stereotypes surrounding coding. 

“Work is done in teams, which creates a very collaborative environment,” DuBose said. “That’s something which is so important to teach the younger generation.”

Austin Diversity Hackathon
When: Friday, Oct. 21, 9 A.M to Sunday, Oct. 23, 6 P.M. 
Where: Capital Factory 701 Brazos St. 
Admission: Free