How a hacker slumber party gets girls into code | Opensource.com

How a hacker slumber party gets girls into code

Posted 07 May 2014 by 

Gina Likins (Red Hat)
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When I walked into Carroll Hall, for a moment I felt like I was back in college... and at the World’s Best Slumber Party. There were tables full of salty snacks, stacks of sleeping bags, and the chatter of excited young women. But, unlike the sleepovers of my youth, talk was about Python, HTML, and Ruby. These were young women interested in learning to code.

The women were visiting the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to participate in Pearl Hacks, a 24-hour hackathon aimed at "building, encouraging and inspiring a community of young female programmers." More than 200 college students, from North Carolina, California, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, as well as high school women from across North Carolina, gave their weekend—and their sleep—to play with code.

Pearl Hacks

Cas Roberts, one of my Red Hat colleagues, and I had volunteered to teach an Intro to HTML class aimed at high school girls. Other mentors came from companies like Google, Palantir, SparkFun, and Square. They provided hands-on workshops, skills labs, and guidance for all kinds of projects the participants chose to hack on.

All of this was fun, but also very important. The percentage of computer science degrees that are being earned by women has decreased in the past 20 years. So, why were more women earning degrees two decades ago than they are now? One suspected reason for this trend is that women feel unwelcome in the computer industry due to the predominance of men at conferences, coding meetups, and hackathons, which are a central part of coder culture. Some female and male programmers have started female-centric hackathons to help create spaces where women can feel more welcome and at ease.

Regarding Pearl Hacks, an organizer says, "We hoped to create an inclusive, encouraging, and safe environment for mentorship and innovation."

Pearl Hacks co-founder Maegan Clawges elaborates, "We hope to help female computer science students to realize that they are like pearls, which are considered to be beautiful, rare, and valuable. The process by which pearls grow within shelled mollusks is long and painstakingly difficult. This is not unlike the often solitary road that women in technology travel to discover their passion for computing and complete their education."

Open source workshops and skill labs were in abundance.

  • Introduction to Programming (Python)
  • Third-Party APIs and Visualization Tools (d3.js)
  • Advanced Web Development (PHP, MongoDB)
  • Getting Started with Ruby on Rails & Django Open Source Hardware (Raspberry Pi)

And, many of the participants' projects were based on open source software and tools. The first-place winning project, called The Culture of Yes, is a Django-based web app that uses a scraper to pull stories on sexual assault from university newspapers and allows survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories alongside the media coverage. The Culture of Yes team hopes the application can broaden the conversation around sexual assault on college campuses.

While talking to these young women, it became apparent that though they shared my passion for technology, they were just as isolated in their everyday environments as I had been when I was one of only two girls in my high school computer club. Events like Pearl Hacks allow women to learn coding skills at the same time as they are experiencing an empowering commmunity. Let's continue to support, organize, mentor, and teach these types of events. And, maybe in a few more years the number of women receiving degrees in computer science will once again be on the rise.

 

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18 Comments

Greg P

I would hope there would be a sense that the answer to getting more girls into coding doesn't need to be creating some sort of girls-only way.
Unless you might invite some guys to the slumber party, in which case we most likely end up with some other unintended scenarios.

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lintqueen
Open Minded

With regards to the value of all-female environments: it's an interesting interesting question, on which there is lots of healthy debate that stretches far beyond the realm of women in tech. For example, there is a long-standing debate around whether female-only boarding schools allow women to flourish without worrying what men will think of them or whether they create an artificial environment that keeps women from facing real-world challenges (see http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/editorial/looking-at-both-side...).

Regardless of whether you ascribe to the theory that all-girls education is more successful, it's important to note that all-girl hackathons are a *supplement* not a substitute for more traditional coder culture environments.

It's not likely that every project, class, conference and event a woman will attend during her education and subsequent career will be all-female, so having *an event* (like Pearl Hacks) that's focused on creating a supportive enviroment for women can allow them to experience the sense of "belonging" that is inherent for many men at male-dominated conferences.

By the way, there were men at the hackathon too -- quite a few of them also donated their time and expertise to teach and mentor.

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sir

Pics or it didn't happen

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Unidentified

Some things, some things we *think*- but do not say. This is one of those things.

Think...

But do not say.

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MaGaO

Sorry? Either the thought is wrong or it isn't. Thinking and not saying is a type of hypocrisy.

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lintqueen
Open Minded

> Either the thought is wrong or it isn't. Thinking and not saying is a type of
> hypocrisy.

You call it hypocricy, I call it tact. :-)

Either way, I'm choosing to interpret the original request for pictures as a legitimate request for photos of the HTML class Cas and I taught. Her significant other helped out with the class and he took some pics, so I've emailed them to ask if they are available.

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Sum Yung Gai

Virtually every time I see this about "women in coding", it really ought to be called, "White women in coding". I see precious few "specks of pepper" in the "seas of salt" when it comes to such initiatives. This is part of a major, and more general, problem that I see with the "women's movement" really being a "White women's movement", hence Black women's voting for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic Primaries over Hillary Clinton.

Given the dearth of, for example, Black Americans in coding, I would also look forward to seeing Ms. Likins's "Blacks in Coding" initiative, which might also include young Black men and boys. Instead of just effectively limiting it to White girls like I generally see, how about targeting folks outside just your personal demographic, since you want to do initiatives like this?

--SYG

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lintqueen
Open Minded

Wow -- I do hope we can turn up some pics of the class Cas and I taught! Of the 12 women, we had three Black women (if I remember correctly) and at least another three or four who were Indian or Asian. I don't remember exact numbrs (and I didn't count at the time), but from what I saw, there was a great deal of diversity.

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lintqueen
Open Minded

Ah -- I found some pictures: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.659365527451569.1073741928.122...

These are just the ones posted on the Life at Red Hat Facebook page, but as you can see, there was a wide range of folks in attendance. :-)

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Sum Yung Gai

Thanks for posting these pics. I've seen quite a few of these "initiatives" in the past (including recent), and they haven't ever looked like this before (maybe some East Asians, but no Blacks, Native Americans, etc.). This is considerably better, and yes, it's about time. May other such "initiatives" start following this example that you have shown here.

--SYG

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George Kamp
Community Member

I can understand your concern. This is an issue I've heard discussed, and the concern is certainly relevant. I'm also glad that such a diverse group of women was attracted.

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Ordeith

Interesting this is on an open source blog. You can't feed a family with OSS.

The problem is in the incentive once you begin thinking about things like Family and Career.

Many (most?) coding jobs do not lend themselves well to having a life outside of the job. Crunch time, all night coding sessions, perpetual on call status. How are these desirable things?

Add to that the Google way of devaluing software and the contributions of coders through their exploitation of FOSS as a free labor force they can leverage to make billions for themselves while leaving a large volunteer labor force uncompensated, and the financial incentive to put up with the job also erodes.

Programmers are being demanded more of and are compensated less for it.

It works great for the single 20-something without a life. Nobody's fault that target is mostly male.

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lintqueen
Open Minded

> "Interesting this is on an open source blog. You can't feed a family with
> OSS.

> The problem is in the incentive once you begin thinking about things like
> Family and Career.

> Many (most?) coding jobs do not lend themselves well to having a life
> outside of the job."

I think that depends on the company for whom you're working and where they place their priorities.

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Ordeith

The problem is in the incentive once you begin thinking about things like Family and Career.

Many (most?) coding jobs do not lend themselves well to having a life outside of the job. Crunch time, all night coding sessions, perpetual on call status. How are these desirable things?

Add to that the Google way of devaluing software and the contributions of coders through their exploitation of FOSS as a free labor force they can leverage to make billions for themselves while leaving a large volunteer labor force uncompensated, and the financial incentive to put up with the job also erodes.

Programmers are being demanded more of and are compensated less for it.

It works great for the single 20-something without a life. Nobody's fault that target is mostly male.

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Unidentified

Way to exclude males. Discrimination.

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Rebecca
Open Source Champion

Great event recap and love seeing underrepresented groups get the chance to learn and explore technology. Surprised by all the negativity and trolling in the comments, had to check my browser and confirm I wasn't at HuffPo or slashdot!

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Timothy King
Open Enthusiast

Gina -- great article here. I cannot speak to the details of coding -- not my world -- but it reminds me that it is hard to talk about open-anything if the participants are all caucasian dudes (like me). Diversity isn't a PC issue, it is a prerequisite for living an examined life.

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George Kamp
Community Member

Women are certainly welcome. I personally don't feel any sense of Unidentified's feelings of exclusion. My thoughts are that if it helps, it helps. I expect it will help tremendously. Providing an emotionally safe and secure environment in which to learn, who can be against that? Bonding would be enhanced. Fun would be had. Strange to me that such a good hearted attempt to increase inclusion, and thus diversity, could be considered discriminatory. Hearing of this I feel heartened.

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