Inviting Women to Hack and Make a Difference

By Rane Johnson-Stempson, Director, Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

I am pleased to announce that our second annual International Women’s Hackathon took place on university campuses around the globe April 24 to 27, 2014. Last year’s event spanned 14 campuses in seven countries, with more than 600 university women participating.

We launched the International Women’s Hackathon to encourage, support and retain women pursuing the computer sciences at the university level. This event, largely promoted by word-of-mouth, empowers young women to become leaders in computer science, informatics and electrical engineering. By providing a fun and safe environment in which to explore computing, hackathons encourage and support young university women around the world, preparing them to create technology innovations that will help meet worldwide challenges in such areas as improving healthcare, protecting the environment and upgrading manufacturing.

The presence of women in technology is essential to innovation. When confronted with a problem, we each encode our perspectives and then apply our particular heuristics to explore new and better resolutions. Diverse teams often outperform homogeneous teams (even those composed of high-achieving individuals), because diversity of perspectives and problem-solving approaches trumps individual ability. Research has identified the diversity of work teams as one of the key influences in the innovation process—and without question, a diverse team needs women.

As I travel around campuses, I hear the same concerns repeatedly from women in computer science courses:

      • Male classmates underestimate their technical abilities and relegate them to project management roles in group projects.
      • There is a lack of women on the computer science faculty, which leaves them feeling that they have no good role models.
      • They question whether they can fulfill their desire to solve big challenges by working in a field that seems to discount their talents.

This is why the International Women’s Hackathon is so important. It provides an opportunity for female students to demonstrate their technical chops and unique problem-solving approaches.

To ensure that this year’s hackathon met the needs of university women, we enlisted the help of recent winners of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing. These gifted young women helped us organize the challenges, reassess the rules and regulations and upgrade the toolkit.

We are excited to have had this year’s challenges sponsored by the following nonprofits: UN Women, Hindsight Group, Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary and Teens Against Distracted Driving. Hackathon participants designed a software application that met one of two challenges: (1) increase women’s participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, or (2) put a halt to texting while driving.

I am also pleased to announce our partnership with the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC.

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