Women power up and code at Penn’s FemmeHacks competition

For a brief moment at the end of World War II, every computer programmer in the world was a woman. There was only one computer—Penn’s ENIAC—and a team of six women was responsible for the conceptual re-wiring that allowed it to execute a variety of mathematical tasks. It was this quality that made ENIAC a leap forward from the glorified calculators that preceded it, and heralded the coming of the digital age.

In the intervening years, however, computer science has earned a reputation as a particularly male-dominated field, even among other STEM disciplines. While other majors have seen a move toward gender parity over the past three decades, computer science is one where the percentage of women has declined overall.

Enter FemmeHacks, an annual all-women coding competition, hosted last weekend by Penn’s Women in Computer Science group. The event is designed to encourage more women to get into programing—and to stay there.

Organized by three Penn Engineering undergrads in the Department of Computer and Information Science—Andrea Baric, Anvita Achar, also a behavioral economics major in Wharton, and Amelia Goodman, also a gender studies major in the College of Arts & Sciences—the hackathon is now in its second year.

More than 100 women from Penn, local universities, and high schools spent Friday and Saturday collaborating on software ideas and teaching each other new programming skills.   

Hackathons are designed to foster excitement about the brainstorming, problem solving, and teamwork inherent in programing. But such events can be a microcosm of the larger tech world, where pervasive examples of unconscious gender bias and outright discrimination continue to be uncovered.

Founded by Baric last year, when she was a student at Drexel, FemmeHacks was an attempt to make a more welcoming experience for women interested in getting into coding, as well as to foster a stronger support network for women tech workers in the Philadelphia area.

“FemmeHacks’ importance lies in the fact that it creates a safe, encouraging space for women to explore, to fail, and to try again with help from more experienced women,” Goodman says. “We had our beginner workshops full of hackers who were eager to learn and, once they did, to help the women sitting next to them.”

After transferring to Penn, Baric joined up with Achar and Goodman through the Women in Computer Science group. The team then set out to make the second iteration of the event bigger and better.

Their vision of growing a coding community is bearing fruit: More than four times the number of original attendees participated the second time.  

“Many women told us that FemmeHacks encouraged them to keep studying computer science, compete in more hackathons, and demonstrated to them that they can code a project that they’re proud of,” Goodman says.

This attitude was also visible in the types of projects from teams. Kate Miller, Sierra Yit, Bethany Davis, and Helena Chen, a team of Penn undergrads, won with their project “Bias Buster.” Their software analyzes text for biased language that has neutral alternatives, such as using “claimed” instead of “stated.” They each won a drone.