ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Women in Computing Matter: The second annual International Women’s Hackathon

By Rane Johnson-Stempson

Women in Computing Matter: The second annual International Women’s Hackathon

The author at last year's event.

Microsoft Research will be hosting their second annual International Women’s Hackathon, which will take place on university campuses around the globe from April 24 to 27, 2014. Last year’s event spanned 14 campuses in seven countries, with more than 600 university women participating. The 2013 Hackathon took place during Engineers Week—a celebration of accomplishments in mechanical, civil, chemical, and biomedical engineering held every February. This was a strategic decision.

Have you ever wondered why we hear so little about the breakthroughs powered by computer and information sciences?  And why we almost never hear about the importance of supporting more women in these vital fields, which touch almost every aspect of modern life? It was for these very reasons why Microsoft Research held the event during Engineers Week; an event dedicated to bringing computer science to the forefront and building awareness of the amazing innovations that happen in the field. 

As Microsoft Research’s Principal Research Director, I had the opportunity to participate at the USC location last year where 55 women gathered to hack for good.  My research interests lie in technology implications in reaching education for all, technology and the interplay of public-private partnerships in solving our greatest social problems, technology innovations required to engage student learning, and how to grow more women and under-represented groups in computer science.  With a personal interest in human trafficking, I had the challenge of figuring out how we could help victims of human trafficking—a widespread problem spanning geographies and cultures. My hope was to gain the attention from the computer science community to assist social scientists. 

This year Microsoft Research is anticipating even bigger numbers participating in the hackathon with 15 universities already signed up during the first week of registration!

Microsoft Research 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, the hackathon encourages and supports 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 perspective and problem-solving approach 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.

When I travel around the world and visit university 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. In addition, it provides the very opportunity to help young women grow their confidence in their technical and entrepreneurship skills. Of last year’s participants 40 percent have competed in another hackathon or start-up weekend.  To ensure this year’s hackathon meets the needs of university women, Microsoft Research enlisted the help of recent winners of the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in ComputingThese gifted young women have helped Microsoft Research organize the challenges, reassess the rules and regulations, and upgrade the toolkit. Microsoft Research would like to recognize the leads and planning committee members: 


  • Halie Murray-Davis, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering
  • Jinisha Patel, New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Safia Abdalla, Northside College Preparatory High School

Committee members:

  • Ashika Ganesh, West Windsor Plainsboro High School North
  • Aishwarya Borkar, San Jose State University
  • Diem-Nhi Tran, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Heather Huynh, University of Georgia
  • Kylie Moden, Trinity University
  • Nishtha Oberai, University of Colorado at Boulder
  • Veronica Wharton, Rochester Institute of Technology

The hackathon provides an opportunity for female students to demonstrate their technical chops and unique problem-solving approaches.

To ensure young women know the impact they can have in society through computer science, this year Microsoft Research partnered with the following nonprofits: UN Women, Hindsight Group, Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and Teens Against Distracted Driving. Hackathon participants will design applications that meet 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.

In addition, Microsoft Research is partnering with the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. The hackathon will be front and center during the festival, with women students from local universities hacking live on stage while they connect via Skype to the hackathon events taking place on university campuses all over the world. This way hundreds of thousands of K-12 students, teachers, and parents will recognize the importance of computer science education.  

Microsoft Research will announce more information about the hackathon later this month, including details on special speakers and unique events, so stay tuned to the Microsoft Research Connections Blog. In the meantime, we hope that many of you will take advantage of this opportunity: Organize your teams and register your institution to host an event now.

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