47% of initial applications for our Hacker Retreat came from women. This is how we did it.

Casey Rosengren
Aug 10, 2014 · 4 min read

Unfortunately, if you’ve been in technology for any amount of time, you’ll have noticed that there is a slight gender imbalance. As we laid the groundwork for Hacker Paradise, we wanted to ensure that retreat participants were more diverse than the usual suspects, caucasian males in their twenties.

We approached the problem head on — as a result, 14 out of 30 the applications from our initial outreach came from women. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.

1. Read up — familiarize yourself with the best practices.

Throughout the process, we came across several articles and blog posts that helped direct our actions. HBR has a great piece on organizing conferences that aren’t dominated by white male speakers. The Geek Feminism Wiki is also a great place to learn about appropriate ways to promote to women and to find resources for creating welcoming communities. Ginny Skalski of Red Hat also has a great post about attracting women to conferences, and there are a couple good Quora posts on why women don’t go to hackathons and what it’s like to be a woman in tech that we would highly recommend reading.

2. Ask for feedback from women in tech.

After building our initial landing page, we reached out to several women-in-tech community organizers who helped steer us in the right direction. In particular, the organizers of the Women’s Coding Collective proved invaluable in pointing out several things that could make it difficult for some women to see themselves as participants in our retreat, which we discuss in the next two points.

3. Make the site copy welcoming and balanced.

From the beginning our copy emphasized an open community and a collaborative learning environment. We chose to avoid industry buzzwords, like “ninja” & “rockstar,” and explicitly discussed pair programming & peer-learning.

Still, in our first draft, most of the quotes on our page were from prominent male thinkers, and our only picture featuring people was of 4 guys playing foosball:

They advised us to consider what kind of image this portrayed, and to whom it would be attractive. After considering this, we decided to add some much-needed gender balance to the photos on our page, and added one of our favorite Helen Keller quotes to the site:

4. Adopt a code of conduct.

Unfortunately, there is a long history of sexism at technology events. As a result, codes of conduct are becoming mainstream at tech conferences as a way to set standards of acceptable behavior. On the advice of several people, we created our own anti-harassment code of conduct, modeled after the sample policy on the Geek Feminism Wiki. We had been looking for a way to clearly set the tone that our community would be tolerant and supportive; a code of conduct felt like a great start in making the retreat a safe space for all.

5. Make it a priority to reach out to organizations that support women in tech.

There are a number of organizations that help support female programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs. Many of these groups are happy to send interesting events and opportunities to their members, and without their support, our initial applications would have likely been much more male-skewed. Particularly, Women Who Code, Girl Geek Dinners, and several chapters of Girl Develop It were extremely helpful in passing our information along to their members. We were also lucky enough to connect with WICS groups from schools like Columbia and the University of Victoria who were willing to spread the word.

Fixing gender imbalance is a marathon, not a sprint.

Reaching more women isn’t just a noble cause — we believe that having a diverse community will spark more ideas and creativity, and will also create a more tolerant community for all involved.

It’s true that gender imbalance in tech is a result of the gender imbalance in STEM overall, and that girls drop out of the tech pipeline as early as middle school. That’s no excuse, though — there are things that each of us can do today to help address the problem. Consider getting involved in mentorship with local groups, helping teach classes, or simply speaking out when issues of sexism do arise.

We have started to explore a couple of these options for our Costa Rica retreat in September, and look forward to putting them into action for future batches. We particularly admire what Hacker School has done with their Etsy Hacker Grants.

Whether you’re creating a jobs page for your company or planning an event, we hope our experience can be useful. And, if you find yourself in the mood for a sojourn to Costa Rica this fall, a couple of spots are still available.

Hacker Paradise

Live, work and adventure differently.

Hacker Paradise

Live, work and adventure differently.

Casey Rosengren

Written by

Casey writes about life, startups, meditation, and self-care. He is a founder of Hacker Paradise and Recess Labs.

Hacker Paradise

Live, work and adventure differently.