Talking About Diversity Again…At Hackathons?

Sophia Huynh
May 31, 2018 · 6 min read

We were once asked by a competitor, why do we have diversity initiatives for the hackathon when it is ‘irrelevant’?

I understand the frustration from this competitor — the idea of giving somebody else an unfair advantage, or maybe the idea of taking away opportunities [from others] for the sake of quotas?

Considering the way technology is integrated throughout our daily lives, how it will define our future, and the growth of this industry, I find it very difficult to call these initiatives ‘irrelevant’. The lack of diverse representation in technology has very real and serious impacts on not only the industry itself but also the products that our society consumes as well.

Diversity in IT is a multi-faceted problem, and you can see this in:

  1. The blame we are placing on the underrepresented groups for their lack of representation (see: when marketing stopped women coding, alarmingly low numbers of Black/Latino/Indigenous people in the North American Tech Industry, college affordability becoming increasingly difficult for low-income or first-generation students).
  2. Areas where the product shows a bias of homogenous teams who created it (like the time when facial recognition thought a Chinese man’s eyes were closed, or when face-tracking software was unable to recognise black people because it was trained with white engineers).
  3. The drop out rates of people who fall in these groups because of divisive, toxic work cultures, and bullying in the workforce.

Not to mention there’s also the way we bring up our children (and before you tell me something like women just ‘aren’t interested’ or are ‘biologically incapable’, please see the: 70% of STEM grads in Iran who are women and the 45% of CS degree holders in India who are women).

We need more role models, and to emphasise the benefits, like increased creativity, productivity, and efficiency of teams.


Perhaps you might ask, well on a more granular level, where we’re talking about tertiary level students who are already in the pipeline, likely to get a job in technology, and have ‘no barrier’ to entry (because they are already ‘in’), why would an event care about diversity statistics?

Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Hackathons are intimidating. Regardless of your background, the idea of attending a competition (especially with strangers) requires a lot of courage. It is very understandable that for a lot of people, the uncomfortable idea of attending alone is more than enough to get rid of the idea of attending altogether.
  2. This is even more prevalent for underrepresented students who perceive their skills to be lower than it actually is.
  3. For a lot of students, what they see at extra-curricular events is what they expect in the industry — and if we can do something about it, why wouldn’t we?
  4. We want to change the norm.

For example, when we see an image with a diverse set of people, we immediately label it as tacky, rather than just being an image that happens to have a diverse set of people.

We are so hyper-sensitive to the topic of diversity in tech these days that we call out diversity as something that is tokenising, it is not seen as something ‘normal’. The day we stop nitpicking at these things, is the day inclusivity will be the norm. And that cannot happen without everybody doing their part.

Choice of execution, and strategies around diversity, can always be up for debate — as we all have different needs and audiences — but what we believe isn’t up for debate, is believing in the importance of being inclusive.


Diversity at UNIHACK

So far we have only asked students to self-identify gender, and are trying to find ways to broaden our understanding of our attendees, in regards to things like diversity.

Despite only having information on surface-level diversity, we have piloted a number of initiatives.

  1. Discounted Tickets

We send discounted tickets to groups that focus on diversity in IT. We are keeping this partly to subsidise the financial burden on the student, but also as a buffer on how quickly tickets sell out. There may be students who need more time to think about whether they want to attend or not, and our tickets (especially in Melbourne) sell out quite quickly.

2. Diversity in Judges

Not only do we have judges that correspond to each judging criteria (technical difficulty, business feasibility, creativity, originality), we always make sure to pick judges with a 50–50 gender diversity split (there is also usually an extra judge picked by the headline sponsor, so we don’t have control over that). We also make sure to extend this diversity to race as well.

If you need inspiration for finding a diverse set of speakers/judges/people for your event, look at these lists:

The UNIHACK Judges Twitter List, Women in Tech Twitter List, Google Developer Experts, The Click List, or simply call out on Twitter.

3. Diversity Scholarship

In 2017, we focused on attracting students to UNIHACK, and preparing students who had never attended a hackathon before.

The pipeline for these students after purchasing a ticket were:

  1. Early access to Slack → Extra tips from organisers
  2. Early access to Mixer Night → Build familiarity in the community
  3. Prizes such as GA vouchers and StartupVic membership → Incentive to apply
  4. SAP Internship Opportunity → Fast track these students into industry

Since 2017, we have interviewed more students (from those who have attended UNIHACK to those who have never attended hackathons before). We found that something we were missing was the continuation of our community from year to year, so we have changed our strategy to focus on that in 2018.

  1. Attract more participants from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.

We want to raise the percentage of people who identify as women/other from an average of 20% to 25% by 2019, and reach out to more diversity groups that focus on other underrepresented groups, other than only women in IT.

2. Retain participants from the moment they purchase a ticket until the actual event.

We want to lower the disproportionately higher dropout rates of women, before the hackathon. In Melbourne 2017, out of 118/143 attendees, there was a 14% drop out rate for men and 27% drop out rate for women/other. We are hoping to focus on building a community and outline pipelines for students to feel more comfortable attending a competition alone. We will also be emphasising where students can find team members and socialise with each other earlier on.

Understandably some students see hackathons as an intimidating event (due to perceived lack of skill) or just not a pleasant event (think stinking in a room for 24 hours) — we can promise that UNIHACK is not like that at all.

It’s very important to recognise that diversity in tech initiatives do not aim to vilinise those who are not underrepresented, but rather simply to highlight and to help the underrepresented get up to speed with those who aren’t.

We have decided to establish a commitment to diversity at our hackathon, and will do do our absolute best to play our part.


Thank you to all the people that engaged with us, and let us interview you.

Thank you to the all the people who helped proof read this too!

And thank you to our sponsors, mentors, participants and supporters for allowing us to make this happen.

UNIHACK Blog

Writings and musings about Australia's premier student hackathon.

Sophia Huynh

Written by

Digital Strategist. Ex-Software Engineer. Global Technology Team Project Lead @ UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network — Youth.

UNIHACK Blog

Writings and musings about Australia's premier student hackathon.

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