A Case for More Diverse and Women-Inspired Hackathons in Europe

OP-ED: Vidya Munde-Müller, Entrepreneur | Women in AI Ambassador

We should not give Silicon Valley a complete rein when it comes to recruiting the best tech talents on the market. Europe has been a beacon of peace, prosperity and industry for generations. With its liberal health-care reforms and solid democratic principles of liberty and equality, Europe can do more to attract top talent to its shores. It can be a role model for more inclusion and diversity in the western world. In this op-ed, I want to show that by organizing more women-inspired and diverse hackathons, Europe may lead the talent war by developing women and minorities, who are the most under-represented groups in the tech industry. Added efforts in inclusion, diversity and equal-opportunity employment will create many women and minority leaders who will be in the position to define this century and pave the way towards a fairer society.

Where are All the Women?

This was the question asked recently by a great friend and programmer, who has won lots of hackathons, during a casual chat in Berlin. He told me that there were so few women at the hackathons he took part, hardly noticeable in numbers. This got me thinking, where are all the women? I was surprised when I spoke to one of the winners of #AIHack4Ladies (Women Hackathon held in Berlin) and she said the same thing. She is working as a data scientist but she did not know where other women in data science were. I thought to myself, alas, if only these women knew where the others are! This also showed to me how less-connected women are. Apart from their private social network and direct work-environments, they are not in general a well-networked group. Men are so much better at that!

In my research so far, I have found that only 20–22% women work in the top tech companies like Google or Facebook. The numbers are even less if you leave the biggest tech players out. If we take the field of Artificial Intelligence, only 8–12% Machine Learning experts are women, leaving nearly 90% dominated by men. This puts into review what I have been hearing so often nowadays, the topic of bias in AI with skewed data and algorithms, coding bias and inequality at the core of the systems, etc. Stanford Professor, Fei-Fei Li has stated it plainly for us. The writing is on the wall.

“If we don’t get women and people of color at the table — real technologists doing the real work — we will bias systems,” she has said. “Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible. This is the time to get women and diverse voices in so that we build it properly.”

Another great quote is from IBM’s President & CEO, Ginni Rometty.

“If you want truly ethical, unbiased technology, you need to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to participate in its creation.”

Hackathons Organised For Women By Women?

Some months back after organising a successful meet-up in Berlin, one of the co-founders of the ‘Women in AI’ approached me to become an ambassador for the group. I was naturally flattered at that time, but did not think that I would be well-suited for the role. Nonetheless, as a passionate product manager and free-wheeling AI evangelist (since my days in Silicon Valley), I decided to take up this challenge. At that time, I was not really in depth on how big the gender-gap in AI really was. The ‘Women in AI’ (WAI) founders set about to encourage more diversity and reduce this gender-gap with their community. This is a mission I believe in. So I decided to go for it.

The WAI community taught me that there is an amazing women talent in AI but the women are not well-connected. In our regular ambassador calls, we got to know other amazing women from WAI based in different cities and countries. The group has consistently grown since it was started in Paris and the commitment of the founders and the members to work together to improve diversity in AI is very encouraging. I have visited other ambassadors in Amsterdam and London and have taken it on myself to visit as many great WAI women as possible and help them spread the message via events, meet-ups and educational workshops.

One of the personal highlights of this journey has been organising the #AIHack4Ladies hackathon in Berlin. In nearly all-women orga-team, it was a great pleasure to work with many skilled women from my alma-mater, Deutsche Telekom, and partner with IBM, Udacity and Tableau. It was a truly scintillating experience. I witnessed women-power at its best, both behind the scenes and on the stage. The encouragement and the love I felt in a room full of women hackers, has given me hope that a bright future awaits us, but we need to create it first!

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Participants of #AIHack4Ladies listening intently to the team challenges

Women are Nerds too!

The two-day #AIHack4Ladies with well-over 50 women hackers in Berlin was an awesome success. The raving reviews by top management members and the participants themselves have been music to the orga-team’s ears. Despite the fact that there was a slight backlash due to the naming of the hackathon as ‘ladies only’, in general we got tremendous support from many corners of the company and the top management. There was a great degree of anticipation and anxiety before the event even started. But none of the participants remotely felt the stress and the desperate last-minute changes in the schedule, happening behind the scenes. All they saw was a smooth delivery — from guest management, mentoring, moderating to communication and PR. No wonder they praised the orga as one of the most successful factors after the category ‘fun’ in their feedback on the event!

On the other hand, the orga-team felt inspired by the great team-work the ten teams (with roughly 5–6 members each) delivered. We saw that there was more cooperation than competition. The whole venture to have #AIHack4Ladies was well-received. Many women came to us to tell us how much they appreciated us organizing the hack. Funnily enough, the prizes for the competition were well-hidden in Terms & Conditions so that many did not know them at all when they came for the hackathon! So they must have come more for the fun than for the money! I humbly assume that this is surely different when competitive men are in the room!

From my personal standpoint, the output of the different challenges (Challenge 1: Future of Mobility, Challenge 2: Social Media, Challenge 3: Diversity) was at the same level as if men were in the competition. I did not feel any difference. Many times after the individual team pitches, I saw ‘awe’ on the faces of the audience and jury members, still wrapping their heads around to see women-only teams rocking it on the stage. I can’t forget my own emotions of pride and happiness, seeing the performances of the teams. The pitches showed me that women have great stories to tell and they can tell them very convincingly. I thought to myself, women are eminently suitable for all jobs where creativity, compassion and collaboration play a central role. Women are as competitive as men but just approach things in a different way. At the end it was really fun and entertaining.

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Teaming up is a tough thing at any hackathon

Although there are some similarities as to the usual degree of confusion in the teaming-up process, #AIHack4Ladies was different than your normal hackathons. There were as far as I know, no all-nighters. Women definitely prefer to sleep! There was also no big drop-out. Only one woman broke shortly with a team, only to come back and to be part of their team pitch anyways. Many first-time hackers felt comfortable with the all-women format. There was more support and inclusion. I was blown by how these women prevailed and completed the challenges. The degree of comfort can be stated by an example of a woman hacker bringing her 3-months old baby for the two days of the hackathon. I wondered silently if she would do it if men were the dominant group at the hackathon.

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A team presenting their pitch at #AIHack4Ladies

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

One of the favourite lines of the event came from an IBM diversity video on getting more girls in STEM. This line has made a deep impression on me and many of the participants. We need more inclusive role models in tech sector. This is the reason why I argue that we need more diverse and women-inspired hackathons in Europe. There is a confidence gap especially seen in women seeking higher management positions. I heard from a great friend who is now heading an AI department saying that she only felt comfortable taking the job because her future boss convinced her to! I guess a man would have easily thought the opposite about taking the same job. Ginni Rometty from IBM tells a similar story so seems that this lack of confidence is not that uncommon among women. Another woman told me that there is already bias starting at the young age in kindergarten. Her 3-year old has a firm opinion already that only girls cry although he does it from time to time as well!

I like the format of a hack because women have to leave their comfort zones. They can learn from other women who are more advanced on tech skills or communication skills. This is where the women role-models come into play. They can see these women and gain confidence that they too can be good at these jobs if they make the effort. Winning is then not the primary motive but rather a secondary take-away and the educational goals and working as a team under immense time pressure of a hack are at the centre. Inclusion is important to women and I have seen that even stupider proposals about how to solve a problem, regarded with utmost respect. Women intuitively know the power of cooperation and the most important plus point of having a women-inspired hack is no sexism!

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Q&A round at #AIHack4Ladies

When it comes to other sort of events, it is a different story. I heard from one of the founders of a women network at Telekom that she has to put so much effort getting other women to take initiative and organize events. Somehow she felt that many women in the network became more like passive consumers rather than doers. So that definitely needs to change. But one sees from time to time that this changes if there are issues which matter to women. Take the 2017 Women’s March in America. Women came out in record high numbers because it mattered to them. Women care deeply about social issues, safety, environment, health etc. So this is where we can get rapport. Hackathons based on these issues could be a great way to get more diverse audience.

Conclusion

We need more women-inspired and diverse hacks to encourage women and minorities to network. It is not that they are lacking in knowledge but rather they are lacking the network. The encouragement and love, I have personally felt with a room full of women hackers at #AIHack4Ladies was amazing. It was a perfect backdrop to network with women from similar fields. The energy and diversity in the room, has encouraged us at WAI, to consider more such events in the future. If Europe would heed to this talent and encourage more such events, it could be in great position to win the talent war.

WOMEN IN AI (WAI)

www.womeninai.co

‘Women in AI’ wants to close the gender gap in the field of Artificial Intelligence and become the reference actor who help companies and events source more female experts in AI. It is a non-profit started in Paris and becoming a leading global community of women professionals in AI.

WomeninAI

We are on a mission to close the gender gap in AI.

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