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Women Students Compete at Worldwide Hackathon

February 18, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

Engineers Week: it takes place every February, a celebration of accomplishments in mechanical, civil, chemical, and biomedical engineering. Why, I wonder, do we hear so little about the breakthroughs powered by computer and information sciences?  And why do we almost never hear about the importance of growing more women in these vital fields, which touch almost every aspect of modern life?

Of the 1.4 million computing jobs between 2006-2018, only 29% will be filled by women

Like many women in computing, I’ve known the discouragement that comes from being dismissed in a male-dominated field. I’m committed to changing this situation, which is why I’m delighted to announce that this year’s Engineering Week will feature the first annual International Women’s Hackathon, a worldwide competition sponsored by Microsoft Research and the Microsoft Imagine Cup, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, the Association for Computing Machinery Committee on Women in Computing, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering, and Skype.

On February 22–24, at high schools and university campuses around the world, we will kick off this first-ever, women-only hackathon, in which teams choose to solve one of four challenges. Our primary goal is to help young women feel confident of their capabilities and excited by the opportunities to solve global problems. We will provide the event organizers with tools to help them successfully organize and lead their events the way they want. Some events will involve no more than eight women, while others will have more than 150 participants. We will connect all of the events live via Skype, which will allow participants at different locations to network with peers and discuss the challenges. I will be at the University of Southern California, and I can’t tell you how anxious I am to see the solutions that these amazing young women will create.

Bridging the Gap

I’m especially grateful to be part of this event when I think about my own past and how, unfortunately, many young women today are having similar experiences. When I was in high school, I was the only girl who took the technical and computer drafting class (even though it was offered in seven different periods!), which was the closest thing to computer science education back then.

As a mechanical engineering major in college, I was one of just a handful of women taking electrical engineering and computer engineering courses. It was here that I really learned, first-hand, the obstacles young women encounter when they to break into computer science—obstacles that continue to impede female computer science students around the world today. During team projects, I was not expected to do the hard technical work. Rather, my teammates wanted me to come up with the “big” idea, to keep the project on track, and later to present our finished work. While I enjoyed these roles, I still bristled at the assumption that “as a girl” I lacked the technical chops to shoulder the difficult computational challenges.

As I visit campuses in the United States, Korea, and various European countries, and Skype with young women from the Middle East, India, Latin America, and Australia, I get an uneasy sense of déjà vu. Regrettably, I hear these themes again and again:

  • In most of my classes, I am one of only a few women, and during projects my male teammates always assign me project management and the presentation. Why can’t I get recognized for my technical abilities?
  • When I participate in a hackathon or any type of computer science competition, I am the last chosen. This makes me feel undervalued and very uncomfortable.
  • There are no women on my department’s faculty, so I have no role models. I often wonder if this really is a field where a woman can be successful.
  • I want to make an impact and solve big world problems. Can I really do that in computer science?

After 20 years, it’s surprising that the challenges have not changed much for women in computing, especially since the opportunities today are so plentiful. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2018 there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the United States, but we will graduate only enough female computer and information science majors to fill about 29 percent of them. These predictions are all the more dispiriting when you realize that the latest advances in improving healthcare, protecting the environment, and upgrading manufacturing have come from technological innovations.

I believe that no other field offers as many opportunities for students computer science does. It is to the benefit of both women and society as a whole to have a wide diversity of professionals working in a field like computer science, which has the potential to influence so many aspects of our lives.

Rane Johnson-Stempson, Education and Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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