Computer science isn’t just for the boys: how Hack the Gap is challenging the stigma

‘I hope this event changes the perception of, who can be a hacker at least in the Boston University community’

From October 21st to the 22nd Girls Who Code at BU held ‘Hack the Gap,’ a weekend long event where women at BU had the opportunity to develop a resource that empowers women in the field of STEM.

The theme for this year’s event was “Hacking the Gender Gap in Technology” that brought in women leaders and mentors from the STEM industry to discuss their experience with sexism. There were also workshops for beginner “hackers” to learn everything from coding to iOS development.

Fiona Whittington, president and founder of Girls Who Code and director of ‘Hack the Gap,’ said she experienced sexist remarks at her first hackathon, but didn’t let them phase her.

“The first thing someone asked me was, ‘do you even code?’ and to this day it’s still one of the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard,” said Whittington. “This was the first person I interacted with at the event, which would have been traumatizing if I wasn’t the bad ass bitch I am.”

Girls worked together in teams to develop a resource to "hack" the gender gap.

Girls worked together in teams to develop a resource to "hack" the gender gap.

In 2014, the number of women studying computer science in college was 18 percent and if these trends continue, the number will only rise to 20 percent by 2025, according to a study done by the U.S News/Raytheon STEM Index.

Ramsha Arshad, 19, a sophomore at BU, said the message of the hackathon and the workshops drew her in because she wanted to gain more experience as well as get an understanding of the industry.

“We need more women in computer science and right now it’s hard being the only woman in a room full of men,” said Arshad. “The whole reason this is happening is because we want to encourage younger women to get into the tech field.”

Whittington said 79 percent of the hackers, who attended the hackathon, have never attended one before. This is compared to other hackathons where the number generally hovers around 25 percent.

“The large disparity between those numbers or the “gap” tells the whole story within itself. Women feel like they don’t belong and everybody should have equal opportunity to succeed," said Whittington

Speakers at the event stressed how women need to continue to fight for their right to be included in the computer science industry, but to also help celebrate and advance other women. They about the role sexism has played in the shaping of their career and how new women in the field can combat this.

Dorothy Spector, a junior at BU, said she attended the event to get a better understanding of coding and tried to learn as much as she could.

“I’ve been here since 9 a.m Saturday and we’re still going,” said Spector. “The speakers said it best, that there’s this idea of being an imposter in the field, where you are the only woman in the room.”

Spector said that when you’re girl and a beginner, it’s easier to feel intimidated in a room full of boys.

“That’s what makes it intimidating for a lot of girls to get involved and it’s programs like this that make it more comfortable,” said Spector. “You need someone to say that it’s okay if you don’t know anything because you’re going to learn together.”

Whittington said she doesn’t want girls to feel the way she felt when she attended her first hackathon and hopes this hackathon helps to make girls feel more inclusive and supported.

“Whenever I get stressed, overwhelmed, and question why this event is important, I take myself back to that moment when I promised myself that no woman should ever feel how I did,” said Whittington.