Masculinity and Machinery: Analysis of Care Practices, Social Climate and Marginalization at Hackathons

This is a feminist issue considering hackathon practices prevent the growth of a diverse, critical tech sphere.

by Gloria Lin on December 15th, 2016

Large TV screen reading 'Oh Hi There, LAHacks' in a darkened sports stadium.

Caption: The opening of LA Hacks at UCLA 2014. Image credits: @sampoonachot

Hackathons are not as inclusive as they claim to be, particularly through the lenses of class, gender, ability, and care. Major League Hacking, the official hackathon league which sponsors hackathons worldwide, calls hackathons “invention marathons.” Supposedly, they’re designed to be relaxed and welcoming, and you don’t need programming experience to participate. However, hackathons are hostile to identities that don’t fit a “typical” hacker: generally male, cisgender, heterosexual, white or East Asian, particularly experienced in programming, and able-bodied and minded. This becomes a feminist issue considering hackathon practices prevent the growth of a diverse, critical tech sphere.

For my research, college hackathon participants were observed through ethnographic studies and interviews regarding their experiences at these events. These participants provided data regarding social etiquette, practices of care, and expectations for work habits at hackathons globally. The project also included interviews with hackathon and tech industry activists and organizers, as well as discourse analysis and social media analysis.

Care Practices and Exclusion at Hackathons

Hackathon spaces cultivate a culture that marginalizes hackers with specific needs, including but not limited to women, people with disabilities, people with non-traditional backgrounds, and even individuals with specific dietary restrictions. By consistently ignoring the health, diet, and care needs of diverse attendees, along with needs based on skill, class, and gender identities, hackathons create an exclusive and hostile environment.

At the very first hackathon I attended for my research, I realized the privilege that comes with being able to access a hackathon in the first place. At the event, I slept on the bleachers of a university gymnasium, which was seen as the norm sleeping location. That so much activity — including recruitment from major companies like Microsoft — occurred at the top floor of the gym meant the event was largely inaccessible and rewarded only the able-bodied. However, I was told I should be grateful – the hosts provided showers for two hours each night to the 1000+ hackers that attended. This idea of exclusion through able-bodiedness, and the ability to go a weekend without grooming yourself or accessing other necessary care resources, was a constant theme throughout my research.

A person (face non-visible) sleeping under a folding chair at a hackaton.

An empty green velvet chair by a small table covered in a laptop, cords and dozens of soft and energy drinks.

At another hackathon, I conducted an ethnographic study of diet and rest. The diet of a hacker participant often includes Redbull, coffee, and sodas running abound next to hardware and laptops. I got sick by the second out of the three days in an attempt to emulate a hackathon participant’s diet: pizza, soda, chips, and Subway. Additionally, there were no stairs, but people slept on the floor and were ridiculed for sleeping as “early” as 1am – the expectation was that hackers would sleep maybe 3 hours at most. At one hackathon, hackers did not even have access to sanitary napkins. By ignoring their health, diet, and care needs, along with needs based on skill, class, and gender identities, hackerspaces create a culture that forces hackers to subject their bodies and minds to harmful and even dangerous conditions in order to participate and access the opportunities of the events, such as recruiting opportunities from major tech giants, press attention, and rewards like cash and hardware.

The Ideal Hacker

Another constant theme of my research was that homogeneity is often overwhelming at hackathons; not only in terms of attendees, but leaders, organizers and judges of the event. At one large hackathon I attended, only one organizer was a woman; all mentors, professors, and judges were men. Further, hackathons often platform and reward apps with sexist and misogynist themes; for example, at LA Hacks 2014, Wingman, an initial finalist, made headlines as a winning app that analyzed photos of females to determine their promiscuity and whether they’d altered an image to look more attractive. The openness to this type of content at hackathons sends the message that women aren’t welcome. Why enter a space and contribute to its production if it tells you implicitly and explicitly that you will not be taken seriously? These direct examples of hackathon products affect the mentality and mental health of hackers that do not fit the norm, excluding them from the industry.

Large sports stadium with a floor absolutely packed with hackers at tables.

Ultimately, college hackathons create an image of the ideal hacker to whom they primarily cater. This ideal hacker is heterosexual, cisgender, white or East Asian, experienced in programming, and able-bodied and minded. This is contrary to Major League Hacking’s assertions that hackathons are “relaxed and welcoming atmosphere[s],” even for those inexperienced with programming. Analyzing how hackathons marginalize specifically from angles of class, ability, and gender privilege, along with care ethics, provides a basis on which we can improve inclusion and conditions within the hackathon sphere.

It is particularly important to dismantle the privileges which make hackathons exclusive and unwelcoming spaces, especially as the hackathon model increasingly extends even outside of the tech industry and college campuses. Without critical analysis of the privileges that pervade hackathons, we cannot expect proper care or productive, positive experiences as these hackathons expand. By sparking this conversation, hackathons can work as a community to create safe spaces for participants regardless of their identities or privileges with respect to ability, gender, class, or care so they can share their contributions, ideas, and collaborations.

An inclusive hackathon space needs to begin with conversations from diverse organizers, mentors, judges, participants, and anyone else interested in participating in the space. The organizing should represent as many diverse identities as possible; while this is by no means a simple task to complete, it is necessary to foster a more welcoming atmosphere for participants.

When hackers are reporting that they are restricted to sleeping on concrete slabs and feel pressured into not sleeping for two days straight, it is up to the hackathon community as a whole to spark change. Suggestions like providing set sleeping areas, building rest times into the hackathon schedule with incentives for taking a break, and establishing a code of conduct have begun to take place in certain hackathons. Having this across more hackathons would foster a safer space for all hackers.

Encouragingly, hackathon organizers have begun introducing events with specific purposes, such as Technica, an all-women hackathon at the University of Maryland, College Park. Technica is one hackathon that incorporates yoga breaks in its schedule, which allows hackers to practice self-care. Hack Davis at the University of California, Davis brands itself as a 24-hour social hackathon in which participants choose one topic (Health & Wellness, Environment, or Education). This provides an opportunity for hackers to discuss and produce “practical solutions to specific societal problems,” in a limited time span in the interest of health and resources. Such hackathons push hackers to reflect on why they are doing the work they do, push for the ideas and welfare of marginalized communities in the tech sphere, and do so on the terms of their wellbeing and safety.

More hackathons should follow these models: Creating a more diverse hackathon sphere would produce work that affects all communities positively, not just a specific subset, and create opportunities for everyone interested in partaking.