Day 6

SheHacks: A 36-hour hackathon for women

Boston University is hosting the largest ever hackathon for women and femme non-binary individuals as a way to level the playing field in a male-dominated sector.
Helen Zhang (center) speaking with Sarah Griesdorf and Ramsha Arshad, members of the SheHacks Boston planning team. (SheHacks Boston/Facebook)

This weekend at Boston University, more than 1,000 women and femme non-binary individuals will code until they save the world — or until time runs out on Sunday morning.

They're part of SheHacks Boston, a 'hackathon' that aims to encourage women and non-binary people to join the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (better known as STEM).

"In a nutshell, a hackathon is an event that takes place between 24 to 48 hours, where hundreds, if not thousands of people, get together and use technology to solve real world problems," Helen Zhang, one of the event's coordinators, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The theme of this year's SheHacks Boston event is "Hacking for the Greater Social Good." Participants will tackle a project within one of five areas: political polarization, health and wellness, disaster relief, gender equality and environmental issues.

"There is definitely a unique energy that you can't get anywhere else, where everyone around you is so motivated to learn."

Lacking representation

Only 23 per cent of people working in STEM identify as female. Similarly, 28 per cent of graduates with university degrees in STEM are women. Zhang hopes to change that, especially given the pushback she's experienced as a woman in tech.

"When I told my parents that I really wanted to learn computer science and switch my major they were extremely against it. They kind of said, in a way, that it's like a man's field," says Zhang.

"It was really discouraging and it took them a long time to just accept the fact that I'm going to stick with computer science."

Christy Taves, a participant at the event, has felt the sting of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Often she feels like the odd girl out.

"I'm not a male who just wants to wear a hoodie and sit on my computer all day. I think the culture and the idea definitely steers women away," she says.

Girl power

While hackathons are nothing new, the SheHacks Boston is novel. Men are allowed only in a limited capacity — as volunteers and mentors, not participants — and the event is being billed as the largest women-and femmes-only hacking event.

"It's a unique energy and it's so motivating to see all these other women," says Zhang.

SheHacks is a 36-hour "hackathon" taking place at Boston University Jan. 26 to 28. (

Coding for 36 hours isn't what women in the industry should expect, says Zhang. Rather, SheHacks Boston is a springboard for young women.

"I think the value of this event is more so to really engage with others who are interested and passionate again with the same interests you have, and also make that initial learning curve not so scary," she says.

Things are changing

For all the troubling numbers, there does seem to be encouraging news: Zhang says that she's starting to see a change in how women are represented.

"I remember my very first computer science class … I think it was 80 percent men and 20 percent females," says Zhang.

"Lately, like this semester, it is over a 50/50 split."

She cautions that the industry has a long way to go before it reaches gender parity, but she's hopeful that in 10 to 15 years, STEM will look be far different for women.

In the meantime, she has words of advice for girls: check Google.

"We're living in an age where you could really teach yourself anything you want … Go online, see something cool and kind of recreate it yourself. Maybe customise it to what you want it to be."


To hear the full segment with Helen Zhang, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.