Breaking the code: FedEx Institute of Technology to host first all-women hackathon

The FedEx Institute of Technology is hosting a computer programming hackathon for women this week that takes its name from Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

ATHENAtechne, a first-of-its-kind event in Memphis, is a two-day gathering July 20 and 21 focused on helping steer more “people who identify as women or non-binary from diverse backgrounds” toward a career in computer science. 

According to Cody Behles, assistant director for innovation and research support at the FedEx Institute of Technology, this event “represents a sorely missing component of the Memphis technology landscape.”

It's not just Memphis’ tech landscape but that of the technology industry itself, which is still a male-dominated field. Take these recent figures from U.S. News and World Report, which found that in 1984, almost 40 percent of computer science majors were women. Two decades later, that number fell by more than half — down to 18 percent. 

Likewise, the National Center for Women and Information Technology determined that in 2017, women comprised just 26 percent of the computer industry workforce.

Moves to address that gender disparity have ranged from academic research into the causes of the field's lack of diversity to initiatives that foster diversity. Count this week’s hackathon in the latter category.

The FedEx Institute is hosting several partner groups from around the city to bring the event together. It’s a free event open to women of all ages. It will be a typical hackathon, a geeky affair at which programmers and software developers collaborate with each other on projects. But it’s also informal enough that you don’t have to come armed with a project in mind to work on; you don’t even have to know how to code, as long as you’re at least interested in learning.

Sarah Holland is the co-founder of Memphis Women in Technology, one of the groups behind the event. The reason her group is helping put it on is the same reason MWIT exists in the first place — to, as the name implies, help bring diversity to male-dominated fields like information technology.

Holland’s organization is a nonprofit working to “empower, attract, support and promote women of tech in Memphis.” That’s done through community outreach in the form of everything from grants to scholarship funds and more.

“Over the last decade we’ve seen growing opportunities for females to gain exposure to technology opportunities in school,” Holland said. “Despite this, we see real challenges as these young women make the transition into a professional environment."

“ATHENAtechne provides women in this region an opportunity to come together and show the amazing talent that this community has to offer … We’re hoping this will take off and become one of the largest hackathons and IT-related events in the city.”

Participants don’t have to come with an idea of something to code or build. It’s more about showing up with an interest in technology, talking to other attendees and perhaps using that as a spark to sit down and work on a project together. Even non-programmers are welcome. It’s the interest in technology that’s a requirement, not mastery of a coding language.

The gathering itself is the point — the bringing together of people who might not otherwise find an entry door into the technology industry. Event organizer Pooja Shah lists three goals for the hackathon — getting participants excited about technology, building community and having fun.

Almost a dozen groups are sponsoring the event, ranging from the City of Memphis to Tech 901 and the University of Memphis.

“There’s a tremendous need to attract more women to technical fields, both in terms of addressing workforce demand and generating the most innovative solutions to complex challenges,” said Dr. Stephanie Ivey, associate dean for research and a professor in the Herff College of Engineering at the U of M. “The ATHENAtechne hackathon is a perfect example of how collaboration and ingenuity can create opportunities to showcase technical professions and help foster STEM identity for women.”

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Read more articles by Andy Meek.