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Hackathons and digital feminism in Tbilisi, Georgia

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This week Tbilisi hosted Europe's biggest college hackathon. Digital technology is taking off in Georgia, but it's leaving women behind. With traditional gender roles still largely ingrained, Georgian women  are underrepresented in the workforce. But change is on the horizon. A bright future beckons for Georgian women and technology.

This week, an event claim­ing to be the biggest col­lege Hackathon in all of Eu­rope took place in a most un­ex­pected lo­ca­tion, Tbil­isi, Geor­gia. Or­ga­nized by a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called Uni Hack, and spon­sored by a va­ri­ety of Geor­gian banks and soft­ware com­pa­nies, the event brought to­gether over 500 stu­dents from a va­ri­ety of Geor­gian Uni­ver­si­ties, fu­ture pro­gram­mers, de­vel­op­ers, de­sign­ers, and en­gi­neers. Sev­eral IT stu­dents from Geor­gia (the coun­try), who were iron­i­cally at­tend­ing Geor­gia Tech Uni­ver­sity in the US state of Geor­gia, de­cided to launch Uni Hack in De­cem­ber 2013 a repli­ca­tion of the hackathons they had at­tended in the United States.

The event was a huge suc­cess. The Tbil­isi-based Cau­ca­sus School of Tech­nol­ogy pro­vided the space and the stu­dents took care of the rest. Now, barely three months later, the sec­ond edi­tion of the hackathon counts on the sup­port of eight im­por­tant spon­sors and of­fers up to 10,000 GEL (4,000 Euros) in prizes; not a small sum for the cash strapped Cau­casian coun­try. But de­spite the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits that the cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion of a hackathon brings to the coun­try, the event also helps to show­case an alarm­ing trend: the ma­jor­ity of the hackathon par­tic­i­pants were male. Only one of the fifty teams par­tic­i­pat­ing con­sisted en­tirely of women, and none of the ten speak­ers were fe­male. 

Around the world, women are grossly un­der­rep­re­sented in tech­no­log­i­cal fields, and highly de­vel­oped coun­tries are no ex­cep­tion.  While women hold 57% of jobs across the United States, only 25% of po­si­tions in com­put­ing oc­cu­pa­tions are held by women. Log­i­cally, the same trend can be found in in­sti­tutes of higher ed­u­ca­tion, where women re­ceive only 14% of com­puter sci­ence de­grees at major re­search uni­ver­si­ties. In­cred­i­bly, how­ever, this num­ber has fallen in re­cent years. In 1985, 37% of un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree re­cip­i­ents in com­puter sci­ence were women. By 2010, that per­cent­age had fallen to 18%. In the United King­dom, the sit­u­a­tion is even worse. While women make up 49% of the labour mar­ket, they com­prise only 17% of IT and tele­com pro­fes­sion­als.  

In Geor­gia, the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by women who want to enter the tech in­dus­try are even direr. The coun­try is plagued by poverty and only 30% of women claim to be em­ployed, as tra­di­tional gen­der roles main­tain that a woman’s re­spon­si­bil­ity is first and fore­most to her chil­dren and fam­ily. But Jump­Start-Geor­gia, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that uses tech­nol­ogy to com­mu­ni­cate com­plex in­for­ma­tion in a way that is en­gag­ing and easy to un­der­stand, is break­ing these trends as the first tech NGO in the coun­try to em­ploy over 50% women.

Com­bin­ing the skills of pro­gram­mers, front-end de­sign­ers, and data jour­nal­ists, Jump­Start cre­ated the web­site feradi.​info where a va­ri­ety of in­fo­graph­ics and in­ter­ac­tive on­line tools vi­su­al­ize large data sets that are use­ful to cit­i­zens but are usu­ally too com­plex or dis­or­ga­nized for the gen­eral pub­lic to con­sume. When the or­ga­ni­za­tion launched in 2009, like most tech-based or­ga­ni­za­tions, the ma­jor­ity of its em­ploy­ees were male. But over time sev­eral fe­male de­sign­ers, data jour­nal­ists, ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tants, and pro­ject man­agers joined the team, and even­tu­ally the gen­der bal­ance tipped in their favour.

Now, sev­eral of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mem­bers have agreed to vol­un­teer their Sun­day af­ter­noons to share their pas­sion for tech­nol­ogy with more Geor­gian women. Launch­ing a Tbil­isi-based ver­sion of Girls Who Code  -a New York-based non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that teaches com­puter pro­gram­ing to young girls in order to ad­dress the gen­der dis­par­i­ties ex­is­tent in tech­no­log­i­cal fields – Jump­Start’s staff now works di­rectly with a group of around ten fe­male pro­fes­sion­als be­tween the ages of 22-35 to ad­dress these is­sues in Geor­gia. The women, most of whom are jour­nal­ists, re­searchers, and ac­tivists, bring their own lap­tops to Jump­Start’s of­fice each week to learn to code with Ruby.

A hackathon at New York Code for Good Chal­lenge

"As many peo­ple do, I thought cod­ing was the do­main of math and sci­ence geeks and be­yond the com­pre­hen­sion of mere so­cial sci­en­tists like me. But then I joined Jump­Start’s Girls that Code ini­tia­tive and re­al­ized that there is no magic in­volved! There is, how­ever, a lot to learn about how to struc­ture your path from a prob­lem to a so­lu­tion through a lan­guage that only com­put­ers "speak". And that knowl­edge comes in handy in vir­tu­ally every field you could pos­si­bly think of. In my case, these skills will allow me to help keep the gov­ern­ment trans­par­ent, open, and ac­count­able,” says Tamara Sar­ta­nia, a young pro­fes­sional work­ing for the Na­tional De­mo­c­ra­tic In­sti­tute in Geor­gia and a Girls Who Code en­thu­si­ast.

Tamara and Jump­Start ap­pear to have touched on a re­al­ity lost to many. Com­puter pro­gram­ming goes far be­yond the do­main of build­ing web­sites or get­ting a good job in a com­pany like Google. It is also a vital skill for ide­al­ists in coun­tries where open data is still scarce and where in­for­ma­tion is es­sen­tial if one is to un­der­stand so­ci­ety and work to im­prove it.