On February 21st, 2020 over 400 computer programmers met for a hackathon in the Frank Porter Graham Student Union at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The catch—this wasn’t just any hackathon—this was Pearl Hacks.
Peal Hacks is a hackathon designed specifically for women and non-binary people at UNC-CH.
Women and non-binary people make up a minority of the workforce in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reports that in every region of the world, women account for a minority of scientific research. A similar gender gap is seen in women pursuing higher education in STEM fields. Research suggests long-standing gender stereotypes are to blame for women being steering away from these fields.
Acknowledging a significant gender disparity in the computer science major at UNC-CH, events like Pearl Hacks attempt to create a supportive environment for these minorities to explore technology. The event is also a way to recognize these communities’ accomplishments and contributions to the field.
Pearl Hacks, founded by a UNC alumna in 2014, has been a part of the computer science department’s push to close the gender gap. Over the last four years the department has seen the percentage of female students majoring in computer science rise from 15% in 2014 to nearly 30% this year.
Pearl Hacks 7th annual event went a little like this.
The three-day event encouraged participants to form teams of four and design and build a project or “hack” in just 24 hours. Sponsors for the event presented specific challenges/themes/prompts to the teams and offered prizes for the best hack. As some teams started designing and building their projects, others attended workshops throughout the weekend presented by faculty, alumni, current students or sponsor representatives. Participants could also meet sponsor representatives and make connections with their dream companies at the sponsor fair.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t women in tech, we’re definitely here, and we’re definitely doing things"
When asked about her perception of the gender gap in computer science, first-time Pearl Hacks attendee and computer science major, Neha Medikayla said, “I think there are a lot of stereotypes and limitations especially for women, as the field has been dominated by men for so long.”
“I have definitely noticed that there are significantly more men in my classes,” senior computer science and psychology major Emily Heckel said. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t women in tech, we’re definitely here, and we’re definitely doing things, but it’s kind of intimidating when you are the only woman.”
Bea Manaligod, Director of Marketing for Pearl Hacks, describes Pearl Hacks as a response to the gender gap, and a way to get more female and non-binary representation in the field. Manaligod said in order to combat the stereotypes, the tech field needs to become less scary and elitist.
“Pearl Hacks really fosters this awesome sense of community,” she says. As the director of marketing she described one of her jobs as presenting the event in the most exciting and accessible way for new-comers and non-coders.
Gentry, Dana, and Hannah McClellan. “UNC Comp Sci Department Works to Close Gender Gap.” The Daily Tar Heel, 20 Mar. 2018, www.dailytarheel.com/article/2018/03/sqjkqvyj0kqv6zw.
Carroll, Kate. “Pearl Hacks Preps for 7th Annual Female and Non-Binary Hackathon.” The Daily Tar Heel, 7 Feb. 2020, www.dailytarheel.com/article/2020/02/pearl-hacks-0206.
Wood, Johnny. “How Many Women Work in STEM?” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/stem-gender-inequality-researchers-bias/.