The women are absent

Published on 2024-01-28

If you didn't already know this about me, over the years on this mortal coil I've stumbled my way into a leadership position in the computer science course union at my university. The main thing we do each year is a hackathon. This year, I was designated "lead organizer."

If you aren't familiar, hackathons are kind of like case competitions for software engineers. I'd say "computer nerds" but I feel like demoparties are case competitions for computer nerds. Hackathons feel much more squarely like case competitions for software engineers. More specifically, a hackathon is a competition, usually one to a few consecutive days, where a small team develops a prototype for some computer-adjacent project and pitches it to a panel of judges, often working overnight, and usually being fed really awful pizza by a group of people who scantly know what they're doing 90% of the time. You know that stereotype of the 1980s software engineer working themself to death over some random thing and eating an ungodly amount of cheap pizza? It's kind of like a reification of that stereotype, packaged in a conference centre, with the promise that maybe you'll get compensated.

I don't actually like hackathons all that much. I think they're a very masochistic sort of competition, and that they only really serve to emulate abusive working conditions. Somewhat accidentally, this year I was the person on the team with the most proximity to running hackathons, since I was pretty deeply involved in the one we ran last year, so here I am.

Today is the last day of our hackathon. In a few hours, I'm going to be going around with the rest of the judging team. In honour of that, I want to talk about my first and only hackathon experience.

The year is 202X--my first year in university. I had some friends, but none really in my major. If you're familiar with my gemlog, that will likely come as no surprise.

But like, that was the entire reason why I came to university in the first place, right? To uncover some concentrated mass of weird CS people, hidden away on the other side of the country? So I kept trying, thrusting myself into social situations with CS majors hoping one day I'd find someone who saw me as a Real Person.

One such situation was this hackathon I kept hearing about.

I didn't have a team, so I'd have to try my luck on the free market of Discord users. After a while, some people I'd never met told me they were looking for a back end person. Hey, I'm a back end person! They invited me to a Google Meet room a day later where I'd get to talk with the rest of the team.

The team was composed of three guys. I mean "guy" here both in the literal sense of "person who considers himself a man" and in the more abstract sense of "type of guy." There was the AI Guy. He seemed nice enough. There was the Front End Guy. I can't really remember anything about him; I'm not sure if he even like, talked at all during the meeting. I felt that. Then there was the Ringleader Guy. I'm not entirely sure if he had a technical background or not. He might have been a management student. All I can remember is that he came up with the idea and did the vast majority of the talking during the meeting.

The idea, of course, was Devpost for women.

What is Devpost, you ask? Admittedly, I'm not entirely sure. It's the website we use to receive hackathon project submissions. I think you can also use it to find hackathons to participate in? I imagine Devpost being to hackathons what Imgur is to being a place to host image files.

What would Devpost for women look like, you ask? Well, I wasn't sure. I did try and ask, many times. I kept asking. I was extremely fascinated by the audacity of the idea, and by the fact that everyone else in the group seemed completely uncritical of it. They had a premise, and that was the fact that women are underrepresented in hackathons. I just can't imagine what about spending two to four consecutive days in a poorly ventilated conference centre with guys chock-full of lactose and off-brand soda who think they can fix inequality by rebranding existing products to target women wouldn't appeal to women. Clearly the issue must be that the name Devpost doesn't have the word women in it.

That was, as far as I could tell, their entire project: to clean-room reverse engineer Devpost but to brand it for women. Like one of those over priced razors with a pink rather than blue rubber handle.

As per the ringleader guy, I was going to do the back end stuff, the front end guy would do the front end stuff, the AI guy would do some AI stuff for recommendations or whatever, and yeah I'm still not entirely sure what the ringleader guy's role would be beyond coming up with the idea.

We talked extensively, probably for over an hour, about the design of this project, but only in the most surface level way possible. Ringleader guy talked with a lot of confidence--it sounded like he knew what he was talking about, though the actual depth of our technical discussion of this project never seemed to break the surface. Admittedly, that might have been my fault. I kept questioning the premise of the project, trying desperately to understand what the fuck was actually going on in these people's heads, with no luck.

For example, one thing I kept doing was making a point to talk of "marginalized genders" rather than women, because I was sure that's what they actually meant. "Women" is often used as a signifier for "marginalized gender identities" by well-meaning liberals who accidentally forgot that women aren't the only marginalized gender identity. We see this all the time, when things like, say, "The Women in Engineering Society" actually secretly means "The Women, Nonbinary people and other Feminine-Aligned Individuals in Engineering Society" when you read the fine print.

This in and of itself is pretty silly, but what was perhaps even sillier was the fact that that's literally not what they meant. They did, in fact, mean only one, concentrated, nebulously defined concept of Woman. Every time I used the phrase "marginalized genders" they gave me weird looks and immediately steered the conversation back to that of Woman. And that's an idea I've spent a lot of time interrogating since.

An important detail about this competition was that the "theme" was diversity--we were encouraged to create projects with a focus on building a more diverse community in the tech industry. What's interesting about this project, then, is that "Devpost for Woman":

  • Rips off an existing product--particularly, the product they were probably actively interacting with as they came up with the idea
  • Chooses women as its target to "fix" through their technical prowess
  • Does not meaningfully interact with the experience of women in any way

In this sense, Woman did not represent any person, or any demographic. Woman was a mere signifier that would actively be constructed through the creation of Devpost for Woman. The particular needs of women were irrelevant, and my team members need not consult women on the nature of their project because Devpost for Woman wasn't for women--it was for Woman. The needs of Woman are circularly defined by the services that Devpost for Woman offers.

Devpost for Woman is for no real person, except perhaps the people on my team. Their goal was not to create a service that meaningfully improved the lives of women in the tech industry, but rather to satisfy the aesthetic requirements of the hackathon's theme. If you could do something technically impressive that claims to be "for Woman," the hope was that the men on the judging team would be so distracted by the technical nature of the project that they would fail to see through the Woman caricature, and understand the project as meeting the necessary aesthetic constraint.

In this world, women are absent. Somewhat importantly, in this world I'm not even convinced that I exist, so I really had to deal with that.

At the end of the meeting, Ringleader Guy checked to reaffirm that all of us were on board. I said no, in the politest way I could muster, saying something about how I didn't feel like I was a good fit for the technical nature of the project. This was admittedly contradictory, since I'd spent the last hour exploring with them how I was in fact a good fit for the technical nature of the project, but after I said no five or six times they gave up and I disconnected from the call.

I never bothered to check how they did. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure if they even successfully formed a team, or if the project immediately fell apart.

I didn't end up competing in that hackathon at all, actually. I had another group lined up but I felt so exhausted after that experience that I just threw in the towel. Instead of participating in the next hackathon I ran for Executive Event Coordinator, and then I landed as VP uncontested a year later. Now I get to interrogate unsuspecting men on the nature of womanhood. Fun times.

Edit 2024-01-30: This piece was originally called "Devpost for Woman and then nature of womanhood" but obviously that was a typo, so I took this opportunity to rename the piece to "The women are absent," which I feel better reflects the central message

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