Diversify – Creating a Hackathon with 50/50 Female and Male Participants

January 13, 2015 Published by Sofie Lindblom

There have been many efforts during the past few years to raise awareness of gender equality in the IT industry. But it’s been slow progress – and we don’t like slow! So we decided to do things differently. Instead of just hoping to achieve gender equality, we made it a requirement for our hackathon “Diversify”.

What we set out to do

After organizing events for tech students over the last couple of years, it’s become clear that we’re doing something wrong when it comes to gender diversity: we’ve rarely managed to get a female/male ratio better than 15/85. We refused to settle for this and decided to explore why this was the case and what we could do to improve gender diversity at our events.

Research shows that gender diverse teams create better results – so if we increase the number of women at our events and make them feel welcome and productive, our events will get better results and be more successful.

“There is not a high enough demand from women to attend tech events”

Believe it or not, we still get versions of this statement from a lot of people as an explanation for why there are so few women at tech events. We simply refuse to believe this is true. So instead we set out to create a tech event that would be equally attractive to men and women.

Studies shows that women shy away from competitive environments, and that such environments might unfairly impact their performance. By removing the competitive elements of a programming event, we hoped to get more women applying for the event and get a higher quality output from the teams.

How we executed it

How do you re-shape a concept that has been around for ages and broaden the spectrum of participants, while still making everyone feel welcome and challenged?

Clever Marketing

We worked hard to make all copy (emails, website and social media) friendly and fun. We avoided words that might scare people away, and instead emphasized cross-collaboration and learning to reach people who usually don’t attend these events. Colors were kept natural but still fun – and we avoided the ninja and Barbie® themes!

The channels where you spread the event decide the crowd that will apply. We wanted to expand outside our Facebook hacker groups. So we talked to university teachers, local communities, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends from other cities to push the event outside the usual “tech bubble”.

The channels where you spread the event decide the crowd that will apply. We wanted to expand outside our Facebook hacker groups. So we talked to university teachers, local communities, brothers, sisters, cousins and friends from other cities to push the event outside the usual “tech bubble”.

Not Like Other Applications

If you want a diverse crowd, don’t only ask for the applicant’s GitHub account. Dare to ask the soft questions and you’ll get deeper thoughts and values in return. For example, we asked “Why is diversity important to you?” and “What do you want to learn?” The answers we received really touched our hearts. We had 40 participants in total, divided into ten teams. It was a good size, not too big but still plenty of people to talk to.


To motivate people to show up with the right mindset, we put a lot of thought into creating a good vibe before the event. A Facebook group for all participants & coaches was a good platform for random conversations, and also allowed us to release a few teasers now and then. The hashtag is another powerful tool that we encouraged people to start using as soon as they got accepted. Furthermore, we wanted to make people feel welcome, irrespective of previous hackathon experiences. This meant not assuming people had specific technical skills. For example, we provided tutorials prior to the event on how to work with Git and explained to everyone how we were planning to use the services of GitHub during the event.


No one wants to listen to hardcore techno for 40 hours – not even people pretending to like it! It’s just not human. So we created a playlist by initially asking everyone to describe themselves with a song. We received 40 very diverse songs and some amazing stories behind them. During the hack we let people add songs to the original playlist as we went along. It shaped itself into a fantastic mix-tape.


Each team consisted of two male and two female participants. All teams included people with different profiles; backend, front-end, design and project management. Ideally people in the same team would not be from the same school either. Additionally, these people had never met before, which adds to the impressiveness of what they created.

“First time I worked in a team as balanced as this one.”



The “fika” (snack) table had everything from vegetables sticks to donuts. The meals ranged from vegetarian buffet to pizza slices. We tried to make everyone happy and the effort was very well received. It was all about showing that things can be done differently – and killing the geek macho vibe that pizza and beer events induce!

“Great with a mix of healthy and ‘traditional’ hack food”


Fifteen Spotify employees across a range of different disciplines were asked if they wanted to coach the teams. They all said yes, and they did it beautifully! Their input really notched up the quality and learning atmosphere of the whole event. They are rock stars and we can’t thank them enough!

“The minute I heard there was an event featuring 50-50 male-female developers, I knew I wanted to be part of it and help coaching!”


We didn’t want people to just sit in front of their computers for 48 hours with the group of friends they came with. Instead, we planned talks, a workshop, fika and food breaks spread out during the two days. We also put a lot of thought into how to integrate the diversity perspective into every activity. The talks were from a female (Heidi Harman) and a male (Christian Heilmann) perspective. They are both fascinating people with amazing tech careers, so getting their point of view was really interesting and a great conversation starter for the remaining part of the hack.

Judit Schneider from Learning & Development at Spotify held a two hour workshop about Diversity and the unknown bias we carry with us, which was really well-received. The mixed activities created a natural opportunity for all teams to take breaks from hacking together and socialize. The full schedule is available here.

“So much less stressful than other hackathons I’ve attended. I really enjoyed just focusing on learning new stuff, getting to know new people and raising the gender equality discussion, rather than working until my eyes bleed.“


We feared that many talented people don’t apply to these kinds of events because they don’t like the competitive environment. And to be fair, those 90 second pitches give no project a fair chance to present itself properly. So we removed prizes and pitches. Instead we held a demo session where teams demoed their apps in a science fair fashion. Coaches and participants walked around the room, tried the prototypes and asked more in-depth questions. This relieved the stress and enabled people to focus on process, learning and end results.

“I won the best thing: friends.”


“A confidence boost and a s*!t load of fun!”

We think of ourselves as rebels – we like to do things differently and start the odd revolution! We’ve thought a lot about how to package what we learned, inspire others and nurture the friendships that were formed during this weekend. There is already been a lot of Facebook friend requests and “I miss you” posts. We’ll do everything we can to keep building on this amazing vibe with these amazing people through the channels and events we have. So let’s start that diversity revolution now! And don’t forget to stop by the showcase site to see what the teams built.

What we learned


Out of all the applications Diversify received, 43% were from female and 57% from male applicants. This has never happened before in Street Team’s history of organizing events. The Street Team hopes and thinks this is because we were extremely thoughtful about inclusion in every single part of the planning and execution.


We simply received too many great applications. It’s truly a luxurious problem but we could have hosted three Diversify and still have had great candidates left in the pool of applicants. This tells us that the demand for these types of events is super high among both men and women.


The format was one of the things people appreciated the most and even made some participants change their mind about attending:

“I really like the idea about it not being a competition. I strongly agree with the problem stated by Chris Heilmann about the ‘start-up culture’ and it’s heavily competitive attitude, which is geared towards a certain type of people. Personally I don’t attend that many hackathons because of this.”

Instead of only one team leaving with a prize, we wanted all teams to leave feeling proud of their accomplishments and inspired to become even better. True, a few people complained about missing the traditional pitches and competitive element. Some people are driven by competition and argue that it leads to better results in the end. But one of our coaches left this feedback:

“The coolest thing is, that even without the competition, the results were remarkable.”

There are millions of competitive hackathons, but not very many like Diversify. We saw that there is definitely a demand for non-competitive hackathons focused on other things.


Many of our participants had never been to a hackathon before. This tells us the importance of being open to everyone, and to nurture and grow a technology scene where everyone feels welcome and comfortable.



We’re of course aware that diversity is so much more than gender equality. It’s about nationalities, age, religion, race, skill-set, socioeconomic background etc. The list is long. We chose to address gender equality as a first step. An amazing side effect was that we also got many applications from people with different nationalities. This tells us that it’s not about making women feel more welcome, it’s about creating an event where everyone feels welcome, regardless.


So what about the fact that diverse teams create better products? This is the first hackathon we’ve ever organized where one result was not even slightly similar to any other result. You can judge the quality of the prototypes for yourself at the showcase site.


Why others should follow

We’ve talked enough in this article, so we’ll borrow some thoughts from the participants and coaches to wrap up.


“After this weekend I feel more motivated to bring up the discussion than I’ve ever been before.”

“This is acting as an inspiration and motivation to keep the discussion going.”


“Most inspiring weekend in a long time.”

“I have no doubt to say that it was the best weekend of my life! \o/”


“The obvious things like 50/50 gender distribution were very refreshing and I hope that we’ll see more of this in the future.”

“If I could do this again – even next weekend – I’ll be there”


“It wasn’t like a ‘typical’ hackathon, it was more than that.”

“It was the best one I’ve ever gone to.”


“Awesomeness was had.”

“When I think about it, I start to smile.”

Thank you

To all the people who helped make this happen.
We hope we inspired you to act differently.
We hope you will join our revolution.
We hope you will share this article.
We might even love you.
Thanks for reading!

/The rebels in Spotify Street Team

* Showcase site at diversify.github.io
* Special thanks to Confetti & UrbanEars
*Photos by Caroline Arkenson and Sofie Lindblom
*All quotes are taken from the survey we sent out to participants & coaches after the event.

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