Why does Hackbright only accept women into the program?

Another blog post transcribed (thanks @rebecca_standig) from the same conversation about @Hackbright Academy. It also covers some hostility I get from people about our policies.

EDIT: changed "where all but about 80% of women" to "20%" - that was a mix-up on phrasing. 20% of women who start in comp sci degrees finish them.

Note: Hey Hacker News readers! I'll be publishing something on pedagogy in a bit. Stay tuned. 

So, why do you admit only women to Hackbright?

I've gotten this question really often via email, as well as at coffee shops and any time that I walk around the Mission or SOMA in my Hackbright Academy t-shirt. Often, people ask me why we only admit women. They say things like, "It's discriminatory. Aren't you trying to fight discrimination?" Or they say, "You can't just admit women. That's illegal." Or they threaten to sue me. People think that they're very clever.

The reason we only admit women is because as it stands, we put more women into software engineering in one semester than Stanford and Berkeley do every year. Women start a computer science degree at maybe 1/3 the rate as men. Then there's this freshmen drop-off, where all but about 20% of women end up changing their major, usually to something involving design or business. Sometimes, they go into electrical or mechanical engineering, but that's actually pretty rare. Usually they leave the field of engineering altogether.

I have a theory about why this is. During a computer science degree, most women don't have a lot of friends to turn to who are also doing a computer science degree. Most computer science education is heavy on theory and light on implementation. So, you learn a lot about computer science, but you don't really learn how to code. That is something that you have to do on your own. Since [these women] don't have friends that sort of expect that of them and know that that's what they're supposed to be doing, they don't spend a lot of time in it. If you don't spend time implementing theory, you'll never really understand it. The courses get harder and harder, and they haven't spent a lot of time with their friends talking about these kinds of things. They're surrounded by people who are not like them, and don’t openly talk about struggling to learn [difficult programming concepts]. This reinforces the idea that they don't belong there, and is a common fear. All the time, women tell me that they feel like they don't belong in computer science, or they don't belong in engineering, or they don't belong in a company as a programmer.

The reason for that is there aren't many women, and that begets even less women wanting to get into computer science.

So, what’s the solution?

So what do we do about that? First, we create a community. There are lots of communities for women. I know this because I'm a woman in tech, and I am inundated (especially as a leader of several general organizations for women in tech) with people telling me all about all of the different organizations. The problem is, I meet 4-5 women every week that have never heard of any of these organizations. So outreach is a problem.

The next problem is that it's intimidating even to join these big organizations because they're for people who profess that they are software engineers already. Sometimes, they're about being software engineering majors or computer science majors, and that helps. But they're campus-specific, so if you're in college that's great for you.

Most women who get into computer science that I interface with are doing so after they've already completed a degree in some other area, be it business, marketing, biology, chemistry, sometimes journalism. There are a number of things that drive people away from those fields and into software engineering, or just drive people away from software engineering initially into those fields and then they realize that this wasn't what they wanted.

These are the people that most often make really amazing software engineers, yet have no real path into software engineering. They're not already software engineers, so they don't feel like they can join these organizations, but they're also not going to college for software engineering, because they've already gone to college. It would be ridiculous to expect them to go and get another four year degree or a two year master's degree that they may be ill-equipped for. So these are the people we serve. They're a minority that needs a leg up. Just like having a foundation that helps Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans or Indian Americans get a leg up in an unfamiliar place, a place where you are underrepresented and generally marginalized.

That's why we serve only women.


So, what about the people who think you “have to” admit people?

We don't have to admit people. We're not a school that is accredited by the US Board of Education, nor are we a non-profit. We are a for-profit company, but we're a for-profit company with a mission.

That mission is to bring equality to computer science. Our strategy for doing so is the following: One, only let in people who will contribute to equality in computer science. Right now, the smallest subgroup of people in computer science is women. Other than, potentially, transsexual people. They're a small enough group, though, that if we were only to serve them, I think we'd go out of business. Women make up half the population on the planet, yet only about 6% of computer science engineering jobs.

The second thing that we aim to do is promote the idea that women are competent in the field. They are smart and useful, and just as smart and useful as men, and should be taken seriously. Rather than admit literally everyone who comes in, we admit the top 5% of our applicants. Now, these might have been people who would have gotten into computer science some other way, and that's great. But what it does by producing a candidate of a consistently high quality is further promote the idea that women are just as competitive as men in computer science. By putting out really excellent women into computer science, we reinforce a positive stereotype. Stereotypes are not all bad; positive stereotypes are great. We would love to reinforce a positive stereotype, which will help combat all of the subtle biases that work against women in computer science.

The last thing we do is make sure the insecurities and vulnerabilities that causes women to leave computer science in the first place are patched. We do some drills in the safety of Hackbright on whiteboarding, on salary negotiation. We do some generalized therapy, just by talking out insecurities and fears. We get very involved in their emotional wellbeing, because it matters a lot. The most productive software engineers aren’t afraid all the time, or down on themselves - they feel empowered. So, we do our part to empower our students.


20 responses
Am a Computer Science Phd student at Cal, I believe the following statement is not accurate of CS Ed "Most computer science education is heavy on theory and light on implementation." Our curriculum at Berkeley does not do this, neither does most good CS school. I am a great supporter of Hackbright because you feel a crucial need. Good job for stepping up to the plate and being part of the solution toward gender equity in CS.
Another reason for dropoff/major switch is that many university curricula/profs assume some prior experience with programming. The very first programming class often outpaces an *actual* beginner because so many people self-start well before college. This self-starting is less true for women (and other underrepresented groups) because, I assume, they are less encouraged to self-identify as developers on their own. This comes, as you said, from peer groups, but also from culture in general: it's a rare thing indeed for a female (dev or otherwise) to be lionized. A critical component of succeeding in any field is: people like me do this. I can do this. There are outlier people who can take on any challenge all alone, but that sort of self-determination is not common. And most people who have succeeded view things with confirmation bias: I did it, so anyone can. One final thing: much of development is default men-only, not through an explicit "whites only" sign, but through an alien culture of in-jokes, fraternity, objectification/stereotyping, and other subtleties which result in a feeling of exclusion (that is, being one of the out-crowd). If you agree that diversity in tech is an issue, and if you disagree with programs for under-represented-only, please do better than criticizing those programs. We get enough stop-energy from the people actually opposed to the goal. Contribute to the solution.
" all but about 80% of women end up changing their major" - does that mean 20% of women change their major, or is that a typo?
If you're looking for more groups to serve than just women, look at the percentages of African American men in the general population vs. in software. Look at the percentages of Latino / Hispanic men in the general population vs. in software. Good luck.
You didn't actually address the point that it is illegal discrimination. I am not a lawyer, but I believe it is illegal discrimination, especially considering that you are a for profit organization. (I can't find any non-profit information in my brief scan of your site.) You are offering valuable skills training, as well as networking opportunities, and you are doing that in self-admittedly discriminatory fashion for women only. I have a niece and a nephew neither of whom life in California, both of whom would benefit immensely from your program. Yet one you would offer skills training, networking opportunities, and career resources. The other, nothing. Compare and contrast to feminists, rightfully complaining about being let into the Country Clubs where deals are made. My understanding is that women only gyms like Curves are actually pretty controversial legally speaking, and that in several cities, Curves has had to obtain special waivers or had laws rewritten to be able to operate legally. So if you can address the question regarding legality of what you are doing, I would be very interested.
I see now you did address somewhat the question of the legality of what you are doing. I am curious if you have had a lawyer give you that opinion, or if you have the City of San Francisco tell you that what you are doing is okay. I am not bothered by what you are doing, but I am surprised. My layman's understanding of sexual discrimination laws suggests what you are doing, for better or worse, is likely illegal.
Taking women’s gyms into account, I did some googling a few months back. It turns out in the US though, the answer to “are women only gyms legal” is that they may not be and in many locations have required local governments or state government to pass specific laws allowing them. Here is a 1998 NY Times article about that http://www.nytimes.com/1998/01/26/us/lawyer-s-s... It states, for instance, that: “The state chapter of the National Organization for Women, after much agonizing, opposed single-sex health clubs. It said that they would open the way to restoring the kind of all-men golf and squash and social clubs that for so long excluded women from important deals and connections.” It also notes that “Massachusetts’ public accommodations law prohibits establishments that serve the public from refusing admission based on sex. If men cannot close their doors, he says, neither can women.” And many states have similar laws, and it is these sorts laws that have stopped discrimination against women, and against the LGBTQIA communities. (It is one reason why wedding photographers cannot discriminate against gay marriage for instance.) (I am not a lawyer either.)
I wonder if groups of 70% women and 30% men (for example) would be a good idea. It counters the discrimination issue, but more importantly also gives men a chance to get used to working with women, and hopefully they can go out and spread the word to other men. Also, coding in 100% female environment is not representative, and women might find themselves unprepared for working in the 'real world'.
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