On the rarity of female influence at SXSW Music Hackathon

Anna Carey/Senior Staff

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On March 16, the “How Innovation Happens” panel at the South by Southwest conference and festival, or SXSW, erupted in controversy. An audience member called out Facebook CEO Eric Schmidt for interrupting co-panelist Megan Smith, the United States’ chief technology officer, as they were discussing diversity in the tech world. (The audience member was Judith Williams, who is in charge of Google’s unconscious bias program.) The irony was not lost on the Twitter-verse. The story was all over the Internet within hours.

Major players from the tech, film and music industries converge for SXSW, transforming Austin, Texas, into fertile ground for innovating across disciplines. The week is separated into interactive, from March 13-17; film, from March 13-21; and music, from March 17-22. SXSW proves that the boundaries between tech, film and music are blurring — and even disappearing.

The programming and panels during the music week, for example, were saturated with technology. Technology is changing the way we produce, share and engage with music, and those at the fore of the music-tech intersection will emerge as leaders in the future of music. The gender inequity in the tech world will therefore inevitably manifest in the music industry.

This reality became tangible at the SXSW Music Hackathon, held March 18. A handful of women punctuated a ballroom packed with more than 100 hackers, eagerly typing away at their Homebrew-themed terminals. One of the only female participants, Chloe Becker, described feeling intimidated, even though she couldn’t quite pinpoint why. A room full of accomplished hackers — most participants were chosen for the event because they had won other hackathons — can certainly be a little daunting, especially for a new programmer. (Becker, a senior in high school, had just begun exploring computer science.)

Being in the minority as a female was enough to make me feel a little out of place among the desktop setups, Microsoft Kinects and entangled power cords. But women who have spent enough time in the world of programming are accustomed to finding themselves alone in a sea of men. “It grows on you after a while,” said Booja Jhunwala, a graduate student in computer science at Texas A&M University and another one of the few female participants at the SXSW Music Hackathon. Having taken several computer science courses at UC Berkeley, I can understand the feeling.

Why are so few women engaged in programming and technology? At UC Berkeley and other institutions dedicated to attracting more women into the computer science and engineering fields, this is the question of the hour. Perhaps the word “intimidating” oversimplifies the perceived barriers that exist in the world of computing. A field with few females in leadership positions and environments in which voices are overshadowed by male colleagues — such as what Smith experienced with Schmidt — are not exactly inviting. “Distancing” might be a more apt word to describe the field.

Fostering camaraderie and personal connection to computer programming would begin to close that distance. Becker was with a friend, Luke Wright, who brought her to the hackathon. She cited him as one of the ways she originally discovered computer science. Wright was working on a project with Becker for the hackathon to help teach her some of the basics. Even for seasoned programmers, teamwork is key — hackathons such as this one at SXSW revolve around teams.

Before the teams were let loose for a 24-hour work session to actualize their projects, several musicians presented their ideas about integrating technology into the music world. Neon Hitch, an indie-pop artist from the UK, was one of the artists who presented and was among the few females in the room. She was working with Microsoft to build a personal Application Programming Interface, or API, with her music, photos and videos. Put simply, an API is a set of building blocks for developing a computer program. Hitch’s API is very much her own — a media experience evangelist at Microsoft, Michael Scherotter, with whom she collaborated on the API, described adding metadata with her slang and personality.

“I also think it’s important as an artist for people to know you as a character,” Hitch said. Scherotter called the API “a form of artistic expression,” like an artist’s tour bus color or the font on his or her website. “Why can’t an API be something else to express her?” he asked.

Hitch’s API is groundbreaking not only because it has her personality embedded into the code but also because it fosters a personal connection with her fans. Her demographic is mostly young women, so now they can see her API as an invitation to experiment with coding. Like choreographing a dance to your favorite Neon Hitch song, creating a computer program with her API is expressing yourself with an artist you love.

If music and tech will only become more intimately entwined, as SXSW indicates, correcting the gender imbalance in these fields is more urgent than ever. Although there were so few women at the SXSW Music Hackathon, Hitch’s API introduces new possibilities for attracting a more diverse population to the world of tech. She provides a role model for young girls who might not otherwise find a personal connection to computer programming.

Most importantly, Hitch is fearlessly charging head first into a male-dominated field that she knows very little about. When asked what it was like being a woman engaging in computer programming, Hitch said, “A lot of heads turn.” When Smith called out the CEO of Facebook, heads turned toward her, too. With more women turning heads in the tech space, the industry will undoubtedly attract more female participation and begin to correct the gender imbalance not only in tech and music and but in any industry that engages with new technologies and the web.

Anna Carey is a senior staff writer. Contact her at [email protected]