Society of Women Engineers group at University of Washington aims to close the gender gap

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Students participate in SWE Hacks at the University of Washington, spending 24 hours collaborating, coding and designing an innovative project in competition with other teams. (Photos courtesy of Society of Women Engineers at UW).

A hackathon hosted by the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Washington later this month wants to play a role in helping close the gender gap both in education and the tech industry.

The hackathon, SWE Hacks: Hack for Impact, will this year only allow female-identifying and non-binary students to participate in the virtual event.

The Society of Women Engineers is a global organization with branches in affiliated colleges around the nation. Founded more than six decades ago, SWE has given women engineers a platform to voice their potential in the industry and promote diversity and inclusion in technology and engineering professions.

Yunwei Liang, vice president of corporate relations for SWE at UW.

Driven with the same mission, SWE at UW has focused on supporting and empowering students at the university through its annual hackathon, which takes place April 24-25.

“We want to provide a very inclusive environment for students to explore building projects with teams, through coding and design,” said Yunwei Liang, vice president of corporate relations for SWE at UW. “We understand that there are so many other hackathons, so we decided to take our mission even further and make it all female and female-identifying inclusive. This provides a whole new perspective in this very male-dominated industry, so we’re really excited to see what kind of chemistry this builds.”

Women make up 29% of undergraduate students at the UW College of Engineering. In the professional workforce, women make up 25.2% in computer and mathematical occupations, and 16.5% in architecture and engineering, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Our mission is to encourage more girls and women to pursue engineering and technology, ultimately leading to greater representation and more diversity in these fields,” said Brittan Robinett, vice president of community outreach for SWE at UW.

Brittan Robinett, vice president of community outreach for SWE at UW.

The shift in focus of the hackathon was further provoked by the COVID-related cancellations of internships and job offers to students and new graduates last year.

Sara Tieu, a graduate from the Interaction Design program at the UW, had a full-time offer from Lyft rescinded in May amid layoffs at the transportation company. She was able to land a job in November as a product designer at Lyft, but the months of uncertainty were nerve-wracking.

“I just didn’t know what that future would look like,” Tieu said.

The pandemic has also had an outsized impact on women in the workforce. Between February and September of 2020, participation of parents in the labor force declined by 3.3 percentage points for mothers, compared to 1.3 percentage points for fathers, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Liang said SWE is taking greater steps to emphasize the importance of empowering all women and non-binary students, given the added difficulties of COVID-19.

“The hackathon is a project for the students who don’t have as many resources right now,” she said. “It is a time where we can hope to get students to still feel like there is someone still out there that cares about them.”

SWE Hacks also presents opportunities for sponsorships and mentorship relations, for students to network and connect with industries that endorse the positive changes and efforts made.

“We’re just doing our due diligence to ensure that the amazing women in tech are getting the money that they need to expand their organizations and the support that they need,” said Menelik Bekele, a university recruiter at Visa, which is a sponsor for SWE Hacks. “We’re really just creating a foundation for them to be successful, to continue, and be able to grow in the tech space.”