Why Microsoft's //HackForHer Hackathon Is A Great Idea

Photo: Courtesy Microsoft.
In a pair of tents erected at Microsoft's Redmond, WA campus (and at offices across the globe), employees put their normal nine-to-five tasks aside to tackle something different. As part of the company's annual //oneweek hackathon earlier this month, engineers, marketers, business development experts, and interns teamed up to work on brand new ideas Microsoft could potentially take on in the future. And this year, nearly 1,000 of those employees worked on ideas specifically aimed at being inclusive towards women.

Called //HackForHer, this sub-event within Microsoft's larger hackathon was designed to encourage and educate people about the importance of the female community — and to show how you can design things to make them work well within a woman's life. It encompassed 982 employees on teams that built 153 different projects.

"I look at engineering as identifying human needs and finding solutions. I find a lot of human needs with women that aren’t met by our technical solutions, across the industry," Christina Chen, general manager of Microsoft's Emerging Devices Experiences team and head of the //HackForHer initiative, told Refinery29.

Designing with women in mind doesn't mean creating a shopping app or a smartphone built specifically for women's smaller hands. It just means that, as you're thinking about what your team is creating, you think holistically about every use case — about every type of person who will be using your product. This sounds simple, but it's something Microsoft and many other tech companies have struggled to do over the years (just look at how Apple omitted women's reproductive tracking from its Health app). Chen gave us a simple example of how this type of thinking could succeed: "There's a project about helping victims of natural disasters... Women may have specific needs in a natural disaster that men may not have."

In the hackathon, a panel of judges selected winners in four categories and one runner-up. The grand-prize-winning hack, announced today, is a potential feature for Windows' virtual assistant, Cortana, called Cortana SOS. Very simply, if you type SOS into Cortana (which is available on Windows 10, Windows Phone, and soon Android and iOS), the app will call the police, send an SMS to an emergency contact telling them you need help, and even take photos at regular intervals to document your emergency situation.

The winner in the "Commerce and Communications" category is a tweak to the company's Navigate app that delivers driving instructions in a way more women prefer: Rather than saying "In half a mile, turn right" the app might say, "Make a right in 10 blocks, at the Chase bank."

The winner in the "Wearables" category was a Microsoft Band and Android app called Hold. With four in 10 Americans (many of whom are women and minorities) afraid of walking within a mile of their home at night, Hold offers users a sense of safety. It tracks the wearer's location and relays it to a trusted friend. Then, when someone is keeping an eye on you, the wearable delivers gentle vibrations to your wrist, so it almost feels like someone is holding your hand. The team behind Hold is a mix of young men and women — all interns at Microsoft this summer.

Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft's chief experience officer for the Applications and Services Group and the leader of its diversity initiatives, hopes that this change in outlook will continue to foster an encouraging, inclusive culture that breeds creativity at the company. Larson-Green says:
I hope that, going forward, every employee who participated in a //HackforHer project will apply a new, inclusive lens to their everyday work and bring this practice to their teams — starting with the "who" and the “why” instead of the “what” or the “how” — and, most importantly, feel and know they are supported in doing so.

Microsoft isn't alone in its efforts. Other tech companies, and other hackathons, are making strides in teaching people to think inclusively, as well. But, perhaps none have yet done it at this scale.

//HackForHer is important because it doesn't just get women involved or work on inclusive projects: It also seeks to change company culture, including the way those involved in any aspect of the tech industry think about product evolution. Encouraging this kind of thinking is what's going to eliminate unconscious bias and change the tech world for the better.

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