Hackathons are intense festivals of ingenuity and technology, bringing together hackers, hipsters and hustlers to create the next generation of fast growing businesses. In the rowdy mess of creativity, coding and chaos that transpires over the 24-48 hours of the event, new friendships are formed, ideas and solutions are forged and surprising outcomes can be achieved.

An almost universal constant in the world of hackathons – and in the broader tech world – is an out-of-kilter balance between men and women. Over the last 20 years, the participation of women in tech has dropped significantly – with former Verizon CIO, Judith Spitz, pointing out that the number of women graduating with computer science degrees has fallen by nineteen points or approximately 50%.

This has massive implications for the future – not just in the world of tech – but business, economics, society and culture at large. We know, for example that:

  • Diversity drives profitabilityMcKinsey reports that diverse companies outperform their industry
  • Tech talent is in demand – access to talent drives innovation and growth. The number of open tech-related jobs has been outpacing supply for some years. In the US alone, there are 500,000 open jobs – and this is expected to double by 2022.
  • Diversity of thinking delivers product innovation – in a world of me-too offerings, a team and a culture that is “diverse by design” will create cognitive diversity and generate products that reflect the makeup of the team and the customers they serve. As CSIRO Data61’s Head of Product, Jane Scowcroft suggests, “It’s the best future-proofing any team can do for itself.”

So what would a more inclusive tech industry look like? The Future of Sex Hackathon held in Sydney, Australia, may point the way. Bryony Cole, the founder of the FutureofSex.org, and the visionary behind the hackathon set out with the goal of hosting a hackathon where 80-85% of participants were women. We worked with Bryony to begin to reframe the technology and sextech lens. “Not only do we believe that women-identified technologies and thinkers can influence the direction of the sextech market (estimated at $30 billion worldwide), we want to change the cultural conversation and attitudes toward female sexuality”, Bryony explained.

But what is “sex tech”?

A female focused hackathon like no other

In the tech world, men hold down 80% of the jobs. This is also reflected in the makeup of most hackathons, with most largely dominated by men. But Australia’s first SexTech Hackathon turned this on its head, exceeding all hopes and expectations – hitting around 90% female participation.

Interestingly, just as the teams began to emerge from the “team forming” stage, one interesting challenge emerged:

“We need help”, said the team leader. “We need a man in our team as we don’t have gender diversity”.

In all our experience in running innovation events, we cannot recall ever having never heard this at a hackathon before.

The high level of female participation in this particular event, however, did not happen by chance – we always work to design events and innovation programs with the outcomes in mind. WeVibe stepped up to sponsor a number of women in STEM scholarships and the events “problem statements” from the NSW Council of Social Service, Project Geldom and Sugar & Sas focused attention on known and observable challenges:

  • How can we make sex education and sexual expression more accessible for the 1 million Australians with disability
  • How do we prepare the next generations for a sex positive future?
  • How do we make condoms cool?

Tapping the global talent pool

The hackathon also attracted world-class mentors from the United States, Europe and Australia. Polly Rodriguez, creator and CEO of Unbound shared her startup story – pitching over 200 times before finding investors for her business, which was, by then, already on its way to success.

Mal Harrison, founder of the Center for Erotic Intelligence, brought a philosopher’s mindset to the very modern maladies that impact our experience of intimacy and connection – not just to partners but to each other. And sexual recovery specialist, Victoria Cullen, showed just how a playful, positive disposition mixed with the entrepreneur’s sense of adventure can transform the most boring investor meeting.

While the event was billed as a “sextech” hackathon, the overwhelming focus for the weekend and its 100 or so participants, was pure business mixed with social impact. The winning team, Audio Vibe, worked across the weekend with psychologists, social workers, virtual reality, user experience and programming experts to develop a VR + Platform project to address sexual expression for people with physical disabilities. They were in constant contact with friends and colleagues with disabilities to test, iterate and refine their work – and the diligence showed in their pitch.

From conversation to innovation

Once you get past the smirks that come when you talk about “sex”, people realise that this is a deeply human subject worthy of not only conversation but also innovation. With teams working on everything from sex education awareness to consent, medical support in regional locations to condom packaging, there was certainly a diversity of focus. But, perhaps, the most exciting development arising from #SexTechOz was the sheer number of women leading, participating and supporting the event.

Let’s hope this continues as the event looks to expand its reach. “This is a first here in Australia, but the future is global”, explains Bryony Cole. Keep up-to-date with the Future of Sex here.