Thursday, February 11, 2016


Makerspaces and Gender

Earlier this week I did a post about makerspaces, asking my wise and worldly readers who had worked with or seen them for any tips they could offer.  And folks came through with some great points about staffing, cleaning, qualifications for using, intellectual property, and more.

But several also came back with a concern about gender that I have to admit hadn’t occurred to me.

Although different readers expressed it differently, the basic idea was that it’s easy for makerspaces to became male-dominated.  Boys With Toys will create an atmosphere that will drive away most women, and thereby reinscribe the sexism in tech that has been well-documented elsewhere.  An idea born of good intentions would inadvertently reinforce the negative messages that women and girls get about working with technology.

That’s not the goal at all.  The idea is to create a space where people who have been excluded would have access to the means to develop ideas and see them to fruition.  In that sense, a makerspace is simply the latest iteration of the community college mission of access.  But achieving that goal may require more conscious attention than I had initially thought.  

So, assuming that there’s a spot on the Venn diagram between the “makerspace” circle and the “gender fairness” circle, has anyone found relatively effective ways to get there?  I don’t expect complete immunity from the issues of the larger world, but if we can make them sufficiently irrelevant that people of all sorts feel comfortable being there and tinkering, I’ll call it good.  Creativity crosses genders, races, and all sorts of other barriers; I want it to feel at home here.

Thanks to the readers who made the initial point, and thanks to anyone who offers a useful remedy.  

Two things I believe help: 1) hire a woman to be in charge of the space (there are enough qualified women, though in some parts of the country they are harder to find) 2) make sure that there are plenty of sewing machines, EL wire, LilyPad processors, and other tech for wearable art—this is often a more comfortable introduction to a makerspace for women who have had some previous familiarity with the tools.

Classes in tool use definitely help, particularly if they are taught (or co-taught) by women.
I was reminded of a conversation on the Ask Metafilter forum, linked below. My takeaway was that to keep the status quo from happening, you should deliberately create women-friendly spaces/events: women led events, ladies nights, workshops geared towards the interests of the local women, a space that's visually clean and safe, etc. Reach out to existing organizations in your community that have a female membership to find out what kinds of needs and wants they have that you could meet with this kind of space. Here's the thread.
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This is a completely different realm, but there's a climbing gym that has a ladies night where admission and gear are 50% off for women. This creates a critical mass of women at the gym AT THE SAME TIME, which helps form a community and a sense of camaraderie. Doing this in a makerspace could likely have a similar effect.

Also I'd imagine that it would help to hire some female staff members and encourage male staff members to actively reach out to female members to help them feel welcome.
Many schools have had success locating a makerspace in libraries rather than in tech buildings or IT spaces. There are some ventilation issues to overcome, but a generally visible space in a highly trafficked area like a library or media center can help reduce the clubbiness aspect.
I'm a woman who once took a machine shop class and couldn't get over how similar it was to sewing. Measure twice, cut once. The way you push the sheet metal through the band saw, just like the way you push fabric through the sewing machine. Transferring patterns. Etc.

I totally agree that sewing and jewelry making and throwing pots and so on should 100% count as "making," and not be excluded just because they're the more traditional domain of women. I say put the sewing machines in with the band saws and the potters wheels in with the wood lathes and the 3D printers in with the resin-casting molds and let the folks who use that stuff talk to each other and see what each other are doing. Let the wood carvers make beads for the beaders, and let the jewelry makers show the machinists and electronics hobbiest how to solder. Maybe even organized events to deliberately encourage cross pollination like that. Not just for gender equity reasons, but because it's the best way to serve the purposes of the maker space anyway, getting people excited about what they can do, and making it possible to do things together that they couldn't have separately.
A couple of the bike coops I've seen ran women-(\gender-queer-)only nights, though you might get some push-back, particularly as a campus resource. Probably a decent compromise would have women-only classes, but ensure that these classes cover the whole range of activities (metal working, 3D printing, etc) rather than just being "real men play with the drill presses, women just get the sewing machines".

Beyond that, I think a large part is the supervision. If you have good staff on hand who make clear than any sort of harassment is a quick way to get kicked out, that will be a substantial help.
Oh, also, are there already existent women-focused organizations you could collaborate with? For example, how about PyLadies? It looks like the nearest chapter is in New York, but perhaps you could ask folks to come out to your corner of New Jersey and give some workshops.
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This was a great post, and I really enjoyed reading the comments.

Thank you for posting this!
I run three makerspaces in an all-girls' environment. You'd be welcome to come visit! I agree with many of the comments about sewing options, etc. But I find that many of my students are more interested in "traditional" maker activities--electronics, woodworking, lasercutting, etc. Whoever runs the space--male or female--needs to encourage participation and not make anyone feel stupid because they're doing something for the first time. Most people are doing stuff for the first time in those spaces.
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