If you’ve been to your local hackerspace/makerspace and noticed there weren’t many women, did you stop to wonder why? Unfortunately a common reaction is to think, “I guess women just aren’t into hacking or building stuff.” As one of the few female directors of a U.S. makerspace, I know this just isn’t true. Here’s my perspective on the problem and what can be done about it.
When I was nominated to be director of The Hacktory, I decided to give it a try in an attempt to make the organization as inclusive as possible. Today The Hacktory, based in Philadelphia, has a pool of volunteers and organizers that is close to 50/50 men and women, tilting more towards women.
Frustrated with conversations about the gender gap that we witnessed at many tech conferences, we decided to take a deeper look at the issue. We designed a brief presentation and a workshop we call “Hacking the Gender Gap,” where participants share positive and negative experiences they’ve had with technology. All the experiences are written on large Post-its, and placed on a timeline delineating relative age. The workshop concludes with a group analysis and discussion of where the positive and negative experiences cluster, and other emergent themes. The stories provide an incredibly rich context in which to understand how the gender gap is experienced in day-to-day life.
In the age range from birth to 10 years, many positive stories involve doing a tech-oriented activity with a parent, like learning to program or working with power tools. Another theme is a family member purchasing a computer or video game system, which participants use to build websites or gain confidence in their skills.
In the teen years, negative stories of teachers, guidance counselors, or other advisors discouraging girls’ interests or questioning their abilities in STEM subjects are frequent. Some comments seem unintentional, like a tutor saying, “I don’t know why this is so difficult for you — it’s so easy.” Others are brutal, like a female chemistry teacher with a Ph.D. telling students, “Women are bad at science.”
Before designing this workshop, our team thought these kinds of experiences were in the distant past, but we’ve gathered many stories that occurred five years ago or less.
When reading through the stories, women often say, “I thought it was just me!” Many participants express relief and thanks for the chance to share their experiences — both positive and negative — in a non-judgmental environment, and have those experiences contribute to a larger outcome.
The results became more interesting with mixed-gender crowds. One crucial theme that emerged from the men’s stories was frustration with women asking for help with a technical problem, following the assumption that men can fix it just because they’re male. These stories helped us understand how our culture’s association of masculinity with technical ability can be perpetuated by all genders.
In our research, we found the 2002 study “Women in Computing Around the World,” which details how other countries don’t have the same gender gap in STEM interests or careers. Female students in China have shown to be much more confident in their abilities with computers than male students. In Thailand, Italy, and Kenya, men were significantly more anxious than women about using technology.
Our most significant takeaways from doing this workshop include:
- Gender gap research in the U.S. lacks context. Recent studies seek to identify the age when girls “lose interest” in STEM fields, rather than the experiences that contribute to that shift.
- Women experience direct and indirect discouragement from teachers, guidance counselors, and tutors, something most men never experience.
- The gender gap is perpetuated by all genders, adding to its pervasiveness.
- Supportive or discouraging comments stay with people for years.
So what can a hacker/makerspace do to encourage women to start participating in their space and retain them? A good first step is to question the assumptions and biases present in your space. When a woman walks through your door, is the general assumption that she must be a beginner or that she’s tagging along with someone else? Such assumptions may be based in real experiences, but to address this problem, lay these experiences aside.
There’s something called “Imposter Syndrome,” which is a constant comparing and questioning of one’s own abilities to those of others, and a fear that you’ll be revealed to not know as much as you claim. Women in science and tech fields experience this self-doubt at a very high rate, often halting them from revealing the skills and understanding they possess.
If your space has several women, including women in leadership positions, you’re in good shape. To grow and empower this group, consider the following.
Conduct an anonymous survey about what’s working and not working for the women in your space. A lot of women won’t voice issues to not rock the boat or because they just don’t have the energy and are willing to put up with irritating conditions.
From the issues they raise, ask them to prioritize three things to address with immediate action without a vote from the larger group. A vote is exactly how the existing way of doing things will continue to reinforce itself, without allowing the concerns of this minority to be addressed.
Provide visual cues for women to show them they’re welcome. This could include a designated greeter for your open house who wears a special pin or name tag. Other cues could include a well-thought-out and enforceable conflict resolution or “no jerks” policy displayed prominently in your space.
Hold open shop time or design classes for artists, crafters, or creatives. More women are comfortable identifying as these titles rather than as hackers or programmers. Many spaces have found success with offering classes for “women and their friends.” This could be a good way to get more women to set foot in your space. Naturally, it would be ideal for a woman to take the lead in organizing such events.
If your hacker/makerspace has no women or just one, unfortunately it may be difficult to change. Evaluate if the regulars feel that the lack of diversity is something that “just happened” or a big problem. If the former attitude prevails, this group may view the tech world as a meritocracy and may reject the idea that the forces of culture and stereotype hold women back. Without the understanding that the urge to explore science, technology, and physics is an innately human thing, this group may not be able to suspend their judgment and make the changes necessary to attract women and other minority groups.
Rather than trying to change this underlying perception, find others in your community who share the value of inclusion, and start your own space. The time you invest in growing this space will pay off much faster than you imagine.