Where Are the Women?


If you’ve been to your local hacker/makerspace and there weren’t many women, did you stop and wonder about that? I hope so, but unfortunately a common reaction is to think, “I guess women just aren’t into building stuff.” As one of the few women directors of a U.S. makerspace, I know that this just isn’t true. In this and future posts I’d like to share my perspective on the problem, and what I think can be done about it.

At The Hacktory in Philadelphia, Pa., getting more women involved in our organization and creating a welcoming environment for everyone has become one of our defining strengths.

When I was nominated to be the director of The Hacktory a few years ago, I doubted that I had enough technical expertise, but I decided to give it a try because it seemed like a huge opportunity to make the organization as inclusive as possible. Today The Hacktory has more female-bodied organizers than male-bodied ones, and everyone continues to develop and reveal technical skills that are really amazing.

Frustratingly, at many tech conferences we’ve attended, panels on the gender gap often devolve into blame sessions rather than focusing on what to do about it. So, last year when The Hacktory was asked to provide a workshop for the first Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia, we decided to take a deeper look at the issue of the gender gap in tech specifically. We were inspired to do this first after hearing many illuminating stories from our volunteers.

Many of us had been interested in science, math, and technology as kids, and then drifted away from it at some point. Often this happened in our late teens, but then we found our way back through a work environment or a hobby, or both. According to official research, such as the 2010 study “Why So Few?” by the AAUW, girls start to lose interest in STEM topics around middle school. We wondered if the experiences of these girls “losing interest” had anything in common with ours. Though we couldn’t ask the girls who had been studied in the official research, we could start collecting stories from those in our community.

From my training as a strategic designer, I knew that stories are a powerful way for people to comprehend data and experience. Understanding the problem of the gender gap as it is experienced on an individual day-to-day level could give crucial context. My hope was that themes and patterns would emerge from this additional information that could be used to form actionable steps to change the situation.

With the help of Stephanie Alarcón, a Hacktory organizer who had already done a significant amount of research on the gender gap, and our awesome team at The Hacktory, we created a workshop to do just that. Along the way I got some feedback from my colleagues at the Action Mill, a strategic design company where I work. They helped me simplify the activity and instructions to maximize its impact.

In our workshop, Hacking the Gender Gap, we present a brief overview of the published research on the gender gap and women’s history in computing. Then we pass out two different colors of large Post-Its and markers. On one color, we ask participants to write a story of a negative experience they’ve had with technology. On the other color, we ask them to write a positive experience. Additional information such as the age and year the experience happened are also requested. For our purposes, we define “technology” as whatever comes to mind for the participants. It could be software, hardware, hand tools, or video games. When they’re finished, everyone places the stories on a timeline taped on the wall, ordered by the how old the participants were when the experiences happened. As a group, we read the stories and discuss the themes that emerge, and what could be done to encourage more of the positive experiences and prevent the negative ones.

Hacking the Gender Gap Timeline
Hacking the Gender Gap workshop (photo by Corinne Warnshuis).

We’ve done the activity six times now, in six different groups, and in each instance, the room goes quiet as we read the Post-Its. Many of the experiences are similar from one group to the next, and the same themes have emerged in every group, but the individual stories are incredibly compelling.

Many positive stories involve a fun tech-oriented activity with a parent, like learning to program or working with power tools. Another common theme is a family member getting the individual a computer or video game system, which they use to build websites or gain confidence in their skills. As the ages increase, stories about figuring out a tough technical problem are also more frequent.

Themes From the positive stories.

Stories of supportive comments by a teacher, tutor, classmate, or co-worker appear often, which shows how much of an impact they make, in the moment and for many years afterward.

Every group has several negative stories of teachers, guidance counselors, or other advisors being directly discouraging of girls’ interest or questioning their abilities in technology, science, or math. Sometimes the comments are probably unintentional, like a computer science tutor saying, “I don’t know why this is so difficult for you, it’s so easy.” Sometimes they are direct and brutal, like a female chemistry teacher with a Ph.D. telling her students “women are bad at science.” When we sort the stories by year, these stories appear in every decade, which indicates that the old stereotype that “girls are bad at math and science” is still shockingly pervasive.

Negative themes have emerged too.

Work environments are another common setting for discrimination or alienation that make participants feel extremely frustrated and helpless. Computer science departments in colleges and universities are especially hostile, though it’s sometimes hard to tell whether they are more hostile to women or beginners.

These themes are anecdotal and definitely subjective, but after each group reads through the stories and we ask for their thoughts, they voice the same interpretations. If you’d like to read the stories yourself, they are up on our Flickr page.

When reading through the stories we often hear women say, “I thought it was just me!” Recognizing that we have so much experience in common is really empowering. Many women express relief and thanks at being able 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 and nuanced when we held the activity with a mixed-gender crowd. The first time we did was last summer at HOPE, a large hacker conference. After we had passed out the Post-Its and markers and given the instructions, some of the men looked puzzled. After a few moments one of them asked, “What do you mean by a ‘negative’ experience with technology?” This question was something we had never heard before. Further discussion revealed that he had experienced his share of negativity in tech, but the instances all involved other people, not the technology itself. This seemed like an important distinction to us, and something women can definitely relate to.

A Few Stories from Men
Stories from men.

One important theme that emerged from the men’s stories was frustration with women asking for help with a technical problem, with the assumption that the men can fix it just because they are men.  These stories helped us understand for the first time how our culture’s association of masculinity with technical ability is perpetuated by people of all genders. In my opinion this point is pivotal, because it shows how the problem is systemic and no one single group is to blame for it.

The stories we’ve gathered also show an incredible range of technology involved, from coding with pencil and paper, to building websites at the age of nine. Imagining early experiences with such different technologies has made us wonder if this is another kind of gap, one of age and type of technology, that further hinders people from relating to each other’s experiences in the tech world. There are probably other gaps based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and whether the participants self-identify as “tech-savvy” or not. We’re interested in exploring all of these and sharing our findings.

Our next iteration of the workshop is a web app to display and collect stories from anyone, with the ability to filter the stories by criteria such as the type of technology used, the situation (school, work, etc.), age, and calendar year. We are also creating a facilitator’s kit with instructions and presentation materials for anyone to lead the workshop in their local makerspace, school, or workplace.

As we presented Hacking the Gender Gap at other tech events over the past year, we learned a lot more about this issue. Several people from The Hacktory went to AdaCamp DC last summer, an event put on by the Ada Initiative, an organization striving to increase women’s participation in open source projects and technical professions. I learned an incredible amount at this conference, more than I can share here, but there were a few key points that are extremely relevant to our workshop:

Other countries don’t have the same gender gap in STEM careers, or the same association of masculinity and technical ability. A variety of factors contribute to this, and the result is wildly different perceptions of male and female technical ability from country to country. For example, 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. You can read more about these findings in the 2002 study “Women in Computing Around the World.”

There is something called Impostor Syndrome, which many professionals experience, especially women. It’s the fear that at any moment someone will question your credentials and determine you to be a fraud. This feeling makes women a lot less willing to speak up about technical topics because they think, “I don’t know every single thing about this so I’m not an expert and should keep quiet.”

Discrimination among adults in the tech world is widespread, and some of it is pretty extreme. Many women at tech conferences have experienced physical and emotional abuse and harassment. Discrimination through comments and trolling is pervasive and well-documented in the gaming world and in the open source community. The website GeekFeminism.org has a timeline where anyone can submit a relevant incident. Unsurprisingly, this makes women wary of becoming involved in their local tech or maker scene.

So what can a hackerspace/makerspace do to get women to start participating in their space and retain them? I’d like to explore this topic more in my next post, and share some of what we’ve learned at The Hacktory.

Georgia Guthrie is a designer and maker based in Philadelphia, Pa. She works at the Action Mill, where she uses design thinking to help solve big, intangible problems. Georgia is also the director of The Hacktory, where she works to create opportunities for anyone to creatively tinker and learn about technology.

31 thoughts on “Where Are the Women?

  1. Great read, very interesting! Maybe we should organize such events in Greece where it’s extremely evident that there’s male bias towards technical involvement. Thankfully some local hackerspacesm such as “tolabaki” enjoy a healthy female involvement.

      1. I read that article; it is awful. I avoided including my thoughts on it in my first comment because I was hoping this thread would have a high signal to noise ratio, but since you brought it up…

        Bruce Byfield (2009b), writing for Linux Magazine, noted that balanced responses to incidences of sexism — from either side — are rare, “But the real flood of emotion comes from the anti–feminists and the average men who would like to deny the importance of feminist issues in FOSS. Raise the subject of sexism, and you are met with illogic that I can only compare to that of the tobacco companies trying to deny the link between their products and cancer”.

        There should be an update to Godwin’s law to include the Merchants of Doubt meme. If you trot that one out then you’ve indicated you are no longer interested in rational discourse. You are interested in shutting down discourse by painting people who disagree with you as ‘deniers’. I am interested in making my hackerspace more appealing and welcoming to a more diverse population. I am not interested in pretending that kind of pseudo-intellectual drivel is going to help anyone do that (Linux Magazine as a source citing unnamed “anti-feminists” and “average men”, really?!).

        1. Shutting down the discourse certainly wasn’t my intent. I posted that article because I thought it was useful insight into the issue of low participation by women in the open source community (2% compared to 20% in for-profit STEM positions, though I think you must be aware of that). I also met the author of that article at a conference and found him to be a reasonable, thoughtful person.
          I’m glad you brought up the fact that you have issues with the article’s sources; it’s another perspective on the issue and offers us more to discuss. The source you cited was a personal blog post that didn’t pretend to be objective and scientific. Personally, I am ok with that because I find those kind of points of view on an issue valuable, but our whole project is about gathering anecdotal data that fills in more of the picture that current scientific research isn’t explaining thoroughly. However, I don’t think that anecdotal stories are necessarily sound data, or are going to lead to the “right” answer. In the case of our project such data just seems to be helping us talk about the issue of the gender gap in a constructive way.

          I don’t understand how my bringing up that article about the open source community makes you think I am discrediting your interest in making your makerspace attractive and welcoming to diverse audiences. This issue is something I care about, and the last thing I want to do is drive away other people who care about it too. Can you say more about why you didn’t like that article, or maybe what you’re doing in your makerspace to attract new people from different backgrounds?

          1. >Can you say more about why you didn’t like that article, or maybe what you’re doing in your makerspace to attract new people from different backgrounds?
            (sorry, hard to fit another reply under this question)

            My be, I can explain… First, I question their gender gap numbers in open source. The article refers to FLOSS surveys of 2002 (11 years ago!) and 2006. The first one was posted to a few communities and then distributed from a person to person (already sounds kind of biased, as people tend to pass information to friends of the same gender and close age). In the second one the authors’ aim was to show that FLOSS excludes women (i.e. the goal already set!); it was performed by interviewing participants in Europe in pubs and restaurants, and also having an online survey – not explained how distributed. Doesn’t sound very reliable. Second, I don’t know how jstults gets diversity in their group, but diversity is… diversity. Opposite to segregation and special treatment. I myself came to dislike women only and women in tech spaces. I’d been happy to discover them at first, but couldn’t stand the culture for long. Anti-diversity never stops with just one thing like gender. Instead it goes further to become monocultural and close minded like a clique where everybody should “fit in”; if somebody doesn’t assume the same “pseudo-intellectual drivel”, they’re out. Women themselves are a very diverse group, we shouldn’t be talking about “women” as if 3.5 billion people, 50% of the population is the same young white middle class US born person with certain believes. I looked up the summit in Philadelphia and it was quite diverse. But when I look at the photos of the workshop in this article… not really. How come?

  2. Where, indeed?
    I made sure my young daughter got as much tech as she wanted. I was overjoyed when, after she was off on her own, my wife found that she had been playing with an Erector set in the corner of the attic.
    It doesn’t make sense to discourage half the brainpower in your society by telling them they can only wash clothes and raise children.

    1. That’s awesome. I can say I first got interested in building stuff and technology at a young age with some encouragement from my parents. Our workshop has shown me how rare that still is for many girls though. I’m sure your daughter appreciates your encouragement, or will when she’s older.

  3. At Milwaukee Makerspace we’ve made previous attempts to get more women involved, but the biggest change for us came when we moved to a new location. The old location was a filthy old factory off the beaten path. (It wasn’t a dangerous side of town, just out of the way.) At our new location the number of women (and men!) involved has been growing quite a bit the last few months, and it’s great to see more diversity in the space, and people sharing their knowledge in all areas, from metal casting to sewing to electronics to wood working. We do our best to be excellent to each other.

      1. The ‘Craft Lab’ area is organized by a few women who are excited about the space and interested in many aspects beyond the typical crafting stuff. We’ve not done enough classes yet to have good stories yet, but the classed we have had were sewing classes which were taught by a female member and consisted almost entirely of men wanting to know how to sew. Some other female members are interested in wood working, laser cutting, welding, etc. We’d love to have you visit if you’re ever in the area. (We’re about 90 minutes north of Chicago.)

        1. I just attended a workshop at my local makerspace with my daughter. It was a soft circuit embroidery project, and we both learned a lot. There was a dad and daughter combo, and a a fairly even mix of men and women all learning something new… for some it was what a split-stitch looks like and how to thread a needle. For others (like me) it was the beginnings of learning about electronics. We’re hooked. (And most importantly, my daughter was so inspired she wanted to do every workshop they offer in the future- on any topic :)

  4. I’m glad you’re making a facilitator’s kit! After the last code4lib (http://code4lib.org/) conference, some of us were talking about how it would be awesome to have this workshop as a preconference event. (note: code4lib is an anarchic collective of coders in libraries and librarians who do tech and so forth. also, I am not a conference organizer. But I did give a lightning talk about these issues at the last code4lib.)

    1. Thanks, yeah we’d love to present at code4lib. We made a connection with an organizer of that event at another conference recently, so hopefully we can make it happen :)

  5. I think companies, marketing, everything thrown at women like make up and vanity status should be less important than intelligence, but you don’t see any of that despite it being 2013…

  6. I totally agree, but unfortunately the emphasis on women and their looks is also deeply ingrained in our culture. I hesitate to open a can of worms, but I think an example of this are the Girl Scouts science and technology badges, which were recently redesigned. Though they don’t have a badge for fitness and makeup anymore, they still have one called the “Science of Style” that is included in the Science and Technology category, which I have issues with: http://www.girlscouts.org/program/basics/science/

  7. You know I have the same question about my youtube channel — which tends to be just documentation of my projects, which are the typical sorts of things you’d find being done at a hackerspace — google analytics shows only 8% of viewers are women, with around 100 videos and 120k views total. That’s just weird. And the few other guys around my hackerspace with youtube channels seem to have similar viewer stats. My youtube stats are dominated by a few videos I have that were featured here on Make, or else on hack-a-day. So my viewer stats may just be a reflection of those who frequent this site and hack-a-day. Would be interesting to see the stats for blog.makezine.com.

    1. I think I missed what your question was… do you want more women viewers? I would be interested to see what would attract more women viewers myself. In my next post I was going to cover some of our experimentation with different descriptions and key words to attract more women. Would you consider partnering with a local woman crafter or artist on a project or video? That might be a good way to start if you’re going for more diverse viewers.

  8. Thanks for the great article Georgia! I am a big fan of having discussions like the ones you describe and think they’re very powerful for helping people be able to understand their experiences aren’t isolated and they are part of general societal patterns — that helps us fight to change things!

    – Liz (Noisebridge)

  9. The women are apparently too busy complaining about there not being any women at makefests, to go to makefests.

    Stop whining. Go make something.

  10. I’m always skeptical of the “invisible” or “systemic” characterizations of injustice or discrimination because they relieve accusers of the burden of proof – and anecdotal evidence only gets you so far. I think an understanding of the differences, both psychological and cultural, between men and women and a consideration of roles in our society that still persist would shed more light – and they aren’t all necessarily negative. Consider Pitt’s findings about the options for women is STEM careers: http://www.news.pitt.edu/women_STEM

  11. Thanks for posting that article. I agree that anecdotal evidence only gets you so far, but the summary of the study you link to may also have some issues. I can’t access a free copy of the study right now, but the summary says that women “seem to be more likely to choose careers outside of science because their combination of skills provides them with more career options.” To come to this conclusion they use “such factors as participants’ SAT scores, family needs, whether they liked working with people or things, their devotion to a career, and, ultimately, the occupations they chose by age 33.”
    However, they don’t factor in data such as how much encouragement in math the girls received in their early years, that would have helped them excel at math, and then make them predisposed to STEM careers based on this research. This is the kind of information that is surfaced in our workshop. This study also doesn’t mention if the subjects considered STEM careers or not. From the data we’ve gathered, many women are repelled by computer science and engineering departments and faculty in college, and that may be a reason for women with high verbal and math skills to choose a non-STEM career, just so they don’t have to deal with an unfriendly environment. I am not convinced from the summary that they have enough data to draw the conclusion that women gravitate toward non-STEM careers because they have more options.

    1. The press release says you just have to request a copy of the study. I requested and received a copy this morning.

      I think you’ll find less to flatter your prejudices in this report than you found in your friend’s insightful article. You’ll also find more attention to study design and less reliance on magazine articles as references.

  12. Thanks for this article. I can’t help but notice that the negative comments you posted from women are about other people, not the technology itself being too hard or intractable. Did you get any of those kinds of comments?

  13. Even in India, Girls always fare better in secondary and senior secondary school results despite their homely chores. But then college onwards Girls lead starts to peter because of several social reasons. iWish Indian women can get better platforms.

  14. > I know that this just isn’t true.

    Oh, but I don’t doubt that it is.

    Women may play at doing the things that are currently popular, but extensive experience shows that women have no true interests outside of complaining about men.

    This is why I am a misogynist.

  15. I don’t understand the purpose of this kind of exercise.

    I was raised in a country with better involvement of women into STEM, and went to college in another country with still better involvement. I couldn’t help but notice that in the US there is a strong and explicit message given to very young kids that technology is for boys only. As an experiment, check any toy store, it’s not only boys and girls sections, but toys MADE and advertised for different genders (I wonder why it’s not illegal). If a family goes with the flow, by the time a child makes choices, those memories and messages already become subliminal. You would probably need psychoanalysis to uncover those very early memories… And they don’t even have to be frustrating or pleasant.

  16. Come to the Belgrade Hacklab, oosm.org, we have a near 50% ratio of women and men. This might have something to do with the fact that the hackerspace was founded by activists that were involeved in the feminist movements, and the space was designed from the get go to be a women and LGBT safe spot. Where no tolerance, and macho BS is well, not tolerated

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I am an artist, designer, and maker. As the Director of The Hacktory, I am working to create a beginner-friendly environment where anyone can explore their interests in technology and art. Last year I had the honor of being named Philly's "Hacker of the Year" by the blog Geekadelphia. I also work as a designer at the Action Mill, a company that designs tools to improve how people work, transform complex systems, and create more meaningful connections.

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