Looking around a Maker Space or Maker Faire, how many girls do you see? Why aren’t more girls involved in the Maker movement? Increasingly, Makers around the country have been asking these questions; we at Techbridge are eager to contribute to this conversation. At Techbridge, we’re focused on inspiring girls in science, technology, engineering—and making.
Girls explore STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in our weekly after-school programs during the school year, and our week-long Summer Academy gives them a chance to dive deeper into a STEM theme.
This summer we challenged ourselves—and 60 girls—with a week of making, tinkering and coding. While planning and facilitating Summer Academy, we learned a lot (and, like good Makers, made a few mistakes) about what it takes to make female Makers. Here are our suggestions for how you can hack the gender gap in the Maker community.
Step 1: Recruit Girls
While it might seem obvious, you need to get girls in the door in order to inspire them to become Makers. When fighting the Maker gender gap status-quo, it’s critical to make recruitment of girls a conscious effort. Give yourself plenty of lead-time to develop relationships with girls and parents, even if your program is already established in your community. We started talking to the girls about our make-themed summer program about four months before we wanted them to register.
We quickly learned that messaging about Making was important. While throwing around terms like “hacking,” “programming,” and “Arduinos” might evoke a Pavlovian response in seasoned Makers, it could elicit the opposite among the un-initiated (often including girls). Using descriptive language and showing sample projects helped paint the context of our Academy. We also looked to our girls to define how they’d like to describe the program. (For more information on how to message your Making programs to appeal to a wider audience, check out Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering).
To build excitement and buy-in from the girls, we gave them opportunities to shape the look and feel of the program. We ran a contest for the name of the program – the girls voted for “A Place for Tinker Belles and Tech Ninjas”. We also had the girls design a t-shirt logo for the program (photo). During the recruitment process, we released a series of promotional materials—including flyers and paper dolls—based on their feedback in order to keep them engaged.
We also wanted girls to hear from other girls about why they should enroll in our Summer Academy. We created a video testimonial of girls who participated in our program last summer, and played it for all the girls in our programs. Tip: Look for female ambassadors in your program who can tell girls in their own words why making is awesome.
As you’re recruiting, leverage the power of person-to-person invitations. It worked really well when we talked to girls individually, saying, “Hey, I think this would be a really great program for you.” Don’t underestimate the importance of telling a girl why you think she, specifically, will get a lot out of your Maker program. You can partner with school day teachers and after school programs to identify girls who would benefit from Making.
At Techbridge, we’re lucky to have great relationships with our girls’ parents as well. Because most of our parents didn’t know about Making, recruiting girls also meant getting their parents on-board. Staff talked to parents in-person, sent emails, left voicemails, and ran informational workshops. Helping parents understand what the girls would be learning and doing was a big part of turning them into allies in our recruitment process. Interestingly, we heard from some parents that they thought hacking was a bad thing and were not sure that this would be a good thing for their daughters to learn. See more about involving parents below in Step 6.
Step 2: Create a Comfy Environment
Techbridge programs are all-girl environments, and this really appeals to the girls in our programs. Year after year, they tell us how much they enjoy having a place to work and learn that feels like it ‘belongs’ to them. Whether or not you’re offering a girl-only program, it’s important to create a welcoming environment for girls that will help them feel comfortable and keep them coming back.
In addition to accessible workspaces and materials, think about providing space for girls to connect, share and reflect. We set up beanbag chairs and break stations to allow girls to exchange ideas in a more casual way.
We were inspired by this social media station from Brit+Co. We’ve noticed that our girls love to tell stories about themselves, and are eager to share their ideas over social media. We figured we could take the Techbridge Tumblr page for the girls to post photos and updates about their projects throughout the week, which also helped involve the girls’ parents in the program (see Step 6 below).
Makers rely on other Makers for support, feedback and great ideas, so we knew that we wanted to facilitate relationships between the girls in our program. On the first day of our program, we told all of the girls that they are already Makers, and heard about some of the experiences that they brought with them into the program. As a group, we set Community Agreements and to nurture our community of Makers, we played ice-breaker activities at the start of each day. Overall, we wanted to create an environment that was fun, friendly, and encouraged girls to see themselves as Makers.
Step 3: Make Growth Mindset a Visible Value
Many girls today internalize more messages about being a ‘good girl’ than they do about diving in, making a mess, and taking risks. That’s one of the reasons we love Making at Techbridge. Our culture aims to make all girls feel included, while working to shatter some of those ‘good girl’ expectations. One way we do that is by highlighting the importance of a growth mindset in our learning environment.
At Techbridge, we believe that character, intelligence and creative ability are not ‘fixed’ or inherent qualities; we believe these qualities grow and change over time, and that failure is an opportunity for this growth. This is a new and sometimes uncomfortable philosophy for girls in our program, who are used to receiving praise for doing their work ‘perfectly’. To counter the cult of perfectionism, we make the growth mindset a visible value at Techbridge.
In our program, facilitators model how to talk about mistakes as learning moments, and guide girls to give each other feedback. When our facilitators show examples of projects they’re working on, they make sure to refer to them as prototypes and iterations, de-emphasizing the importance of final products. We found that Tumblr, an app our girls already use, is a great way for girls to proudly document the changes and tweaks they make to their designs.
Another way we celebrate growth mindset is our wall of Glorious Goofs (inspired by Galileo Learning’s Marvelous Mistakes). This is a great way to make visible the value we place on learning from our mistakes, and celebrating not doing everything perfectly the first time. At the end of each day, we had the girls do “shout outs” to each other for being tenacious, resilient, gritty or helpful to anyone else’s process. This practice acts as a natural incentive for girls to encourage each other to keep trying and to remember that doing it ‘perfectly’ isn’t the Maker mindset.
Step 4: Bring in Role Models
At Techbridge, we integrate into our year-long after-school programs opportunities for our girls to meet and be inspired by women who work in science, technology and engineering. We have found that exposing girls to female role models helps to counteract negative stereotypes about women and STEM. For Summer Academy, we brought in a variety of these role models to work on projects with the girls and help them make connections between the coding and electrical engineering skills they developed during the Academy and careers possibilities.
If you don’t already have relationships with role models who know you and your program, consider reaching out a few months ahead of time to local organizations and introducing them to your program. Give them a sense of your goals for the program and the time commitment you’re looking for from volunteers. We highly recommend sharing with your role models-to-be resources to help them prepare to interact with youth. Check out Techbridge’s Role Models Matter toolkit for tips, resources and videos that help adults who work in the tech field prepare to volunteer with kids.
In addition to helping out with the technical aspects of the girls’ projects, and talking about the various careers related to Making, we value role models for their ability to reinforce the idea of the growth mindset in the real world. Encourage your visitors who work in engineering, science and technology to talk about times that things didn’t go as planned in their work, what prototypes they have created and what the iteration process looks like in their field. We hear from our alumnae that stories like this can stick with them for years to come, so it’s really worth preparing your role models ahead of time by asking them to reflect on their own ‘Glorious Goofs’.
This summer, we benefitted from visiting role models from Genentech, UC Berkeley, IDEO, Samsung, Goldie Blox, Roominate and the Oakland Tech Makers. When looking for role models for your program, consider science centers, businesses, universities and community colleges, as well as seasoned Makers in your community. Keep in mind that the role models you bring in don’t have to be experts in Making themselves; we found that girls really enjoy being the experts and giving adults a tour of their Maker Space.
Step 5: Showcase the Girls’ Work
Although girls are often stereotyped as talkative and relationship-focused, not all girls enjoy being the center of attention or talking about themselves in public. We like to mix up the different ways to showcase what the girls have made, because we have a growth mindset about public speaking, too!
Girls get used to showing off what they’ve made in pairs or small groups before presenting in front of the whole group. This summer, the girls enjoyed putting on a fashion show of their sewn circuit designs. At the end of the runway, each girl told the audience what they were most proud of and what was most challenging, and then they listened to feedback about their project.
Earlier we mentioned our Tumblr page, which was a fun way to turn documentation and reflection into a social media incentive. It also gave the girls a place to do some well-deserved bragging about their accomplishments – another behavior that ‘good girls’ are discouraged from doing.
If you bring in role models to help with your program, grant girls the role of expert and have them explain what’s going on in your Maker Space. This is another way for them to practice their presentation skills and to take pride in their Maker identity.
Step 6: Involve Parents
Getting girls into a Making space is one thing; keeping them there can be a family affair. If you haven’t involved parents in your Maker program, maybe it’s time to reconsider. Remember that parents are likely the ones to approve of their daughters’ activities outside of school, arrange their transportation, and support any investigations that happen in between Maker meetups. More importantly, the messages that girls get from their parents and family members can strongly impact their motivation and commitment to a Maker program.
Think of ways to keep parents updated about what the girls are working on throughout your program. We mentioned the recruitment video and Tumblr page to help keep girls involved— these can help parents get excited about your program as well. We also built in the need for family input into our hacker project: girls interviewed family members about a household object and led them in a brainstorm about how that object might be hacked and improved. Girls also taught family members skills they learned throughout the week, including breadboarding and circuitry, using take-home project kits. Hands-on learning isn’t just for kids— it’s a great strategy to engage adults too!
At the end of our Summer Academy, we invited family members to come in and see what the girls had worked on all week. We noticed that this final event kept girls motivated throughout their projects, and they were excited and proud to explain to their parents what they had accomplished. At the event, we included the parents in our final “shout out” session, where parents recognized their daughters for their work. And we sent parents home with resources for the whole family to continue hacking and Making at home, to help spread the community of Making.
Step 7: Practice
Whew! From creating a safe, comfortable space to recruiting support from families and role models, a lot goes into making female Makers. As you embark on engaging girls in your Maker Space, just remember: practice makes perfect! While planning Summer Academy, the Techbridge team built in several opportunities to test out our strategies and activities. We hosted a one-day workshop for Girl Scouts, solicited feedback from girls in our after-school programs, and even practiced with our colleagues at a “Hack the Staff” event. During the Academy itself, we constantly revised our approach to better meet the needs of our girls after making some Glorious Goofs of our own. Girls won’t expect you to be perfect in your recruitment and retention efforts. They just want a seat at your Maker table.
Planning to make female Makers in your area? Share your successes and Glorious Goofs with us! Let’s learn from each other as we all work to hack the gender gap in the Maker community.