Back in 2013, MIT started encouraging applicants to submit a “Maker portfolio” in addition to their application. The portfolio is meant to showcase projects that they’ve built or been involved with in some form. What they found was that there was a fairly large gender imbalance in terms of who was submitting these Maker portfolios.
Gender disparity in the Maker Movement isn’t a new topic here. We’ve seen this and do attempt to take action to rectify it. We’re not without our faults though; we recently missed a fantastic opportunity to support women in the Maker Movement when we overlooked Ada Lovelace day. I will personally admit that sometimes the imbalance slips my mind. Not only am I a middle class Caucasian male (read: I don’t want to be guilty of “mansplaining”), I work at a company that is packed full of women in charge.
To me, this was the most interesting part of MIT’s report:
“In that survey, 30% of respondents identified as “Maker,” and the rate was the same for both men and women who responded. “
This points out that even though there were fewer submissions from women, the amount of people that identified as Makers was the same. Why weren’t more women submitting their portfolios?
Anna Waldman-Brown concludes in her breakdown of this data that “MIT ladies are just as intelligent as MIT gentlemen. They just may lack the confidence.”
I think she’s hit the nail on the head, and I have a suspicion that internet culture plays a big role in this. I call it the Confidence Crushing Machine, and we have to look at the way we respond to female Makers who share their projects online to see how it works.
Schadenfreude as a staple of internet culture
People on the internet can be (and often are) jerks. It was famously put into an equation by Penny Arcade (NSFW language) when talking about an online game chat:
Normal person + anonymity + audience = total F*&%$wad
This may be humorous and anecdotal, but it has actually been studied and has a name: Online Disinhibition Effect. It is something I’ve battled for years. I recall how much my heart sank when I, running Hackaday at the time, saw this tweet from Jeri Ellsworth.
One solution, as Branwyn points out, is to remove anonymity. I personally use my real name wherever possible and I’ve found that I do, in fact, behave differently. If you Google my name, you’ll find projects I’ve been involved in, but also forum threads, Reddit comments, tweets and more. I’m accountable for what I say, and that’s good.
The nicest jerks in the universe
The surprising bit is that this doesn’t always manifest as someone being overtly vile or offensive. If you’ve ever ended up on a blog post about a cool project that a woman has done, you’ll find “compliments” appearing en masse. These are typically things about how beautiful and smart this person is, or how they are potential wife material.
We all agree that compliments are good. The problem here is that the focus shifts almost entirely away from the project and onto the person. This typically doesn’t happen with men.
Constantly being judged by your looks or desirability as opposed to your knowledge and skill erodes your confidence in those skills. It makes you feel marginalized.
The confidence crushing machine in action
Lets go on a thought exercise for a moment. Picture yourself posting something online that you think is awesome. For example, a flaming sword.
The comments start rolling in and you’re immediately assaulted with insults about your physical appearance and threats to your safety. Yes, this happens. Anyone who moderates comments will back this up. You can imagine what the comments would be if I were a woman. “She needs to lose a few pounds to look like the character from the game” and things of that nature. I don’t even want to give an example of the kinds of personal threats that would appear. I’ve seen them (again, only as a moderator) and they’ll make your stomach turn no matter how jaded you think you might be.
While you’re reeling from the onslaught of personal attacks, you see some seemingly nice comments appear, coming from the opposite direction. However they’re all focusing on you, not your project. Sure you’ve got pretty eyes. Sure it’s super hot to see a woman with a sword, but WHAT ABOUT MY PROJECT?
In the end you’ve got tons of misdirected interactions, both positive and negative, but so little of it has anything to do with your skills or project that you’re left feeling like there was no point in sharing in the first place. Confidence = crushed.
You might still be proud of what you’ve built, but your desire to engage the community is diminished considerably. I suspect this is the source of the disparity that MIT sees between those who identify as Makers and those who submit Maker Profiles. By the time many women post a few projects online, their confidence gets systematically crushed to the point that they see very little merit to their Maker profile in the first place.
Safe places vs controlled chaos
I really struggle with this concept and this whole area of thought. I absolutely abhor the idea of censoring people. I tend to fall toward the opposite end of the spectrum, where the solution is just to get more opposing voices heard. An uproarious cacophony of varying opinions and views sounds great to me. I realize it isn’t for everyone though.
The fact is that I don’t have a good answer about how other people should be forced to behave. All I know is that in my own interactions with others, I do my best to lead by example.
So here’s your challenge. Next time you’re about to comment on a project or video, ask yourself: “Would I say this if the project creator were a man?”