Hack the Gender Gap
by Georgia Guthrie
"Wow, that seems very complicated. I don’t think I would be able to do that.”
“I just started learning myself, and believe me, if I can do it, you can, too!”
I heard this snippet of conversation during the Drop In + Do, the weekly free project time provided by the Hacktory and the Department of Making + Doing. It was part of a conversation between two women, one black and one white, both over 40. One had come to our facility to try out some of the modeling software on our computers to tackle making her own embroidery design, and the other was using one of our sewing machines because she didn’t have one at home.
These are the moments I live for, and strive to cultivate through our environment and offerings—for people of all ages and backgrounds. What I’ve learned in the years I’ve been involved in the worlds of design, fabrication, hardware and technology is that this kind of experience is extremely rare for women of all ages, and as a result they are often left out of the “maker” revolution that is revitalizing the manufacturing and technology industries.
The topic of women and girls in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is hot. Positions in these fields offer some of the best pay and benefits for workers nationally, yet participation rates for women lag far behind men. Since the mid-1980s, the number of undergraduate computer science majors peaked at 22 percent women, and it has never recovered.
Much of the research on this topic has focused on finding out when girls lose interest in STEM topics, rather than why they might lose interest.
The Hacktory developed a workshop on the gender gap to delve into this issue, and we’ve found a few strong trends time and again. Girls in K-12 educational settings often experience direct discouragement from teachers, mentors and counselors from their interests in STEM. This is not a phenomenon from decades ago, but something that still happens on a daily basis. Environments where girls might be able to explore interests in these topics, such as science class or computer club, are often hostile in both direct and indirect ways during grade school—in college it’s usually worse. Once women do make it to the workforce, they often suffer from isolation, a workaholic culture, a sense that they must prove themselves far beyond the capabilities of their male colleagues, and, at times, blatant harassment. Rather than swim upstream, they leave these fields, which means there are few senior women that junior colleagues can look up to for much-needed encouragement and mentorship.
At the Hacktory, we try to remove as many barriers to women as possible. Our weekly free project time is just one such offering. We also abide by a powerful set of social rules that create an environment where asking for help or clarification is met with understanding, not derision. We offer classes with specific outcomes such as “LED Masks and Monsters” rather than broad overviews such as “Intro to Circuits and Textiles,” because many women and girls respond better to outcome-based learning approaches. We’re proud of our diverse group of teachers, board members and volunteer organizers—including the extremely talented women among them—and we offer scholarships for girls to attend our after school programs.
Still, we are just shy of 50/50 participation for women in our adult classes. Unfortunately, that gap is larger in our kids classes. What this tells me is that there are overwhelming cultural forces telling girls that they don’t belong in these environments or doing this kind of work. Unless girls have a home environment where their interests in maker activities are really supported, they are hesitant to try them, because even at ages seven or eight, they get a message that they should be doing something else. That also means that every instance of encouragement counts, from the time they are four to when they’re 40.
Overall, the Philadelphia community should be commended for its leadership encouraging women, girls and people of color to participate in technology fields and in the maker movement. Many major cities now have a few makerspaces, but of the four in Philly, two of them were founded or are run by women: the Hacktory and Philadelphia Sculpture Gym. The tech community in Philly lives on Meetup.com, and the largest tech group there is Girl Develop It, which offers classes and opportunities for women to learn programming; their national president lives here as well. One of the few nonprofits in our country dedicated to getting middle-school girls interested in coding, TechGirlz.org, was founded in Philly, as was the Women in Tech Summit.
It’s time we started celebrating more about Philadelphia in general; we must also challenge ourselves to have even greater gender parity and diversity in the maker movement so that we can be a national leader—and share our strategies for success far and wide.
Georgia Guthrie is a designer, maker and the executive director of the Hacktory.