Maker Culture Has a ‘Deeply Unsettling’ Gender Problem

Maker and DIY Movement

Maker Culture Has a ‘Deeply Unsettling’ Gender Problem

By Stephen Noonoo     Jun 14, 2018

Maker Culture Has a ‘Deeply Unsettling’ Gender Problem

Makerspaces may be one of the most exciting elements on any school’s campus. But a lack of focus around culture and gender inclusiveness are stunting its true promise, according to a new report out of Drexel University.

The report, appropriately titled “Making Culture,” is the result of about a year’s worth of interviews and site visits to around 30 different makerspaces across 12 urban regions. The goal wasn’t to count the number of 3D printers or robotics clubs, but rather to take a more “ethnographic” view of the phenomena, says Youngmoo Kim, the director of Drexel’s ExCITe Center and an author of the study.

Kim and his fellow researchers analyzed cultural aspects of the makerspace, which included curriculum, attitudes toward competition and how instructors interact with their student makers. Among their findings: a troubling lack of women in makerspace leadership and a pronounced tendency to see boys as more tech-proficient.

Makerspaces in 12 urban locations were examined for the Drexel report
"Making Culture" looked at 30 makerspaces in 12 urban areas.

As a whole, STEM fields experience significant gender imbalances and makerspaces are no exception—despite being a relatively recent adoption for many schools. Among the programs examined, men occupied 76 percent of the leadership roles, while women held just 24 percent. While gender parity among students was observed in early grades, participation by girls dropped 25 percent between 8th grade and high school.

And it didn’t stop there—gender bias was even more pronounced, which the report called “deeply unsettling.”

For the study, researchers recorded interviews and daily observations and used a research process known as linguistic coding to identify patterns in speech and intent. When they reviewed their work, the authors discovered a startling trend: “Instructors consistently refer to their male students using maker terminology—‘geek,’ ‘builders,’—and then overwhelmingly referred to their female students as ‘girls’, as a gender-specific identity,” says Kim in an interview with EdSurge. By contrast, adults never referred to groups of male students as “boys.”

In addition, boys were twice as likely to hold leadership positions within makerspaces and to steer major project topics.

“It’s not that makerspace instructors are bad people in any way—so many are giving up their time freely or teaching things they weren’t trained for,” Kim says. “But they are predominantly male and white and that brings along some preconceived notions.”

Gender bias has been around for generations and making is hardly immune in that respect, notes Sue Cusack, an assistant professor of education technology at Lesley University and co-director of the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab, which has helped Boston Public Schools design makerspaces and train educators.

“It’s disappointing to see that, but in my mind we need to be way more intentional in ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table,” Cusack adds. “I don’t want to structure things in a way that precludes boys from being comfortable and accessing an activity any more than I want to structure an activity that excludes girls or makes other kids uncomfortable about participating. So thinking about access and equity is a responsibility.”

Maker Mindset

While makerspaces are often thought of as a monolithic concept, the authors actually found several distinct types, including artisanal and tech-focused spaces. Where the former is centered around using tools and crafts and exhibiting student work through showcases, the latter approach features more activities like robotics and fosters a greater sense of competitiveness. Some makerspaces opted for open-curriculum models, where student activities were more self-directed; others used pre-constructed lesson plans, such as Fab Labs.

While the authors found merit in both approaches, they observed in the report that “Instructors in the open curriculum found that students were developing their identity through their projects.” Teachers using pre-made curricula spoke largely about the resources and support they received, which in many cases allowed them to more easily introduce students to more complex STEM topics.

For urban environments, which were the focus of the report, factors such as funding can play a bigger role in how the makerspace is designed, compared with well-heeled suburban districts. But that doesn’t mean that students can’t get a comparable experience.

Cusack cites Boston Public Schools (which was not visited by the researchers) as a district that has done a lot with their resources to give students a fair shake. When it comes to its makerspaces, the district prizes instilling students with a “maker mindset,” which refers to the ability to use existing knowledge to iterate on ideas, turn them into reality and showcase that work with the larger community.

“It is possible to do a fair amount of making using recycled materials and other resources that are not as big of a lift,” says Cusack, who will co-present on designing makerspaces with equity in mind at the upcoming ISTE 2018 conference in Chicago. “For us, the power of making is not that you had access to a 3D printer but that you have access to an inquiry process that allows for a deep dive into critical thinking and into what Seymour Papert would have called the ‘hard fun.’” Papert, a computer scientist who has been dubbed the “father of the maker movement,” popularized the concept of hard fun, where students find activities more engaging in part because they are difficult to master.

Overall, the report found several variables that had a profound effect on what the authors call “makerspace culture," including curriculum, project choice, whether competitions or showcases were preferred and the number of afterschool or out-of-class opportunities available. The culture of a given space was found to greatly impact student participation, the mindsets they develop and how they collaborate and share information with others.

In general, the most successful makerspaces were the ones that approached these topics intentionally and had a plan in place that takes into account realities around funding and physical space. Kim likens the process to building a house from scratch and knowing where to start. “If you don’t think about culture when you’re building a makerspace, you’re forgetting the foundation,” he says. “You might have something that’s visible but not very solid.”

Cusack is even firmer in regard to setting up sustainable models as a prerequisite. “We have bumped into many people who have said, ‘My superintendent just handed us $3,000 to launch a makerspace, what should we buy?’” she recalls.

“We usually tell them to give the money back.”

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