Read the story online here: https://medium.com/bright/who-is-a-maker-603aca72118f
Most self-identified ‘makers’ are, to be blunt, highly educated white men. Here are a few of the people trying to change that.
Who is allowed to “make”? Who is celebrated for hand-fashioning all sorts of devices, objects, artworks and comestibles — and perhaps picking up some critical thinking skills in the process?
These questions have been percolating in the “maker community” for some time — and gained relevance when 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested last month after his homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb.
The media pounced on the inherent bias of Mohamed’s teacher. Did she suspect that the contraption was a bomb because he was a Muslim? Would a non-Muslim student have been treated in the same way? Why was it easier to imagine Ahmed as a terrorist rather than a clock-maker?
Most self-identified makers, to be blunt, are highly educated white men. “It’s something that we’re very concerned about and grappling with,” said Edward Clapp, a maker education researcher at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s important that maker-centered learning not be directed toward any one particular type of individual, which includes gender, social class, race, or different subject areas.”
This lack of diversity within the maker movement has had a trickle-down effect on the objects they choose to make — and consequently, what is prized within the community. “Yes, ‘maker’ can mean robots and programming Arduinos, but it can also mean quilting and pickle-making and crochet,” Clapp said. “We don’t want to be so narrow and we don’t want to exclude any type of making because it is more about a curiosity-based approach to learning.”
Make Magazine, which has been the central media source for propelling the ideas and creation of makers nationwide, has a distinctly privileged readership. According to one survey, 81% of the magazine’s 300,000 subscribers are male and their median household income is $106,000. 80% have post-graduate education. The organization’s highly successful maker faires attract a similar demographic.
Unless there are significant interventions, one could see this world of tinkerers, hackers, and high-tech artists remaining in a bubble of privilege for generations to come. It’s what happened to the field of computer science, which in the 1980s had relative gender parity, but has since become an enclave for upwardly mobile white males.
To that end, Make Magazine has been criticized for not doing more to promote diversity and gender inclusion in maker communities and media representations.
Ahmed Mohamed had to prove that he was not a terrorist when he showcased his inventive nature, perhaps because he didn’t quite fit the maker mold. This echoes how women and people of color are often questioned and asked to prove their competence in engineering and other science fields.
Luz Rivas struggled with this as a young Latina engineer. “In college if you are the only girl in a group project, they might not trust your work or want you to work on something, and it’s actually very hard to get over it,” she said. After getting her degree from one of the top engineering schools in the country, Rivas got a highly desirable job. Yet she said that her male managers would double check her work, but not the work of her male colleagues. “Unfortunately, it took a long time for people to realize, OK, she is good, we trust her, and she is part of our team,” she said. “It’s unfair, because in addition to the pressures of a new job, I also had to deal with this extra level of scrutiny as a Latina.”
Because the maker movement has been identified as a natural entry point for getting girls interested in technology, Rivas was inspired to launch DIY Girls to help young women enter STEM fields more readily. The LA-based organization offers after school programs, summer camps, and workshops that give girls access to making technology.
Rivas said that the most prominent outcome is increased confidence. “Girls that have gone through the DIY program are usually more confident because they have made things that even adults don’t know how to do,” she said. “Everything they make they share with teachers, family and friends, so they are proud and praised for it. Then they want to do more.” Other programs like the YWCA’s Tech Gyrls and Black Girls Code are cropping up to give girls an exclusive environment in which to gain skills that have long been the domain of male students.
But not everyone is certain that the best approach to building diversity in the maker movement — and by extension, STEM careers — is through female-only enrichment programs. This sets up a hierarchy within making, in which engineering projects are prized above more traditional craft activities that have been historically associated with women.
Leah Buechley is a designer and former MIT professor whose innovative projects combine historically feminine textile arts with electronics. Her scholarship has explored the rich STEM content inherent in textile crafts. “Knitting, crochet, or yarn textile crafts are very algorithmic activities,” she said. “There is a pattern that you follow that involves repetitions and looping and if-then. It’s really an engineering discipline to turn a 1-D thing, a string, into a 3D thing which has volume.”
Beyond pointing out the overlooked mathematics at play in handicrafts, Buechley’s work also bridges the gap between textile creation and more conventionally masculine fields. Her LilyPad Arduino technology — a programmable circuit board that can be sewn into fabric — has inspired many maker educators to engage both sewing and electronics skills to broaden the appeal of making to diverse groups. For instance, tote bags that integrate conductive thread and flashing lights, or garments that are designed and created with algorithms, provide an opportunity to connect activities that some girls might feel more comfortable with to programming and engineering. Electronic fashions also allow boys to gain skills with textiles that they might not naturally gravitate towards.
But Edward Clapp cautions against too much gender pigeonholing. “To advocate for incorporating more ‘traditionally feminine’ activities into maker-centered learning may be helpful,” he said, “but this only reinforces our cultural stereotypes about what is a culturally appropriate masculine activity and what is a culturally appropriate feminine activity. Who says girls can’t excel as roboticists and rocket scientists? Who says boys can’t excel as knitters and sewers?”
But our world is still one of culturally determined gender and racial divisions, and those educators who are working for inclusivity have to use every available entry point to get kids interested and captivated by making. Like Buechley’s call to recognize craft as women’s engineering, we also need to acknowledge the maker mindset inherent in customizing low-rider cars, fabricating floats for Carnaval, or mashing up hip-hop audio tracks.
This is how we can ensure diversity in the maker movement, enlarge the public’s conception of who can engineer, and not jump to dangerous conclusions about kids making, for instance, homemade alarm clocks.