Tackling the gender gap in FabLabs

Ph. courtesy RogLab, Ljubljana

FabLabs are inclusive spaces that encourage collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, and open innovation. Our project INTERREG CE FabLabNet (FLN) was born to boost these assets in Central Europe, relying on FabLabs as key activators to further unlock the innovation capacities of the area.

FabLabNet, which started in the summer of 2016 and will run until July 2019, is trying to make an impact at three different levels: Community, Business, and Education and Society.

During our last project meeting (Ljubljana, 24–25 September 2018), while discussing the outputs and results of various pilot actions, an interesting point emerged from all the technical reports:

even though all FabLabNet partners recognize the importance of reaching gender equality in FabLabs, in our network we had very different experiences in deploying practical activities to target gender issues.

We therefore thought that publishing this brief note about the gender equality in FabLabNet could be useful for the various managers, educators, and policy makers who are working to reach UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Ph. courtesy RogLab, Ljubljana

Although there is a considerable body of literature on the gender gap in STEM subjects (e.g. Ceci et al., 2009; Macdonald, 2014; Schiebinger, 2000, 2008; Schiebinger and Schraudner, 2011), the specific literature on gender issues in FabLabs is much more limited (e.g. Carstensen, 2014; Dlodlo and Beyers, 2009; Henry 2014; and Vogt et al. 2017; the latter co-developed by FLN partner HappyLab Wien). For this reason there is a generalized agreement in the FabLabs community that the theme needs urther explored (Menichinelli, 2017).

The preliminary studies seem to confirm that FabLabs are indeed inclusive spaces also in terms of gender, with female members not reporting cases of gender discrimination.

However, a gender gap is present in Fablabs. Women are generally underrepresented in members demographics, with fewer than 30% of active users.

Ph. courtesy MUSE FabLab, Trento

Scholars suggest that the uneven male/female ratio in FabLabs could be caused by two main factors:

  1. the dominant stereotype of our society at large, that represents women as less successful in STEM subjects;
  2. the lack of role models in FabLabs, that could foster the participation of more female members.
Ph. courtesy HappyLab, Wien

Another aspect that stands out from recent literature on the theme is that until now, closing the gender gap has not been at the forefront of FabLabs agendas. Initiatives to promote gender equality in FabLabs are usually organized on a personal, voluntary basis, and there is a certain amount of disagreement on which “female friendly” activities are the most effective in bridging the gap.

A common example of this kind of initiative is the “all-female bootcamp”. In FabLabNet we had three partners that organized similar events… and during the Ljubljana meeting we discovered — to our surprise — that they had very different results!

We’d like to share these particular outcomes with you, interviewing the organizers of the three partners: Anita Bauer (Happylab Wien), Meta Stular (RogLab, Ljubljana), and Matilde Bognolo (MUSE FabLab, Trento).

Photo: Andreja Kranjec

Q.: Hello everybody! As an introduction, could you tell our readers how you ended up working in a FabLab, your role, the percentage of female members in your FabLab, and — in a sentence — why you think gender issues matter in FabLabs?

A.: ANITA

I studied art education at the University for applied Arts in Vienna. During a semester project I had the chance to discover Happylab Vienna, and work there for my own projects. In my time as a FabLab user I never had the impression that there were not enough women, or too many men working there. Now, as a trainee for Happylab Vienna, my impression has not really changed: in my opinion there is still quite a balanced number of members. But aside from my personal impression, the importance of doing everything to create a respectful place where we can all feel important, where everybody is trying to get the best out of it, should be unnecessary to mention. Raising gender awareness by not producing new stereotypes and fighting the old ones is one thing I try to do when I am working with people there.

A.: META

My background is in humanities and my profession is cultural manager, so it might seem unusual that I have ended up in a FabLab. It all started in 2010, when I was hired by the Museums and galleries of Ljubljana as a national manager of the Second Chance project focusing on revitalising former industrial sites in five Central European cities. In Ljubljana we were working on the former Rog bicycle factory. At the time, the prevalent model of revitalisation consisted in filling old buildings with cultural activities. We wanted to upgrade this model and revitalise the industrial production site in a way that would suit the needs of contemporary designers, artists, architects and entrepreneurs. We came up with the idea of developing a shared production space where users could have access to machines, technical support and expert knowledge and would at the same time benefit from the interdisciplinary environment created by a network of partners. RogLab was built in 2012 to test this idea. In six years, RogLab has connected more than 40 local and international partners and hosted more than 4500 individual users. 70% of them are women. In recent years we have witnessed fast technological progress. Without making it inclusive and strongly connected to the humanist tradition, we might end up with partial solutions to complex societal challenges while perpetuating the social inequalities that are in many cases fuelling those challenges in the first place.

A.: MATILDE

After 4 years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna and a design-based background, I started a 12-month community service project here at the MUSE FabLab. My job is very variable: I work mostly with the machinery that we have in the Lab, but I also help the other Team members with educational activities, courses and events.

There is a lower percentage of women than men working at the MUSE FabLab, both in the Lab itself and during courses, but I never felt excluded or rejected because of my gender by the other members. However, I think it’s important to face the gender issue inside FabLabs because they could be a precious resource for tearing apart the stereotypes that surround the figure of women working in STEM fields.

Ph. courtesy HappyLab, Wien

Q.: That’s great! All of you organized “All females” FabLabs activities… it will be very interesting to read about them! How did the activity originate? Did you find any difficulties in organizing it? How did it go?

A.: ANITA

I was a trainee for this year’s “All-female makers Bootcamp” at Happylab Vienna, together with a male colleague. I can speak from perspective as a trainee, not as an organizer, just to make my role here clear.

A.: META

We co-organised two women-only events in 2015 and 2016 in cooperation with Čipke, a local initiative promoting women in technology hosted by our partner organisation Rampa Laboratory. The first project — Female Avatars, tackled identity and gender-related issues in both virtual and real physical space. The participants learned to modulate objects and animation using the open-code program Blender, as well as acquiring knowledge about 3D printing and placing objects into space installations. In the second one — I Wear Electrified, the participants used wearable electronics to make interactive hats for the heads of three techno heroines. In both cases the technological part of the project was strongly connected to a narrative focused on a range of gender related issues.

A: MATILDE

I’m currently the “maker coach” helping 20 middle school girls in a project called “Girls Code It Better”. This project wasn’t created by me, however it was designed four years ago by MAW Agency in response to the decreasing numbers of girls who choose to follow a path inside the STEM sphere and to raise awareness that girls can work with technology too, and that this is not just a “boy’s thing”.

We gather once a week for a total of 45 hours (as a matter of fact, my journey with them will end in March/April) discovering various tools, such as Scratch, Tinkercad, Arduino and so on. The final goal is to create a project, but the most important thing is that the girls learn not only new things and tools, but also the important lesson that they can do something that is usually considered a male-only thing.

Ph. courtesy MUSE FabLab, Trento

Q: Let us ask about results… did the participants enjoy the formula? Do you think that “All-female” events are good tools in closing the gender gap in FabLabs? Do you have any suggestions for further developments?

A: ANITA

I got some very positive responses from the participants about the “all-female”-issue: some of them even said that it took away a kind of barrier, because there were no men participating in the group. Others told me that they did not really understand why there should be such an exclusive space only for women. I think the truth lies in between these two views — it is a good thing, creating an opportunity to start talking about gender and its role in our FabLab, but what is it good for, if people won’t dialogue? I think, as Meta already said, communication, talking to each other, is one of our most important tools.

A: META

All-female events are a great communication and awareness-raising tool that can be constructive when an organisation starts to tackle the problem of gender gap. But to close the gap for good, gender equality should in my opinion be integrated at all the levels of an organisation — from human resources to management and communication. It is not just important to have female technicians and mentors in the FabLab, it is extremely important that the staff, male or female, is emancipated. We have zero tolerance for misogyny or sexism in our lab. Furthermore, communication really matters. By understanding the principles that lead to gender inequality in technology and in society in general, we can produce the communication tools to reach both genders. This formula works — we have 70% of female users.

A: MATILDE

For now, we have only just started the project. In fact, we are at our third meeting — however, the girls are thrilled about it and they are enjoying the experience. An activity aimed solely at girls might seem counterproductive, however in this case it allows girls to operate in a sort of “safe space”, as Anita said before. With a mixed project, the risks of not finding female members due to the fear of being the only girl present or being made fun of by the males are real and might scare the girls, creating a never-ending cycle.

Holding an “All-female” activity does not prevent girls from creating a similar club with both males and females in the future.

Ph. courtesy MAW, Rovereto

Q: One last provocative question… Do you think we will be able to achieve gender equality in the FabLab scene by 2030, as the United Nations hope?

A: ANITA

Why not? ;)

A: META

In RogLab we have already achieved it :)

A: MATILDE

We hope to achieve it even before 2030!

Ph. courtesy MUSE FabLab, Trento

Thank you! The work that you are doing is of capital importance for a project like FabLabNet that aims to become a reference platform for innovation in Europe.

In this regard, using FabLabs as laboratories for social innovation fits consistently with the European Commission Initiative to create Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation projects (CAPS).

Even outside Europe, the idea that FabLabs are some of the best places to work on the gender gap in STEM subjects is gaining momentum, from Vancouver, to South Africa. At the same time, big international professional associations are moving to include gender equality in their missions.

But all these good signs don’t mean that the problem isn’t persistently there, as long as things like this happen. Luckily, more and more communities — from particle physics to FabLabs - are ready to change and embrace the idea that discrimination is not a welcome feature of our field.

Ph. courtesy MUSE FabLab, Trento

References

Carstensen, T., Walter-Herrmann, J., Büching, C. (2014), Gendered Fab Labs. Fab Lab: Of machines, makers and inventors. 53–64.

Ceci, S. J., Williams, W. M., Barnett, S. M. (2009), Women’s Underrepresentation in Science: Sociocultural and Biological Considerations, Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 218–261.

Henry, L. (2014), The Rise of Feminist Hackerspaces and How to Make Your Own. Model View Culture.

Macdonald, A. (2014), “Not for people like me?” Under-represented groups in science, technology and engineering. Wise Campaign.

Josip, M. (2018), The gender-based digital divide in maker culture: features, challenges and possible solutions, Journal of Innovation Economics & Management 2018/3 (n° 27), p. 147–168. DOI 10.3917/jie.027.0147

Menichinelli, M. (2017), Notes for future research on the impact of the Fab Lab network. In Fabricating Society — Research Book: 13th International Fab Lab Conference and Symposium Santiago, Chile | August 2017 (pp. 34–44). Fundación DID. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/dmoyanod/docs/libro_papers_digital

Dlodlo, N., & Beyers, R. N. (2009), Experiences of South African high school girls in a fab lab environment. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology

International Journal of Educational and Pedagogical Sciences, Vol:3, No:1.

Schiebinger, L. (2000), Has Feminism Changed Science?, Feminisms at a Millennium, 25(4), 1171–1175.

Schiebinger, L. (2008), Getting more Women into Science and Engineering Knowledge Issues, in Schiebinger, L. (ed.), Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1–21.

Schiebinger, L., SCHRAUDNER, M. (2011), Interdisciplinary Approaches to Achieving Gendered Innovations in Science, Medicine, and Engineering, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, special issue on Gender in Science, 36(2), 154–167.