I wasn’t sure what the answer to that question might be, so I interviewed seven female hackerspace members (actually, one is an ex-member) to get their take on what it’s like. Leave a comment with your (constructive) thoughts! Note: All photos in this article were taken by Anne Peterson at Pumping Station: One and used with permission. These photos and others may be viewed at Anne’s PS: One Flickr set.
John Baichtal: Why are you a hackerspace member?
Astera, Metalab: Because I love to learn stuff. Try things out. Become enthused about new technologies together with others. I like to share and teach. Plus, because I love love love the helpfulness of everyone at the Metalab. If you have a problem you can’t solve yourself, you go to the hackerspace and there’ll be at least one person who can, and gladly will.
Carlyn Maw, CRASH Space: I’m a curious person who enjoys learning from other people. I had a wonderful graduate school experience with a big shared workspace. I’ve found that the people I know who went to Art School or Architecture School invariably understand the value of a place to putter on things while other people are puttering on their things.
Rogueclown, former member, PS:One: i’m not, anymore, but, I was, because I wanted to meet a group of people locally who I could discuss projects with, and who could help me expand my technological skills. I also wanted a place where I could go where I could focus clearly on my personal projects, and on gaining the knowledge I needed to get those projects done. (as for why I’m not, it basically came down to the fact that I didn’t feel like it was a place where i could focus clearly on my projects anymore. I don’t want to go into any more detail than that on the record, except to say that it had absolutely nothing to do with my gender.)
Willow Brugh, Jigsaw Renaissance: It’s the school and community I always wanted. Excited, empowered people breaking sh!t and making new things?! Sign me up!
Kellbot, NYC Resistor: I first got started with NYC Resistor when I was doing some knitting machine hacking – Bre Pettis introduced me to Diana Eng who also does some knitting machine work. Then I moved on to other projects, and spent a ton of time at NYCR late into the night hacking. Part of the draw is the access to tools that won’t fit in my apartment, but the real value is the people there.
Anne Petersen, president, PS:One: Hackerspaces and makerspaces are exciting environments to participate in. One step further than that: I’m also a leader as the president of Pumping Station: One in Chicago. I find it immensely rewarding to help lead a space that produces great projects like our Biosensor Array, which was a finalist for the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge, now an inter-hackerspace event; the Power Racing Series; transmissometers; Rep-Rap-a-thons and many more.
Sunsh1ne, Twin Cities Maker: Initially it was to meet and make things with like-minded people. Now it’s just to have somewhere to go and do things I have no room for at home and have access to tools I wouldn’t buy on my own.
JB: What can hackerspaces do to get more women to participate?
Astera: I don’t know whether I’d list that as a priority at all. The thing really is, as long as kids grow up with parents that treat them just like they’ve been raised, 20-30 years back, not much might change. And what’s the point in changing a concept that totally works for those interested in the materia to something more broad, when the only goal you want to follow is to make it more politically correct? Honestly, I wouldn’t want to see the idea of a hackerspace change just in order to equal out gender numbers.
Carlyn Maw: This is a hard question to answer as a woman who is already participating. I either have to say I’m somehow weird for already being a participant, or that my community is flawed, or that women as a group are somehow… something… that makes hackerspaces as they are a strange place for them to be. None of these are true.
So I’m going to deflect this question and talk about how hackerspaces can get more people to participate in general. Anyone of any gender can feel welcomed by being asked what their interests are or shown how to go about teaching a class or encouraged to share their opinion on the current topic. Also putting one or two session classes on the schedule that have a finished product the student can take away gives otherwise hesitant or busy people an excuse to come check things out. Introductory classes, movie nights, music based events, things that are low pressure and obviously don’t require anything other than enthusiasm on the part of the attendee can get people in the door. And once people are in the door, well, we have a pretty good retention rate.
Rogueclown: Hackerspaces should make it clear that they are a place for people to do creative things with any technological or artistic framework — not just stereotypically male fields like computers or electronics. Such fields may appeal to a few women, like me, but I’m pragmatic…they’re still majority male fields, and won’t succeed in getting a large amount of women into spaces. Get current members who are entrenched in communities with large amounts of women to talk about the hackerspace, and talk about what they have to offer. Talk about the potential of exchanging knowledge, and about how much cooler everyone’s projects will be if there’s cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing.
Also, make sure that the hackerspace is a comfortable place to go, regardless of gender. Focus on the knowledge everyone brings, and the knowledge people want to gain. Don’t assume women are coming in to snag a geeky guy. Don’t assume that women have virgin ears that require you to turn off your joking around at the space. Assume that people of any gender are coming in for the same reason: to meet interesting and intelligent people, to share knowledge, and to make awesome projects.
Willow Brugh: Make an active effort to have more women teachers. Encourage women to attend without segregating them. Women should participate because they are awesome PEOPLE, not because you want more women in your space. Remember that women are not socialized to be vocal about their skills and desires, and are actively socialized AWAY from that. Aim even higher, though – if you make your space a safe place for queer, transsexual, and other minority groups, you’ll automatically be making it a safe place for women to participate.
Kellbot: The most important thing is making your space welcoming to everyone. This isn’t just important for getting women participating in your space, it’s important if you want anyone in your group who isn’t just like yourself. Consider what your space’s decor says about the people who “belong” there. This doesn’t mean you can’t have ASCII pictures of naked ladies on the wall, it just means you should put up some ASCII pictures of naked men along with them.
Most women aren’t too charmed if you ask them to participate in something as a token female. But by all means, invite your awesome friends who happen to be ladies to the space. Lots of women would love to learn to hack, but have never really had an opportunity to do so.
Keep a zero tolerance policy for BS. This is another one that doesn’t just apply to gender. Racism, sexism, classism… there’s no room for it in your space. If one member is making another member feel uncomfortable, it needs to be addressed.
Also, I’m going to dip into gender stereotypes for a second, but I’ve seen this one in action enough that it’s worth mentioning: clean your damned bathrooms. It’s great that guys are able to stand above all the grime while they pee, but most women don’t have that luxury.
Anne Petersen: Here’s the problem: we shouldn’t just be thinking about diversity (although it’s great that you are, which I assume if you’ve read this far). We ought to be thinking about isolation. Some events at spaces are frighteningly homogenous, and little that’s new comes out of groups that have super-similar backgrounds, even with some of the brilliant people already involved in spaces.
Some of the problem may be people simply spotting that isolation, whether it’s conscious or not. When women (or others not represented at spaces) visit a space and don’t see people like themselves represented, it doesn’t seem as welcoming. I also think—perhaps self-interestedly—that it’s helpful to have women in leadership positions: involving us at a leadership level means the decisions coming out will hopefully also consider our population.
Only half of the world is male, and when you’re building a space that’s intended to be accessible to every hacker or maker of any type, you need to know what those people want and need in a space. If you want to change someone’s life, you have to know where they’re coming from.
PS: One is made up of mostly young white males, and has been constructed and adapted mostly by and for that population. And that’s a problem. We’ve recently made strides by adding a female Area Host to be in charge of our wood and metal workshop as well as expanding our arts/crafts area, dividing it into graphic arts and textiles and adding Area Hosts to those. I could claim that we made earlier progress by the election of myself as president, but I can’t say I’ve made as many changes as I’d like to help that issue thus far. But we’re conscious of it (step one) and working on it (step two).
Ask the women in your space if they’d be willing to help with outreach and/or feedback on how to make your space more welcoming, since needs and wants of female hackers and makers vary all over the board due to geography, interests, and all sorts of other factors (much like it would be hard to generalize this for men). But beware of tokenism. I love to help with this, for example, but it becomes a problem when I’m always looked to for an answer about females in the space, especially if I’m the only one asked. That gets into the similar (in this case, single) background problem again.
Sunsh1ne: You tell me and I’ll support it. I feel it’s a generational thing, where the young ladies today getting early exposure and access to science and technologies will be taking more advantage of these great spaces. I also hope the young men are taught better about equality and collaborate with girls in the learning environments in place of gender specific training (i.e. Home Ec and Shop class).
JB: Do nerdy men have a hard time collaborating with women and respecting their skills and projects?
Astera: No. Why would they? They surely have a hard time trying to figure out what to talk about with a non-nerdy girl, I guess. Respect is what you get for what you achieved, no matter what gender or orientation you belong to; and I think this wasn’t better understood in many others than our own field of work.
Carlyn Maw: Nerdy men (and women) can have a hard time collaborating with anyone. The biggest mistake a woman can make is to assume that some poor guy is being a jerk to her because she’s a woman. Chances are much better that they’re just a jerk to everyone. In fact, in some nerd cultures being rude is a sign of respect because it shows the person believes you have the chops to stand up for yourself. I personally can find that a bit tiresome, even just to watch. Additionally, I think it can be hard for someone excited by an idea to remember to ask the people around them “What do you think?” because they assume that you’re just like them — that if you were thinking it, you’d be saying it. It’s important to remember not everyone feels free to say what they’re thinking before asked. But on the flip side, in our space we try to make appreciating new people part of our culture, so it can be confusing to some of our members why a new person wouldn’t understand that and speak their mind from minute one. To them coddling seems time consuming and condescending. I think the only thing to do is to remember that another person might have a different way of using language than yourself, and assume positive, or at least sincere, intent.
Rogueclown: Some do, some don’t. There are a surprising amount of nerdy men in general, and hacker men specifically, who do have social skills and can interact well with both men and women. Then again, there’s that variance with hacker women as well…some can relate well with men, women, or both…and some can’t. I have noticed, with both men and women, that spending more time in a community of nerds is extremely good for their social skills: once they meet a group of people who accept them, and can relate to them about what they’re passionate about, they get along better with people in that community, and eventually outside it. This is something I’ve seen independent of gender.
Willow Brugh: It depends on the man. It’s a cultural thing, but it’s up to individuals to make an active effort to change that culture. Listen. Disagree with ideas, not with people.
Kellbot: It’s really hard to answer this, because it’s hard to generalize about “nerdy men.” A really, really important part of traversing gender issues in hackerspaces is dealing with people as individuals, not representatives of their gender. As soon as you devolve into “the boys want this but the girls want that” it all goes out the window. Most of the men in NYCR have no trouble working with women.
Anne Petersen: Don’t assume you know what’s best for us: you haven’t had our experiences. Don’t pander to us: “for women” is often not a selling point. Don’t assume we can only do crafts: some of us can weld or solder or program or otherwise hack with one arm tied behind our backs. Help us learn, and we’ll help you learn. Ask us. Simple as that.
Sunsh1ne: In general I do not feel like women are treated equally as hackers/makers. I have often gone into the same situation as men new to experiences (classes, conferences, conversations) and get different responses that make me feel like people think my capacity for learning is lower or I am not serious about understanding.
JB: Do you think female hackerspace members are seen more as potential dates than equals by dudes at the space? Can women be “one of the guys” with a bunch of (male) nerds?
Astera: I can only speak for myself here I guess, or for the Metalab respectively; and in that case, this is a clear NO re:dates. If you behave like “one of the guys,” you’re treated like “one of the guys.” You choose for yourself (but don’t complain afterwards).
Carlyn Maw: It’s true in some subcultures that women are put in the position of having to choose between being either “peer” or “prey” at the outset. I think the challenge is a little different at hackerspace because smart guys like smart women. It’s almost that a woman has to prove she has some talent before she’d be asked out, because how else is he going to know that she’ll truly appreciate his skills? I think by default a woman is treated like one of the guys until she herself signals that she’s interested in something else. Of course, I might be horrifically clueless. It probably depends on the space.
Rogueclown: In general, that is not what I’ve seen in any of the hackerspaces where I’ve spent time. The men who come in hoping to find a date or snag themselves a hot nerdy girl (yes, this does happen!) show their true colors quickly, and people can assess them as they will. It’s assumed when a guy shows up at a hackerspace that he’s there to hack, but if he’s there just to meet girls or cause drama, that comes out and people can reevaluate them accordingly.
Some of this also falls on the woman. If she comes into the hackerspace and shows that she’s serious about learning about technology and working on awesome projects, then she’s seen as one of the hackers. the difference is that often, it seems like the woman actually has to prove that she comes with knowledge, desire to learn, or both of the above…and not just a desire to meet guys. guys, it’s assumed that they’re not there to meet girls, and they have to show that they’re there to get a date and not just to hack. either way, though, a person’s true motivations are assessed pretty quickly in a hackerspace based on how they behave and how they contribute.
Willow Brugh: This is such a loaded question. I think it’s totally appropriate to find intelligent people attractive, and that the best potential dates ARE your equals. The issue is that there’s this separation of sexualization and respect. They should be mutually exclusive OR have positive correlation, but instead they seem to have a negative correlation in our culture. IE, if someone finds me hot, they are also likely to care less about listening to my ideas. For me, it boils down to consent. If I consent to being hit on by someone I am also attracted to, that’s awesome. If someone continues to hit on me after I have made it clear I’m not interested (either in them or in dating within that social group in general), then it’s *not* cool.
Kellbot: You’re killing me, John. You’ve set this question up so that the ultimate thing a woman can achieve in a hackerspace is to transcend her gender and become “one of the guys.” Yuck.
Any time you have a group of people with similar interests and single members, there’s certainly going to be some sizing up of dateability. We’ve had one marriage out of NYCR, and some dating, but I don’t think anyone has been invited to the group just because they’re hot/single. Everyone at NYCR has to have some sort of ninja skills. One of the things I like about NYCR that I don’t always get in the professional tech world is that at NYCR it’s assumed I”m a technologist just because I’m there. I don’t have to waste my time proving myself.
Anne Petersen: Many of the female members of PS: One (including myself) are women who have lived their whole lives having more male friends than female friends. That can often be part of growing up and living as a female geek.
So yes, women can be “one of the guys” in most circumstances, but I’ve always had my non-guyness come up at one point or another, even with guys I’m totally comfortable with and that I thought were totally comfortable with me. As a woman, you’re a bit different. Even if, I might add, you like women as much as the guys do—which does often come up, especially if talking about other women, or aesthetics and attractiveness, or sexuality and what people find sexy. And then there’s feminism, which also always ends up being a debate.
Sunsh1ne: This is up to the space and the individuals. I’ve built strong relationships with some guys on projects where people are all treated equally and not a potential date. More often the situation is that people ask who I came with or let me know their relationship status. Most women cannot be “one of the guys”, because we are not guys.
JB: How do men and women differ in approach problems and projects?
Astera: What comes to mind is very little; maybe the (generally speaking!) multi-threading of many a female’s brains, compared to a more straight-forward, step-by-step, one-thing-at-a-time approach of many males. Or perhaps the fact that women might tend to be able to work on long-term-goals more deliberately then some men. Although that wouldn’t be true for myself, I think that’s what I’ve found to be true for my female colleagues at work.
Rogueclown: I’ll admit…I’m at a loss on this one. I can’t really think of a way that men and women approach projects differently. Regardless of gender, you’re a hacker or you’re not. You either approach projects by looking within the boundaries of a technology as set out by other people, or you think of things that apply them in creative, unorthodox ways. That transcends gender.
Willow Brugh: I think the differences between how individuals approach problems and projects is far more interesting than the differences between groups. To use a statistical phrase, the difference within is far greater than the difference between.
Kellbot: I think everyone approaches problems differently regardless of gender. I think the ways that men and women are taught to communicate are different, and that can cause problems in discussions. Women are taught to back down quickly, and men are taught to assert themselves, so if you’re not careful you end up with the strong personalities steamrolling everyone. But there are plenty of men who clam up in discussion and women who will steamroll people with their ideas, so that lesson in discussion mediation is really gender neutral even though it presents itself along gender lines.
Anne Petersen: I kind of hate this question. To try to answer it generalizes in a way that’s not fair to either and instead ends up enforcing a gender binary: that the two are necessarily different and at odds with each other. Much like masculinity and femininity itself, it’s a range and certainly depends on the people involved.
Sunsh1ne: All people process things differently. I’m someone that doesn’t see much grey space and like trial and error, other women want clear direction, some are highly creative and develop new approaches with new problems, some like to work in a group and draw ideas from others. I don’t think these approaches are unique to being women.