Words matter – gender bias in makerspaces

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In a new study from Drexel University, researchers found that makerspace facilitators betray gender bias when talking about their students.

Instructors primarily referred to male students as “geeks”, “builders” and “designers” (never “boys”), but most frequently referred to female students as “girls” or even, “helpers”.

Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

Never. They NEVER referred to the male students as boys. Why? It’s an easy slip to make, reflecting the norm that “boys” are the expected gender, the way things are supposed to be, and girls have to be pointed out.

The problem is, even when it’s unintentional (and the researchers in this study felt it was) it still has impact. If girls feel they are being singled out, even subtly, it can trigger feelings of not belonging, stereotype threat, and other well-documented consequences.

So next time you start to call out, “OK guys…” take a beat and see if there’s something else to say.

If you are thinking, Wow, get off my back, thought police… think about this. You wouldn’t say “Hey gals…” to a mixed gender group, would you? And you definitely wouldn’t say it to a group of all boys. The boys would think that’s an insult, right? Why is being called a girl the ultimate insult for boys, but girls are just supposed to live with being called guys all day every day.

OK folks…. OK class…. OK y’all… it’s not impossible. And it matters.

More from – Making Culture: A National Study of Education Makerspaces

“The sheer number of identity references based entirely upon gender (“girls”) is deeply unsettling. Also note that the use of “boys” in referring to makerspace students did not occur at all in these interviews. This gender imbalance shaped attitudes and activities within the makerspaces:

  • Boys were twice as likely to hold leadership positions in group makerspace activities;
  • Boys were more likely to steer major project topics (robotics challenge, Lego, solar car design);

We also observed a gender disparity in expressed design agency (ability to design or guide project activities) in formal vs. informal learning makerspaces. Boys expressed greater agency in formal spaces whereas girls expressed greater agency in informal spaces.

This evidence suggests a persistent, but possibly unintentional, culture of bias reinforced by makerspace leadership. Research into boys and girls engaging in STEM learning reveals that girls and boys have equal potential to become proficient in STEM subjects (evidenced in our study through nearly equal makerspace participation in grades K-8).

While most leaders believe that makerspaces have the potential to function as a safe space where girls and young women can engage in an open collaborative learning environment while dismantling gender stereotypes, our research also indicates that more must be done to achieve an inclusive culture of gender equity.”

So there is another interesting tidbit. The boys “expressed greater agency” in formal spaces, whereas the girls reversed that role in informal spaces. Why? Perhaps because when it counts, boys are more aggressive in taking control? Or is it that instructors are tipping this balance?

All good research tends to create as many questions as it answers!


Making Culture is the first in-depth examination of K-12 education makerspaces nationwide and was created as part of the ExCITe Center’s Learning Innovation initiative. This report reveals the significance of cultural aspects of making (student interests, real world relevance, and community collaboration) that enable learning. The research highlights how makerspaces foster a range of positive student learning outcomes, but also reflect some of the gaps in inclusion common in the STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields. The report was co-authored by Drexel School of Education researchers Dr. Kareem Edouard, Katelyn Alderfer, Professor Brian Smith and ExCITe Center Director Youngmoo Kim.

Addressing micro-inequalities with micro-justice

A recent piece at Medium.com supports my argument that the “girls-in-STEM-issue” is more complex than just getting more girls to like science in school. “If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention

It’s a very smart piece about this complex topic. I think the only thing I faintly disagree with is saying that “..leaders have to get rid of employees who engage in sexist or racist behavior” – I think that’s too late. It will be perceived as unfair and harsh, with bounceback attitudes that actually strengthen biases (“…women are too touchy – and now Joe lost his job…”).
I read an article the other day where a woman said every time she walked into the computer science building at college, people (nice well-meaning people) asked her if she was lost. Put yourself in her shoes. If you complain about that, it just sounds petty – but every time it happens it’s just another straw on the camel’s back that adds up to a clear message – you (and your ideas) aren’t welcome or wanted here.
Every woman I know has stories of the “micro inequalities” (NCWIT’s term) that add up to the feeling of not belonging.
The only thing I’ve seen work in the various workplaces I’ve been in is to strive to address ALL instances of sexist or racist behavior and language immediately and with fair, appropriate consequences.
In short, it takes vigilant leadership to create a consistent culture. For example, when meetings are fair, it’s because the expectation is that they are fair! Not sometimes fair, not that people apologize later, nor are things laughed off as being “no big deal”. The expectation is set every minute of every meeting – and especially not in some once a year “training”. Interruptions are not tolerated, language that denigrates anyone is corrected, and it happens in the moment. It’s too late if you only fix the headline-grabbing, egregious acts of discrimination.
The only solution to these “micro-inequalities” is “micro-justice”. Everyone at every level has to walk the talk and when incidents happen, no matter how small they are, no matter if they happen in the boardroom, the hallway, or the cafeteria, they must be handled in the moment with consistent corrections or restatements.
As far as how to do this, I just did a session at ISTE about Girls and STEM – collected a bunch of resources and am still working on writing up the gist of what I said. Slides and resources here.
One resource that I liked but didn’t have time to show at ISTE  (but I saved a summary of it in the slide deck, slides 29 & 30) – Top 10 Ways To Be a Male Advocate for Technical Women
I think we need to more actively recruit MEN into this by explicitly telling them what needs to change and what they can do. If we treat this as a “women problem”, men just think they should lean back and wait for women to “do something”. Men and women, boys and girls ALL need to be informed and empowered to do anything, and especially to know how to react to and fix the small things.
Consistent, caring cultures are built on “micro-justice” – fairly applied, consistently handled, and constantly reinforced both in words and deeds.

Free e-book! Best of EML 2014

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Free e-book

I’m honored to have an article included in Educating Modern Learner’s compilation of their Best of 2014 articles. Even better, it’s available for free as a lovely e-book!

Educating Modern Learners is a new website created to help every school leader become better informed to make better, more relevant decisions for the children they serve in this new, modern world of learning.

My article, What a Girl Wants, is included in this e-book, along with 13 other terrific essays and analysis of current education practice and policy.

Click on the image to go to the EML download page, and while you are there, consider signing up for a subscription!