Gender and Makered

The two things I care about most are coming together–sort of–this evening.  And I think I came to care about one because of the other.  Let me explain.

While makered is about making things, physically and digitally, it is primarily a philosophy, an approach to the world that involves figuring it out through hands-on experiences.  It is one of many ways to have a truly constructivist classroom.  It is about encouraging students to take control of their own learning, to ask their own questions and find their own answers.  It’s about getting them past simply looking for your approval and getting them to be proud of their work for its own sake.  Girls struggle with this.  Girls are socially conditioned to not take risks and to seek approval, both of which work against having a makered mentality.  I work in an all girls’ school, which is a blessing.  Many girls, by the time I get them in 6th grade, have been conditioned enough by being at our school, to be okay with risk-taking and could care less what a teacher thinks.  But there are still some who play it safe, who wait for instruction, who have no idea where to go or what to do without being told.

I just watched this morning a follow-up interview with Sheryl Sandberg, where she even more strongly advocates for gender equality, equal pay, and equal representation in top roles in corporations and institutions.  While some have argued, and I have thought myself, that Sandberg has too strongly put the burden on women to “lean in,” the truth is women do need to fight for their rights.  Men are not just going to hand it over.  Men are not going to notice on their own and fix the issues.

Now makered isn’t going to solve our gender equity issues, but, I would argue, it’s one step in the right direction.  If, through makered approaches, girls learn to take charge and to not worry about what others think, they might be more likely to speak up at a board meeting or ask for a raise or work on a pet project that no one thinks is going anywhere but which turns out to be “the next big thing” that never would have seen the light of day if she’s “acted like a girl.”

One of the stories Sandberg told in her interview was about meeting a doctor who started paying attention to how his students responded to questions during rounds.  Most of the questions were answered by men, even though his students were half women.  He wondered why and realized that mostly men raised their hands.  He then tried to encourage the women to raise their hands too.  Didn’t work.  So he disallowed hand raising and just randomly called on people, taking care to ask an equal number of men and women.  Turns out women have the answers just as often as men!

My husband, who teaches at an all women’s college but who has men in his classes from the neighboring schools, often talks about this same dynamic.  The men are more likely to raise their hands, feel overly confident about their answers, and are more likely to take charge during projects. He works hard to change that dynamic, for the benefit of both the men and the women.

Makered and computer science, math and other sciences, the things that boys are supposed to be good at are more likely to have this dynamic than other subjects.  Teachers must work against it, need to call on the girls, encourage them to take risks, support their attempts to do so, and balance the dynamic so that boys see that girls are just as good at these subjects as they are.  One thing I like about makered and one reason I’m hopeful about its potential to transcend some of these gender dynamics is the inherent creative nature of it.  Makered encourages creativity in a way that is appealing to girls.  Artistic expression, even in an engineering or electronics project, is encouraged.  Many of the early makers have used things like fabric and sewing, paint and light to create projects, something that shows girls it’s not just about robots, that this can also be for them.

I’m looking forward to conversations around these issues, both on Twitter and in person, in the coming week.  And hurray for having a snow day to spend even more time pondering these things!