Power, Access, Status: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Class in the Maker Movement


This blog post is the fourth of five of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog postsecond blog postthird blog post, and final blog post.

Spaces and ‘Maker’ activities are promoted as being inclusive, open spaces. However, this type of rhetoric tends to ignore social inequalities that impede access and participation, where privilege, oppression, and domination over some groups of people are not acknowledged (Dunbar-Hester, 2014). As it stands now, the Maker identity and technical DIY activities are not for everyone; in many ways it actually reinforces an engrained culture of white masculinity in the design and deployment of technology while rhetorically claiming universality. Only certain types of Making are truly considered as part of the culture, for example, fixing a car as a hobbyist is considered and promoted as Making in a completely different way than a mechanic who fixes cars for a living.

If technical tinkering, STEM, and digital fabrication are the economic forces that will empower Makers, and women and people of color are not participating in these activities in a visible way, that power will remain unequally distributed. When gender is discussed in relation to the maker movement, the conversation starts with the notion that Making creates a unique opportunity for inclusive participation, and is quickly followed by the question ‘how can we get more women to participate?’ Generally, the responses focus on transforming women, on areas that need to be corrected, such as raising confidence, creating more woman/girl friendly learning environments, increasing ability in math and science, and so on. The women themselves cause the problem; they lack confidence, they are unable to learn in the ‘normal’ STEM environment, they do not embrace their full capability in math and science. It is the women who are deficient.

I’d like to see makerspaces reach new audiences — it’s not just a “guy thing” or a “geek thing”. We need more women and people of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds to participate. We should not just be open and welcoming to new people but we should also export what goes on in a makerspace into other locations in the community such as libraries, schools and museums. We are all makers of spaces, and these spaces are makers of makers. (Dougherty, 2013)

This positions Making firmly in the realm of white masculinity, sustaining assumptions that masculine use of technology is normative and women need an invitation and an incentive or special ‘female’ reason to engage in this masculine space.

Make: A social movement or a brand?

The discourse implies that ‘making’ is a social movement, a movement that Make Media is the face of. Many times throughout this blog series we have described Make Magazine as being representative as the movement as a whole. This is largely because Make Magazine has identified itself as the face, and leader, of the movement. As they note on the website,

Maker Media is a global platform for connecting makers with each other, with products and services, and with our partners. Through media, events and ecommerce, Maker Media serves a growing community of makers who bring a DIY mindset to technology. Whether as hobbyists or professionals, makers are creative, resourceful and curious, developing projects that demonstrate how they can interact with the world around them. The launch of MAKE Magazine in 2005, followed by Maker Faire in 2006, jumpstarted a worldwide Maker Movement, which is transforming innovation, culture and education. Located in Sebastopol, CA, Maker Media is the publisher of MAKE Magazine and the producer of Maker Faire. It also develops “getting started” kits and books that are sold in its Maker Shed store as well as in retail channels. (Make Media, 2014)

The conflation between brand and social movement creates tension. As Dr. Leah Buechley notes,

The magazine is the face of the movement, and as face of movement, it has a responsibility to be more egalitarian and more diverse. The problem is that this may not be a successful business strategy. Customers of Make are basically rich white guys; this is a great foundation to build a business on but not a great foundation for a social movement. (Buechley, personal communication, August 20, 2014)

This tension is important to understand in relation to the issues of inclusion and diversity. A brand is about a product and it is a financial asset; it is a distinctive symbol burned into consumer consciousness designed to elicit psychological, unconscious reactions—to encourage and push people to consume. Social movements on the other hand are organized for “…the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part” (Snow, Soule, & Kriesi, 2001).

Maker Media (and the magazine) is a company; it is a brand with a customer (consumer) base. It has different goals and is driven by different motivations than a social movement. A company’s goal, at a foundational level, is to generate profit. Social movements on the other hand aim to challenge authority and push for social change. These distinctions are not absolute binaries, as Buechley notes, “…the company/brand both empowers and profoundly constrains the ‘movement’” (Buechley, personal communication, September 10, 2014). Maker Media does have a number of initiatives working to make ‘Making’ more accessible; however, as a company, they drive these initiatives in a different way than a social movement would. The conflation of the two leads to a complicated situation with disagreement over the role a company, who claims to lead the ‘movement’, should play in creating social change and how this is achieved.

This tension has achieved attention in the past year. As the cited bible of the Maker movement (Hatch, 2014, p. 5), Make Magazine has faced criticism on the topic of race and gender, specifically in regards to its magazine covers, with Buechley citing that of the forty people featured on the covers, 85% have been men and boys and none were people of color (Quattrocchi, 2013). In fact, Buechley took Make Magazine to task in a keynote at the FabLearn conference in 2013 where she stated, “’Are you serious!? MAKE, you can do better. It’s your responsibility to do better” (Quattrocchi, 2013).

In response to Buechley’s keynote and challenge to Make Media, Paloma Garcia-Lopez, executive director of Maker Education Initiative, said:

It is a gross distortion to paint MAKE as responsible for all of this when we live in a white-male dominated society,” Garcia-Lopez said. Magazine covers notwithstanding, MAKE magazine “has inspired over 100 Maker Faires across the country…As far as social responsibility, the company does bus in 2,000 kids a year to Maker Faire in the Bay Area,” she said. (Quattrocchi, 2013)

Garcia-Lopez has a point; Make Magazine is certainly not responsible for the social structures enabling white male privilege. She is also correct in stating that Make has social responsibility for this issue, as the self-identified leader of the movement (Maker Media, 2014). Busing in a group of culturally and ethnically diverse children to a two-day event, while possibly a very small first step, does not do much to address the foundation of this issue. In fact, it does little to even change the demographics of the Faire, as Make Media notes on its website:

MAKER FAIRE: ATTENDEES

  • Maker Faire Bay Area 2012: 110,000 Attendees, 900 Makers
  • World Maker Faire, New York 2012: 55,000 attendees, 650 Makers
  • 66% Male, 34% Female
  • Median Age 46.5
  • Median Household Income $117,000
  • 98% Attended/Graduated from College
  • 87% Graduated College + post-grad work
  • 43% with Post-Graduate Degrees
    (Make Media, 2012)

While statistics on race are not included in this list, the gender and age representation is unfortunately unsurprising. Once again, this imbalance is not solely a Maker Media or Make Magazine issue. Garcia-Lopez is correct in identifying the role “white-male dominated society” plays here. Yet, there are lessons to be learned here from Feminist, Punk, and early iterations of the DIY movement that might provide insight. As Schilt notes in The Punk White Privilege Scene, it

…appears to boil down to the same tactic tried by second wave feminists: add color and stir. This idea suggests that white privilege will be erased if people of color simply join the punk movement. It ignores, however, that white privilege operates even within oppositional subcultures such as punk. (Schilt, 2005)

Research shows that women are engaging in the making community, but frequently in very gendered ways. There is a vibrant indie craft movement running parallel, and often overlapping, with the Maker movement. In fact, many of these indie crafters, mostly women, participate in Maker Faires across the country. However, the craft component is rarely—if ever—discussed in the discourse. Technical making is perceived as requiring more skill and holds higher status compared to low-tech activities, like crafting, even when crafters use technical components in their work.

Make Media used to publish a craft-focused magazine called Craft but the print version was canceled in 2009, with Dougherty explaining,

I also want to assure you that craft and crafters will continue to be an important part of the program for Maker Faire. We have always regarded crafters as we do makers, a creative vanguard who are remaking the world in ways that are especially vital today. Also, we will continue to publish MAKE magazine in print. The closure of CRAFT in print allows us to focus our limited resources on growing a single DIY magazine instead of two. (Dougherty, 2009)

Crafters may be part of the Maker movement but they are not necessarily viewed as ‘Makers’, as made evident in this quote. While many crafters use laser cutters and 3D printing, expanding the traditional definition of craft, “crafting” as a practice retains a “…more feminine, decorative, frivolous connotation than “making,” which is assumed to be masculine and useful (Dobush, personal communication, 10/25/14). The technologies viewed as masculine are ‘hard’, and real while those associated with the traditional definition of ‘women’s work’ are understood to be ‘soft’ and of smaller scale (Faulkner, 2001).

Critical awareness: A path forward

“Lack of critical awareness about the sea in which one swims is a very difficult problem to overcome and requires dropping down defenses to listen, as a first step.” (Tufekci, 2014)

If the individuals participating in the community view technical activities and participation as merit-based, they may also ignore the socially constructed barriers that non-dominant people face in engaging and exploring in technical spaces (Guthrie, 2014). As Guthrie notes,

Without the understanding that the urge to explore science, technology, and physics is an innately human thing, this group may not be able to suspend their judgment and make the changes necessary to attract women and other minority groups. (Guthrie, 2014)

For the Maker movement to live up to its rhetoric of ‘every child a maker’ and create inclusive opportunities for all—regardless of race, gender, or class—there needs to be more than just a shift in the maker community.

Issues of equality and white privilege have existed in this country since it was founded. The women’s movement and feminist scholars discovered that, “…we had been living in an intellectual, cultural, and political world, from whose making we had been almost entirely excluded and in which we had been recognized as no more than marginal voices” (Smith, 1987, p. 61). While Smith refers to the discipline of Sociology, this is the same issue that permeates the maker movement, a “…world that claims universality but is actually centered around men” (Smith, 1987, p. 9).

Yet hope is not lost. Barjarin, Kalil, and Dougherty have all raised the issue of inclusion in the maker movement in some way and there are a number of organizations and nonprofits that have been created to address technical engagement with non-dominant groups (Kalil, 2013) (Barjarin, 2014). Organizations like Techbridge, DIY Girls, and Project H are working with economically disadvantaged communities to create more inclusive spaces, particularly for children, and these organizations have an opportunity to make change. It may be possible for the maker movement to live up to its rhetoric and have a transformational effect on our society, as Atwood-Charles states, “It is possible that the maker movement will have a transformative effect and create opportunity for upward mobility but we must acknowledge the fact that the idea of “making” is a privileged idea” (W. Atwood-Charles, personal communication, July 23, 2014). The first step towards achieving this promise and opportunity, as Tufecki so eloquently states, is eliminating defensiveness, developing critical awareness of the issue and a willingness to listen.

This blog post is the fourth of five of the blog post series, “Making and the maker movement: A democratizing force or an example of cultural reproduction?” See the first blog postsecond blog postthird blog post, and final blog post.

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