On Feminism and Microcontrollers

A month or so ago, I published a paper with Leah Buechley that is mostly an analysis of how the LilyPad Arduino has been used. I read an earlier draft last year and loved it so, when the opportunity arose, I was honored to help out as the paper evolved.

LilyPad is a microcontroller platform that Leah created a few years back and that is specifically designed to be more useful than other microcontroller platforms (like normal Arduino) in the context of crafting practices like textiles or painting. Leah’s design goal with LilyPad was to create a sewable microcontroller that could be useful for making things that were qualitatively different from what most people made with microcontrollers and that, she hoped, would be of interest to women and girls.

Our paper tries to measure the breadth of LilyPad’s appeal and the degree to which it accomplished her goals. We used sales data from SparkFun (the largest retail source for both Arduino and LilyPad in the US) and a crowd-sourced dataset of high-visibility microcontroller projects. Our goal was to get a better sense of who it is that is using the two platforms and how these groups and their projects differ.

We found evidence to support the suggestion that LilyPad is disproportionally appealing to women, as compared to Arduino (we estimated that about 9% of Arduino purchasers were female while 35% of LilyPad purchasers were). We found evidence that suggests that a very large proportion of people making high-visibility projects using LilyPad are female as compared to Arduino (65% for LilyPad, versus 2% for Arduino).

Digging deeper, qualitative evidence suggests a reason. LilyPad users aren’t just different. The projects they are making are different too. Although LilyPad and Arduino are the same chips and the same code, we suggest that LilyPad’s design, and the way the platform is framed, leads to different types of projects that appeal to different types of people. For example, Arduino seems likely to find its way into an interaction design project or a fighting robot. LilyPad seems more likely to find its way into a smart and responsive textile. Very often, different types of people want to make these projects.

Leah and I believe that there’s a more general lesson to be learned about designing technologies for communities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and for women in particular.

The dominant metaphor in the discussion on women in computer science is Margolis and Fisher’s idea of "unlocking the clubhouse." The phrase provides a good description of the path that most projects aimed at broadening participation of women in computing projects seem to take. The metaphor is based around the idea that computing culture is a boys’ club that is unfriendly to women. The solution is finding ways to make this club more accessible to those locked outside.

It should go without saying that we share Margolis and Fisher’s goal of increasing participation of women in STEM. That’s LilyPad’s point, after all. It it hopefully also clear that we’re supportive of, and involved in, projects working to remove systematic barriers to participation by women and other groups. That work must continue. But I also think that Leah’s work with LilyPad suggests another way forward based on addressing issues of self-selection that will affect even the most welcoming technological communities. Here’s what we say in our paper:

Our experience suggests a different approach, one we call Building New Clubhouses. Instead of trying to fit people into existing engineering cultures, it may be more constructive to try to spark and support new cultures, to build new clubhouses. Our experiences have led us to believe that the problem is not so much that communities are prejudiced or exclusive but that they’re limited in breadth–both intellectually and culturally. Some of the most revealing research in diversity in STEM found that women and other minorities don’t join STEM communities not because they are intimidated or unqualified but rather because they’re simply uninterested in these disciplines.

One of our current research goals is thus to question traditional disciplinary boundaries and to expand disciplines to make room for more diverse interests and passions. To show, for example, that it is possible to build complex, innovative, technological artifacts that are colorful, soft, and beautiful. We want to provide alternative pathways to the rich intellectual possibilities of computation and engineering. We hope that our research shows that disciplines can grow both technically and culturally when we re-envision and re-contextualize them. When we build new clubhouses, new, surprising, and valuable things happen. As our findings on shared LilyPad projects seem to support, a new female-dominated electrical engineering/computer science community may emerge.

I have a strong belief that computing can be an empowering tool and that expanding users’ control over technology is a critically important issue. Our paper argues that we should attempt to expand participation in computing by broadening the possibilities of computing, rather than only by broadening participation in extant, computing organizations, projects, and genres.

Even if computing and electrical engineering communities were perfectly welcoming (which they are not) most people (both male and female, but disproportionately female) will choose not to participate. Building new clubhouses requires creativity of its proponents and risks charges of reinforcing stereotypes and existing status hierarchies. But, executed carefully and well (as I believe LilyPad has been), it suggests ways to reach the majority of people that no "unlocking" project will ever seem relevant to.

7 thoughts on “On Feminism and Microcontrollers”

  1. I have a very controversial opinion. Maybe it isn’t a bad thing that women aren’t so well represented in engineering and computer science in particular. I am a linux sysadmin and 99% of my colleagues are men. My wife works in Public Health and 90% of her colleagues are female. I firmly believe that if the profession of medical doctor didn’t pay so darn well it would be overwhelmingly female. Women are starting to dominate many professions where they are making important contributions to society. Yes, engineering is important but so is medical care.

    Sometimes I think the engineering field has some egotism that our field is the most important endeavor in the world. We forget that smart women may be more interested in working in other fields that are just as important.

  2. Could it be simply that the Lilypad fits better certain types of projects that women find more interesting to do? This is different from saying that the Lilypad is appealing to women per se, and then it leads them into making certain types of projects.

    I refer in particular to the disproportionate number of wearables made by designers of the XX persuasion.

  3. I think I agree with your statement. That’s the whole point of the paper and essay, no?

    LilyPad is a platform on which you can build things.  It can be more or less useful for certain types of projects but I don’t think it is either appealing with no project at all or that it leads people to do things.  LilyPad is designed explicitly so that it has certain affordances and so that it fits a different type of electronics practice.

  4. Unlocking the clubhouse is definitely only one part of the solution. It helps if, as the clubhouse opens, there are plenty of “outsiders” milling around who are interested in joining the club. Establishing new clubs is a good way to set the stage for that.

    Thanks for providing a clear example of this possibility.

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