6 Women Who Need a Makerspace (Including Me)

On the face of it, makerspaces might seem kind of, well, full of dudes. Here’s why you should go anyway.
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Erica Tesla
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On the face of it, makerspaces might seem kind of, well, full of dudes. Here’s why you should go anyway.

When I lived in San Francisco, a friend took me to check out a place called Noisebridge, one of the original makerspaces. Because we visited midmorning on a weekday, the place was pretty dead and it was hard to see what the draw was supposed to be. Four years later, I belong to Pumping Station: One in Chicago, and I’ve totally changed my tune. The attraction might seem more obvious for guys — there’s a lot of testosterone and at least a dozen glorious beards at every meeting I attend, not to mention power tools to spare. But I think makerspaces are amazing for all kinds of women.

1. The cooped-up mom

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I have two kids under four, and I stay home with my youngest. There’s a point in my day where being stuck in an apartment with only the company of a two-year-old starts to feel a little like interment, however voluntary. Doubly in the winter: The playground has turned into an ice rink, and my youngest considers most outerwear an insult to his dignity. I have an inviolable appointment with my makerspace at least once or twice a week to maintain my sanity and convince myself that I can still carry on a conversation with human adults. Unlike some of my other escape plans, it’s an easy appointment to keep: projects give me a welcome sense of being productive. It’s especially cool if I’m building something for my home, something that I get to see and use every day whether I get out or not. My big accomplishment is the nine foot dining room table I busted out over the fall. Hey, if I’m stuck at home, I may as well have friends over for dinner, right?

2. The new-to-town nerd

When I moved to Chicago in 2011, I didn’t know anyone in the state, much less the city. With a seven-week-old baby in tow, meeting people for stuff other than playdates seemed impossible. Had I known that I could go find my people all gathered up in one place, I would have joined sooner, even if my energy wasn’t quite there for large-scale construction. I could have hit up the monthly game nights, occasional documentary screenings, or the writing circle every other week. My makerspace is constantly populated by a rotating cast of characters who are as motivated by community as they are by actually making. Nobody’s going to judge you for your newfound obsession with molecular gastronomy — the people who frequent makerspaces just want to be around others who unironically like stuff. In a way it’s like the opposite of the Internet — no hate in the comments.

3. The multimedia artist

Photo credit: Jesse Seay

Photo credit: Jesse Seay

If you’re into painting, you probably have room for some paints and brushes at home. Into knitting? Needles and yarn are compact if you’re not a craft-hoarder like me. Maybe you’ve got a garage where you can keep a circular saw if you like to build stuff. Multimedia art is an entirely different story: Most people don’t have the space for a bunch of sets of tools for different crafts. That’s makerspace's bread and butter: Keeping the tools around so you don’t have to. Then if you decide that what you really want to make is a machine-knitted tapestry with embedded electronics, you can have the knitting machines, yarn, electronics, and soldering equipment you need without taking on a second apartment to store it all and a second job to pay for it. As a bonus, you can count on other makers with varying levels of expertise to offer advice or hands-on help: The artist responsible for that electronic tapestry had dozens of volunteers help her solder electronic connections on her fabric pieces.

4. The shrinking violet 

Plenty of women have some sort of social anxiety. Many more have spent years or decades in families and jobs where they aren’t encouraged to speak up, take up space, and take on leadership roles. Makerspaces encourage a vocal existence. They aren’t just for experts, they’re for people who are passionate about their interests and who are willing to put in the time do do awesome things. Passion and doing are basically currency. I won’t say makerspaces are straight-up meritocracies (being the person doing stuff doesn’t automatically mean you’re doing a fabulous job), but it’s way closer than any workplace I’ve ever been in. The space I’m a member of actually tells prospective members during orientation: "If you can undo in it in less than four hours, don’t ask permission, just do it." I gather dudes get that sort of advice all along, but we don’t; it’s liberating and confidence-building. Do the stuff you care about, learn until you know your area best, and you’ll get the support you need for making improvements or even taking on leadership roles.

5. The eager (or overeager) entrepreneur

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During my first weeks at Pumping Station: One, I saw people using the tools to make some really stunning stuff — a table in the style of 18th-century French construction comes to mind. I also saw makers having success running little businesses using the tools — a costumer, a woman making con badges, a guy doing custom-cut wood monograms for the Pinterest-inspired. Visions of overnight success making simple items and selling them on Etsy danced in my head like Christmastime sugarplums. I just needed to learn woodworking and I’d be off. Right? One dining room table later, I’m not entirely convinced that woodworking is a career for me; I find it frustrating in a way textiles aren’t. Had I gone out and bought a garage full of tools to figure that out, though, I’d be stuck. Makerspaces allow for dabbling without huge commitment, and when you do find the sort of making that really calls to you, you can try making a little money at it. Call it market testing and you don’t even need to write your business plan right away.

6. The techno-wannabe

There’s a major contingent at makerspaces who are deep in the guts of computers all the time, who compile their own operating systems, program their own micro-controllers. If you’re not one of them but you think you’d like to be, you can come learn. You don’t have to jump directly into the Python hacking group or other expert-oriented events. Show up for the events designed for rank newbies and intentional failures, like a “crappy robot competition.” Learning is better without the pressure. Some spaces even have classes on male-dominated topics specifically for women, run by women, which removes another kind of pressure altogether.

Would you go to a makerspace? What would you want to get out of it?