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The New Feminism: Women who Make Things


rosie

They worked as riveters, buckers, sanders, welders, crane operators, bus drivers, uniform makers, bullet makers, parachute folders, clerical workers, assembly line workers, Red Cross and so much more.

They were teenagers, young adult to senior citizens. They came together with one purpose, to help win the war. They built 80,000 landing craft, 100,000 tanks, 300,000 aircraft, 15,000,000 guns, and 41,000,000,000 rounds of ammunition.

THEY were Rosies.

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Earlier this week, the Athens Banner-Herald ran a piece by Dr. Gina Barreca titled, “Flabbergasted by Gadgets,” in which the author lamented all of the things she says she cannot do.  Dr. Barreca, who is a Professor of Feminist Theory at  at the University of Connecticut, and author of  “It’s Not That I’m Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World ” (St. Martin’s),  does not sound like someone who has even conquered her living room, let alone the world.

To be fair, Dr. Barreca is also a humorist, which no doubt explains the tone and focus of the piece, and it’s not my intention to minimize her considerable achievements and work. But I put before Dr. Barreca and all women who consider themselves champions of equality for women and girls, that now is not the time to be posturing as technically or mechanically inept, even as a joke.

Here’s why:

  • 21% of girls say their parents encourage them to become an actress, while 10% of girls say their parents have encouraged them to think about an engineering career. (Harris Interactive for the American Society for Quality, 2009, as cited by Techbridge)
  • More than half (57%) of all girls say that girls don’t typically consider a career in STEM. (Girl Scout Research Institute, 2012,aas cited by Techbridge)
  • Only 12% of engineers are U.S. women; 2% of engineers are women from underrepresented minorities.(National Science Foundation, 2009, as cited by Techbridge)
  • Today, women earn about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men and for African-American women and Latinas, the pay gap is even greater. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2012, as cited by Techbridge)
  • In 2010, 10.6% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, 7.9% of master’s degrees in science and engineering, and 3.9% of doctorate degrees in science and engineering were awarded to minority women (NSF, 2013, as cited by National Girls Collaborative Project)
  • 53% of scientists and engineers working in the social sciences are women, while only 13% working in engineering are women, and 26% working in computer and mathematical sciences are women.(NSF, 2012, as cited by Techbridge)
  • Women comprise only 2.5% of the construction-trades skilled workforce for the last 30 years (ENR.com)
  • Women are found in the following trades at these meager percentages: Carpenters 1.7% – Plumbers and Pipefitters 1.3% – Firefighters 3.0% – Skilled Manufacturing 2.1% (Chicago Women in Trades)

A  2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce found only one in seven engineers is female., and women hold less than 30% of computer science jobs, numbers that have seen little change since 2000. (STEM Field and the Gender Gap: Where are the Women? , Forbes, 2012)

Conversely, during World War II, “Rosies”  swelled the ranks of working American women from 12 million to 20 million by 1944,americagoestowar5-405x248 and 4.1 million unmarried women – double the number of men at that time – worked in the defense industry.  At the most crucial time in American history, women proved they could not only do what had formerly been considered “men’s work” but do it extremely well. (The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment, American Economic Review)

Admitting that, “Despite having it explained to me both by Consumer Reports and by young men who have completed courses in engineering (emphasis mine) … I still have no idea how the microwave works” is at the very least a disappointing statement coming from a self-described and doctorate-bearing feminist, and at the very worst, setting a poor example for women of any age in the 21st century.

Here’s the short explanation, Doctor, as one woman to another:  Microwave ovens use radio waves of a particular frequency to agitate water molecules in food which, as those molecules begin to vibrate,  generate heat, which cooks the food in the oven.  I’m  no scientist, nor do I have a degree in engineering, but the microwave should have stopped being a mystery to anyone 30 years ago. (If you’ve just never thought about it,  though, check out this article in How Stuff Works)

“I’m dependent,” observes Dr. Barreca with an air of amused resignation, ” on a lot of things I don’t understand.”

The implication seems to be that these things are not only beyond understanding, but that it’s okay for a woman not to want to understand them.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  For those who fought for women’s rights to vote, and for those who struggle still for women’s rights to equal pay for equal work, we owe nothing less than expanding our view and sense of pride in gender equality to the practice of technical, mechanical and scientific curiosity and skills development. We can’t afford to go back to the “I Love Lucy” era of helpless and hapless women, making ourselves caricatures of ineptitude.

Certainly young women like Evie Sobczak, a high school student in St. Petersburg, FL, who earned the Innovation Exploration Award and best in category – Energy and Transportation – at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix last year, and spoke at our 2013 TEDxYouth@TampaBay event last November (now TEDxYouth@TampaRiverwalk) , would take issue with such an image. Sobczak competed against 1,600 other finalists from 70 countries, to win with her project: Algae to Oil via Photoautotrophic Cultivation and Osmotic Sonication. Her work has gained the attention of the Dept. of Energy, USCENTCOM, biofuel startups, and private citizens who are interested in green tech. At TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2013, Sobczak said ” I want to excite young researchers to follow their ideas to fruition. The opportunities awaiting them are spectacular.”

We Can Do It, isn’t just some historical meme.  It’s a fact.  Women invented the circular saw (Tabitha Babbitt, 1813); the compiler and COBAL (that’s right coders – thank the amazing Admiral Grace Murray Hopper); Kevlar (Stephanie Kwolek ); the dishwasher (Josephine Cochrane); Spread Spectrum Technology (Heddy Lamarr); the life raft (Maria Beasley), and much more. (Herstory)

engineering like a girl

A FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team member hard at work

And countless women and men today work to encourage and support young women’s involvement in STEM careers and professional trades.  Professional associations like  Women in Technology and the National Institute of Women in Trades, Technology and Science , and youth organizations like Black Girls Code, DIY Girls and Rosies Girls are showing us what the new feminism looks like: It looks like strong, capable women who make things, who are scientifically, technically and mechanically literate, and who aren’t flabbergasted by gadgets or anything else.

Visit our Makers Library for more great resources on empowering girls to be Women who Make Things!

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