Push the Button: The Rise of Girl Geeks

Women! They're out there, building robots in cafés, just for the hell of it. The Skinny scopes out the growing number of opportunities for girl geeks – and everyone – to get into everything from coding to Arduino

Feature by Jacky Hall | 02 May 2013

Across the Northwest, people are developing apps, coding websites and sewing flashing LEDs into cycling gear, just for the fun of it. Right now, there are probably people sitting in the room above a pub building robots, cosy in the warmth of soldering irons. And many of these people are women.

Fewer women than men follow careers in technological or digital spheres, or complete qualifications in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). But thanks to growing communities outside of work and education, more women are taking control of technology as hackers, hobbyists, geeks and dabblers, whether getting creative with HTML or playing with a Raspberry Pi (a small, low-cost computer).

Natalie Ledward, a trainee architect, volunteers at Manchester's digital fabrication laboratory FabLab. Open to the public Fridays and Saturdays, FabLab is a place where anyone can have a go with gadgetry such as a 3D printer, embroidery machine or laser cutter for the cost of the materials. Natalie admits that, before she started volunteering, technology was “never something I enjoyed – just a necessary evil as part of my degree.” But while she was researching her thesis, a tutor suggested she get involved with FabLab – and since completing the People's Fab Academy, a course in how to use the equipment, she has gained an enthusiasm for technological DIY-ing. “So many opportunities open up to you,” she says. “It's amazing what you can make yourself, without relying on other people, companies or manufacturers.”

Another organisation offering hands-on tinkering is Manchester Girl Geeks, who host talks, networking events and workshops – with a female bias. Men can attend, but only if accompanied by a woman. “We wanted to offer something a bit different,” explains one of the organisers, computer science PhD student Samantha Bail. “A lot of the Manchester tech scene is centred around going to the pub after work, which doesn't mean to exclude people, but it often does.” Girl Geeks events aim to be particularly accessible to mothers who may have childcare responsibilities. Their monthly tea parties, occurring in venues such as MadLab or TechHub, are alcohol free and held on Sunday afternoons with children (sons and daughters) welcome. Their inexpensive small electronics workshops have been especially popular. “A mother can come along with her four-year-old daughter,” Samantha continues, “and it won't be boring for either of them.” Past Girl Geek workshops have covered subjects including mathematical origami, coding in programming languages like Python, and Arduino.

Arduino? It's a small, programmable chip, able to make motors whirr and lights flash. Also extremely fond of Arduino are the people behind DoES Liverpool. Their office/workshop in central Liverpool's Gostins Building is fully Arduino'd up. Two of the group – Adrian McEwen and Patrick Fenner – show me an arduino attached to a bubble machine, which is activated when DoES are mentioned on Twitter. They also have some WhereDials, perspex gears that display the owner's location – like the Weasley family's Whereabouts clock in Harry Potter, but better. They're not made with 'magic', though: they're made with hands and brains and perseverance.

DoES host three maker events each month, plus Future Makers, a regular Saturday event for children and parents. Adrian believes confidence can be a barrier for women. “When mothers come along to FutureMakers they say, ‘Oh, I can't do that’. But with a bit of practise they soon can. It's just problem-solving.”

With so many opportunities, perhaps the gender gap in STEM industries will narrow. Or at the very least, perhaps more women will discover a rewarding and creative hobby. As Samantha says: “Getting involved with technology can help you understand things more. And it can just be really good fun.”