LilyPad microcontroller's success in welcoming women to electronics

MIT's Leah Buechley and Benjamin Mako Hill recently published a paper called LilyPad in the Wild: How Hardwareʼs Long Tail is Supporting New Engineering and Design Communities, about the success of the LilyPad microcontroller in attracting women to electronics projects. LilyPad is derived from the Arduino open processor, but was "specifically designed to be more useful than other microcontroller platforms (like normal Arduino) in the context of crafting practices like textiles or painting." The Buechley/Hill paper shows that this was a successful strategy for engaging women makers and contemplates how to use the LilyPad approach to engage with women and girls in other science/technology/engingeering/math (STEM) domains:
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.

LilyPad in the Wild: How Hardwareʼs Long Tail is Supporting New Engineering and Design Communities (PDF)

On Feminism and Microcontrollers

(via O'Reilly Radar)

(Image: LIlypad Embroidery, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from bekathwia's photostream)


  1. I like the point about engineering cultures, it’s spot-on. However, somehow I doubt very many women are going to suddenly be interested in this kind of technology just because it’s wrapped in “girl stuff”. I bet the women who are interested in this are the same women who are interested in tech anyway, but who also like girly stuff.

  2. Yeah so I sort of combined this headline with the previous one and somehow got “Women duct-taped to electronics”. What is WRONG with me???

  3. We dress girls in pink from birth and then wonder that they seem to prefer things “colorful, soft and beautiful”. Maintaining the same pink ghettos within tech fields isn’t the solution.

    The movie Social Network inadvertently showed the reasons why women are not attracted to tech fields. If you have to do shots to get an internship and the field is dominated by macho competitive posturing, why would girls be interested? There are no prizes valued by women in such a game.

    The chance to make better doilies doesn’t interest me but neither does a hyper-masculinized competitive environment in which winning and getting sex are the dominant motivations. I have worked in high tech all my life. Complexity, subtlety, making things work, and earning money interest me, as they do my male friends. The problem here is how to allow girls to pursue these interests without having to live a role-incongruent life in which they are presumed incompetent until proven otherwise.

    Alternatively, you could start hazing women in early childhood, the way boys are hazed, to desensitize them to the bullying they will encounter later on and to generate the desire for clever revenge so well-portrayed in Social Network’s hacker hero culture. There are no women of consequence in that movie. The lawyer played by Rashida Jones doesn’t count because she only listens and displays empathy and is clearly inserted to head off the criticism that women are portrayed only as groupies at Harvard.

    1. “We dress girls in pink from birth and then wonder that they seem to prefer things “colorful, soft and beautiful”.”

      And I suppose blue is responsible for mens preference for things dangerous, powerful and abstract?

  4. i have run into this “problem” helping to found and run a hackerspace.

    we set out to include everyone and become engaged in the community, but try as i might, the resulting demographic is college educated white dudes that want to solder stuff.

    my wife and two daughters love video games and will dig into their machines to fix things if i’m out of town or whatever, but selling them on the idea of making things, even digital things, is tough.

  5. Is fashion something that girls latch onto because someone forgot to fill up their minds with engineering?

  6. I am the classic girl pushed away from science in high school. I did a summer of basic programming in a mainframe environment but then took mostly literature and social sciences, studied politics and law.

    I went into the book business and picked up the habit of reading lots and lots of pop-science books. Grokked on the theory, but let my eyes slip over the calculations.

    Well, in a weird melding of worlds I have been writing about technology and I am even working on an electronics textbook. I can’t believe how much I missed by not learning more about practical physics and electronics. My life has literally changed in my 40s.

    I don’t quilt, I don’t paint–the key is to get more of this stuff into the hands of female students at younger ages and look again at the teaching of science in high school. In computer classes, we should cover more of the fundamentals of electronics–not just software.

  7. NanInBoston has Clue #One. Everyone else should listen up.

    I can say this confidently because after years of programming I developed a strong interest in graph theory, and after that I developed a strong interest in visual complexity, and after that I figured out that I should have been exposed to the fundamentals of discrete math when I was about nine years old. I was just so ready for it. Maybe lots of girls are, and that’s why they (perhaps/seemeingly) so readily pick up crafts that are so pattern-laden.

  8. I care more about how I’m treated than how much damned embroidery can be put around something ( and hell…you think I know how to knit or something?)

    But whatever if some people like it that’s great. Why not guys? Do they not sew or paint?

    Damned gender.

  9. Yes, NanInBoston is absolutely right. I’d love to know if there’s any way of finding out how many women out there are makers, tinkerers, etc.–but who are so put off by the maker-culture’s reaction to female interest (OOOH LOOK BOOBS!) (She wants to talk about math, awww that’s sooooo cute!) (Will you put on a bikini and stand next to my robot?) that they avoid real-life groups of makers, and hide their online identities behind male pseudonyms.

  10. Because women = yarn and string! Awesome.

    Hey ladies: Men’s tech projects don’t require raw meat and boobs to be accepted.

  11. Maybe it isn’t pink, and maybe it doesn’t have to be a ghetto.

    Knitting, crochet, and weaving are highly mathematical forms of making. There’s a whole geek craft community of women using “traditional” female arts to express their geekdom, whether it’s baking fractal cookies or knitting R2D2 hats. Just because a woman isn’t interested in making a robot, does that mean she only cares about pink ultra-feminine things? Aren’t there a lot of interest areas that are less strongly gendered? Crafters are makers too, and I think the effort to bring together fiber arts and electronics is great. The other side of this fusion is that I’ve seen a few soft circuit projects done by men who didn’t previously know how to sew. Sorry guys, we’re getting pink in your movement. Oops.

  12. When I was a girl, I got plenty of hazing… from the girls dressed in pink. Meanwhile, in college? Drinking shots with the computer guys was *awesome*. These were people who didn’t care if you didn’t wear make-up, didn’t mind that you liked math and D&D, didn’t act extra-sugary polite when they were pissed or disappointed in you. Sure you had to prove yourself when you first met people, but they also had to prove themselves to each other… and, you know, they had to prove themselves to me too. The whole thing made sense to me, and I fit in. I decided to go into computer science partly just because I liked their company.

    Get computer science (the *interesting* pieces… discrete math! functional programming languages!) into the advanced math/science curriculum in high schools, and the other geek girls like me will have an easier time finding their way here (and away from the princesses).

  13. kisses to blueworld@13
    (or hugs if you’d prefer)

    MATH AND PATTERN AND BEAUTY: we all gots a knack for knowing.

  14. nutbastard — visit the infant clothing dept of your local dept store and you will immediately see what I am talking about. First of all, the boy and girl clothing is kept entirely separate so new parents won’t be confused and accidentally buy the wrong stuff. There is a small amount of white/yellow stuff for gifts when the sex of the baby is unknown but otherwise a huge gender split. Baby boy clothing is all blue, brown and sometimes green. It has appliques of trains, cars, dogs (bears, tigers), and sports stuff (baseballs, footballs). Never flowers. Lots of it is cute versions of big boy clothing brands, including some mens fashions (Husky). Baby girl clothing not so much, since it would seem odd to be sexualizing a baby girl.

  15. I’m a lifelong tech chick: majored in CS in college, been working in the tech industry for the last 10 years, and I personally am not that interested in the Arduino lilypad because I’d rather build robots than clothing with flashing lights in it. But I think it’s cool that the lilypad seems to be reaching a new audience. I personally am attracted to the logical and functional aspects of engineering, but I also appreciate it when others are interested in form, elegance, and beauty (and I have many male coworkers who are).

    I suspect that conclusions about demographics like this are based on only anecdotal data though. I own and build projects with an Arduino Mega kit, but this isn’t all that visible to the media because I (and other women and men who don’t fit the hardware dude stereotype) just haven’t happened to put our smiling faces up on a blog somewhere next to a photo of a project. But maybe we should.

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