Toxic Shop Machismo and Makerspaces- Part I

By Stella Kemper

I am in my local makerspace. I am talking to a very friendly man, Jacob (say), who is showing me the Oxy-Acetylene welding rig he has stored there. He took a community college Beginning Welding class 5 years before now, and occasionally, he enjoys it as a hobby. He has no safety gear (jacket, goggles, gloves, or goggles), no non-flammable welding surface (just a spray painted, wheeled small table like you might find in a restaurant kitchen), and no other metalworking tools.

I have paid $40 to use this space for the month, and I’m happy to have Jacob watch me go over the simple procedure of opening the tanks, adjusting the regulators, lighting the torch, balancing the flame, and turning it off, so he knows I understand basic safety. Before I can begin, another member, Nick (maybe), wanders over and starts re-explaining the procedure to me. He takes the wrench out of my hand and uses it to open the tank. Jacob says he prefers to see people actually do it themselves. Nick nods and agrees when Jacob says doing things themselves helps people learn. Nick proceeds to adjust the regulators for me. I ask Nick to please stop because I had made arrangements with Jacob to meet tonight specifically so we could get this out of the way and I could get to work. Nick hands over the torch. I ignore him and talk to Jacob. I light the torch. I adjust the flame. I close the valves. Nick is standing 3 feet away the entire time, offering a running commentary on his experience (high school shop class 20+ years ago, and the same class Jacob had taken but over 10 years ago, and no personal projects since).

I don’t need any safety equipment because I have a welding jacket,  goggles,  gloves at home from the years I kept an Oxy-Acetylene rig in my garage. I don’t need a welding table because I plan to build one for the space. I have 3 years of experience welding professionally in a sculpture studio, 3.5 years of training in 5 welding methods, and many other metalworking techniques, in addition to teaching  jewelry making for 3 years.

Jacob knows this. Nick does not. Jacob looks at me helplessly as Nick drones on for another 5 minutes before I say, “well, if you’re cool, I think I see the deal here, so we can head back.” We leave Nick behind and return to the main computer lab. Jacob apologizes.

It’s funny (weird, not haha) to me that when people talk about women in makerspaces, they talk about women in tech, not women in trades. But the culture of trade education and work environments most certainly informs the reception that women get not just in a computer lab, but in a wood shop, a metal shop, a bike repair shop, etc. The situation I just described to you above isn’t uncommon; men often don’t have a problem literally taking the tools from women’s hands, which is a serious barrier to education in a makerspace, where education is peer-to-peer and often unformalized.

The fact is, with such low numbers of women in skilled trades, learning means learning from men. The gender gap in STEM fields is bad: computer and mathematical occupations 25.6% female, architecture and engineering occupations 13.7%, life, physical, and social science occupations 45.3% according to the US DOL 2013. But the gap for trades is abysmal: only 4.3% of natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations, and 21.8% of the workforce in production, transportation, and material moving occupations.

The emotional investment in being a Badass in a welding shop starts early on. In my early community college classes, the coolest guys (they were almost all guys) smoked and talked shit next to the aloe vera plants the instructors grew on the loading dock for inevitable burns, bragging about their injuries and flaunting their deliberate and persistent breach of safety rules. Guys loved to weld in sunglasses instead of properly rated eye protection; to wear an unbuttoned flannel shirt instead of a properly fitted and snapped welding shirt; to shrug and grin at their burns and say, “I’ve had worse.” We worked in a half-open-air shop with no AC, in Texas where the temperature is 90-105 degrees from April to November. These guys made fun of the girl who vomited from heat stroke during a summer blacksmithing program, and the instructors shook their heads and complained about the administration forcing them to install industrial AC ducts and a water cooler as a result.

As the hierarchy goes: the ones who hurt themselves from carelessness and don’t care > the ones who hurt themselves by accident and don’t care > the ones who hurt themselves by accident and deal with it silently > the ones who are hurt by administrative negligence and can’t shut it up. At the top you’re a Badass, at the bottom you’re a Pussy. If you’re making a victim out of yourself, you’re just proving that you shouldn’t be there—you can’t take it. It’s not for you. No matter what happens, the imperative is on the injured to make sure they’re not a Pussy. You do that by ignoring administrative negligence and the willful ignorance of your peers, and by taking the blame. Turn the injury into a badge of honor— better yet, act like it’s barely a scratch— better yet, tempt inevitable injury at all times. Then, no one can say you’re not cut out for the job you want to do.

Who does this attitude really serve? If being a woman in an environment like this is inherently bad, then men who are “like women” are also going to be pushed down the rankings, as in so many rooms of our society. But being “woman-like” in this context is simply being vulnerable to physical injury and strain—in other words, being a human. All tradespeople need safety gear and clear safety protocols that are diligently and consistently followed. They also require team support and help when needed. Without that, the jobs that need to get done can’t get done without a toll on human bodies and lives.

Providing safety gear costs money. Safety training, drills, and oversight costs money. Pulling a team member away from their task to help with another job costs money. When workers aren’t safe, capitalism wins. When workers’ performance is rated higher, the less workers complain and ask for help, the more overtime they do, and the faster they work despite the corners they cut; the owners win and the workers lose.

I’ve been teaching welding and plasma cutting classes to hobbyists in a makerspace for over a year, 2-8 times a month. I happen to live near a large joint Army and Airforce base. Consistently, the safest students I have are men and women coming up from the base. When I tell them the warnings to call out when they’re welding, they follow them diligently and loudly. When I tell them what kinds of clothes to wear, they show up properly dressed, and they wear all the safety gear I tell them is important. They ask for more information if they need it, and most significantly—they don’t make jokes about how their friends look stupid in their gear. If anything, they needle each other about NOT doing something properly. One group of guys were mixed current and former military, purely by coincidence, and became so competitively perfectionistic that I brought out samples from my average classes at the end to compare to their nearly-perfect projects so they would stop beating themselves up.

I’ve never been in the military, but I can only imagine there must be a very different mindset in training. Maybe in the military they learn that everyone performs better when jobs are done right, and they’re taught to value safety and that the well-being of teammates is essential, instead of seeing their own body as an asset used to gain a competitive advantage by undermining their own health for greater profit.


Stella Kemper is an artist, designer, maker, and teacher in Tacoma, Washington. She believes in the power of equitable access to digital fabrication to transform the future. To see her art and find out about commissioning Stella for a project, lesson plan, or consultation, please visit stella-bell.com or email her at stella@stella-bell.com.