The Makers Nord Sud project, funded by the Direcct programme, aims to help Fablabs create prototypes of masks and respirators using 3D printers, by recycling used plastics. Like the other projects, it has benefited from specific support on gender issues from Perfégal. During the discussions, the question of the role of women in fablabs was raised, both in terms of governance and in terms of the activities offered and objects created.


A survey to understand the context

A webinar dedicated to the inclusion of gender in fablabs was organised last April, bringing together members of REFFAO, the French-speaking network of fablabs in West Africa, and RFFLABS, the French network of fablabs and communities of makers.

As part of this, and in order to fuel the discussions, Makers Nord Sud project partners submitted a questionnaire to the REFFAO fablabs on the involvement of women in the Makers Nord Sud project and on actions to encourage the participation of women in fablabs. Isabelle Gueguen from Perfegal presented and commented on the results, and site or network managers and women from both West Africa and France were able to talk about promising initiatives that have already been taken.

Men in technology – Women in communication

Feedback shows that during the construction of the project, women were involved in defining needs, in meetings with stakeholders and in communication. They were less involved in the selection and acceptance of the equipment. At the project implementation stage, women were mainly in charge of promoting the project to the community and local stakeholders. Here too, they were less involved in the acceptance and installation of the equipment.

It can be seen, therefore, that while the presence of women is real, the division of tasks persists and suggests that men have more technical skills and expertise, while women have developed know-how and expertise in the field of relations and communication. Roles seem to have been less fixed in the activities developed. In most Fablabs, women are involved in training members and users in the use of the equipment, as well as in the production and manufacture of objects made possible by the new equipment.

Initiatives in fablabs to encourage women’s participation

To combat the digital divide, 12 of the 14 fablabs that responded to the survey are developing initiatives to encourage women to learn, train and use digital tools. Some of them are ensuring that women take part in the workshops and activities on offer by developing targeted communications; others are participating in or developing initiatives dedicated to women, focusing on entrepreneurship, professional integration or the development of products such as digital embroidery or the manufacture of hydroalcoholic gel and liquid soap.

Finally, some fablabs are working on the emergence of women’s networks and collectives in or via the fablab. This is the case of the community of women makers at Blolab in Benin, and Helwise Boya, a founding member of the women maker network, was able to speak during the webinar. ‘When I arrived, it was as a trainee and I was surrounded only by men. I wondered whether I was in an environment where I shouldn’t be, or whether there was something else going on. I approached the managers and they explained that there had been other female trainees before me. So we thought it would be a good idea to bring together the women who had already been trainees to create a community of women Makers’. Helwise explains that the aim of this network is to introduce more girls to the world of makers and to encourage them to take an interest in digital manufacturing and to develop their skills. Workshops are offered on making, innovation and personal development, and the network provides opportunities for mutual support and the development of a network of contacts. A number of themed groups led by one of the women members of the network have been set up on the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D and renewable energies. The women were also able to reflect on post-training and the development of entrepreneurship.

The power of role models from an early age

The survey of fablabs also shows that the obstacles to the presence of women in fablabs are linked to the fablab object itself, because it is difficult for girls and women to project themselves. Girls and women may express a lack of interest in computing or a fear of technology or anything technical. But the Fablabs interviewed also observed a lack of knowledge about the sector and the activities of a FabLab. These activities may seem far removed from the day-to-day concerns of women in particular. This situation can also be explained by the lack of role models.

But ‘the question of role models is important’, said Diarra Sylla, founder and Fabmanager of SahelFablab in Mauritania. ‘In our Fablab, there are more women than men, and the women have often told me that what motivated them was to see me, a woman manager. The female members of the Fablab have good technical skills, some in mobile development, for me it’s in IoT, and we’re developing work on training young people, including young women. For example, we recently supported a group of around ten girls who had dropped out of school, and they were able to work on creating a prototype. The Fablab is also involved in raising girls’ awareness of the digital sector. In a few days’ time, we’re organising a video screening about women working in the digital sector and an exhibition of works of art we’ve made using materials from the Fablab.’

Marion Louisgrand Sylla, manager of the Ker Thiossane fablab in Dakar, also shared her experience. ‘While girls and women may be afraid of technology at first, once they’ve taken the plunge, the cultural brakes come down. Among the younger children, in the workshops organised in schools, the girls are just as interested as the boys.’ But she confirms that having women in the workshops requires a particular investment. ‘We try to have a minimum number of girls, giving them priority in certain workshops to try and balance the numbers. Having a minimum number of women requires an effort.’

It is particularly difficult to reach teenage girls. ‘We need to develop partnerships on this subject in order to reach and convince parents and the community to let them come to the fablab’, Marion Louisgrand Sylla points out. For his part, Modou Ngom, founder of Sen FABLAB, explained that he goes to neighbourhood leaders and organises off-site workshops for this purpose.

Women as a source of creativity and innovation

The manager of the Ker Thiossane fablab also stressed the importance of not compartmentalising activities: ‘We try to mix techniques to break codes and show that technology is accessible to everyone, for example by combining embroidery and welding. Women should not be confined to embroidery or the creation of certain products.’

Asked about the impact of the creation of the network of women makers at Blolab, Helwise Boya said: ‘The arrival of women has changed our routine and the objects we make, because some of them are involved in fashion and architecture. It’s also led to a synergy of action and the emergence of new collaborations for the men, as the women have been able to bring a different perspective to the design and aesthetics of the objects.’

Creativity is an argument that should strike a chord in fablab circles, particularly within REFFAO, given that the questionnaire identified more than 30 women involved in fablabs. So the potential female role models are there, and the webinar participants left convinced that the inclusion of women in fablabs is a promising area to be explored in the coming months by those involved in the Makers Nord Sud project.

Access to the webinar: