Representing women in STEAM and open source

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The latest talk in education circles is moving from a STEM-based method of teaching (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to a STEAM-based one (science, technology, art, and mathematics). This involves using an inquiry-based approach or a project-based approach to learning through the immersion in the arts. How this helps open source and women in particular is a bone of contention for some. One would think that a focus on art would help propel female art students into pioneering territory with a focus on STEAM, however, the results seem mixed for women.

A STEAM-based education is supposed to link visual thinking (that's thinking in images rather than words), creativity, thinking in dimensions or spatial relationships, together. That's the goal. The arts, in general, use these  skills, especially art. How can you be a Pablo Picasso if you think in words or in a more linear, logical manner? How can you delve into a world factal geometry without art and mathematics merging or create a technological innovation, such as a vacuum cleaner, without thinking in three-dimensions for its design?

The aim of a STEAM-based education is to combine the mind of the scientist or technological innovator with the artist and designer. An somewhat easy task it may seem or appear if we think of creative people like Jim Henson or Dav Pilkey (author of Captain Underpants) or even a polymath like Mandelbrot to see the emergence of a STEAM-based education. Such examples, however, do not usually include women or involve open source.

Worse, though a STEAM-based education may be touted as an answer to tapping children's creativity and sense of scientific and math exploration, many school districts across the US have cut the arts from their curriculums. Art and music teachers are usually the first subjects in the wake of schools' budget cuts. Los Angeles and many school districts have completely sliced out an art education.

Art is subjective and falls outside the bounds of standardized testing. It is therefore seen as a less essential subject to life or an education than English or math. But for the kids who live for art, school is often dire without that art of music class. It is their life and sense of self. Yet the hacking of an art education goes far beyond school-aged children and has profound ramifications. The National Museum of Women in the Arts states that women comprise "only 5% of the art currently on display in the U.S."

The figures for female developers in open source are not much different at 2-5%. And yet, women have traditionally been the art teachers in school systems across the country and often outnumber men in art schools today, though not necessarily in digital technology classes.

Ironically, the first private independent art school, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in America was founded by women on an open source concept and as a reaction to industrialization (or STEM). In 1876 Rhode Island, a group of women visited Philadelphia to see the Centennial Exposition—the women's pavilion and the contributions of women to society in particular. Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf, the wife of a textile manufacturer, came home impressed and thought jewelry, silverware, and textile manufacturers might benefit from artists and designers. She urged the group of women to help fund RISD. A year later, in 1877, the women invested the surplus from the trip into founding RISD.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) was a radical idea: to provide an art education to women and men. At the time women could not vote and had limited rights in general. Most women stayed home and took care of the kids or worked in menial jobs. But in the late nineteenth-century, life was changing radically for women and doors were being slowly opened that were previously shut. Women, such as Helen Metcalf and those from the Centennial Exposition group, were only too aware of these changes and the need for an institution that accommodated women.

For the record, I didn't graduate from RISD, but my great-grandmother (my mother's grandmother) did. Born in 1880, she was a contemporary of Georgia O'Keefe and Coco Chanel. Though she never earned a living from art and went to RISD for sculpture rather than for painting or costume design. Nevertheless, she was constantly using her creative and visual skills with her handicrafts and at home. And I've yet to see anything equivalent to the handmade doll clothes, sweaters, or other goods she made.

Perhaps it's not surprising with a new millennium, a focus on STEAM, and the limitless possibilities that open source offers to art that I think about my great-grandmother and how things in the art world have changed for women. For a start, open source is turning the art world on its head. Before open source, the Fluxus movement in the 1960s helped to bring avant-garde and performance art to a new level. Yoko Ono, for instance, became infamous for letting people cut off her clothing at an exhibit. But the Fluxus movement also witnessed the largest surge of female artists ever.

Since then, we see the ideas and principles of authorship, collaboration, and ownership taken further. Today numerous digital art software tools and artistic licenses are available at an artist's fingertips (Creative Commons, for one). Such tools and licenses allow artists to further cross cultural and physical boundaries that otherwise would have been closed to them without open source.

While the art world has expanded and the number of women in art have multiplied since the Fluxus movement and the 1960s, women are still underrepresented in STEAM, particularly digital art and design nationally and worldwide. Perhaps this view is too narrow for women and neglects their participation in art in other ways. In South Africa and West Africa, for instance, women paint their interior or exterior of their clay homes using geometric designs and in a visual language to others.

Artists, like Stefanie Wuschitz, are trying to bridge the gap between women and STEAM by encouraging women, art, and open source to blend more thoroughly. Wuschitz seeks to change the perception of women in technology and open source by sharing knowledge and holding weekly events with her Miss Baltazar's Laboratory in Vienna, Austria. With Miss Baltazar's Laboratory, Wuschwitz is using open source to help change the role of women as artists and tinkerers who play with open source rather than merely as consumers of digital technology. She believes that female artists who use open source technology can become agents of change and make a difference in the world if they can learn to adapt the culture of digital technology and open source to appeal to them rather than be passive participants of them.

In this respect, she is a type of modern social digital reformer and it would behoove others to heed attention to what she says and is doing if we want to increase women in STEAM and open source.

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


Thanks for the interesting article.

Your comments on integration of art and science resonate with a recent talk by Sir Ken Robinson on "Educating the Heart and Mind".

There is another side to the coin of having women underrepresented in Open Source communities, and it is the impact that it has on these communities missing to reach their full potential.

The lack of gender diversity, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why many open source projects remain ungerminated, with communities of a few contributors, while they could have become thriving communities of hundreds or thousands of community members.

Completely agree, Luis. This is the issue: Full Potential: There is another side to the coin of having women underrepresented in Open Source communities, and it is the impact that it has on these communities missing to reach their full potential.

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