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Selfie at formnext.

I’ve been debating whether to write this article, because while reporting on some facets of an industry can be straightforward, not all are. At the heart of the 3D printing industry are, as in especially any nascent and revolutionary arena, the people. While in many industries they’re referred to as “movers and shakers” here we’re talking about the makers. The maker movement relies on a community of dedicated, like-minded individuals working together to create something bigger than they are. From makers we’ve seen incredible inventions, new technologies, exciting crowdfunding campaigns, and development after development. And still, the makers are people, at the end of the day.

I’ve been attending conference after conference for the last 15 months as the editor-in-chief of this site, going across the US and to several countries in Europe, as well as driving around my native Ohio, and it’s felt sometimes that I’ve been constantly on the road somewhere. From a 3D printer unveiling in Barcelona to a machinery conference in Chicago, from additive manufacturing in Orlando to a store-front desktop show in London, I’ve been on the move and talking with hundreds of makers, inventors, marketing personnel, executives, software engineers, and more.

And it wasn’t until two weeks ago in Germany that it became relevant that I’ve been doing this all from a still-unique vantage point in the tech world: in a poorly kept secret, I am, in fact, a woman. While we’ve looked at a variety of initiatives set up to encourage girls and women to step further into the STEM fields and take their place in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics over time, it can still be disheartening to realize how thoroughly such initiatives are still needed today.

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Early on in the exhibitors’ evening

I had never felt out of place in this line of work, especially while traveling alone, until the exhibitors’ evening after the third full, eventful day of formnext. As with most evenings that take an unexpected turn, it was all good — until it suddenly wasn’t anymore. The wine and beer were flowing, the music was loud from the live band on stage, and conversations were enthusiastic. The evening was going well, and I was enjoying casual conversations with colleagues and new acquaintances. Until I walked across a dance floor filled with the same people I’d been surrounded by all day at the conference, and felt a hand on me. I dismissed it, as most women have learned to do, and it happened again, on the other side of the stage. And again. When at the coat check a man actually grabbed my wrist and I had to step away, the situation in full hit me more. I had to physically step behind a male colleague, my counterpart at another publication, to put distance between myself and this guy, while the coat check employees watched and hurried with getting my coat and bag from the back. I wasn’t at a nightclub or a bar; I was at a conference. Even if it was by that point after midnight, this was meant to be a safe space.

Outside, I ranted for a time to said male colleague, who reassured me that he understood. All I could do was ask how many times he had found himself in this situation, how many times he had stopped counting unwanted physical touches. He had no answer there.

20161117_182152Because nothing had really happened there, despite my discomfort, I hadn’t felt it necessary to remark publicly outside of that evening about these events. However, the fewer women who say something when “nothing happened”, the fewer women might feel comfortable speaking up in other situations. I wanted to take a minute to look at some of the dynamics at play among the individuals I have met in the 3D printing world, and some discrepancies stood out immediately.

As I sat down to begin coverage from the week’s events for the site, I took a look at the business cards I had collected. Of the 30 I easily found among conference materials, 7 were from women, with 23 of them having been from men. I went through them and recorded their titles exactly as they appear:

  • Women: 7
    • Titles: Marketing Manager, Sales & Marketing Manager, Marketing Director, Marketing & Public Relations Manager, Global Marketing Director, Account Director, Marketing
  • Men: 23
    • Titles: VP Global Sales & Business Development, COO, Executive COO, Marketing, Head of Sales & Marketing, Vice President, Vice President of Business Development, Senior Researcher, Owner, CEO, Editor-in-Chief, Project Manager, Enterprise Sales Manager, Vice President & General Manager, VP/Global Head of Customer & Market Development, Vice President, Founder & CEO, VP Business Development, Business Development Director, Director, General Manager/VP Business Development, Marcom Manager, CBO/Co-Founder
Exhibitors' Evening Thursday night at formnext

Later in the night at the exhibitors’ evening, with the band in full swing

The 3D printing industry, as with many tech arenas, skews heavily male, particularly when we look at executive titles. This comes as little surprise, though I admit I was taken aback upon reviewing the results of my small sampling. My inbox usually contains a pretty healthy cross-section of active participants in the industry, including individual makers, marketing personnel, and executives alike, and electronically it seems I communicate with a somewhat even gender divide. This sampling of business cards, though, suggests that we still have a ways to go before we see further equality in the workplace.

I’ve been proud to helm the content side of 3DPrint.com, and it’s worth noting that our full-time editorial staff are all female, as well, while our other writers represent a pretty even split, as do our advertising and technical teams. We’ve taken several looks at issues of diversity in 3D printing before, and we’ve been seeing increased initiatives across the board for evening out discouraging issues such as gaps in pay and hiring, along with efforts to teach girls tech skills like coding to get them more involved in STEM areas from a young age.

Formnext itself was, overall, a very positive event, and well organized; any discomfort I experienced was due to a few bad eggs, and does not represent my experience on the whole at this or any event (nor does it strike me as indicative of the companies these individuals were there representing). The city of Frankfurt was also lovely (in that industrial way), and I never felt unsafe walking alone through the city, including at night.

I’d like to have a profound thought to wrap this all up, but all I can do is put out there my hope that the future of the tech industry is a more equitable one for all participants, and that no individual should be made to feel inferior or unsafe when surrounded by colleagues. Discuss in the 3D Printing While Female forum at 3DPB.com.

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