As we kick off our Spotlight Series focusing on the women of the 3D printing world, publishing interviews starting early next week, we have been in contact with several dozen impressive individuals already who come from a wide range of backgrounds. We’re talking to C-level executives, founders of multinational endeavors, innovators and inventors, YouTubers and designers, artists and engineers from around the world who are working with additive manufacturing technology from the desktop to full-scale industrial systems. The women active in this industry are present, and increasingly vocal.

But why is it important to highlight them? In 2017, we’re thankfully reaching a time when it’s not uncommon to hear of female CEOs, even in the tech industry. But it’s still not the norm.

When I was in the fifth grade, I had an assignment to write an autobiography; writing up to age 10 was easy, but beyond that was complete postulation. In the early ’90s, I had not yet heard of 3D printing, so suffice it to say that my projections about where I’d be in my thirties were incorrect. Still, growing up in the age of Girl Power and Take Your Daughter to Work Day, it didn’t occur to me that any career paths wouldn’t be open to me, and so I projected myself to be an Olympic-class sprinter (silver medalist), and after retiring young from athletics, moving into law, a path I followed to become the third (ahem) female President of the United States, and then moved seamlessly into the Supreme Court, where I spent the rest of my working life. I also married a professional chef, and we raised two kids and ultimately had some really cool grandkids who probably went to Mars. I was wrong about everything except maybe the potential of my future grandchildren making it to Mars (holding out hope on that one). But the point was that none of that seemed impossible or even unlikely to me… until the high school track team disillusioned me of my chances at medaling in the 100-meter.

These roads don’t seem so unobstructed to many women of my generation, though, and certainly weren’t so clear to those who have gone before. Women have fought for their place in the workforce, and while we may be out of Mad Men, it would be silly to think that the glass ceiling is gone. Earlier this week, Equal Pay Day drew attention to the still-existing gap in pay that leaves women and minorities earning less money than their peers. Companies like HP highlighted their efforts in slashing that gap. That such initiatives as Equal Pay Day and International Women’s Day exist is heartening; that they need to is disappointing.

As we look specifically to the tech industry, and to the 3D printing world, it might still seem to be a man’s world. There is disparity in the number of top-level executives when we look to diversity. There are many reasons for the dominance of men in many of these positions, and a lot of it draws back to what we see in education: STEM subject areas still don’t seem to appeal as much to young girls in school. In talking to some of the women who we will be featuring in this series, we’ve heard stories of daughters dropping engineering classes because they didn’t want to be the only girl in the course, and of other young girls not thinking those classes were “for them.” The more these girls see women as engineers, as inventors, as leaders, the more they will grow to recognize that these futures are for them, too.

Representation matters. Just as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was important as a lead in an action/sci-fi movie, it matters what young girls see before them. Initiatives like Women in 3D Printing are working tirelessly to ensure that women’s voices are heard in 3D printing, as there are some great contributions happening here.

For our part at 3DPrint.com, we are positioned as a voice in the industry, telling the stories of those behind all the incredible innovations arising with remarkable frequency from additive manufacturing technologies. While we take a neutral stance on many matters as a journalistic tenet, we are also people, behind the scenes. As we look to spotlight women in this industry, I asked two of our staff writers why this initiative is important to them, and what they have noticed as trends in the industry we cover every day.

Clare at RAPID 2016

“I’ve sometimes seen people react with surprise when they find out how much I know about technology,” writer and editor Clare Scott said. “I’ve been in situations where someone with a question will automatically turn to the nearest man, and then look startled when I’m the one who can answer with the most authority. I’m even guilty of that reaction, too, in a way. At conferences like RAPID last year, I saw many women in public relations and support roles, and I’m always excited when I meet or hear about a woman who’s in an executive-level position. At last year’s Benesch 3D Printing Conference, I was happy to hear from a few female executives, but I was struck by how many more men there were in the room than women. I’d like to see the industry get to the point where it’s no longer a surprise or a cause for excitement when a woman is an authority on 3D printing or other tech – it’s just normal.”

Women are involved at every level of the industry, from assembly floors to founding and leading innovative companies, but they are still outnumbered; we’re looking forward to a future with a bit of a new normal. For her part, staff writer Sarah Saunders has followed a varied career path, working in writing in a few technical fields, from a small engineering firm to a defense contractor.

“At the engineering firm, which employed close to 40 people at the time, I was one of only seven female employees. But, the small writing team I was on for the defense contractor was a nearly even split of men and women,” she said of her experiences prior to writing at 3DPrint.com. “Progressively, as I’ve moved through these jobs, the numbers have evened out little by little, and while I am sadly aware that overall, gender bias and disparity still exists in the tech world, I enjoy seeing other examples where women are celebrated and, maybe more importantly, listened to.”

Sarah S. at Dayton’s Proto BuildBar

A memorable moment at a recent event stuck out to her as we look toward personal experiences:

“Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Springboro STEMfest at my alma mater. One of the things that struck me most had nothing at all to do with 3D printing, but more about making sure that young girls are noticed and listened to. In one gymnasium, there were demonstrations of a Super Sonic Vacuum Ping Pong Ball Cannon, which loudly shoots out a ping pong ball at 1,100 mph. All of the kids who came to see the demonstration I attended were crowded up near the front, and the guy running the demo was asking them science questions. While he did ask boys questions as well, it struck me that he was asking more girls than boys. I started to pay closer attention, and noticed that once he asked a question, he would glance through the crowd of kids’ hands waving in the air, and it looked to me like he was searching for the girls whose hands were raised. The last question was directed to, and answered correctly by, a girl, who was then awarded the chance to go up and help him shoot the next ping pong ball. Maybe I was reading things into it, maybe it was a coincidence, but since he had a sign taped to the table in front of him that said ‘Physics Girl,’ I’d like to think that it wasn’t. If we can teach young girls their worth early on, and not to be afraid of being labeled as a know-it-all, I think we’ll start to see a lot more women CEOs and founders at some of the tech companies we write about.”

As our team attends events close to home and halfway around the world, we’re able to observe trends in a variety of settings. It’s a unique vantage point, attending events from behind a media badge, and allows us to both interact directly and gain a fly-on-the-wall observational standpoint.

Here I am talking 3D printing

At a recent event I attended that involved dinner ahead of a day of site tours, it was noticeable that each of the three eight-top tables in our section of the restaurant had one or two women seated at it. There was nervous laughter at my table when I observed that I was, it seemed, that table’s token woman. The women at the dinner included one speaker, one media guest (me), and two women who had organized the event. While this isn’t uncommon, and wasn’t uncomfortable, it was noticeable. When I spoke at a plastics conference in the fall, I was one of three women on the agenda. At conferences and other media events, the makeup has been similar. Frankly, the gender gap in my own line of work didn’t bother me, in personal experience beyond noting general trends in the makeup of tech fields, until I experienced my first instance of sexual harassment at an industry event. I started paying more attention, then, not only to my surroundings, but to those who might have experienced what I did.

And that’s what we’re doing. We’re paying more attention, because women have stories to tell, like talented designer Melissa Ng who has been interrupted during her own panel session, and company founder Christina Guo who heads up a company made up of otherwise male employees. For those saying that diversity isn’t what’s important, and that it’s about what is made more than who has made it: you’re missing the point. When all voices are heard, we can go diversity-blind. Until then, we need to continue to work toward amplifying all voices, and hoping for a future where our sons and daughters alike are able to study the areas of interest to them, art and engineering alike, without feeling that they’re fighting an uphill battle.

The first interviews of our Spotlight on Women series will be published early next week as we fully kick off the ongoing series.

Let us know your thoughts about these issues in the Spotlight on Women forum thread at 3DPB.com.

If you are interested in sharing your story, or know a woman we should get in touch with, please reach out any time. Send me an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing your stories. 

Find all the features in this series here.

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