Discrimination and Inequity in the 3D Printing Workplace


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As Women in 3D Printing continues its mission to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry and beyond, it may be difficult to know exactly how different forms of oppression actually occur on the ground in 3D printing. To some, particularly those who may not be trained to recognize it, discrimination may be completely empty from the field. To others, it occurs in the form of daily microaggressions among coworkers. To others still, it’s felt throughout the entire structure of a business.

Data on women's seniority level in 3D printing industry. Data on women’s seniority level in 3D printing industry. Image courtesy of Women in 3D Printing/Alexander Daniels Global.

As a remotely employed writer in the space, I’m not privy to the same work environments that the rest of my industry is. In turn, I don’t necessarily witness the discrimination that permeates it. And, though I once trained as an intergroup dialogue facilitator dedicated to issues of oppression over a decade ago, I still suffer from the blind spots of my own white and male privilege.

Nevertheless, I have encountered the bigoted views of others in the 3D printing industry. Specifically, at a recent trade show, I had a conversation with someone, who, despite the fact that it was our first encounter, felt comfortable sharing his disdain for the female leadership of a well-known additive company. He suggested that the business’s female CEO, who hailed from a Fortune 500 firm before entering the additive field, along with several other female executives, were the reason for what he believed to be poor overall performance by the company.

When I brought the conversation up to a colleague, they indicated that this was fairly common behavior from this one individual. In fact, he affected a similar attitude at his own firm, which itself had a history of what one former employee told me was extremely toxic treatment toward women and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In turn, I decided that I would begin looking into stories of discrimination in the industry. While I collect these anecdotes, I thought I would publish some preliminary stories as a means of urging readers to reach out to me with more information about oppression in additive. If you’ve experienced or witnessed bigotry or discrimination in the AM sector, please feel free to contact me at michael@3dprint.com.

Beginning the Dialogue

Naturally, Wi3DP has already kicked off many conversations about DEI through its regular reports and its TIPE conference. To get involved personally, I unintentionally started a small conversation on LinkedIn. What began as simply a means of obtaining stories related to discrimination in the industry became a dialogue among my connections about the nature of that oppression and whether or not it even existed in the first place.

The post garnered nearly 7,000 impressions, including 37 reactions, 15 comments, and one share. That vast majority (3,012) of impressions came from people with non-specified job backgrounds. After that, the most interest (278 impressions) came from executives (founders, co-founders, CEOs, and presidents), followed by (179 impressions) engineers (mechanical, application, manufacturing, and software). Generally, the attitudes toward my post were positive in nature, encouraging me to move forward with the research.

Two users implied that I would likely not find any accounts of discrimination, saying that I should report on a lack of stories as indicative of false assumptions about oppression in the industry. One commented:

“In my experience I’ve seen less ‘misogyny, sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination’ in the additive manufacturing industry than any industry I’ve ever been involved with. In fact, I don’t know another branch of Engineering/Manufacturing that is anywhere close to being as diverse or welcoming as AM.” He then replied to Nora Toure, founder of Wi3DP, “I can assure you I have seen PLENTY of racism sexism and misogyny in my time even as or as a result of being a white male but I just don’t see it in AM in the USA in 2022.”

Mina Lee, Manager of People and Culture at MakerBot, responded by saying that, while outward displays of discrimination may not be as readily visible, microagressions are there and people are simply not trained to notice them. She wrote:

“Those little comments that were thought to be innocuous, over time, will compound and can be really damaging. Being an ally is an active muscle, so it’s a lot of work to be actively listening, carefully choosing words, thinking before saying that potentially harmful joke, but imagine the emotional labor it takes to deal with these slights. It is actually psychologically dangerous to have the mentality ‘I don’t see it, it’s not there.’ It IS there, and it’s time that we all pay closer attention.”

Rachael Dalton-Taggart, Director of Marketing Operations at Nano Dimension, suggested that the AM industry has become significantly more diverse since 2005/6, thanks in large part to the efforts of Wi3DP. However, electronics events are still overwhelmingly represented by white males. Her employer is attempting to address imbalances internally, but the electronics sector is far behind AM, according to Dalton-Taggart.

Personal Stories

So far, I’ve received two personal stories worth relaying about both toxic work environments and discrimination in the workplace. One recounted an incident at AMUG, in which this individual witnessed the behavior of someone with a blatantly sexist attitude at his company’s booth.

My correspondent began his email by underscoring how his firm itself is making a respectable effort with DEI initiatives. This included an all-female staff at its AMUG booth. They weren’t meant to be “booth babes,” an issue that has arisen at trade shows generally. These were simply “talented people from engineering, sourcing/operations, marketing, sales, services, product (materials and hardware), etc.”

“At the show I was not surprised, but was certainly disappointed, to see the reaction of some people coming to our booth. Some male attendees referring to the staff as pretty faces for the company, using inappropriate and diminutive age-related terms, and even snubbing highly qualified people when seeking answers to technical questions,” he wrote.

He then went on to discuss a specific example in which a male materials supplier visited the booth to discuss synergies with a male that he’d previously connected with at another trade show. While that man was not available, there was a woman in materials development who was “willing and able to discuss” the use of his materials with her company’s hardware. She was “the exact right person for him to talk to,” my correspondent told me. He continued:

“The man then asked for me [a male], since I had met with him before at a different show, even though I had purposely passed him along to the right materials people in the past (I am not qualified to speak about materials!).  I was not at the booth at this time so he said he would just follow up separately with the materials leader guy. Next, a male hardware PM for the equipment showed up and the rep immediately walked over to him and had a lengthy discussion about the materials he could offer.”

When he witnessed this sort of behavior, which might go unnoticed by people untrained to understand discrimination, he was dismayed. In his email to me, he discussed the myriad issues that were presented by this interaction:

“By snubbing my colleague, he did not just miss an opportunity to create a new champion at our company, and to learn more about our process for materials development, he went a step further and actually created a detractor within the walls of the department that he would have to rely on for any potential business with us!

“Women are key decisionmakers in quite a few product categories and departments for us. Professionals in this industry should start learning to accept people for their role, expertise, and qualifications first and foremost—even if only to avoid the loss of potential business opportunities. I hate to lower the bar for justifying a behavior change to the level of revenue-impact, but at least this story should help demonstrate that professionals who take this approach are going to be left in the dust as the rest of us move forward.”

Toxic Work Environment

Another 3D printing professional wrote to me about the extreme toxicity of a business she left. As the first or one of the first female staff for a number of emerging tech firms in and out of AM in the past, she suggested that small businesses in particular may struggle to address issues related to “harassment, discrimination, ageism, disrespect, equal pay for equal work, etc.” because they lack the necessary governance and human resources departments.

Specifically at an AM company where she worked, she experienced a reflection of the general attitude of society at large, in which interpersonal or “soft” skills are not regarded as “strong” traits. Generally, the firm was micromanaged, with the male executives exercising extreme control over employees, according to my correspondent. This included yelling at and demeaning both men and women over the phone, which she suggested was to avoid official documentation (i.e., email), as well as threatening to fire people for frivolous reasons and insulting those in the industry considered challenging or less intelligent.

Within just a few months of working there, she was told not to talk to others at the company except through her boss. According to my correspondent, she was not the only employee that this had happened to. When she eventually did leave, she relayed everything that she observed or experienced and was told “you’re just not a culture fit here.”

According to the correspondent, some of this culture consisted of using derogatory metaphors when describing business moves, disrespecting service workers, and joking about salary increases. Statements related to diversity and DEI were considered irrelevant. There was a rule that event speakers must be in the C-Suite of their firms, and she was told “there just aren’t a lot of women there.” However, when an opportunity did come up, the highly qualified female leader was almost disqualified because she would “outshine” another male panelist. She was also told by one higher-up that she should be on camera because she was “attractive,” not because of her event management and demonstrated speaking skills. There was an instance of inappropriate rear-end grabbing by a friend of upper management.

She was hesitant to go public with her story, saying, “Women who work in environments like this do not stay long and, when they leave, they are traumatized.”

After over a year of working with the company and successfully doing her job, despite the problematic workplace, she ultimately left the firm. The gaslighting, lack of a raise or even title promotion, and the overall psychological toll was enough for her to look elsewhere. Soon, she found a new position with another firm, where she feels more valued. She writes:

“I did not leave because I was bad at the job. I had a lot of freedom and responsibility to make our department great and I did that really well. It’s unfortunate that company culture cuts so many careers short. There is not a pipeline problem for diversity in tech, there is a culture problem. It’s for all these experiences that I take great care to be a leader that checks in with my team, makes sure they have what they need to do their best work, believe that continuous improvement is a process and part of that is communication and trust of leaders, build in time for failure and breaks to the schedule, and I recognize when people go above and beyond in their job.”

Addressing Discrimination and Inequity in the Workplace

This is only the first article in a series that will delve into more instances of discrimination in the AM community, as well as how the sector may take steps to addressing the issues that exist. We hope that the oppression that takes place is limited, as some online commenters have suggested, but can only begin to understand the extent if we begin to open up a dialogue about it. For your own stories, thoughts, and opinions, please contact me at michael@3dprint.com.

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