Looking Like An Engineer (Part 1)

"Hey, guys! Does this sundress make my brain look small?"

I attended my first Maker Faire in Detroit, at the Henry Ford Museum, with my colleague Ben (who, like me, is a professor at Columbia College Chicago). We drove out in Ben's car, and got hotel rooms so we could attend both days.

The first day was sauna-hot, even in my faded denim skirt and old t-shirt. Most of the Faire was on the blacktop of the museum parking lot, and bottled water was a poor substitute for shade. Still, we had fun and were able to see a lot of very cool stuff.

The second day I opted for a simple cotton sundress, the most comfortable thing I owned for hot weather. I'd found it on sale at a stylish boutique, and received compliments from other women every time I wore it.

My experience the second day of Maker Faire was waaaay different.

For example: a man was displaying a mechanical contraption he'd fabricated with a metal lathe. I was just getting into "making" at the time, and was fascinated by machining. Tell me more, I asked. He started to, and then, Ben wandered up. Clearly we were at the Faire "together" (actually, we're work colleagues and friends-- we both have significant others). And so the gentleman stopped making eye contact with me and started talking exclusively to Ben, who had little interest in the subject, but listened politely.

I guess the exhibitor assumed that if I was interested in machining, my "date" would be fanatical about it. Or maybe some men feel it's rude to talk to a woman if her "date" is present. Even if her "date" has zero interest in what the guy is saying.

This threw me a bit, and I started noticing it at other booths. If Ben was with me, guys made eye contact with him, and ignored me. Every time I noticed it, I shrank a little bit more in my cheerful yellow sundress, and felt a little less included.

We made our way to several tables covered in old circuit boards and half-dismantled appliances. What fun! A man stood behind the table, handing screwdrivers to children engrossed in the dead hardware. As we walked up, he looked at Ben and said, "This is a teardown table. You can take apart anything here to see how it works." And then he made eye contact with me and added "You can also make jewelry with the resistors." 

What did he just say? I honestly thought I misheard him so I asked Teardown Guy to repeat himself.

"You can make jewelry with the resistors," he repeated and walked away. (I think the expression on my face right then told TG to find somewhere else to be.)

"I'd like to make jewelry with the resistors," Ben called after him.

Despite TG's comment, I couldn't resist the offerings on the table, and grabbed a screwdriver to play. Ben eventually moved on, and I turned my attention to the guts of a sewing machine (I'd been reading about cams and gears recently and was fascinated). The gears were greasy though, and I was making a mess. So... I asked Teardown Guy if I could take it home, as it was nearing the end of the Faire and the crowds had waned.

"Why do you want to take it home?"

"I want to take it apart to see all the gears and cams, but it's greasy and I don't want to ruin my dress."

"Well..." he looked skeptical, "I want to make sure you don't think you could use it as a sewing machine. It won't work."

No kidding.

I assured him that that was not my intention. I added that I was an artist (which generally gives me a free pass for all sorts of strange behavior) and that I wanted to make a kinetic piece using gears and cams.

He conferred with another guy running the booth (who'd been watching from a lawn chair and seemed very amused that Teardown Guy was making an ass of himself). TG returned and said, "You can take it, but only if you email us a photo of what you build with it." TG handed me a card for the local business that was sponsoring the table. 

I pulled my business card out of my purse and handed it to him.

"My website is on there. Check it out if you want to see what I build."

He examined the card like a bouncer checking for fake IDs.

"You look really young for a college professor." 


After I dropped the box of machine parts at the car, I moved on to the indoor booths, which included a table selling piezo contact mics. I make these with my students, so I asked the seller about the housing they were using. The guy took that to mean I needed an lesson on how contact mics work. I started to protest, and he enthused, "It's really simple! Let me show you!" convinced he was proselytizing to someone who thought science "was hard."

If I hadn't been worn down by the heat and all the other weird encounters already, I might have explained but it was too much. That was it, I was done. I left the Maker Fair area and wandered into the museum exhibits.

I found myself in an exhibit on Amelia Earhart, complete with a plane, a mannequin in her likeness, and a plaque.

The plaque had a quote from her on it. It said,



Amelia was right. I needed a change of wardrobe. 



7/27/14 The plaque did not actually say this. But it really should have. (Please note that the quote was not intended to mislead anyone, rather it was an attempt at magical realism. Said attempt apparently failed given that several people have asked me if the plaque did in fact advise against yellow sundresses.)

6/1/14 Edited to add links and the last sentence of paragraph 2, which was left out of the original post. For the male perspective on some of these awkward exchanges, see the next post in the series. The entire series is available here.

3 responses
Is there a part 2?
Jesse, your observations are spot on. The quickest way is a change of wardrobe... but that doesn't actually fix the problem (and it sucks for you)... this blog post is a good part of the actual solution... to make people aware of the biases we have, so we can try to change them.
Jenny, thanks for asking. There is a part 2 (and possibly a part 3). I'm not finished yet, but hope to post one next week. Mike, thank you. Your participation in the conversation is a part of the solution too. :-)