Challenging beliefs about gender and STEM engagement through crafting and circuitry

By Jean J. Ryoo - November 2015


Buchholz, B., Shively, K., Peppler, K., & Wohlwend, K. (2014). Hands on, hands off: Gendered access in crafting and electronics practices. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 21(4), 278–297.

The ways people interact with tools and materials reflect cultural expectations about who should have expertise and what expertise looks like. For example, in the United States, sewing has been associated with crafting or fashion; it is usually seen as a feminine practice, whereas creating electronic circuits is considered a masculine practice. However, what happens with these cultural and gendered expectations in e-textile activities that combine sewing with circuitry? For example, is it “feminine” or “masculine” to use conductive thread to sew LEDs into a T-shirt?

Research Design 

The authors address this question by examining how Chicago public middle school students engaged with e-textiles in a two-week summer workshop. They asked:

  1. What are e-textile practices?
  2. How do gendered patterns in e-textile practices affect youths’ division of labor?
  3. What is the resulting effect on patterns of participation by boys and girls?

Mediated discourse analysis (see Theoretical Basis below) was used to examine how self-selected mixed-gender pairs of children interacted with each other and with tools during an “e-puppetry” project. Each pair created two sock puppets, each containing half a circuit. When the two puppets touched, the completed circuit lit up LEDs.

First the authors analyzed gender patterns in the actions and interactions of two mixed-gender pairs. Then they looked closely at video of one student pair to examine in detail the students’ interactions and use of tools. They coded the students’ speech and actions to understand engagement with the activity, leadership roles, negotiation of control of tools, cooperation, requests for help, and other aspects—all in relation to gender.

Research Findings 

The authors found that girls in the two focal pairs were involved with sewing and crafting 80 percent of the time, compared to their male partners’ 20 percent. (However, sewing in this activity involved circuitry, as the conductive thread could light an LED.) For the electronic task of measuring electric current and voltage, boys had their hands on the multimeter 75 percent of the time.

Girls were engaged in e-textile practices (including sewing, crafting, and circuitry) 74 percent of the time and had their hands on the projects more often than the boys. This proportion suggests that girls had more control over project decisions and materials. Still, boys were highly engaged in the activity: They were physically positioned toward the materials, often looking at the project, and talked nearly as much as their girl partners about project decisions and problems.

Close analysis of one pair of students showed that Amber took charge of the sewing materials, tools, and process, though Antoine was more experienced at sewing. The authors inferred that Amber thought Antoine was likely to hand the project off to an adult or peer. Antoine took charge of checking the circuit’s conductivity with the multimeter. The authors note that Amber was demonstrating leadership, not “bossiness.”

Theoretical Basis  

The authors’ work is informed by Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of social practice and Vygotsky’s (1978) cultural-historical theory, both of which emphasize that our world is shaped by social structures in dialogue with individual agency. Thus, learning is a social practice occurring in cultural contexts.

These ideas shaped mediated discourse analysis (Scollon, 2001; Wertsch, 1991), the method behind this study. Mediated discourse methods are used to analyze the unspoken but shared cultural norms made visible in people’s nonverbal physical actions. In this study, mediated discourse analysis helped clarify the nonverbal and shared agreements between the boy and girl in each pair. These agreements determined who used tools, who sewed, and so on—and, therefore, who controlled participation and learning.

Implications for Practice

Many powerful STEM programs for girls have emerged over the years, in part because gender imbalances in STEM education can surface in mixed-gender groups. This study shows that girls can engage deeply with STEM practices when educators carefully consider gender patterns in the ways tools are used and accessed. Informal science educators and others can devise activities that equally value both feminine and masculine practices so that both girls and boys can engage in meaningful STEM learning.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 

Scollon, R. (2001). Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. London, UK: Routledge. 

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1935). 

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Related Briefs:

  • Correia, C. F. (2015). Remove stereotype threats in science, and women do just as well as men! An ISE research brief discussing Marchand & Taasoobshirazi, “Stereotype threat and women’s performance in physics.”
  • King H. (2011). The impact of gender on young people’s STEM choices: An ISE research brief discussing Buccheri et al.’s, "The impact of gender on interest in science topics and the choice of scientific and technical vocations."
  • Shea, M. (2013). Negotiating Science Identities with Gender, Race, and Perceptions of Expertise Across Settings : A JLS research brief discussing Rahm’s article, “Collaborative imaginaries and multi-sited ethnography: space-time dimensions of engagement in an afterschool science programme for girls”.
  • Wingert, K. (2013). Wishful identification, gender, and scientists on television: An ISE research brief discussing Steinke et al., “Gender differences in adolescents’ wishful identification with scientist characters on television.”