Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

Links to Lisa Grossman’s Of Geeks and Girls have been turning up everywhere. She’s recounting work by Sapna Cheryan asking women about their interest in computing, in their case rooms that are decorated such that “Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table” and showing that they are much less likely to agree that they have any interest in computer science. (Grossman does not report how men responded: surely Cheryan’s work used male subjects as well?)

The article goes on to caution though that while geek culture stereotypes seem to alienate women to some degree, dismantling the whole culture is not the solution:

But what about the women who do think like computer scientists? What of the girl geeks?

Cheryan has given talks where the audience doubted the existence of girl geeks. She’s also given talks to girl geeks. There, she has received responses such as, “I’m a female engineer, and I like Star Trek! What are you trying to say?†She explains that her studies aren’t supposed to give a picture of what computer scientists are actually like. The geek room is a caricature. “We couldn’t have found a room in the CS building that really looked like that,†she says. But the perception it captures is real.

It’s a fairly frequent response to geek feminism to argue that it’s an attempt to destroy geek culture, or at best that it’s a zero sum game: the number of women who would join a more feminist geek culture would be equalled by the number of men who would leave; occasionally this argument essentially boils down to “I’m here to get the hell away from women” but more commonly it’s along the lines of “I’m here to get the hell away from mainstream social norms, I like the social norms in geekdom, you’re trying to turn them into mainstream social norms, ew.” This reminds me of that response, but from women. We’re here for the geekdom. We talk about what we want to change; we should also talk about what we want to keep.

You’re welcome to discuss Cheryan’s work and Grossman’s take on it in general in comments here (worth remembering though that we generally don’t have perfect insight into our prejudices, so you may or may not be more turned off by discarded computer parts than you think), but I specifically wanted to ask women who see themselves as part of geek culture, or a geek culture, what are the parts of it that you enjoy and that you’re hoping to open up to more women?

30 thoughts on “Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

  1. Restructure!

    An example of what I don’t like about geek culture is the Hacker News comments on Of Geeks and Girls, although I prefer Hacker News to other geek news sites. The comments contain a nice collection of arguments for the gender disparity that is based on stereotypes about women. When a comment thread gets that bad, it makes me not want to comment, as it is useless. If it was only a little bit wrong, I would feel that it was my duty to correct the wrongness and make it right.

    1. Melissa

      It’s not only the individual threads on their own that bother me, but the fact that they’re (mostly) all the same. It is a constant barrage of “The reason there’s no women in $subject because $stereotype” and when we have the energy to speak up and say that we totally don’t fit that stereotype or point out what the *actual* problem is, we get told either we’re lying*, in denial, or so deviated from the norm that we don’t count.

      And of course then we get exhausted of explaining and fade off to echoes of “Where are all the women? Maybe we should $cliched_idea”.

      Rinse, repeat.

      * Of course! I totally lie to stop behaviours that I (allegedly) like. Seriously, all the time. It makes so much sense, doesn’t it!

      1. Restructure!

        I find Hacker News much more mature and intelligent (much less sexist, racist) than Reddit or Digg, so I don’t think HN people would tell people that they are lying. However, some of those comments are amazing; it’s as if they didn’t RTFA and instead commented based on the existing female stereotypes they had in their head.

        1. Brendan Taylor

          I think that a lot of people on HN like to see themselves as iconoclasts. They get a thrill out of saying things that they think are taboo (like “women are just naturally uninterested in compsci” or “why do we need them anyhow”).
          There’s certainly less casual sexism and racism, but I think HN may actually be more reactionary than Reddit or Digg. It’s hard to tell because of the “no politics” rule, but there are hints here and there.

  2. Eivind

    Thank you ! I somehow missed that, and it’s very interesting. I’d like to hear more from this line of research;

    Spock and discarded computer-parts turn women off. But is this generally true for -all- kinds of “techie” environments ? Or just “fandom” ones ?

  3. Mackenzie

    I’ve certainly felt pressure to choose between being geeky or being girly before. I’ve been working on reconciling the two, but I still worry that wearing a skirt and a shirt-that-fits (instead of a man’s shirt) will mean I’m taken less seriously in technical arenas. I could definitely see how one could choose to avoid the BS “you can’t be a real geek…look at you!” that comes with being girly by simply not going into CS.

    1. Kir

      This has been an issue for me as well. I have often felt like I am pressured to be a less traditionally feminine person at work than I choose to be at home. I often find myself dressing ‘mannish’ to go to work (over-large jeans, baggy t-shirts, purposefully frumpy sweaters). The few times I have chosen to wear a skirt with heels or a form-fitting blouse to the office, I’ve had both male and female co-workers say things like “Hey! Look who decided to be a girl today!” or “Wow! When’s the fashion show?”.

      I also tend to withhold sharing information about some of my personal hobbies that are a bit ‘girlie’ (cooking, gardening) because it feels like it further isolates me if I make it too apparent that I am, indeed, a girl.

      While I admittedly do like Sci Fi and many of the things that are labeled as ‘traditionally geeky’, it can be difficult to feel like you are walking the edge between being ‘geeky’ and being ‘feminine’. I think many young women sense that they are being asked to make a choice about who they are, and feel like choosing CS is the equivalent to choosing not to be feminine.

      1. Jon Niehof

        It’s an odd double standard (surprise surprise): in my experience geek men are more likely than non-geek men to participate in, and tolerate other men participating in, “traditionally female” pursuits, in my case cooking and sewing. Yet a geek woman in the same activities suffers a lack of geek cred, despite both easily falling in the geeky category of “making stuff.”

        I wonder what would happen if Alton Brown retired from Good Eats and handed the show over to a woman who kept it going with exactly the same geeky deliciousness. I fear the Stereotype Confirmation switch would flip and the geekery be called out as fake.

      2. gminks

        I hate that cooking and gardening are considered “girly” when in fact if you get right down to it they are both extremely geeky!

        1. Alice Boxhall

          More to the point, that “girly” and “geeky” are considered disjoint sets at all.

        2. Kir

          Didn’t mean to imply that I personally believe that girly isn’t geeky. I agree with @gminks that cooking and gardening are very geeky. They teach you a lot about hard sciences like chemistry (cooking), biology, geology, anthropology and the use of binominal nomenclature (gardening).

          If we all agree that this stuff is pretty geeky (I also think @Jon is correct that a lot of geek men like these things too), why doesn’t the CS office stereotype include a stack of cookbooks, knitting needles and seed catalogs alongside the Star Trek stuff? Why is an association with Star Trek to CS greater than an association with Alton Brown?

  4. jemimah ruhala

    The star-trek room sounds like a little piece of heaven to me, but then my score on the Geek Test probably places me in the 99th percentile of geekiness.

    I feel totally alienated by talk of dumbing down geek culture to appeal to more women. Is there no identity for the real hard-core hacker chicks? I totally don’t fit in with “women near tech”, and the idea of the “geekster”, who pretends to be geeky because it’s somehow cool makes me sort of angry.

    Yes we are rare, but we revel in our uniqueness! It can be incredibly lonely being an INTJ geek girl Linux programmer. It practically assures you can’t fit in with anyone of any gender. But the one thing I find comforting, is reading the portrait of J. Random Hacker, or taking the Geek Test, and realizing that although I may be isolated, I’m definitely not alone!

    1. Daedala

      Um, why is geek culture that appeals to people other than you “dumbed down”? Seriously, why? I don’t get that.

      I’m a fairly extreme INTJ myself, and I disagree, so I really don’t think that can be the reason.

      1. jemimah ruhala

        Perhaps you’ve misunderstood what I’m trying to say, or perhaps we do not agree on what “geek” means. Are you familiar with Geeksugar.com? Cosmo meets Slashdot – or at least tries…. It is possible to expand the definition of geek to include nearly everybody, and thus it looses all meaning.

        I had absolutely no intention of implying that only programmers are geeks. I was referencing this post, if that helps. http://geekfeminism.org/2009/09/12/women-in-techwomen-near-tech/

        1. jemimah ruhala

          Does the term “geek” not imply intelligence? If you think it doesn’t, then watered-down would have a similar meaning to what I was trying to convey.

        2. Jon Niehof

          (I’m not sure if reply is gone because this is nested too deep, or the subthread’s been closed…my apologies if the latter.)

          Geekery is correlated with “intelligence”, at least by some conventional definition, but I don’t think they’re identical. Not all smart people like Star Trek, and not all Trekkers are smart. This veers close to the geek logical fallacy. No lesser light than Hofstadter fell prey to this in his essay “Dilemmas for Superrational Thinkers” (SciAm, June 1983, or the book Metamagical Themas). All his highly intelligent, rational friends made a different decision than he expected when faced with a completely rational problem.

          I also tend to bristle at the notion of a single “intelligence” (also at “EQ”, “multiple intelligences,” and “general fitness.”) Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is a great (although dense) read on that front.

  5. Mel

    Stuff I like about geek culture: geeky things, e.g. computers, science, programming jokes, Star Wars.

    Stuff I don’t like about geek culture: sexism, sexism, sexism. Constant comments about how women’s brains just aren’t up to science/computers/being astronauts, the outrage in comments at Wired when a history article acknowledges the contributions of women, the comments at Wired in general, the fact that when I was a kid and said I was a Star Wars fan, boys never believed me until I’d passed an impromptu quiz (and it wasn’t a fun trivia game between fellow fans, it was a TEST, one they did not give each other), sexism. Also I’m not a fan of hierarchies of “programming geeks” > “history geeks” or whatever.

    So basically–I’d like geek culture to mostly stay the same in terms of interests, but lose the misogyny and gender stereotypes, and be more open to the fact that there’s a wide range of geekiness and one type of geek is not “better” than another just because hir subject of interest is more esoteric or involves more computers.

    BTW, also an INTJ woman, but I’m a history/science geek with only a passing interest in programming. Non-programming-focused forms of geek culture are not “dumbed down,” and this is one of the attitudes in geek culture that I’m not a fan of.

    1. quartzpebble

      Non-programming-focused forms of geek culture are not “dumbed down,” and this is one of the attitudes in geek culture that I’m not a fan of.

      Seriously. Even as a chemist (so, “hard science”), I’ve gotten this. I’ve been to a local geek meet-up a couple of times and got the impression from some people there that because I’m not a programmer and don’t play Serious Computer Games (never mind the board games and the puzzle games) that I didn’t count. Since when does *benchtop science* not count as a geek activity?

  6. Skud

    I was forwarded the article by a handful of people, but the first one that sent it to me was one of the managers at the company I work at. It got me thinking about my work environment, which is fairly geek-centric, and the proportion of women here — < 10% and about to drop because of someone leaving. Our office is full of what I think of as "geek art" — stuff printed on the office printer and modified with post-its and white-board markers, sculptures made out of nerf ammo and magnets, XKCD posters on the walls, etc. But there's also a fair amount of natural light, plants, and nice furniture (really comfy sofas, attractive coffee tables, stuff like that). The company provides free sodas but also nice tea and organic fruit. And there's no real uniform in what people wear: there are people who dress like slobs, people who dress like extras from the Big Bang Theory, people who dress business casual or nicer, and the women wear skirts or not depending on personal preference. (I took to wearing them sometimes a while ago, and the only comments were because it was unusual for *me*, I think.) So… I'm fairly comfortable here, but I do wonder how it reads to people coming in for the first time. The manager who sent me the link to the article also manages the team that has the "geekiest" team in the office in terms of workspace decor. Coincidence?

    1. Kir

      Our general office decor is pretty bland and neutral. Beige and blue walls and a couple of plants here and there. There is a big bookshelf with an assortment of programming reference books against a wall, but other than that, pretty generic. Walking around, I see that a lot of my co-workers cubes are decorated with photos of friends and family and kid artwork – not particularly traditionally ‘geeky’ other than some extra monitors, cables, and stacks of reference books in some cubes (which are required for our jobs). To be honest, the only xkcd comic or Star Wars reference I could find were on the walls of my own cube (on top of some butterfly/flower art paper). I’ve never thought of myself as particularly ‘geeky’, but I realize now I am probably have been missing some insight into how others see me.

      It would have been interesting if the study had put together a room that mixed geek with feminine decor (a Star Wars poster, some cables, a purse, and some plants) to see if that changed any of the responses of the women in the study. Maybe it’s just hard to visualize yourself in an environment where you don’t see anything that recognizes femininity?

    2. Cesy

      I would love an office like that. XKCD posters, discarded computer parts, informal dress codes and a fondness for pizza and coffee are things that make me think fondly of geeky places, rather than a business environment where no-one knows what XKCD is. But natural light and a well-kept office are also helpful

  7. Dorothea

    I find myself wondering if the causation isn’t reversed. I dig me some Trek and am intrigued by random computer parts — but I, too, would be turned off a room like that, because I would associate it with the many dishearteningly sexist interactions I’ve had with male geeks. The room and its content are innocent; all the negative associations are with its putative inhabitants. In other words, I wouldn’t expect that room to be a place I could go to and expect to continue feeling okay about being female, you know what I mean?

    On the other hand, if I walked into that very same room and it had half-a-dozen women hacking and messing with computer parts and talking about Trek, I AM SO THERE.

    What I’d like to keep about geek culture: its can-doism. Need a web server? Can do. Need to swap out a power supply? Can do. Need to build a teragrid? Er… that’s more complicated… but let’s try and see what happens! The professional culture I’m embedded in as a librarian is distressingly passive vis-a-vis computers sometimes. I much prefer geekly can-do.

    1. Dorothea

      Er. The room and its content are MOSTLY innocent, I should have said. Trek certainly comes with a cornucopia of feminist issues.

      1. Bene

        Among other issues–homosexuality and disability come to mind. (Though I love Trek, it are fact and I will freely admit the problematic nature therein.)

        I’m basically with you on everything you said in your first comment. Love the stuff, hate the impression it brings me.

        1. Dorothea

          Yup, and race, too. There’s quite a lot of kyriarchy fail in Trek. It are fact. *nods*

          What made me cringe and come back to write the clarification was the furniture in my mental image of The Room suddenly changing. At first I assumed “the Trek poster” would be of a ship, or of one of the captains. Then I considered the idea of walking into The Room and seeing a pinup-pose poster of Sirtis or Ryan or similar. That would cause an unhappy frisson all by itself. Your average Brooks or Stewart poster, not nearly so much. Ship, not at all.

          (A sad thing, really, that posters depicting men can feel more or less neutral, whereas posters depicting women — women! you know, the kind of person I happen to be! — are so often moments of extreme grunch.)

  8. Restructure!

    Perhaps the Star Trek room looks too “traditional”, and if a culture is traditional, then it’s more likely to be exclusionary. Maybe if they tested male subjects in the Star Wars room, they too would be less interested in computer science (especially if the Star Wars room was 70s Star Wars).

  9. Kareila

    I stumbled across the Wired article today and my takeaway from it, before reading all the commentary here, was that there was a double tribal reinforcement going on; namely one of female exclusion plus one of non-geek (or perhaps more accurately non-fandom, if Star Trek, video games and comic books are the primary indicators) exclusion. In other words, non-geek males and geek females would only feel half as excluded as non-geek females, hypothetically. From that perspective, the increased negative reaction seems logical.

    Many of the comments here seem to be focusing on experiences with the attitudes of fellow participants in a space, instead of the configuration of the space itself, which is what I found interesting about this study.

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