Re-post: But women are an advanced social skill…

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, I’m reposting some of my writing from earlier in 2010, for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on the 3rd April 2010.

This post is following on from Melissa’s post, and particularly inspired by a comment in moderation, which I am not sure whether she will approve or not, which defends “hardcore geeks” (presumed to never be women themselves, I gather) behaviour towards women on the basis of “INCREDIBLY limited socialization”.

This is all quite genuinely mystifying to me. Admittedly I’m relying on extensive anecdata rather than surveys, but self-identified geeks mostly go through a stage as teenagers and sometimes beyond, and often quite a hurtful stage, of at best social difficulties and at worst cruel bullying and social isolation. Many only find their people at university or cons or other places with a high geek density.

But this doesn’t translate to a life so obviously deprived of chances to interact with women that we are required to assume that all geek men are at least eighteen years behind their chronological age in exposure to women. It’s true that groups of women and mixed-gender groups have their own social norms. In fact women geeks can find these difficult to navigate too and some prefer for a while, or always, the social norms of male geek groups to those of women non-geeks (at the same time often encountering problems being a woman in said group as well). Admittedly my sample is biased because by definition I’m not friends with any geek who doesn’t have women friends, but after high school geeks seem to me to have roughly the same social success that others have, where “social success” is approximated by “has a social circle of the desired number of people, who you enjoy spending time with”. Possibly with different types of people, but similar numbers of them.

(Speaking of social success, a geeky tangent: Scott L. Feld’s Why Your Friends Have More Friends than You Do, see Satoshi Kanazawa’s write-up in Psychology Today if you don’t have access, although beware the horrible subtitle. ETA 2010-12-07: link to Kanazawa removed after comments.)

But even though I see lots of men geeks who are enough of a social success to make them happy, I find this notion of interacting with women being a graduate-level social skill to be quite seriously brought up by some of these same geeks. Even middle-aged men geeks who are in long-term heterosexual relationships or who have long-time women colleagues and collaborators. They maintain that the entry-level of dealing with women in general should not be close to their own skills, but a very very low bar in which outright sexual harassment ought to be treated as a forgivable faux pas and an opportunity for a gentle teaching moment, rather than a very justified cause of anger.

There are several related things going on. One is that geek culture is not as uninfluenced by other cultures as some geeks would like to argue. Much of geek sexism is a geeky spin on plain old sexism, not a parallel form of sexism that’s accidentally developed as a result of innocent geek men’s social isolation. The second is that, as a consequence of many geekdoms being male dominated, they attract men who prefer not to interact with women, or at least not to interact with us in their leisure time. (To be clear here: I am not saying that all men geeks in a male dominated geekdom are there to get away from women. I’m saying that a subset of them are, and that they have a reason to push against including women.) I also notice an unfortunate tendency to believe that men are solely socialised by women: if a man, through no fault of his own, has ended up in a men-only social pocket, then it’s basically Lord of the Flies until a kind woman makes up for the failings of women past and helps him out.

There do seem to be a number of men who genuinely and sincerely believe that the single most acceptable way to interact with any woman is to be sure to inform her that they approve of her appearance, or, less often, her general civilising influence, and who get a horrible shock when someone is angry with them for it. But much of the rest of the “don’t expect too much of geeks when it comes to social decencies!” rhetoric seems self-serving and disingenuous.

Note: discussions of geeks and social skills can attract blanket statements about the skills of geeks with autism spectrum disorders. I haven’t addressed that in this post because I am neurotypical and have no especial expertise about autism spectrum disorders. I welcome informed comment on it here, but uninformed blanket statements won’t be approved; if you don’t know anything much about ASDs don’t make it up.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

8 thoughts on “Re-post: But women are an advanced social skill…

  1. Shauna

    Don’t mean to derail, but I just wanted to point out that Satoshi Kanazawa, who you cite here, is one of the most ardent promoters of the worst sort of evo-psych sexism.

    See here and here and here (that last link is to a Kanazawa article – TW for problematic discussions of domestic violence).

    Doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of his work is invalid, but it personally bothers me to see him treated as a respectable authority.

    1. John

      Interesting blog posts! I read through them and there was a really interesting reference to a technical rebuttal to Kanazawa’s methods. Here’s a non-paywalled link:

      Of Beauty, Sex and Power

      I apologize for taking this further off-topic, but it just struck me as a good example in the spirit of last week’s post on (real) science not being the oppressor.

    2. Restructure!

      I used to subscribe to the Psychology Today RSS, but the last straw was this one (trigger warning for horrible sexism, anti-feminism, racism, and Islamophobia) by Satoshi Kanazawa, where he claims “most suicide bombers are Muslim, beautiful people have more daughters, humans are naturally polygamous, sexual harassment isn’t sexist, and blonds are more attractive.” It’s totally garbage, like the kind of logic you would find on web forums or comments on tech news sites, by right-wingers making up reasons why the right-wing worldview is correct. It’s not really new information, if you are familiar with these kinds of Internet discussions.

  2. jen

    Glad to see this post. I can’t even count the number of times I complained about someone saying something really sexist that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and then had everyone else in the room jump to the defense of the person that made the sexist comment. Like ‘hey, he’s just a geek, he’s not used to women! It’s not objectification, it’s just the way he is!’ Yeah right. I used to actually buy that stuff, but then I realized that the people claiming it’s too hard for them to not make comments about my tits were people who would happily teach themselves a new programming language in the space of an evening or too. So, you’re smart enough to learn Python in a couple of hours, but the concept ‘don’t make comments about my personal appearance’ is too hard for you, really? It boggles my mind how self-serving this is. The reality is that some people are sexist assholes, and they behave this way because they like it and because they can get away with it.

    1. Restructure!

      Being able to learn a new programming language in an evening is very different from having social skills. The assumption behind this is that programmers are “geniuses” who can understand anything, which is wrong. This is a harmful stereotype, because it causes people to think that you have to be a genius to understand programming.

      However, poor social skills is not an excuse for sexism, since sexism is caused by socialization. If they didn’t understand social rules, they would treat women the same as they treat men, which is not what’s happening.

      1. Leigh Honeywell

        While I agree with you in the general case, “you’re clever enough to do $geeky_thing, you should be able to get it through your head that $inappropriate_thing is not ok” strikes me as a useful verbal technique for encouraging better behavior.

  3. Kaonashi

    Socializing with women isn’t a special skill, no. What is a skill though is to get over your fears and prejudices. It’s all too easy to learn sexist thinking and being scared of girls growing up, and then to start blaming women for your failures and frustrations. Making bad excuses for bad behavior seems to be a part of this.

    I’ve tried pointing out creepy behavior or give advice to male geek aquaintances sometimes, and I’ve often been met with accusations of my extensive training in socializing with women that the geek never got to have, and this apparently justifies their behavior. Not being creepy and treating women like people apparently makes me some kind of smooth casanova in their eyes, which is quite ironic. It’s hard getting through to that kind of person.

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