How Science-Geek Culture Discourages Female Science-Geeks

The majority of commenters agreed that women could not excel in math, due to biology and evolution. In Slashdot Science, the commenters were mostly grown men with science degrees. I was a nineteen-year-old girl with only a high school diploma and a love of science. They were more educated than me, and I wanted to learn from them.

Whenever I encountered a Slashdot article about science and gender, I read the comments, trying to learn more about myself. I felt sick to my stomach each time. I used mental gymnastics to reconcile my love of science with science-credentialed, male elders proclaiming with certainty that female brains were unfit for math and science. They were the experts, after all. I was only a young, female science student.

Math and science are hard. I worried that when I found something challenging in math or science, it was because I was a girl and lacked the mental machinery to understand it. (I thought of myself as a “girl”, because I was still technically a teenager.) I accepted evolution. Many times, I had panick attacks over the possibility that I had innate, hard-wired mental limitations. Before graduating with a science degree, I was unproven. There was no proof that I could be a science person, but I already saw mountains of scientific evidence suggesting that I could not be a science person. Unproven male geeks don’t struggle with science research telling them that they can’t do science when they start to try.

Only after I graduated with a science degree did I feel I had the authority to challenge Slashdotters. Only after I graduated did I feel like a real adult. After I graduated, I was livid, knowing that Slashdot commenters were merely conjecturing casually about my mental limitations, unwittingly crushing the self-esteem of my younger geek self.

Sexism on the Internet—especially discussion websites about science, computers, and math—are like guided missiles targeting and damaging the self-esteem of young female geeks. Female geeks are most likely to see male geeks discuss our alleged mental inferiority in math and science. Non-geek women are unlikely to see these comments, because they are not the ones reading Slashdot, Digg, reddit, Hacker News, techcrunch, or Ars Technica.

For many male geeks, conjecturing about women’s mental and career potential is just an intellectual exercise, and stating personal and scientific hypotheses about women as if they are scientific facts is harmless. For us, it is personal and disturbing.

24 thoughts on “How Science-Geek Culture Discourages Female Science-Geeks

  1. Elizabeth G.

    I feel like this is not just an “internet” problem. Male engineers are perfectly happy to have this conversation in person, in front of me, all the while assuring me that I am “the exception”, “not like most girls”, and “not able to speak for all women”. You know what? I entered in to the BS program in Aerospace Engineering, 10 fucking years ago, I have had a government internship, an industry internship, a full-time job in industry, and I am now on Engineering degree number 3 (at university number 3) and I have some anecdotal findings. Male engineers, (not all, but a majority) especially when they know little to nothing about a topic, will talk out their ass about it. I have instituted the Bullshit strategy. Basically, whenever someone makes a point I think is BS (I especially like to do this when they are quoting numbers because being specific is often a cover-up for lying) I call bullshit, pull out my Iphone and ask them to find their source. It is 2012, if there is a truth, it is out there, on the internet. I like to do it in crowds because the type of behavior I describe is the result of a fear of appearing stupid, even fellas I have done this to will pile on my current target just because 1) they are not the target and 2) they can make someone else feel stupid. As an added (philanthropic) bonus, I am making them face their fear and grow and human fucking beings.

    1. Katherine

      I’ve encountered that tons myself in the engineering industry. It’s frustrating, because I have a natural tendency to trust and believe people until they give me a reason not to. And it’s stupid, because people are trusting these men to give their honest professional opinion all the time! How can they BS like this? It’s against every professional engineering code I’ve seen!

    2. Ctl

      So, they’re insisting you can’t speak for all women… While attempting to paint all women with the same stupid-brush? Hey, let them know you can advocate for women with more validity than they can subjugate them. Let them know you obviously, clearly, innately, have more perspective on gender when it inhabits and inhibits every step while they stroll on by unconcerned. Yeesh.

  2. suziebanshee

    This is certainly a serious topic, which is why there are organizations that exist in order to keep young female science-lovers interested in a career in science. But the bias obviously still exists at large. As adult scientists, we are preaching to the choir; we know that women are capable of excelling in the sciences because we have and we are women. But how do we stop these nasty counter-productive rumors from impeding future female scientists? I am not exactly sure, but I have had some small success in battle…
    As a biologist, I have undoubtedly encountered far less sexism in my field than, say, an engineer or physicist might (currently, biology is just slightly dominated by women. Lesser so in areas that involve more math, such as population biology, but still much greater than in non-bio sci/math fields. I can’t say why–perhaps because there are already many women in bio, making it less intimidating to female geeks?) However, I do recall one rather biased professor and a student (female, actually) in the same course that touted very suppositional theories about sex and gender. My tactic was to immediately yet courteously negate whatever was posed with my own knowledge of studies or evo. theory that conferred the exact opposite. I remember the sigh of relief that I sensed from nearly the entire class as the tension that was created by these very unfounded, divisive and stigmatizing claims dissipated when I reminded everyone that there is just as much evidence that girls’ performances on math exams correlates very tightly with their amount of exposure to certain cultural narratives about gender roles. For example, the study that tested young women on math before and after they watched commercials promoting gender roles. Duh, the post-comm scores were far lower.
    I once read a great article on how one should and should not speak to young girls, if you want them to achieve everything they are capable of and desire. I will try to find it.

    I also like to remind ppl that they will see any type of pattern anywhere if they look hard enough. And furthermore, that it is highly unscientific to start coming up with your own reasons for why two factors correlate (in this case, “# of women” or “success of women” negatively correlates with “geek quotient”). One of the very first things you would learn in any statistical course is that correlation is not necessarily, and not even usually, a cause/effect relationship. I also find it quite odd that people in, say, engineering are seeing themselves as experts in genetics. Someone with a PhD in genetics wouldn’t be caught dead saying that men are genetically more inclined towards math and logic than women. What they would say is that the factors underlying inherited intelligence are poorly understood, but what has been repeatedly observed is that a person’s “IQ” typically lands relatively in the middle of their parents’ respective IQs. But there I go preaching to the choir.

    Or you could just raise one eyebrow and say, “Really? Really? Is that really what you have to tell yourself in order to feel like you belong here?,” in response to the haters in your field (or “really? really? You’ve spent x years studying the scientific method and you’re really going to believe something this bunk?,” if it’s a woman in the field touting the honkey). And when they try to ‘explain’ (as if you haven’t already heard the ‘evidence’), just laugh over them until they get frustrated and walk away. I highly enjoy that tactic.

    1. Anastasia Bright

      I’d love to see that article.

      What’s so entertaining is that whenever I speak to geek men in my circles, they are convinced, *convinced I say*, that they are much *less* sexist than mainstream men. I’m not a scientist or an engineer and that’s at least in part because of some extraordinary sexism I encountered.

      My six-year-old daughter slants heavily to the science and I have spent a fair amount of time slapping down the men in my circle when they say stupid things in front of her. Then, when I point out it’s sexism, they say “But we’re GEEKS. We LURVE strong smart women. They are so SEXY.”

      And I bang my head against the table repeatedly.

    2. G

      I also find it quite odd that people in, say, engineering are seeing themselves as experts in genetics.

      Everybody seems to think they are experts in genetics when they’re talking about sex and race. After all, everybody has spent their entire life living in their own sex/race and observing the other ones so obviously they know all about it and no amount of actual research will convince them.

  3. Mercury

    I’m a math student, and so far I haven’t really experienced much bias first-hand. This is probably in part because my undergrad school was really small and the math major population skewed female. (We graduated three math majors this year–two girls and a guy.) I get really annoyed when I see stuff about women being bad at math or science, especially since I’ve known so many girls who absolutely kicked tail.

    In addition to being sexist and awful, I feel like the whole “Are women less good at science?” question is just really stupid. Because even if there is some weird little quirk of biology that makes it harder for women to succeed in those subjects, what does that prove? The question you ask yourself when you go into science isn’t “Am I the most biologically optimized specimen of my species?” but rather “Do I have what it takes to excel?” And I think we’ve seen pretty clearly that a heck of a lot of women do have what it takes.

  4. Gayle

    If I could give a different perspective…a blue collar one. My experience was in the oilfields back in the “affirmative action” days when they tried to recruit women. I was often patted on the head and told I was “okay for a girl”. It took several years for me to recognize that I had more mechanical, math and other abilities than any of my male co-workers. I would have noticed it a lot sooner if I hadn’t been indoctrinated into that belief that women couldn’t do blue collar work. I don’t know that they ever recognized it.

  5. thef0rce

    My response to people who tell me “girls are less good at science and/or maths” is just to show them

    As a programmer I also get “women kind of suck at programming, except for you, because you’re good!”, or the less directed but equally annoying version of “there weren’t many women in my computing degree at university!” The latter I try to educate, the former I tend to really enjoy raising one eyebrow and saying “Really?!” in a highly skeptical tone

  6. Jon

    Oh, cripes. I’m not sure if it helps at all, but I gave up reading slashdot science comments about two years into my PhD. If they were “mostly grown men with science degrees” they weren’t acting like grown people and not exercising their degrees particularly well. They were telling me I knew jack about the field I was working in (in which they were not working.) Slashdot’s assessment of your competence means pretty little.

    I’m glad you were able to get through despite the discouragement, but I’m sorry you had to put up with it.

  7. Charles Feduke

    There is little value to comment systems on news aggregator sites. It seems that any value at all is easily outweighed by negative effects like those highlighted by this article.

  8. Julia

    Sometimes sexist comments are made by women about other women as a part of “successful people lingo”. I just read a blog of a woman who’s trying to launch a tech startup, to make a product to empower women and women make the majority of the team. Yet, I spotted a couple of sexist remarks, looking like “here I need to say that, [powerful] readers will like it”. Part of the dominating “macho” culture is to make somebody else look inferior in order to look more talented yourself. And being a special exception from an inferior group looks even more successful.

    1. Julia

      And also I wonder why site owners themselves tolerate sexist comments? For example, racist comments proclaiming “brains of blacks don’t fit for math and science” most likely would not be tolerated (and will look plain bad on anybody’s site).

      1. Maxens M. Finch

        First sorry since this comment will be a bit ciscentric seeing it’s more personal; also, according to a friend of mine, some people do use similar arguments about POCs.
        They may ask “if other parts of the body are different, then why not the brain?” (about either POCs or women/men) or talk about hormones.
        Still not answering the “why are you only referencing that one study like Vandenberg and Kuse’s in the 70s* and ignoring all these others, more recent and finding different results?” argument, or those raising socialization and stereotype threat issues. Also, believing skills can’t be trained, etc.
        Then I might ask, considering socialization and all, if women’s and men’s brains do work differently, then why would it automatically be in the expected, stereotypical ways? (ie, women bad at science and better at social stuffs)
        Also, admitting brains work in the “expected” ways, you could say for example computer science can be understood in a non-mathematical manner. I frequently understand things in a visual way without using formal mathematics, some might understand computer science in a more “literal” way like they understand natural languages and linguistics, I can also see how these can be understood in a visual way. Though that last part was a bit unrelated.
        Now I don’t know that much about neurology, but from what I’ve read we don’t know that much about the brain, generally, to make big assumptions that might stop some from working in neurology and discovering new stuffs.
        * Actually I found this one doing my own researches, because those using these arguments generally just say a vague “studies have shown that…” without mentioning any or linking somewhere that would? Then they say that a teenager’s arguments are invalid because they do not work in that field, but most of them don’t either (at least on CS forums and ML.)

        1. esSarah

          Actually neuroscience would point out a lot of negative aspects for the masculized brain. But since there is a dogma on one side that such differences do not exist only the other side comes up with interpretions and ignore the aspects that would show them in a bad light.

  9. Sam

    I completed a BS in geology several years ago, and frankly lot of the attitudes I encountered at school are what led me to largely abandon the whole thing after graduating with a fairly respectable GPA (a 3.6 which was higher than many of my peers). My current job has nothing whatever to do with geology.

    I could have and should have gone on to graduate school but could not get any support (or even a lousy recommendation letter) from any of my instructors in the department while some of my male peers with a poorer performance had no such issues.

    At that point my self-esteem was in the gutter anyhow. Honestly anyone who thinks that women are valued and welcome in the “hard” sciences just isn’t paying attention. A few do fight their way through, but other than a bit of lip-service paid to “yes more girls/women should pursue careers in STEM subjects” there’s very little actual tangible support, at least in my experience. Too many science faculty in schools just plain don’t give a damn, whatever they may state in conversation.

  10. Eraziel

    Yeah, let them know they talk bullshit.
    My parents raised me in a pretty gender-unbiased environment and many other girls from my primary school were completely unstereotypical. I didn’t even have a single doubt on whether I could be good in math or science. I just did it and I liked it.
    By the time I realized that “hurr durr not many gurrlz in science” was a common trope, I already had the guts to ignore it. The most important thing to tell your child is in my opinion “you can be everything you want, if you only try and work hard”.

    Another interesting fact is that the way science is taught in school will work better for kids who are already into science. So, if you have a little girl who is already socialized to be a more “social” or “creative” animal, she’d have an even harder time. I realized that when my sister (who liked math but hated physics) suddenly fell in love with special relativity. That time, she was in an art school and – being a german school – they had to do some science stuff as well. As the teachers knew that art students would not appreciate hard calculus, they chose a more creative subject and taught it the way Einstein imagined it – without complex formulae, but with lots of mind-experiments. She later told me that, if physics had always been like that, she wouldn’t have hated it so much.

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