Closeup of the paint-covered hands of a child (by Steven Depolo)

I take it we aren’t cute enough for you?

A few times within the lifetime of this blog, there’s been a major emergency in geekdom: a geek girl has needed a confidence boost.

I hear you cough. Someone just said “geek girl” on Geek Feminism, the home of “ahem, geek women, THANK YOU”?

No really, I mean it, a geek girl. A prepubescent girl has been bullied or heard some gender essentialist crap, and a call to arms goes out. The best known is probably Katie Goldman, the then seven year old whose mother wrote in November 2010 that Katie was being bullied for liking Star Wars, a boy thing:

But a week ago, as we were packing her lunch, Katie said, “My Star Wars water bottle is too small.  It doesn’t hold enough water.  Can I take a different one?”  She searched through the cupboard until she found a pink water bottle and said, “I’ll bring this.”

I was perplexed.  “Katie, that water bottle is no bigger than your Star Wars one.  I think it is actually smaller.”

“It’s fine, I’ll just take it,” she insisted.

I kept pushing the issue, because it didn’t make sense to me.  Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.

She wailed, “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle.  They say it’s only for boys.  Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it.  I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.”

Katie’s story went viral including at the official Star Wars blog and a year later CNN reported that at GeekGirlCon when a brigade of Storm Troopers formed an honor guard for Katie, and that there’s an annual Wear Star Wars day as a result.

We had our own smaller burst of geek support on the Geek Feminism blog in May this year, for five year old Maya, who was turning away from her love of cars and robots. 170 comments were left on our blog for Maya, second only to Open Letter to Mark Shuttleworth (200 comments) in our history. In addition, it wasn’t an especially difficult thread to moderate as I recall: a few trolls showed up to tell Maya goodness knows what (sudo make me a sandwich LOL?) but in general people left warm, honest, open stories of their geek life for Maya.

Here’s something I was struck by: when I tweeted about Maya’s post, back in May, I saw replies from men saying that they were crying (with joy, I assume!) about the response to Maya. I have to say I do NOT see a lot of admitted crying about other posts on our blog, no matter how positive or inspirational. (People love the existence of the Wednesday Geek Women posts, but they are consistently our least read and commented on posts.) Or crying about stories that are negative and horrifying either.

It’s going to be hard to stand by a statement that I don’t begrudge Katie and Maya their outpouring of support, but: I don’t begrudge Katie and Maya their outpouring of support. I don’t think they should have less of it.

… but I think geek women and other bullied or oppressed geeks should have more.

Thus I do want to ask why girls? Why do we not have 170 comments on our blog reaching out to women who are frustrated with geekdom? I want to get this out in the open: people love to support geek girls, they are considerably more ambivalent about supporting geek women.

I’ve compared harassment of adults with bullying of children before: they have a lot in common. What they don’t seem to have in common is a universal condemnation from geekdom: bullying children? Totally evil*. Harassing adults? Eh… evil, except you know, he’s such a great guy, and he hasn’t got laid in a while, and (trigger warning for rapist enabling) he does have the best gaming table, so what are you gonna do, huh?

There are a number of reasons, I know, even aside from the (provocative!) title of the blog post. Some of them are more sympathetic than others:

  • Talking to adults about overcoming difficulties is harder. There can’t always be as much optimism or tales of It Gets Better. For some adults, that’s bullshit. (It’s not always true for children either and telling children this can be a disservice too, but it is more culturally comfortable.)
  • Adults are often angry when they’ve been mistreated. In this case, feminists are often angry. It’s harder to engage with angry people. They (we) are less appealing. We may not be grateful for your thoughts. Sometimes we pick them apart publicly if we don’t like them enough. And call you mean names.
  • When a child is bullied by another child, the bad guy is reassuringly definitely not you.
  • Children don’t talk back, or can’t. If an adult says that It Gets Better, the appropriate role for the child is to smile and look grateful. (This is also true of women when listening to men, but generally somewhat less so.)
  • Many of us are more familiar with the experience of being a bullied child than being a harassed or oppressed adult, and can be empathetic more easily.
  • We really really want to believe that things will be basically OK for Katie and Maya, even if they haven’t been for us and people we love.

There’s no easy answer. Many of us are very deeply invested in It Gets Better rhetoric, because the alternative is sure pretty sucky. But at the same time, if you’re doing one thing to stop gendered bullying this year, say, leaving the 170th supportive comment for a five year old girl, while kind, was probably not the single best use of your one thing. Join the fight. Make it better yourself. And, since you aren’t in fact limited to one thing, leave kind or supportive or co-signed righteously angry comments too, while you’re at it, and not only for children.

* At least, in the context of these discussions. I am far from believing that geeks are universally actively working to save children from bullying, nor that they are incapable of perpetrating child abuse.

45 thoughts on “I take it we aren’t cute enough for you?

  1. Kimberly Chapman

    A very good question.

    Sadly, I’m not sure that it does Get Better. I think it Gets Different. And scarier. The vicious mockery I received as a geek girl was bad, and even occasionally physical, but when I was a child at least nobody threatened to rape me if I stood up for myself. That started in university.

    I’m not saying some kids don’t get that, obviously, but it’s thankfully still atypical as part of playground abuse. Although then again, for how long…once enough kids see the misogynistic crap spewed on game systems, how long until they start repeating those sorts of comments on the playground more often?

    I think a lot of us picked-on geek girls did indeed grow up to be angry feminists who now can shout back at our tormentors. But too many got successfully bullied into silence. I wish I knew how to reach those women. I try…on G+ a few of us who are okay to speak out are working with G+ staff to track creepers and harassers, but it’s slow going and often disheartening, especially as more and more women go private-only or just leave rather than have to have another day of it (which I don’t blame them for one bit).

    I look at my daughter across the room playing PBS Kids games and wonder how long until I have to teach her to wield her own metaphorical stick. Sigh. This was supposed to be better by now for her. :(

  2. Cthandhs

    I gotta think that agency has something to so with it. A young child is basically seen as helpless. A geek woman… who am I to tell her what to do? We have a ton of narratives for telling a little kid that they’re going to be O.K. Adults… not so much, there’s a sense that they should have the equipment to handle it (true or not).

    That said, I agree we should reach out more to adults who need support in our community. I see a lot of that in the skeptical-feminist community, but that might be more because a very consistent barrage of public harassment has been going on for quite some time now.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      How do I say this exactly? I don’t think the problem is a lack of willingness to tell women what to do. The culture does that constantly. It’s just not particularly positive, helpful or affirming advice.

  3. Chris

    Interesting post, thanks. I’m surprised you didn’t mention what seems like the strongest reason to me, which is that the gendered socialization of children is responsible for many problems that it seems to be near-impossible to fix in the adult population. We can’t persuade most adult women that they should become engineers or programmers, because they’ve already been to school and chosen what kind of career they’d like to have and it’s rare to be able to (afford to) change industry and start out again as a beginner in a new one: so, people who are trying to reduce the ratio of male to female programmers usually end up caring a lot about education and socialization, because it’s where the largest opportunity to make long-term change is.

    I think something similar is going on here. We recognize that Katie and Maya are receiving sexist socialization at a critical period in their life, and that it’s the most important time for someone to try to intervene, in terms of the potential outcomes. Does that make sense?

    1. Tim Chevalier

      I think this is the exact point Mary was trying to address? There are women who despite all odds, emerged from high school or college still being interested in working on tech, and most of those women are extremely capable since we maintain a double standard where women have to be brilliant. These women, as much as they would like to work in tech, are facing problems in their lives right now, specifically that their male colleagues tell them that they don’t want them there and they aren’t welcome, and secondarily, that some of their female colleagues tell them they’d do fine if they just wore makeup and didn’t criticize men. They need support for dealing with those problems, right now. How is talking about early intervention anything but a way of avoiding the need to grapple with the reality that adult women leave the tech industry because men tell them they don’t want them there?

      1. quill

        Yes, co-signed.

        Socialization of young children does not have a lot to do with the overwhelming hostility to women and non-straight people at the STEM-focused school I voluntarily decided to attend. The fact that a lot of people who enter college as women in STEM do not graduate with STEM degrees is not about socialization of children, but socialization of people old enough to buy guns and vote. I was explicitly told that I shouldn’t be studying CS or Physics if I couldn’t deal with the gendered cultures of those latter majors. I doubt that the “early childhood socialization” of people in Management was an order of magnitude more tolerant than in Computer Science. Rather, I accuse the adult humans in Computer Science of building a more toxic culture to such a dramatic degree that roughly an order of magnitude more women graduated from Management than from CS from the same university in the same years – when both majors required large project-based learning, being highly organized, attention to detail, and willingness to do difficult work. Management is where women told other women to go when they couldn’t deal with guys in STEM any more.

        I was super enthused about STEM when I went to school for it! Then I met dudes in STEM. Then I failed out.

        1. Tim Chevalier

          I doubt that the “early childhood socialization” of people in Management was an order of magnitude more tolerant than in Computer Science. Rather, I accuse the adult humans in Computer Science of building a more toxic culture to such a dramatic degree that roughly an order of magnitude more women graduated from Management than from CS from the same university in the same years

          Yes, this. That whole “building the toxic culture” thing requires ongoing effort to maintain. That means it can be addressed without changing how kindergarten works. The “reduce the problem to one you know is unsolvable” strategy is cool if your goal is to maintain the status quo, but it’s disingenuous.

          I don’t know how changing early childhood socialization would have changed the behavior of the adults in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties who made UC Berkeley a place whose environment (at least in my time there) was repellent to most female computer science Ph.D students, causing them to drop out for the reason that they couldn’t function in a “testosterone-driven” environment. Likewise, I don’t know how changing early childhood socialization would have deterred a twenty-something CS grad student at Portland State from sexually harassing another grad student, or made several fifty-something faculty members not ostracize the person who protested it (me) rather than the student who made rape threats. These are behaviors that adult men learn, and that they continue engaging in because other men reward them for it. Adult men have free will; they can choose to stop doing these things, and are not just robotically acting out a limited repertoire of behaviors that were fixed in childhood. As a man, I would feel really insulted if someone thought I couldn’t change my behavior to be less oppressive because any time later than age 7 is too late.

    2. Mary Post author

      I actually talked about this a little more on the wiki, at the new Pipeline article, although the wiki is not purely focused on technical careers, which do have a higher switching cost than, say, taking up attending sci-fi cons in your 30s.

      I can’t get into it very much more right now because I want to back off and read some of the research and then up, but aside from Tim’s point, the vicious cycle problem in which girls will see very few adult women in a career, and get the message that there’s probably something there that they should avoid is apparently something pretty real that suggests that initial entry into the pipeline is not the only problem.

      In addition, thinking of technical careers as something that are an independent pathway that you embark on young is probably a bit of the problem: there are more and more demands for, for example, librarians and humanities researchers (women-dominated fields in some areas at least) to acquire both quantitative skills and actual programming, without in fact switching careers. Programming is becoming a mid-career skill-up for existing careers for many people. And those people can find geek culture, when they encounter the edges of it for the first time (of course, some are geeks already), very alien and frustrating and the norms around sexism especially so. (As an example, say they learn Python as a tool for work, and follow the directions to the mailing lists and IRC channels in order to get help, that’s how they end up dropped into open source culture.)

  4. Jay L. Gischer

    I commented on the Maya thread, and few others. This seems to be the place to explain why.

    I’ve had a long career in tech, starting in the 70′s. At nearly every step of my journey, there were technical women. One job, lasting two years, did not. It was probably my least favorite technical workplace.

    I never wanted those women to make me a sandwich, I wanted them to make me a compiler, or a filesystem. As I would do for them.

    I’ve been reading this blog for about a year. It’s in my rss feed, I read every post. You introduced me to the term “kyriarchy”, for which I am most obliged. Most of the posts don’t feel like it’s appropriate for me to comment, as a man. The reasons are varied.

    If you are to be free, you don’t need the likes of me to give you your freedom. That would simply reinforce the kyriarchical power structure.

    And when I agree, I personally prefer to avoid “Me too” kinds of comments, they seem pretty banal.

    At other times, if I disagree with a point, I fear that my comments will be dismissed, or understood to be “derailing” or “mansplaining”. I think this stems from the idea that there is no established relationship, and consequently no trust, between myself and the other commenters.

    The result is that the blog, in relation to its commenters, seems to me like it’s mostly in the vein of “women discussing among themselves”. I find I don’t mind that, you need the refuge and the space to do this, to just fulminate and process your experiences.

    In short, I support what you do, read the blog faithfully, and consider myself an ally. I hope you wil too.

    1. Mary Post author

      Listening and not talking is definitely an important part of being an ally, and to be fair, it probably is appropriate for a large number of posts on this blog, which do tend to be places for people who experience sexism to express themselves.

      But, it’s not the only part of being an ally, and in some places (perhaps not here, for you) speaking up to say that you support people who are pointing out systemic problems in your communities or places of work, and saying to them “if you can use my help, it is available” is another key part.

    2. ConFigures

      If a man commenting seems to be speaking in conversation to equals, rather than explaining/lecturing to presumed-to-be-ignorant lower-down women, I don’t tend to experience that as mansplaining, fwiw. Especially if they’re not popping out with very simplistic “solutions” that are unoriginal and unhelpful or assume their experience must be the same as ours, etc. Asking oneself first, “is it possible someone else has said this before, and what might be some problems with my question/suggestion?” is helpful.

  5. quill

    In my experience, this situation for geeky women is a can’t-fucking-win a lot of the time.

    Either one is damned-if-you-do, because you’ve played nice and been sweet and not caused a fuss, in which case some dudes are willing to consider you the Chill Girl so long as you keep doing what you’re doing. If you speak up about having trouble enough women will feel betrayed by the ways you distance yourself from them as a Chill Girl and enough men will consider you to have instantly lost your Chill Girl status that you’re pretty much screwed.

    Or you’re damned-if-you-don’t, because if you speak up about these things frequently you’re the scary, strident, angry, mean feminist killjoy horrorterror and a) a lot of dudes just want you to stop talking and go away and b) nobody is willing to entertain the notion that you need support and reassurance like everybody else, because feminist killjoy horrorterrors are indomitable and immune to damage.

  6. Beth

    For me, I think the difference is that when I see a young girl dealing with bullying or stereotype threat or low confidence or any of the other myriad things that all geek women deal with at one time or another, I’m looking at my younger self. A girl who hasn’t yet completely internalized inferiority or experienced the loss of innocence that comes with being treated unfairly and with no recourse by someone with authority over me. And I hope so desperately that she will have it better than I did if I can only somehow protect her against getting talked out of being who she truly is.

    OK, gotta stop, I’m crying in public now.

    1. whatsername

      This is my thinking as well.

      Right or wrong, I think when we see bad things happening to children there’s this feeling that it’s somehow so much worse than things that happen to adults. In some ways I think this is valid, in that children have far fewer life experiences and emotional resources to draw on to help them get through rough shit.

      On the other hand, I think there is also this dynamic that says grown ups have ALL the experiences and emotional resources we need to get through rough shit, and so we don’t need as much support, and interest/empathy/comfort reaching out wanes. And in some instances I think it’s definitely true that we have an easier time saying bullshit is bullshit, instead of internalizing it. BUT sometimes that’s also DEFINITELY not the case. And that loss of empathy is something we should talk about more, and try and figure out.

      All of which goes along with what Mary wrote in the OP, but I did feel like this element was worth drawing out more.

  7. Alan Bell

    A lot of the comments on the little girl threads would have been perceived as “me too” duplicative comments or would have been perceived as inappropriately patronising in the context of a regular article. I suspect they would have (rightly) not got through moderation. This doesn’t mean that people are not thinking supportive thoughts, or wishing they had been in the right place at the right time to have a word with the person who did the equivalent of saying girls can’t have a star wars water bottle.

  8. Restructure!

    I think the Wednesday Geek Women posts are the most unread, because the title format (“Wednesday Geek Woman: [FirstName] [LastName]“) is boring. As a former Digg’er who figured out how to game the system to get some of my submissions at the top by manipulating variables, etc., I found that well-crafted titles were the most important. For example, two identical submissions to the same same story, pointing to the same webpage, can have wildly different views and diggs (2 diggs versus 100+ diggs), because of the wording of the title. I prefer propositions as titles, like, “[FirstName] [LastName] [verb phrase]” rather than just “[Noun phrase]” (no action). It’s really better to give everything away in the title.

    Another reason why people empathize with girls over women is that children are allowed to be weak, but women are not. Most men believe that women are allowed to be weak, but men are not. However, in computer geek culture, weakness means mental weakness means being emotional means not being part of geek culture. When female geeks complain about sexism, there are components of (male and female) geeks who view it as the woman not being a good fit for geek culture, because she is allegedly too emotional and weak.

    For example, when women complain about receiving abusive comments IRC, the typical male response is “men receive abusive comments too” and that the problem must be that women are too weak to deal with what men receive regularly. The reality is that female IRC nicks receive 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than male or gender-neutral IRC nicks. Many men cannot even fathom the possibility that women’s lives can be harder than men’s. Many men believe that women must live our lives in protective bubbles because we must be delicate flowers, and that men’s lives are so much harder than women’s, because men are allegedly the stronger sex.

    Basically, when women complain about sexism, Confirmation Bias is activated, and it’s interpreted as women being weak and not geeky enough.

    1. Mary Post author

      I think the Wednesday Geek Women posts are the most unread, because the title format (“Wednesday Geek Woman: [FirstName] [LastName]“) is boring.

      I’m a bit puzzled by this, they haven’t had that format since January 2011 (Karen Spärck Jones is the first changed one). It’s possible they could still be livened up (eg verb phrases instead of noun phrases, although a lot will be past tense since the subjects have died, eg “Karen Spärck Jones, invented major search engine ranking algorithm”).

      But I’m not clear whether your critique is a year and a half out of date, or whether there’s something I’m missing?

      ETA: we have indifferent analytics that have since changed, but I don’t recall off the top of my head a major change in click rates at that time.

      1. Restructure!

        Yes, the titles have improved since January 2011, but I was generalizing about Wednesday Geek Woman posts as a whole, to point out another factor other than the women-versus-girls variable. I thought you were comparing the average Wednesday Geek Woman post with the average geek girl post.

        “Karen Spärck Jones invented a major search engine ranking algorithm,” or “Karen Spärck Jones invented the Inverse Document Frequency measure,” (without the “Wednesday Geek Woman:” prefix) would be more like what I was suggesting. However, “Computing is too important to be left to men.” (quotations included) would be a more intriguing title than the others.

        Sorry for the derail.

        1. Mary Post author

          I’m comparing the average WGW posts (IIRC about 150 page views) with the average non-WGW posts on our blog (usually around 1000–3000 page views, with high points on the order of 30000 IIRC) actually, rather than specifically the “help a geek girl” posts.

          It’s not a totally fair comparison, since the WGW posts aren’t calling for action, but my impression is that they’re usually used for defensive purposes (“oh the GF blog has positive stories about women, they aren’t all negativity”) as opposed to actually being read by many people.

    2. Mary Post author

      Sorry, additional reply: I think I altered the titles on your suggestion originally. So thanks for that.

    3. Julia

      It’s not the geek culture. Go anywhere online with a female nickname (or make your gender clear), speak openly about something and you will be punished. Try to go under a neutral nickname and see the difference. I had up to 50% abusive trolls under a female nickname in groups such as customers service, real estate and even law and human rights; both genders equally represented trolling! Interesting enough, that it’s not chronic trolls who troll everybody, teenagers, or a privileged group. The same people who just had a civilized talk about legal issues being treated unfairly based on race / age / national origin / creed / gender(gender=male), go nuts when a woman brings up legal issues such as harassment or not hiring women for a particular job; all in a perfectly emotionally detached context of a law discussion group. This woman is told having problems HERSELF and is attacked into quitting the topic (and the group). Now, tell who’s going “emotional” in this case, and what’s the business of all those people going out of their way into the topic where they have nothing else to say?

    4. Lindsey Kuper

      I agree that the current Wednesday Geek Woman post titles (“Wednesday Geek Woman: [Firstname] [Lastname], [Description]“) are not particularly catchy. That said, whatever they’re called, it’s probably just the nature of blogging that WGW posts are going to get less attention than opinion pieces or pieces that discuss current hot issues.

  9. EROSE

    I guess I do make a more specific point of supporting geek girls when I can. I remember how powerless you feel when you’re young and haven’t developed your armor quite yet. At that age, anyone’s encouraging words would have made a lot of difference to me. If there’s a little girl out there as picked on as I was it triggers the urge to do what I can to make it easier for her. Plus, a lot of kid posts (like the Maya one) are someone’s parent specifically requesting support, which can feel more comfortable for me than offering it unsolicited to a total stranger.

    That said, I’m also the last person in the world to let some of the nonsense bile geek women get in comment sections stand unchallenged. I’m definitely not willing to let a fellow geek woman face the trolls alone.

  10. Alice

    Great post!

    I’ve been thinking about this on and off for awhile. In addition to some of the reasons you’ve suggested, here are a few I’ve considered:

    * At some level, encouraging adult (potential) geek women is perceived as threatening to those already in geekdom. More women means more competition. Being more “women-friendly” probably means modifying parts of geek culture that those already thriving in geek culture like and/or benefit from and/or have perceived as essential to geekdom. Encouraging girls is not as immediately threatening.

    * Supporting women sounds like “special treatment” for women, which some people are uncomfortable with for a variety of reasons. Giving girls more opportunities can easily be done in conjunction with giving boys more opportunities. That is, it can be age-related, not gender-related. Helping kids discover what they can do is normal; helping adults (male or female), far less so.

    * The “geek girl problems” seem more tractable and the “geek women problems” comparatively hopeless. I see this a lot from geek women themselves, as if we’ve somewhat given up ourselves/our generation(s). People are probably more inclined to address a problem area that they think they improve rather than one where they think they can’t make a difference. Especially when so many people cite early formative experiences that got them into (or turned them off of) tech, people (men and women) are hesitant to change careers later in life, etc, it becomes easy to conclude that it’s just too late to help most adults, but that a little effort can make a big difference to a kid. (Also, “geek mom problems” are hard.)

    * Possibly more geeks know — or know that they know — potential geek girls than (potential) geek women. There’s also the notion of “geek dad”. I’ve seen several geek guys become interested in geek girl and geek women(!) issues after having having daughters.

    I’ve also noticed people/companies seeming more interested in improving recruitment of women than retention of women. I wonder if the reasons are somewhat analogous.

  11. Darren M

    I think there are a few reasons, but two strike me particularly close:

    First, kids are defenseless. Or at least more defenseless than adults. I think a lot of us geeks remember what it was like being picked on, and how ill-equipped we were as kids to deal with it, and so it pulls on our empathy to see geek kids picked on to the point of abandoning or hiding their geekdom. And it bothers us a lot more than when we see adult geeks getting “picked on”, because I think we unconsciously have a bit of “well, they made it through as kids, they can suck it up like the rest of us.” Not saying it’s right, but…

    Second, some of us have kids. I know I’m much more affected by stories of geek girls in trouble because I have two daughters who are showing early signs of geekiness, and I can imagine them going through the same things. I can’t be the only one.

    Maybe you’re right that we as a community don’t pay enough attention to being supportive of geeky women. But I don’t think it’s terribly productive to focus on the idea that girls get “more share” of support than women; rather, what about some ideas for how we can use the template that’s successfully supported geek girls to get geek women more of the support they need?

    1. Mary Post author

      There’s something troubling me about “some of us have kids“: the phrasing kind of implies that there’s some kind of “only people who have kids get this” thing going on. I don’t think so. I actually also have a kid (a toddler son), and yet I wrote the OP. The sets of “people who understand the need to leave messages of optimism for geek girls” does not equal “parents”, and the set of “people who are critical of this dynamic” does not equal “childless/childfree”.

      I’d probably dispute that the support of geek girls is “successful”, at least without criteria. It’s very visible, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s working. Obviously we’d need to define ‘working’! Improving the emotional state of girls in the short term or long term? Increasing their participation in geekdom, and if so, for how long? One of my critiques about this probably boils down to we actually need to be doing something that works, otherwise these giant threads of huge support is basically people making themselves feel better. (Not that making yourself feel better is wrong, but doing so while pretending it’s altruistic is a concern.)

      1. Darren M

        the phrasing kind of implies that there’s some kind of “only people who have kids get this” thing going on.

        Not my intent at all! My point was only that that is one factor for some people in why they might be more sensitive to “geek girl” stories than “geek women” stories. Men who have daughters are likely to have more empathy for a geek girl (through the lens of their own kids) than for geek women, because they have a frame of reference through that bond.

    2. Tim Chevalier

      I know I’m much more affected by stories of geek girls in trouble because I have two daughters who are showing early signs of geekiness, and I can imagine them going through the same things.

      I have a huge problem with this line of reasoning as it excuses the phenomenon of men not caring about women’s issues until those issues present a problem for girls or women who they see as property (their children, wives or girlfriends).

      Also, it suggests that men who don’t care about feminism until they have daughters will empathize with women to the extent that they see those women as analogous to their young, female children. Infantilizing women and treating them as in need of protection rather than greater autonomy is not the kind of help that I think any adult woman actually wants. There is some evidence to back this up: for example, men who are married to women who don’t work outside the home treat their female colleagues like their wives. It’s not hard for me to imagine that a man whose only lens for understanding feminism is “I wouldn’t want my daughter to be harassed/etc.” might start acting like women are his children.

      1. Darren M

        First of all, an observation isn’t a line of reasoning.

        Second, caring more about an issue because it affects people I care about has nothing to do with “property” status. I started caring more about gay rights when I had close gay friends. I started caring more about a host of kids’ issues when I became a father.

        Third, explaining why a geek Dad has more empathy for children than adult women is not infantilizing anyone. Quite the opposite, actually.

        You know, I get increasingly frustrated at feminist conversations, because every time I share an honest perspective as an ally, I spend far too much time dealing with vitriolic white knights and bigots who impugn my motives and commitment. You’re just another example.

        1. quill

          I agree with Tim that there’s some problematic stuff in your argument.

          Allow me to “impugn your commitment” more extensively. I think your response to Tim is really gross, and it very strongly suggests you’re not actually an ally. You are, it seems, only comfortable supporting people who do not challenge you – like your daughters and your gay friends. It sure sounds like anyone who is “vitriolic” enough to think for hirself or actively demand equal treatment is too mean and willing to question your privilege to deserve respectful treatment from you.

        2. Tim Chevalier

          If you have to call yourself an ally, then you’re not one. In this comment, actually, you’re engaging in mansplaining, which is very much the opposite of being an ally. If you want to center your feelings as a cis man, there are many other fora in which you can do so. This is a forum that centers women.

        3. Mary Post author

          You know, I get increasingly frustrated at feminist conversations, because every time I share an honest perspective as an ally…

          Taking this at face value — ie accepting your identification as an ally, although in a moment you’ll see why I’m critical of it too — much of the work of an ally is not sharing your perspective, it’s critically interrogating it. OK, so it’s a fact that you started to care more about geek feminist issues when you realised your daughters might be affected by geek sexism issues. Right. Facts are facts, fine. But the next question is: do you think this is a good thing, that you or other geek men went for quite a bit of your life not fully “getting it”? Should they come to it earlier than when they have daughters? Can we expect as much of geek men who never have daughters (and let’s also include, geek men who never experienced significant bullying, they exist!)? If not, isn’t that a bit of a problem for geek feminism, that we can (for the sake of argument) expect significant support from fathers and bullying survivors and perhaps not from others? As an ally, can you assist in changing this dynamic?

          Generally speaking, the perspective of privileged people (men, in this conversation, and all adults since the age axis is visible!) gets shared a fair bit. Stating your perspective is therefore not nearly as valuable as interrogating it, and moreover, can easily come across as “This is my perspective. This is How It Is. Deal.” And that’s not ally work.

        4. Darren M

          do you think this is a good thing, that you or other geek men went for quite a bit of your life not fully “getting it”? Should they come to it earlier than when they have daughters?

          No, I don’t think it’s a good thing. But I think understanding it can help with something else you talk about:

          If not, isn’t that a bit of a problem for geek feminism, that we can (for the sake of argument) expect significant support from fathers and bullying survivors and perhaps not from others? As an ally, can you assist in changing this dynamic?

          I do think it’s a significant challenge for geek feminism. But I think that the tendency of people to care more about people they can more strongly empathize with (in this case, geek men with “picked on” kids and geek dads with daughters) can be leveraged in a positive way.

          Sweeping social change is hard, but small local change is… well, not easy, but less hard. I would love some input from the community on what’s helpful in this regard — the only things I’ve come up with so far are:

          Putting a relatable face on geek women who need support. I’m not exactly sure *how* to do this, but spending some effort attempting draw attention to things a given woman in need of support has that make her more identifiable could garner some additional support. Unfortunately, that technique is a little manipulative and doesn’t address any underlying issues.

          Helping others to care. As a geek dad, I often talk about not only how awesome my girls are (they’re two, and they already hacked our safety gates!), but also how I worry about them growing up in a world where they might have to choose being “socially acceptable” over hobbies, careers, and interests that would make them happy. But this only really works with people who care about *me*; and I don’t know if that’s enough.

  12. Darren M

    See, you’re making my point quite clearly. I never made an argument. All I said was “I think this is why I tend to be more sensitive to girls’ issues, and I bet there are others like me.”. I didn’t say it was right, or ok, or that it was even excusable.

    And instead of having a conversation, I was attacked I don’t care about agreement, buti don’t appreciate being told I’m not an ally at all because of your biases in reading my comments. You don’t know me.

    You say I’m not supportive because I *explained* a perspective on why the challenge outlined on this article exists. Tim jumped from “I empathize more about things that affect people I know personally” to accusing me of viewing my wife and daughters as property. I was accused of infantilizing women for observing that women’s challenges and girls’ challenges are perceived differently, which is the exact opposite of infantilizing.

    That’s not disagreement. That’s attack. Shame on you.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Mod note: Darren, your comments certainly qualify as derailing; please familiarize yourself with the Geek Feminism comment policy. If you continue to engage in derailing, you will be banned; this is the only warning you will receive. Please also see what it means to add nothing to the conversation and try to make sure you’re adding something. If you actually are here to learn rather than to make the discussion about yourself, see the wiki’s list of resources for men.

    2. Lindsey Kuper

      Darren, the purpose of Tim’s comment wasn’t to attack you. Rather, it was to unpack and more closely examine a couple of the issues raised by “I wouldn’t want my daughter to be harassed”. Your comment happened to offer an opportunity to begin that unpacking and examination. I’m glad that Tim brought it up, because I hadn’t thought about that before. Allow the conversation to continue, and you’ll see that the point is for us all to think and learn and challenge our assumptions — not for anyone to say, “That Darren M is an awful person who infantilizes women!” It seems like you’re reacting to an attack that never happened.

      1. Milka

        [Removed meta-commentary on the tone of other people's callouts in the subthread, it's derailing. ~ Mary]

        My initial reaction to reading this article was thinking that I probably feel more strongly about geek kids getting bullied than geek adults getting bullied because the kids are so heavily tied to their school environment compared to adults, and as such can’t choose their company the same way adults can. I want to try and be supportive to their struggle in finding what they enjoy, because they might spend eight hours a day in a place where everyone who strays from the norm is bullied to the extreme.

        Or maybe it’s just like the headline says; maybe I just instinctively feel more protective of the young and cute. It definitely needs more thought.

      2. EROSE

        This, pretty much re: “attack.”
        As much as I’m glad that someone’s daughters can be the catalyst for a positive outlook change, I tend to distrust that general narrative.
        It can smack of “look, some of my best friends are gay, I’m not homophobic” no matter how good the intentions are – ie: serve as a mental crutch to avoid examining the implications of the words that follow.
        Also, I’ve never heard a man say he had that a-ha moment after his work colleague dealt with these issues, or when a woman in a bar called him out. It’s worth asking whether the reason some men feel comfortable relating to feminism through their daughters is because it doesn’t require their father to examine his own spheres too closely. It’s almost a way to make it personal without actually making it personal.

        1. Darren M

          There’s a big difference between men saying “hey, I’m a feminist — see, I have daughters”, and men saying “hey, I have daughters, and now this issue has become more important to me.”

          The former is clearly deserving of this criticism:

          It’s worth asking whether the reason some men feel comfortable relating to feminism through their daughters is because it doesn’t require their father to examine his own spheres too closely.

          But with the latter — which was my personal experience — it’s quite the opposite. Having two amazing girls placed into my care has made me contemplate my beliefs and actions even more closely than before, which has resulted in caring a lot more about issues I know they are likely to face. For whatever the reason, there’s something about becoming a parent that’s a big perspective changer for many people, and I think it’s unfair to lump in those who’ve had perspective changes with those who are claiming identity based on the mere fact of their association.

          To go back to the “gay friends” comparison, there’s a big difference between “I’m not homophobic: I have gay friends”, and “you know, I pretty much ignored gay rights issues until I made gay friends and that challenged a lot of my preconceptions and forced me to think about why I was ignoring those issues”. (Again, speaking from personal experience as a man who grew up conditioned by his religion to look down on homosexuals).

          Put another way, becoming a father forced me to pay attention to things my privilege let me previously ignore, in much the same way that becoming friends with members of the LGBT community forced me to pay attention to issues they faced.

        2. quill

          Oh! Thank you, Darren, I get it now. And no, I recognize no difference in the statements you’re making and the statements you’re saying you’re not making.

          Geek girls get support because the fact of their youth makes them Chill Girls no matter what they do. Geek women – like queers you’re not friends with – who challenge your privilege as opposed to making you aware of the struggles they face – lack Chill Girl status and therefore your support. Challengers are scary, pitiable children or non-threatening friends are Chill.

          “I don’t care about queer people except the ones who are nice to me personally” and “I didn’t care about queer people until there were ones who were nice to me personally” and “I’m not homophobic, I have gay friends” and “I was too ignorant/lazy/bigoted to care about Those People’s struggles until I knew one of Them” parse very similarly to me.

        3. Darren M

          Geek women – like queers you’re not friends with – who challenge your privilege as opposed to making you aware of the struggles they face – lack Chill Girl status and therefore your support.

          Um, no. You still don’t get what I’m saying. Meeting LGBT folks made me realize that I had privilege I wasn’t fully aware of before that; this has made me more aware of — and more inclined to care about and try to do something about — those problems.

          Having daughters helped me be keenly aware that there are real inequalities I’d previously been ignoring, and therefore made me more active in attempting to address those issues.

          Just like Mary’s article made me examine why I had paid more attention to geek girl issues than to geek women issues and in turn share the results of that introspection with others so that they might understand at least some reasons why this phenomenon might be occurring.

          [Mod note: Derailing comments removed.]

  13. C

    Thanks for writing this! I think it’s an important discussion, and it helped me form my own thoughts on the topic. I wanted to write them here, but then it got so long I just turned it into a blog post instead: http://doubleteamcj.blogspot.com/2012/08/i-take-it-were-too-sexy-for-you.html

    I understand that there are a lot of reasons that Katie and Maya received more sympathy than adult women in similar situations often do, and you (and the commentators) did a great job discussing a lot of them. But I want to draw attention to another important component I think merits further discussion. Just as the reaction to bullying shifts if the victim is a woman instead of a girl, the nature of the bullying women face also shifts, with important consequences.

  14. EROSE

    I guess I do see some distinction, in that it sounds like what you’re saying is “once I knew people who could give me a different perspective, I saw what they meant.”

    I will say I think what I’ve been trying to point out – to the extent any of what I said was directed specifically at you, which much of it was not – is that if you’re going to bring up your daughters in this context, you do have to exercise a certain amount of care because it is a common and problematic theme in discourse around feminist issues. Recognizing the context and history of the conversations you’re entering and adjusting for them is a big part of being an ally.

    Nothing necessarily wrong with your daughters being your link to issues – as long as you also examine your own actions with your adult female peers, who are dealing with all of this right now. Many men who bring up their daughters in these kinds of spaces do not – which is part of what the original post was trying to point out.

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