Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

This is a guest post by Hannah Little. Hannah is a PhD student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before moving full-time into academia, Hannah spent some time working in the UK in science communication for government initiatives aimed at getting more children interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). She also has an academic interest in online engagement and the causes of gender inequality in STEM subjects. You can follow her on twitter: @hanachronism, or read more about her here.

First thing’s first, I don’t want anyone to think I’m writing this post as an attack. I realise a lot of articles about the topic of feminism are aimed at feminists who are “doing it wrong”, and I know that our effort and time is better spent targeting those not already convinced of our cause. Having said that, I thought the following worth writing as a cautionary tale for those organising events for women in technology, or as a way of instigating discussion of what events should and shouldn’t include.

Those who read this blog are probably already aware of “Geek Girl Dinner” (GGD) events, but for those who aren’t, these are events aimed at women who work in “geeky” professions to meet and socialise over dinner or drinks. They give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment. To quote the Geek Girl Dinner “about us” section directly:

The Girl Geek Dinners were founded on the 16th August 2005 as a result of one girl geek who got frustrated about being one of the only females attending technical events and being asked to justify why she was there by her male counterparts. She decided that she wanted this to change and to be treated just the same as any other geek out there, gender and age aside. After all to be geeky is to be intelligent, have passion for a subject and to know that subject in depth. It’s not at all about being better than others, or about gender, race, religion or anything else. Those things just detract from the real fun stuff, the technology, the innovation and the spread of new ideas.

Geek Girl Dinners have taken off in a spectacular way, and now have a presence in 53 cities across the world, including the city where I live, Brussels. Geek Girl Dinners in Brussels (BGGD), and across Belgium, are usually fantastic, always free and, of the ones I have attended, have created a really welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. The most recent one however, was an event sponsored by Samsung with a focus on the new Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. This event, which was first advertised on 11th October here, comes with the title “The Perfect Selfie” and features a hair and beauty session. My original comment in response to this event can be read below:

Am I the only one who finds this massively patronising?

Geek girl dinners are great, they give women in male-dominated fields an outlet for socialising with women in similar fields and situations, without feeling the pressures of a male-dominated environment, at best the constant feeling of having to prove your worth, at worst outright sexism. I love geek girl dinners.

However, inviting women to a female-only event at a tech company where the main focus is on a hair and beauty session and taking “selfies” of oneself is incredibly patronising. It comes with the implicit assumption that the only reason women (and women who work in technology themselves) would be interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom would be to take photos of ourselves making ducky faces in the mirror.

Not only is this creating citable anecdata that the only way to attract women to be interested in tech is by making it all about hair and makeup, but it also excludes those women (and they do exist) who aren’t interested in having their hair done, they want to check out the tech, and aren’t they the people Geek Girls is trying to reach in the first place? This is just reinforcing archaic ideas of what women/girls want and is not putting us in the best position to be taken seriously in an industry where women are already often ridiculed.

I’m reminded once again of the European Commission’s disastrous “Science, It’s a girl thing” video, which caused the world’s scientific community to give a collective face-palm.

I usually love Geek Girl Dinner events, but I won’t be attending this one.

You can see my concerns directly relate to the kind of problems that Girl Geek Dinners were trying to address in the first place, namely that women in science and tech want to be treated just the same as any other geek, and not in a manner specified by their gender. The thing that all attendees of Geek Girl Dinners have in common specially is their interest in the technology, not their gender.

Since I posted the comment above, the organiser of the event has contacted me both on the original post and privately. It should be noted that the event idea was that of the BGGD organisers and not Samsung. For balance, I publish the organiser’s public response here:

These events are open and free, which means you can choose freely to join one or not. There have been a lot of Brussels Girl Geek Dinners, and there will be much more. Some are female only, others are mixed. Some are girly, others are not.

It’s also open in the sense that the BGGD network itself helps shape the events. So if you can help with e.g. making the upcoming event less patronising, … etc please do so! I don’t think I would have been able to keep these events free and open for over six years without the help and effort of the network itself.

I think where we end up talking past each other here is the place of the socially constructed idea of “girly” in Geek Girl events. Some women enjoy girly things, so is it ok to create an event aimed only at those women? I feel that is excluding exactly the kind of people Geek Girl Dinners was set up for in the first place; those people who want to talk about technology and be treated the same as any other geek regardless of gender. Brussels Geek Girl Dinners even state in their “about” section on their website that “Girl Geek Dinners are events for females who class themselves as girly and geeky”, which I feel directly contradicts the sentiments on the main Geek Girl Dinners page.

I am glad that the organisers show willingness to allow suggestions and collaboration to build events that everyone in the community can enjoy, which brings me on to my next issue. After I posted my first comment, I got a private message from the organiser of BGGD saying that Samsung were wondering if they should go ahead with the event, presumably having noticed its potential to turn into a PR car crash. I obviously didn’t want the outcome of my complaint to be a cancellation of the event, a lot of effort had already gone into its organisation, and these events are important to the women within the GGD communities, and so I suggested that a redesign of the event’s agenda would be a far more productive way for everybody to have the best possible outcome. I looked up the specs on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, and it turns out you can manually override the exposure time on the built in camera, so I suggested to instead do a workshop on light-painting, which the organisers thought was a great idea. I was obviously really happy with this knowing that my ideas had been heard, understood and acted upon.

However, when the final agenda appeared here, light trace photography had indeed been added as an activity, but the hair and beauty session remained. I know this was probably done as a well-meant compromise, but the beauty session’s sustained presence on the agenda has made me feel like my point was still not being heard. Events perpetuating archaic gender-specific ideas of what women want have no place in Girl Geek Dinners. All we want is tech!

22 thoughts on “Should Geek Girl Dinners be “Girly”?

  1. Allison

    I wouldn’t say they should never be super feminine – after all, this is the only time geeky women can get together with other geeks and not necessarily have to do all the super manly stuff programmers often do on team outings. That said, something that feminine that’s also hardly relevant to the industry should only be an event if the branch’s regular attendees are in agreement that it’s something they’d like to do. I can understand fishing for fresh, new topics if you’ve been meeting for a while, and like the OP said, some women do enjoy it.

    1. J

      I’m curious about what the super manly stuff is- I am not a programmer, but I get questions from my programmer boyfriend about why there were special spa/salon outings for the women on his team. He noted that if the men on the team would have asked to be included in those events, the women would probably have said OK, but nobody did (probably both because the men didn’t want to go to a salon, and because they would have felt like they were intruding on something that wasn’t intended for them). Their team doesn’t have events designated as men-only or primarily for men. From what I have seen of his team outings, they are what I would consider gender-neutral (putt putt, movies, dinners, a day out of the office to volunteer building a hiking trail in a state park, karaoke). He works for Google. Are they really unrepresentative, and are there other tech companies that do more male-oriented activities? I am having trouble picturing what kinds of activities would be considered male-oriented. Football, maybe?

      1. Tim Chevalier

        Part of the problem in answering this is that women’s activities get marked as “female” (and men who would be interested in them get stigmatized or punished), but sexism means that men’s activities just get marked as being for regular people.

        That said, here are some men’s activities that I’ve either been part of, or knew that other people I worked with were doing:
        * Going to a bar and drinking a lot. (Yes, anybody could do this, but in practice, a lot of women might feel uncomfortable doing so given the number of men who believe that being drunk constitutes license to rape. While some men might also be uncomfortable doing so, for reasons such as religion or recovering from addiction, they do not share the concern about being raped.)
        * Going to a strip club. (This was an outing I was once part of in grad school. It certainly wasn’t official, but functioned as grad student bonding even so.)
        * Playing violent video games. Many women are certainly interested in these, but just as men might not want to join in a spa night, men might also assume that women wouldn’t be interested in video games that involve “killing stuff”, and not invite them. (Before I transitioned, I missed out on grad student bonding because I was excluded from this sort of thing.)
        * I used to work at an American company whose major customer was a Japanese company. When my more senior (and more male-presenting) co-workers visited that company, as part of business hospitality they got treated to outings involving, basically, visits to brothels. (I’m not sure what would have happened if any of these trips had included women who worked for my company, had there been any.)

        Of course, none of these things are things women are incapable of or uninterested in doing, just like men are perfectly capable of putting on makeup and doing their hair (and some of us are interested, or would be if social norms were different). It’s just that they would be punished for it if they did.

        1. J

          Wow, I’m surprised about the strip club and brothel. Even for an unofficial event, that’s bad.
          I see your point about drunkenness. It’s something I tend to forget because my work social events (as a federal agency employee where most of my coworkers are my parents’ age) are so far from involving drunkenness. I tend to forget that people would actually be willing to drink in front of their colleagues.
          Interesting point about video games– I assumed that the stereotype was that all women who are into programming are also into video games, whether violent or not.
          I think I’m a geek feminist though not a geek in the way this website seems to frame it, which mostly has to do with computer programming and video games and TV shows, so I am kind of an outsider to that part of the culture & it’s interesting to learn about it. I majored in math and I do lots of puzzle events and board games, but don’t have as much knowledge about the tech side of things.

      2. Daniel Martin

        As a SWE at a major tech company with a team-building event budget, I was once taken go cart racing with the (all male at the time) team in Burlingame, CA, (we were in Silicon Valley for other reasons) and then a few years later as my NYC-based team was being dissolved we blew the remainder of our team-building budget on a day of:

        – Shooting at West Side shooting range (*)
        – Lunch at an extremely nice restaurant that we were probably underdressed for, even after bringing shirts and ties for the men to change into after shooting.
        – Paintball at some place in Brooklyn.

        At the time, the team had five men and one woman on it. She, being also our resident foodie, chose the restaurant and made strong suggestions (that we accepted) for appetizers. (It was an incredibly nice meal; I wish I could remember the name of the place so as to go again.) It’s not much of a stretch to say that of the three activities that day, two were strongly male-gendered and one was specifically thrown in for K. (not her real initial) Yes, K participated in the whole day and she seemed to enjoy it but at the same time it was clearly a case of her being “one of the guys”, not “here’s a bunch of activities with no implication as to what gender most of the participants are.” Compare my most recent company spirit-building event, (different employer) which was loading ~90 of us onto a boat for a trip across the Seattle harbor that ended with dinner at Tillicum Village. Not really the same in the gender-signally undertones, even though that group was probably 75% or more male.

        (*) We all had fun, but no one could compare to the guy who grew up in Pakistan and did the equivalent of ROTC there. He was a scary good shot.

    2. Hannah Little

      In my experience (though this is not that broad) programmers don’t often organise “super manly” stuff if there are women in the company/society/group because they don’t want to be (or be accused of being) non-inclusive. Which is a good thing. Though as Tim says, this sometimes gets forgotten in environments where there are no women or in less-formal environments with less accountability, for example student societies.

      1. Selki

        Or even companies which pride themselves on their “relaxed” culture, such as my soon-to-be-ex-employer which tacitly condoned weekly management meetings at H00ters. Female mgrs were expected to suck it up and smilingly attend, or be left out. At some point this got shut down, but some mgrs still complain about the shutting-down of this “fun”.

        1. S.P.Zeidler

          someone ought to have suggested to hold every other meeting at a Chippendales show.

  2. EROSE

    That may be the case, but it’s not like the women who enjoy those things need to go to a tech dinner to get them. Leaving those things out of an environment where they aren’t relevant isn’t going to send any kind of negative message to the women who enjoy them in other contexts.
    The women who don’t enjoy such things have few options to escape the pressure to enjoy them. They fight that shit every single day, so having it suddenly intrude in a place that’s supposed to be shit-free is definitely going to feel alienating. A woman considering attending may never do so if this is the agenda she looks at because it’ll look like more of the same shit.
    Basically, women attending a tech dinner are going to expect the focus to be tech and a mutual interest in technology. Selfies have exactly nothing to do with that and this event sounds like a spa night thinly disguised as a tech event. There really is nothing wrong with being “girly” if that’s your thing, but there is something wrong with forcing a specific version of “girly” on an event where it’s not remotely the point, and on a group of women who would all have pretty complicated feelings about the ways they deal with “girly” in their regular lives.

  3. sparrow

    I mean, if what they mean is “we’d like to create space for people who are female, feminine, and interested in tech,” that’s fine, I guess. Femininity isn’t intrinsically oppressive and I think those spaces are valuable.

    My assumption is that anything called “geek girl” whatever is meant for other people. The ways that I present provide enough advantage in other areas that I’m okay with some spaces existing that are not for me. Certainly any space that is explicitly for “females who class themselves as girly and geeky” is outright announcing that it is for geeky people who are female and gender-conforming enough to identify as girly, and the girly geeks I know who aren’t female are no more welcome than the non-girly female ones. I’m not sure if they’re intentionally making this statement, or accidentally conflating gender and gender expression (i.e. assuming all females are girly).

    I am cautious about the GGD description, and about space where people are supposedly treated the same regardless of things like gender and age, though. I think it is emphatically false that “All we want is tech!” There are some people who would like to see their identities and experiences explicitly discussed, centered, and/or catered to when these things aren’t usually done. Much of the blogging on this site is about inclusion, accommodation, etc. – not just about tech, and not just about the ways we’re the same, but focusing on the ways our experiences are different. I think that kind of thing can be valuable and useful, too.

    I would like to see a balance of spaces and activities for very traditionally feminine women in tech and for people who have other preferences, including people who aren’t girls but care about hair and makeup, and people who are girls but don’t, and people who aren’t in either group. In isolation, I don’t have an issue with an event like this existing.

    The claim that this group has events that are female-only and not, and girly and not, rings a little hollow given that “About” statement and the most recent several pages. The repeated use of the word “female” also rings a tiny little “probably not a trans inclusive space” bell in the back of my head, but that might just be me. The website’s really intensely pink and the pictures of the recent event look kind of homogenous. They don’t say it outright, and this might not be their intent, but I get the vibe that this is an organization for professional cis white women.

    1. Hannah Little

      I had the same feeling about the repeated use of the word female, it’s possible it might be an English as a second language problem but it’s a discussion worth having with them.

  4. Caite

    I admit it, I’m a pretty boring cisgendered female who is sufficiently geeky that she has no idea how to put on makeup. But I’m also into feminine things, and wouldn’t find this terribly offensive, provided that it’s a once off and that the GGD occur often enough that having a something that plays to “girly” rather than “geeky” is a rarity. Because I do love tech, but I also love me some Bridget Jones and most of Meg Ryan’s ouvre. And while it’s not for everyone, sometimes I want to be the sort of girl who goes out for cocktails and shopping (and shoes!) and Galaxy S4 Zooms without being judged for being in my 30s and not being an expert on these things. Which is what happens when I try and partake of traditional “feminine” spaces.

    I want my “women in X” events to be inclusive, and sometimes that means they’re going to do things I just don’t care about. I may not go to the evening about “the latest programming techniques in niche language Y”, unless I feel like there’s enough socialising to balance my lack of interest in Y, and that’s okay, because the next one might be on “how to get ahead when one of your coworkers cannot look you in the eyes because b00bs” which is a discussion I’d like to hear. I want to have hair and makeup nights that don’t assume you know the difference between liquid and regular eyeliner, with a discussion of how femininity can be oppressive, and I also want to learn how to solder and build a tv-b-gone or annoyatron, and I don’t see why I can’t do both with the same group of geeks.

    The trick is finding the balance between the two types of events. I’m a Geek girl, but also a geek Girl, and I want a safe space to explore the boundaries and overlaps of the two.

  5. EROSE

    There is skipping a night because you’re not into the subtopic, and there is skipping a night because you don’t fit the cultural assumption behind it. Especially with something as socially complex as what it means to be “girly” or “feminine” and the assumed worth of different definitions, it’s actually less of a safe space to focus on just one version.
    There are people like me, who are just bone-tired of having to defend not wearing foundation. There are women from religious viewpoints where makeup is not acceptable, or who have a whole different definition of femininity. There are trans women who don’t have the luxury of “exploring” those boundaries because they’re focused on having their real gender acknowledged. There are women of color who find stylists not equipped for their coloring or hair style, or who have all manner of cultural baggage about how they’re allowed or not allowed to be feminine.
    They all may be interested in tech and join a tech group and want to learn soldering with you. But they may not be interested in being the geek women who put on makeup with you. And they shouldn’t have to either be those women or stay home to be part of the same tech group.

  6. Caite

    Of course, but not every meeting is going to appeal to every member of every group. I don’t see a path where I will be able to have kids in the future. There are all sorts of cultural baggage attached to that. Does that mean that the geek girl group shouldn’t have meetings on parenting and the issues involved in that, because I would have to stay home rather than attend and be ostracised?

    I’d hope that the organisers were taking things like race or trans issues into account when choosing their speakers/stylists. (I’m not sure how to get around religious restrictions on makeup, but again, maybe this night isn’t for you, or you can suggest a parallel or later meeting on the topic. I’ve been to a couple of hen’s nights where the focus of the stylist’s attention was on different ways to tie and pin your hijab, no makeup involved.)

    Being a geek is as multi faced as being a woman. I want my geek girl group to explore both sides of the equation, and the many different ways of being a geek and the different ways of being a “girl”. I want them to have steampunk sessions, python sessions, gaming sessions, soldering sessions, parenting sessions, gay sessions, trans sessions and religious sessions. Some of those meetings will be better attended than others, depending on the make up of the group.

    Yes, this group did it badly and handled being called out poorly. But I’m not sure that means the idea itself is bad.

    I want to be a geek who is also a girl. I spent my twenties convinced by society that it was only possible/permissible to be one of those two. Absolutely, other people have a harder time of it than I, but I don’t see the harm in having a meeting on how to apply make up in between the regular meetings on how to write good code, making cool things, and parenting concerns.

  7. Suzanne

    Besides the fact that I hate, hate, HATE taking selfies, I feel a little bit torn on this one.

    On the one hand, I like looking nice. I’ve attended the occasional Mary Kay party to support a friend. But I generally get a bit squicked out in events that center around “Oh, yay! Let’s be girly and do girly things and giggle about being girly because WE’RE PROUD TO BE GIRLY!” (Baby and wedding showers are usually a bit of an endurance test for me.) However, I also know that’s me, and my disposition, and clearly not true of all women everywhere.

    I think there could be some value to having an event be both obviously stereotypically “girly” and geared at geek women, just to show that people shouldn’t have to choose between a highly feminine gender presentation (if that’s their thing) and becoming really advanced in a geeky industry.

    But.

    At the same time, I can’t help but feel like there are lots of opportunities to get makeovers and hair-styling tips and bond with other women over expressing traditional femininity. As in, at most events ever marketed to women. If I were attending a “Geek girl” conference, I would hope for an event that majors on the geeky side of thing, and is “girly” mainly in the sense that it is an intentionally safe space for women. If I wanted style tips, I could go to a Mary Kay party.

    I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if the “perfect selfie” thing was an event, but I dislike the idea of it being the event, as it’s not particularly relevant to the geeky side of things, and there’s plenty of space for it elsewhere.

    My $0.02.

  8. Curly

    There is a difference between “this subject doesn’t interest me / apply to me” and “this subject alienates me.” Hair and make-up alienates me, because its someone else’s definition of femininity that’s been shoved down my throat all my life with plenty of fallout in attempting to attract a mate, define the parameters of social relationships, etc. Maybe throw in a workshop on house cleaning just to make the alienation really complete. If they even couched it a little differently, it might not be quite as bad. Like, “So you’ve decided to wear make-up to the big meeting; What now?” at least gives some flexibility to the model that feminine = hair & make-up.

    Regarding the divergent topic of “manly” social activities, those are lose/lose situations too. First of all, I won’t even get invited most of the time, but let’s say this is the exception. If it’s an activity I really enjoy such as paintball, then I have to hear all the surprised comments about what an “exception” I am, that I’m a “girl” who likes paintball. This category of comment can be tolerable enough the first gajillion times you hear it but gets really really old. I’m not an exception, I’m not “butch”, I’m not a “tomboy”; I’m just me. I am female and I don’t need anyone to tell me what that means. I’m sick enough of hearing these comments as a cis woman whose gender is not questioned by society… I can’t imagine what it would be like to constantly hear that crud as a trans woman.

    If it’s an activity that I dislike, such as video games, then I get to hear how I’m a wuss and I’m not cool and therefore “girls” are wusses and aren’t cool. (Yes, I like paintball, but I’m a wuss because I don’t like video games. Go figure.)

    If there’s a brothel involved, holy poop, I would call the police.

  9. Cindy

    I like the outcome of the final event and having both options. I usually find hyper-feminine activities very off putting, but I also think it’s not something that should be looked down upon. Why should taking selfies be looked down upon? Because it’s frivolous or vain? Women are expected to endelessly strive to be flawless and beautiful by society. It’s pushed and engraived into our brains on a daily basis. So women who’ve been told consistently that their worth is based upon appearance and like take selfies of themselves just end up being shunned and called dumb and frivolous? I’m glad there was a compromise and I’m not a big fan of taking selfies, but can we stop pretending that doing “girly” things makes you inherintly inferior or dumb?

    1. Hannah Little

      I don’t think anyone who’s commenting on this event thinks that doing girly things is inherently inferior or dumb. I said that some women like doing girly things and that is fine, and I really meant it. It is fine and I don’t mind geeky girly women getting together and doing girly things, or geeky things, or whatever they want to do. It’s all totally awesome and fine. What I and others are taking exception to is the presence of a very girly activity being presented as an inclusive (and very public) event for women in tech. It’s not inclusive and it’s not giving women in tech the image they need to be taken seriously, which is something which really should be considered in the current environment where women are often not being taken seriously in technology. This might be the result of society on the whole seeing girly things as silly and frivolous, which is maybe what your point is about, and maybe that should be changed, but given the public’s current perception and current attitudes, I think going overly girly is damaging (and non-representative) for the image of women in tech.

    2. EROSE

      I didn’t get that sense that the people commenting on this post believes “girly” is “inferior or dumb” at all.
      I did get the sense – and certainly I meant – that the most mainstream version of “girly” is one that gets used to make a lot of women feel bad about the way they are. For example, I personally grew out my hair specifically because every time I walked into a salon, I found a stylist who was only too willing to tell me some way I was failing at my own hair. If I didn’t need that every six months, why would I ever want it in a group designed to be a safe space for me?
      And my personal feelings are only the tip of the iceberg for reasons “girly” is a lot more complex than it seems.
      My point was that it a supposedly safe space is not the place to bring something that potentially fraught, not that there is anything wrong with being one of the women who would like it if it was there.

  10. Katherine

    All of the events that I’ve seen advertised by my local professional body as being ‘for women’ have been marketed as way too ‘girly’ for me: “an excuse to dress up” I hate clothes shopping, do not own clothes that are dressy enough for these, and do not feel like going to something if I am going to feel underdressed. However these are never ‘get your makeup done and take selfies’, usually they are lunches, dinners, or high teas.

  11. Goldie

    I think the “girl” word added to groups about women in tech is getting old. It’s like pink ribbons. It’s like a little crooked pinkie to your lips – you are a girl, tee hee!

    It’s all very amusing until you get to the age where you want to be promoted and your rise beyond entry level. Then you realize that to use the word “woman” is more powerful than pre-teen, pink girl power. You don’t associate career enjoyment with infantilization and being (girlish scream) a nonthreatening goofy girl.

    The only organizations that should use girl in their title should be high school groups at the oldest.

    1. Curly

      Yes!

      I think some people who would otherwise avoid “girl” when referring to adults make an exception for “geek girl” because of the alliteration. I think sacrificing alliteration is a small price to pay for not being called a “girl” by people who should know better. But maybe that’s why I’m not in marketing.

      I’m happy to say that no one has ever called me a “girl” at my workplace during work hours. I work in a tech field dominated by men; There’s a 10-to-1 ratio in my department. If these safely privileged male colleagues know better than to call me a “girl” in a professional setting, I expect female tech career support groups to know better too (and plenty do).

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