Tag Archives: ask a geek feminist

Queer geeks, femininity and gender presentation

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

Here’s another clothing question, although I suppose that it could be expanded to gendered behavior in general. I’ve read geek women (on this site and other places) who find that wearing masculine clothing pushes others to respect their technical competence in a way that doesn’t happen when they dress femininely. I admire those who demonstrate that being awesome works just fine in a skirt, thanks. At the same time, I’ve been moving towards more masculine dress/mannerisms to see what types of gendered presentation actually work for me.

On the one hand, I want to explore the gender spectrum and see where I’m comfortable and what works. Where I’ve currently landed has the bonus (in some ways) of looking less like I must be straight. On the other hand, I don’t want to contribute to the meme that a woman in STEM has to look like a man to be respected.

I suspect this is another political/personal question, and that it might be a queer geek version of the more mainstream question of “How do I balance the expression of my own femininity and my desire that femininity not be mandatory for all women?” I’m looking less for advice here than for discussion and other perspectives.

Quick questions: women-friendly tech news, women-friendly open source projects

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions for our commenters.

Since these two are short and sweet and linky, I’m running them in one post.

Other than Geek Feminism, what blogs and sites do you follow for a steady stream of tech news? The best-known ones (Hacker News, Slashdot, Wired, TechCrunch) all seem very guy-oriented to me.

I don’t have a good answer to this. I tend to stick to sites where the articles themselves are fairly meaty and thus I don’t need to read or participate in comments. Thus, I read LWN for Linux and Free Software news, and, less often, Ars Technica. But LWN has had many a faily comment thread and I’ve never ventured into Ars Technica’s comments. Does anyone have better recommendations? Are there any tech news sites that have an enforced comment policy that’s feminist and so on?

Can you recommend an open source project I could work on that has a female-friendly community?

Some project leaders who want to be women friendly can be found in our post GF classifieds: Google Summer of Code edition, but I don’t think we’ve asked this question of Open Source participants and community members rather than leaders. If you, as an Open Source participant from occasional contributor to project lead, recommend your community to women, comment here. (Also, if someone recommends a project that you have not found to be women-friendly, you are welcome to reply to their comment.)

Apologising for success

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters. Questions are now closed, another round will run in early 2011.

Here’s my question: How does one deal with feeling guilty for doing well financially?

Even in this bad economy, I’m an IT geek in an expanding specialization, and doing quite well. I sometimes find myself apologizing for not being financially distressed. I’ve seen other geek women apologize for the same thing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man apologize (and most of them give me an uncomprehending stare when I mention the issue, because it simply does not make sense to them; or they understand, but can’t imagine why I would feel that way).

I’ve worked very hard; I was vastly underpaid for years (and I’m still underpaid, for that matter, just not as much so). Once my income improved, I mostly kept my frugal lifestyle and saved — a lot. I bought a house, while I’ve had friends almost lose their homes to foreclosure. I was unemployed for six months and, while I was emotionally stressed by being unemployed, I had plenty of cash to tide me through. I got a job and am rebuilding that cash cushion. I give to charity. I save for retirement. I buy stuff I don’t need. I pay off my credit card every month. I’m almost done with my graduate degree.

It makes no sense for me to feel bad for succeeding at what I’ve worked so hard for. But knowing this doesn’t stop the feeling.


Geekspiration of the fictional kind

Here’s an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our readers (questions still being taken):

Reading Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls prompted me to crystallise this question: where are the female role models for young geek women?

I’m thinking of characters who have genius-level IQs, coupled with a lack of social skills and, for whatever reason, an absence of Significant Other. There are plenty of characters like this: Sherlock Holmes, Rodney McKay, Greg House, Spock … but where are the women?

Where are the isolated geniuses who are married to their work? Where are the women whose ‘problem personalities’ are forgiven because of their talents / gifts / abilities / focus? Where are the women who are single and don’t give a damn because they have better things to do?

I’m probably missing some obvious examples: I’m not a big media consumer. Remind me, enlighten me! TV, movies, comics, novels all welcome.

A few possibilities, from a fellow consumer of not very much media:

  • Dr Susan Calvin, in various short stories by Isaac Asimov. She’s the leading research roboticist on fictional near-future Earth, and a key employee of US Robots.

    Unfortunately Calvin is one of those fictional characters who is a little better than her writer: Asimov lumps her with some unfortunate embarrassing romantic and maternal feelings occasionally, and the song and dance other characters make about their immense forbearance in forgiving her ‘problem personality’ gets a bit wearing. But nevertheless she’s a key fictional influence on the development of robotics, and the main character in any number of the stories.

    The character Dr Susan Calvin that appears in the 2004 film I, Robot is young, movie-pretty, sarcastic and really resembles Asimov’s character very little, but I quite like her also and still think she’s a fictional geek role model if you accept that she’s very loosely based on the Asimov character: she’s abrupt, literal-minded, a high ranking research scientist and, something I really liked, she’s not shown as having any sexual or romantic interest in the lead character at all. (Shame she isn’t the lead character.)

  • Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan in the Bones television series; if, crucially, you can ignore or don’t mind (or like!) the multi-season plot arc about her mutual attraction with Seeley Booth.

    Bones is a forensic anthropologist prone to social mistakes or at least idiosyncrasies, but key to criminal investigations due to her unparalleled anthropological skills. The writers apparently think of her as having Aspergers, but haven’t said it in the script because you can’t have Aspergers on Fox, or something like that.

    I’m actually not an enormous fan of this show for reasons that are irrelevant to this entry, so I’ll point you to Karen Healey’s guide, since she is an enormous fan and that’s only fair if you want to try it and see.

Who would you recommend?

Howto: Stop Worrying About Female Brain Hard-Wiring and Get Smarter

This Ask a Geek Feminist question is about stereotype threat:

What can I do when stereotype threat is playing games with my head?

To give an example, I once had to take an IQ test at school in seventh grade. One section of the test included rotating three-dimensional objects in your head. The test was designed so that each section starts easy and then gets progressively harder. It is supposed to get so hard that there comes a point where you can’t continue any longer and then the tester stops that section of the test. On that section of the test, I managed to hit a window on the score because I got to the very end, having correctly answered all the questions in the object rotation section. The tester, who did these tests for a living, was astonished and he said he had never seen anyone come close to getting all of them.

As an adult, I heard the stereotype that women cannot rotate three-dimensional objects in their head. I heard it many times. Since I started hearing that, I have lost my ability to do so. I’ve tried some rather basic tests on this skill and I can hardly do any of them.

What can one do about this sort of thing?

Continue reading

Where to after we do the required reading?

In my latest Ask a Geek Feminist round (questions still being accepted!), I wrote:

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

A questioner writes in response to me saying:

Actually I think it would be a very good idea to have another discussion of “What are some things each of us can do to help improve gender ratio in STEM?”

The resources page you link to is extremely valuable but it’s challenging to go from there to specific actions. I think there’s enough energy in the area that a post on this would be very well timed, and could highlight existing Geek Feminism resources.

Mainly what I want to avoid with that proviso is going around and around and around with the same theories and potential solutions that have been outlined, tried and discussed for years by hard working academics, activists and people on the ground as if it’s novel territory. (Because our comments policy doesn’t allow it, you don’t see it a lot, but we get a lot of “last week, I noticed that my CS class is 95% males, and then I thought about my sister and her friends and how they don’t like computers. Have you ever considered that women don’t like computers, Geek Feminism blog?”) But our questioner does suggest a different, more in-depth, tack to me. Thanks questioner!

So, for people actively working on women-in-STEM (science, tech, mathematics, engineering) problems, what have your successful approaches been? Are there any follow-up activities, groups or research you wish you could do but don’t have resources? Have you created resources that you are ready to share and are looking for takers? Could you provide expertise of some sort to related projects?

And on the other hand what looked good but didn’t pan out, and do you have any ideas why?

Tracking diversity at your conference

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question. Questions are still being taken this round.

This one came up on the Python Diversity list:

How can we gather data on the gender balance and other aspects of diversity at our conferences without asking attendees intrusive questions? Is having numerical data not that important? But without it, if our female attendance goes from (say) 150 to 180 or to 120, we might just eyeball the crowd and think, “Not enough”, not realizing that we’re doing something important right or wrong.

Skud, Terri and I had a conversation about this in comments last year, focussing more on making it optional than on doing it without questions at all.


How do you suggest tracking the diversity of speakers? Gender can be approximated but not perfectly measured by looking at people’s first names (especially if you don’t have an ethnically diverse conference) but in general the problem we have with linux.conf.au is that we can’t see how to do this well without a demographic questionnaire, which women especially have repeatedly said they don’t want to see because they feel like they will then attend the conference as A Representative of Womankind.


Yeah, that’s hard. Can you make the question optional, and link it to an explanation of why you’re asking it? Something like, “$conf supports diversity and is working on improving the mix of speakers at our event. To this end, we are trying to measure our progress. If you don’t mind, could you give us a few demographic details?”

If that’s still not culturally comfortable, you can get an approximation by just working off what you know. Eg. “Of the people we know, N are people of colour/from other countries/mid 20s or younger/whatever.” After the conference, you will know more of the people (esp. first-timers), and be able to adjust the figures accordingly.

We went on to discuss Australian/US/Canadian cultural differences, namely that Australians (linux.conf.au is an Australian conference) are used to, at best, much more limited demographic questionnaires from, for example, employers, grant funding organisations and so on than people in the US and Canada.

What do you think, folks? Do you attend events that use demographic questionnaires? How do they go down, culturally? Are they optional or compulsory? Is there a third way between that kind of measurement and educated guesses?

Ask a Geek Feminist, round 3

Welcome to round 3 of Ask a Geek Feminist! How it works:

  • if you’ve got a question you think a geek feminist could answer, post a comment in reply to this post. (Comments will not be publicly visible.)
  • about a week from now I’ll distribute questions to my co-bloggers and they can make a post with an answer to a question as they like
  • about a week after that I’ll choose some of the remaining questions and open them up to our commenters

Your question, if it appears in a post, will be quoted (possibly edited for length) but not attributed to you, unless you ask us to attribute it. Since we’re not making them publicly visible, questions can be about anything you like; however obviously if you stray too far from our comment policy the chances of ever seeing an answer are pretty slim. Check out previous posts answering questions to see how this worked before.

Questions do not have to be about feminism or or obviously feminist topics: they could be about geeky interests, about careers, about social life and so on. Given the name of this blog though, feminism might appear in the answer…

If you have a 101 (introductory) questions about feminism we suggest that:

  • you’ve looked over Finally Feminism 101′s FAQs and the Geek Feminism wiki’s 101 page to see if you can get an answer there first; and
  • you explain why you want a geek feminist, in particular, to answer this question. Do you think there’s a particular geek slant on this we might have or that our readers might like to discuss? The series is intended to produce interesting things for our community to think about and talk about, as well as for the questioner.

If your question boils down to “why are there so few women in science/computer science/mathematics/engineering/physics, and what should we do?”, we’re unlikely to answer, please see this list of resources to turn to.

Questions will be accepted until comments on this post close in about a fortnight. (I don’t want to accept them constantly, because of the work of anonymising them.) If you miss out and find comments have already closed, another round will run in a couple of months. You can also ask questions non-anonymously in Open threads, although they may not be promoted to the front page.

Geek men’s appearance, and related issues

These are Ask a Geek Feminist questions, to the best of my knowledge this concludes posts answering questions from rounds 1 and 2. Round 3 will be in a few months.

We got a couple of questions from the same person about how comments about judging (geek) women’s appearances relates to judging geek men’s appearances, so I thought I’d bundle them together. Since they’re so lengthy, you might want to directly quote the part you are replying to, as well, if it’s going to be at all unclear.

The first question was submitted late for the previous round:

I can understand women (probably, particularly geek women) not liking comments / compliments about appearance. That fits well with my own geeky worldview: that substance is more important than style.

But I also sometimes see comments from geek women suggesting that geek men should take more care over their own appearance / presentation. That one I can follow as far as “don’t be smelly” and “don’t be scary”, but beyond that, I myself go back to the “substance, not style” viewpoint.

I don’t think that the combined message is “Men’s appearance matters to women, but women’s appearance should not matter to men”, but I’m a bit confused as to how these two strands fit together. Perhaps the unwelcome comments about women’s appearance are about intrinsic appearance (body shape etc) but what some women are suggesting male geeks should pay more attention to is non-intrinsic appearance (the clothes over the body)?

I’ll admit that as I’ve got older (and my ASD aspects have been diluted) I’ve upgraded my habitual appearance from “don’t-care geek” to “somewhat shabby provincial academic”; I think it’s partly so I can pass as non-geek when it’s useful to do so.

There also seems to be a less frequently-asked question going around, about mostly-male geeky groups being more accepting of female newcomers who dress more geekily or gender-neutrally; I get the impression that this is sometimes an issue for women who don’t normally dress gender-neutrally. (My own, privileged, take on this is that it’s a good tactic to make allowance for the group you’d like to join, typically by presenting a view that suggests that your presentation isn’t a big deal to you, is a good idea for the stage when they’re forming their impression of you, and once you’re “in” you can dress as you like and no-one will think of you as an outsider; the geeks I know are pretty loyal once they’ve decided that a newcomer is genuinely a geek. But I’m worried, venturing into feminist home territory, of putting that forward as a suggestion (even though it’s only about tactics, not ethics), as it might seem
quite oppressive to some.)

I do understand (or get an impression, I hope not a sexist one) that this may tie in with women’s self-esteem / self-efficacy being typically lower than men’s, and competence in managing appearance / presentation may be involved with counteracting this.

And a flippant end part to this question, as I try reversing “men” and “women” in the original question: On the few occasions when I do wear a suit etc, women compliment me on my appearance. Is it OK that I’m not offended? ;-)

This round’s question:

This isn’t really one specific question, but I’d be interested to hear what Geek Feminists have to say about geeks, gender, and personal appearance.

I can understand about women often not liking compliments about their attractiveness from male obvious geeks, particularly as such comments are usually part of a clumsy attempt at picking up a woman, just any woman even if almost a stranger.

But then, I’ve seen observations (and even an experiment [Cheryan 2009]) about geekiness of computer geeks and their stereotypical environment putting women off from entering computing. (Now I’m not convinced that the stereotype Cheryan used is actually representative; I’ve been in a lot of computing environments and none of them had any Trekkie stuff in them!) Victoria Kirst also has a different take on this study.

But that only covers the “ambient belonging” factor of the rooms etc. I’ve also seen comments about the personal appearance of (male) geeks putting women off, and that’s the bit I really don’t understand. I have some very tentative ideas about it; for example, once (before feminism?), I think it may have been common for a woman’s social standing to be derived from the men she associated with (which might have just been father and brothers, and later her husband), and I suspect there are still people for whom this is true. Or, for a manipulative woman (and I take it that feminists, as egalitarians, will avoid manipulativeness, so again this is probably just addressing non-feminist women) it may be uncomfortable to have to interact with men whose psychological pressure points she doesn’t understand.

But any such things that I’ve come up with only cover small minorities of women, and don’t explain any general effect. Perhaps there isn’t a general effect? Perhaps (and I think there may be some truth in this) it’s mostly non-feminist women who have difficulty with non-mainstream men? And should geek men try to look non-geeky? Would it help with changing the gender balance?

And a smaller incidental question: are the women who’re uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky men also uncomfortable with stereotypically geeky women?

The questioner didn’t provide a full citation for [Cheryan 2009], but I’m assuming it’s:

Cheryan, S., Plaut, V.C., Davies, P., & Steele, C.M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical environments impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 1045-1060.

It is, unfortunately, paywalled. Most people know of Sapna Cheryan’s work through Lisa Grossman’s article Of Geeks and Girls and you can find a video of Cheryan talking about her work among the TEDx Seattle videos (direct links seem to be impossible).

Responding to essentialism

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question for our commenters.

Some of us are professional scientists, or are studying to become professional scientists (me), or like to read about science as a hobby, yes? How do we deal with the idea of biological essentialism (the idea that there are innate biological/psychological differences between the sexes)?

I started thinking about this after a particularly insulting pop-sci article. It’s worth noting that this article is insulting above and beyond the usual the “boys-trucks girls-barbies” dichotomy; this one never even considers the possibility of women having their own perspective. We’re just creatures with crazy brain chemistry that men must learn, so they can trick it into wanting them.

And what if there’s a grain of truth? Raven Kaldera’s essay discusses, in part, his experiences beginning testosterone supplements as part of transitioning, and he admits that he did notice changes in his psychology. Nothing that superseded his conscious thinking, but more than he expected. How do we objectively approach evidence of fundamental gender differences, however small? It frightens me a bit, both because it fuels some of the uncertainty I feel as a woman in a male-dominated field (irrational, I know, but still), and the related dread of others using such differences to justify inequality (I know that equality is not predicated on equivalency, but not everyone does.)

How do you respond to essentialism, evidence-based or otherwise?

Digging around from the Finally Feminism 101 FAQ But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? material may help.

Does anyone else have suggestions for accessible overviews of the actual findings of biology and psychology about sex and gender-linked traits in humans? Here’s some possibilities:

  • Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It about the neuroscience and behavioural findings about sex differences in young children, and the influences on them.
  • Anne Innis Dagg’s Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology. See Cory Doctorow’s review.