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).