Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nerd Girls, science-style

I feel like I've been derelict in my nerdy woman duties: I had no idea there was a group called Nerd Girls at Tufts University until Park Bench reader Trey sent over this article from Newsweek, chronicling not only this group but the rise of women who - gasp! - like science and are smart! I'm rather dubious of the fact that there's apparently going to be a documentary on them and am downright dismayed that the article makes the idea of smart, science-oriented women seems like a miraculous discovery on par with the Missing Link, but I like the idea that these women are working toward getting more young girls and adult women to show off their brains and embrace their smarts.

Something seems a bit sad and wonky about a paragraph like this, too:
Which may be one reason that many of these tech-friendly women are working their pumps so hard. They're trying to break down stereotypes by being as proud of their sexuality as they are of their geekiness. "Just because I get dressed up Saturday night, that doesn't mean I won't do better [than a guy] on a test on Monday," says Nerd Girl Sanchez. Turning geek into chic isn't always easy. It took Google's Spertus, who is 39, years before she could proclaim herself girl and geek in the same breath. But it happened when she won the award for "Sexiest Geek Alive," a now annual pageant that began in 2000 as a spoof of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Spertus beat out the men in her competition, and at her crowning, she paraded onstage in a corset made out of a circuit board and a high-slit skirt with a slide rule strapped to her leg. Still, some women worry that being too sexy could hurt them. At the San Francisco Girl Geek Dinner earlier this year, Leah Culver, 25, the developer of Pownce, a microblogging platform, described the extra efforts she's made to convince potential employers that despite being attractive, she's actually, like, competent. "I used to carry around a copy of my computer-science degree in my purse," she said. The ideal, of course, is having gender be a nonissue, and for a few, it is. "I consider myself a normal girl who happens to like math and science," Sanchez says.

It took Google's Spertus, who is 39, years before she could proclaim herself girl and geek in the same breath. Huh? What? So she had to prove herself hot before she could claim to be a girl? This is just so sad on so many levels.

This makes me even sadder, although the liberal arts side of me is cruelly thinking, wow, glad I didn't go into engineering (Which, yes, is at odds with my righteous indignity, but what can I say? I'm complicated.):

Forty years ago women made up just 3 percent of science and engineering jobs; now they make up about 20 percent. That sounds promising, until you consider that women earn 56 percent of the degrees in those fields. A recent Center for Work-Life Policy study found that 52 percent of women leave those jobs, with 63 percent saying they experienced workplace harassment and more than half believing they needed to "act like a man" in order to succeed. In the past, women dealt with that reality in two ways: some buried their femininity, while others simply gave up their techie interests to appear more feminine. "For most of my life I hid my passion for all things scientific and tried to focus on pursuits that were 'allowable'," says Cathy Malmrose, a Berkeley, Calif., mom who, at 38, is now the CEO of a computer manufacturer. "Instead of getting to play on my brother's TRS80 [computer] and study the sciences, I went into elementary education."

Why hide her passion for science? I just don't get this. I do think that the fact that the Nerd Girls are pushing the coolness of being a geek on young girls is a good thing because, based on my own experiences, sometimes the worst critics of nerdiness are other women. Yeah, guys can be cruel when you're young but I know that the worst ribbing I got growing up was from other girls who looked at me like I was the only three-eyed fish in the pond. So maybe, as sad as all these statistics and personal tales of nerd horror are, the rise of groups like this and the fact that it's in Newsweek, is a sign of good things to come.

What do you think?


techtigger said...

There's a severe lack of role models in popular culture for smart women. We need to bring back the old-school femme fatale, someone who always dressed classy, elegant, and always spoke their minds. Ladies who could go toe-to-toe with the men one minute, and wrap them around their pinky the next. There was never any doubt that they were smart as hell - that only made them more fascinating to the men in their lives.

I may not have the statuesque physique of the old b&w movie heroines, (far from it...) but that doesn't mean I can't learn a few things from them. Self confidence, *self respect*. I am 35, and I have never had to hide my geekdom, or dress like someone half my age to get the men's attention. Jack Palance had it right, confidence is sexy. That goes for women just as much as men.

oddharmonic said...

I was grew up in a microcosm of smart women role models, although I wasn't fully aware that it was planned until I was a teen.

While there are not a lot of role models in popular culture for smart women (does Abby on NCIS count? we love her and Dr. Brennan on Bones), there is no shortage of real-life role models for my own eight-year-old daughter. Just this year she's visited friends working at TI and was amazed by the sheer wave of female geeks at A-Kon back in May. She beamed with pride when vendors talked to her instead of through me -- just as well since they were usually talking about characters I only have a passing knowledge of -- and squealed when we saw Eurobeat King of

Camera Obscura said...

I long for the day when you neither have to dress like a geek to prove yourself as one, nor to dress like a supermodel to prove yourself female.

Twenty-eight years ago, the incoming freshman class at my engineering university was 50-50, but the overall school demographic was 4-to-1 male. Luckily it was the start of the 80s and nobody dared say or overtly imply that women couldn't do geeky jobs, and believe me with those odds, they were also interested (extra-curricularly) in your gender.

SFG said...

Y'know, it's funny. I've heard the other girls are often the worst critics of nerd girls and they are often happy to be surrounded by guys. Yet nancyroo (among others) has told of exclusion and harassment in the comic-book culture. Which one is it, or does it differ from place to place?

Techtigger: I suspect you're thinking of Katharine Hepburn? In general 'classy' heroes who are socially adept as well as intelligent aren't as popular as they used to be back in the fifties or so. That'd be different from creating a female absent-minded professor character. They are making Hot Female Scientists now in Hollywood, sometimes quite unconvincingly (remember Christmas Jones?)

And please don't beat yourself up for not having a Hollywood physique; you do realize they pick out these women out of literally millions and put them on stage, right?

The only convincingly nerdy female character I can recall was Hope Davis's Joyce Brabner in 'American Splendor'. Enid Coleslaw in 'Ghost World' might qualify.

Actually, a lack of confidence can bring out paternal feelings in men. I think whether men are attracted to confident or unconfident women varies with the man. I've met very few women who are attracted to unconfident men.