Geek Girls, Part 2

In my continuous Microsoft stalking (hey, I’m not obsessed with them, it’s just that they run half the universe, they tend to come up), I found this interview with Sarah Revi Sterling, one of Microsoft’s program managers for University Relations. I found her as I did some follow up to the article about the challenges of attracting women into computer science. While I, of course, always want to applaud efforts to get more balanced demographic representation in any situation, I think it’s again strange that Sterling talks about, among other things, how first, girls around middle school age turn away from computer science and related fields because it’s considered “geeky.” Then, when they enter college, they turn away because their academic curriculums fail to deliver on the promise of giving them a way to change the world through computer science. As a result, efforts like those at Microsoft aim to “de-geekify” CS and add a more practical, “real world” side to academic curriculums.

While there’s some truth to these ideas (as is the case with most generalizations and stereotypes), it’s strange to think that these goals are pursued because we’re trying to recruit more women into CS. Aren’t these goals probably pretty positive objectives when it comes to recruiting in general? You think women are the only demographic that is turned away because CS is considered “too geeky” or because introductory classes focus on theory without giving some real world perspective?

I think one of the more specific problems in attracting women in CS and other engineering fields is in the socialization of women in our society. Let’s face it– engineering, CS or otherwise, is a pretty geeky field. No matter how much we might like to make it require more “social” skills, much of engineering is a solitary pursuit. Moreover, no matter how much we want to make it “cool” (a new generation of geek millionaires helps with this, no doubt), it will always be geeky because it involves a body of esoteric knowledge that a small group of people understand and focus on. In this vein, library sciences or quantum physics or 12th century Romanian poetry or any other esoteric field are seen as equally geeky. And in the end, those who are immersed in the field embrace the geekiness anyway and no matter how social we are amongst ourselves or even with the outside world, techies know that there’s something different about our temperament and personalities in addition to natural technical aptitude that lead us into the tech fields.

But our society and culture views something less horrible about a male geek than we do about a female geek. For boys and later men, we’re more forgiving if they’re not as concerned with fashion and grooming and social networking and often times, many of the traits traditionally associated with geeky men– quiet, introspective, anti-social– are given a positive spin. They’re not anti-social, they’re “independent,” “loners.” They’re not quiet, they’re “reserved,” “mysterious.” Geeky men are considered eccentric and awkwardness is often found endearing, rather than repulsive. But for girls and later women, we’re a lot less forgiving. We’re expected to be interested in fashion and makeup and jewelry and we’re expected to spend a large percentage of time, whether we’re teenagers or adults, socializing with men as well as other women. More often than not, we’re defined by our social networks and our ability to socialize, rather than who we are. And with pop culture touting the virtues of the metrosexual man, we’re becoming more accepting of men who concern themselves with fashion and grooming, but we haven’t become that much more accepting of women who, for example, don’t wear makeup regularly or don’t wear “feminine” fashions.

Many comments on the above Channel 9 posting get into how it just doesn’t seem to be in women’s nature to sit in front of a computer for long periods of time. I think it’s more likely that we’ve been socialized to believe that and to believe that women shouldn’t sit in front of a computer all day long. Instead, we’re supposed to be talking to people, networking, making friends, meeting people, finding a husband, etc. To think that women are just naturally averse to spending large amounts of time doing tedious work is to forget the countless women who have worked through history (and continue to do so) in front of a sewing machine or on assembly lines or wherever else doing tedious, detail-oriented work for long periods of time. It may not be rocket science, but in many ways, it requires the same kind of temperament that crunching out code all day long requires.

But at the end of the day, what disappoints me the most is the tendency for us to make sweeping generalizations about men and women simply because at the heart of our arguments, we’re trying to do a good thing– even out the gender balance. We try to say that things are the way they are because women are this way and men are that way, but would we be so quick to make these kinds of statements if we were talking about, for example, racial imbalances? Would we say that there aren’t a lot of Asian people in the arts as compared to the sciences because Asian people are just inherently less creative and more analytical? Or that there are more professional Black athletes because they are naturally more athletic and less intellectual? In a rush to solve the problem, we end up doing more damage when we promote unfair and incorrect stereotypes.