She's Such a Geek: Women Write about Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff
by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders
A review by Keely Savoie
Geeks may be the consummate outsiders in our cliquey culture, having been seduced away from the social approval of their peers by powerful draw of obscure and technical topics. But if male geeks are self-selected outsiders, at least they have the company of their fellow geeks. Female geeks, on the other hand, who fall in love with male-dominated subjects, are a rare species. They often find themselves isolated, ignored, and made invisible within the hyper-male (if not hyper-masculine) geek culture, and are left to nurture their nerdy predilections without the camaraderie that supports many of their male counterparts. Female geeks are the outsiders' outcasts.
Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders created the anthology She's Such a Geek in part as a forum for female geeks to stand up and be heard. Newitz describes a crystallizing moment in the collection's conception when she and contributor Wendy Seltzer were introduced on a panel as "the only two chicks" at a computer conference, even as she looked into the audience and saw dozens of women grimacing at the slight.
As a longtime geek myself, I know it takes no small amount of courage, fortitude, and blind passion to endure, let alone flourish, in such a vacuum. She's Such a Geek fills that void with 23 tales from intrepid and undeterred women who gamely tell the tale of the issues they have had to confront. Newitz and Anders received more than 200 submissions for this anthology, proof that female geeks are yearning to break out of the invisibility society has thrust upon them. They did their best to select a widely representative group, from a synchrotron scientist to a gamer diva from a high-school student just beginning her life of geekdom to a professor whose career is built on carefully calibrated personal and professional choices.
Many of the stories recall a time when the bar for entrée into the geek world was set higher than it is today, before wireless broadband connections to the web and AIM became ubiquitous. A time when teen geeks had to dial up to computer bulletin-board systems and communicate through internet relay chat (IRC) and computer camp was unheard of. Contributors remember either pursuing their geeky passions in private, away from the disapproving eyes of parents and peers, or being encouraged by iconoclastic adults who taught them to break down the barriers of social expectations. Many recall a private epiphany, a moment when they realized that their geekdom was not incompatible with their femaleness. Corie Ralston watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and thought: "If you can imagine interstellar civilizations with galactic wormhole superhighways, why can't you imagine female astronauts?" Devin Kalile Grayson, the first woman to write and develop an ongoing Batman comic, came by her geekiness as an expression of what she calls her "most feminine, trusting, loyal, and submissive facets" -- her obsession with the ever-loyal comic-book sidekicks.
Unfortunately for many female geeks, the barriers to full-time, paid geekery are still high: The National Science Foundation found that in 2001, 56 percent of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering went to women, but women held only 25 percent of the science and engineering jobs. Subtle stereotyping has replaced more overt discrimination, and the fallout is increasing female attrition at every level of advancement in geeky careers.
Aside from job-related challenges, one of the biggest issues for these contributors is the special challenge of dating-while-geek, and the socially enforced dichotomy of sexy vs. smart -- or what one writer coins the Nerdonna/Whore complex. Nina Simone Dudnik describes her female classmates, who, stymied by the out-of-hand rejections from men intimidated by their academic prowess, pass themselves off as flight attendants, yoga instructors, or kindergarten teachers to get dates. Violet Blue takes matters into her own hands and searches for the perfect VR hookup in the online virtual world Second Life. Suzanne E. Franks recalls realizing that her study partners could do more for her than just improve her GPA: "Eventually I did realize that discussions of stress, strain, trusses, and friction could easily turn into experiments with elastic bodies." Ellen Spertus chronicles her evolution from being a "male-identified misogynist" who couldn't reconcile femaleness and intelligence to winning the "Sexiest Geek Alive" title wearing a circuit board–printed corset with a slide rule strapped to her thigh.
The diversity of contributors is reflected in the occasionally uneven writing, but even this drives home one of the overarching themes of the collection: Female geeks are everywhere, in every career, from every background. We are all around you.
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