Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In Search of the She-Geek

She's Such a GeekI asked my 3-year-old daughter what would happen when she was a grown-up lady. The first thing she said was, "paint my nails." I asked what else. "Get a box of tools."

That's my girl!

As the dad of two girls I had long pondered the dynamic between nerdy and non-nerdy, where it applied to girls and women. Naturally I wanted my girls to be Class-A geeks so I created a dichotomy in my head where there were princesses on one side and geek girls on the other. What I have slowly begun to understand is that the two are not necessarily exclusive of one another. Why can't Rosie be a girly girl but also be smart and good with tools? Toward the goal of learning more about what makes women geeky, I read She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. Edited by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (who also edit the well-received science fiction and futurism blog io9.com) the book features a cast of genuine her-nerds from around the United States.

Before we get any further, I should point out that the book's subtitle is not entirely accurate. It should read "Women Write About Themselves." Which is fine! I read the book to learn about them, not about science and technology. Each of the contributors wrote a essay for the book describing themselves, their motivations, experiences, and passions. Some were math nerds, others built video games. The editors were careful to keep the spectrum as diverse as Sesame Street.

In some respects, geeky women are pioneers. Being a male geek in the '00s is something of an old hat; only the acceptance and coolness is new! But as the writers frequently described, entering this putatively male world was usually a difficult journey, combining genuine sexism with culture clashes and simple misunderstandings. In response they have taken geekiness and put their own spin on it. They defy male-centric categorization and in general cause a ruckus.

As with any group of people, you'll like some of these women and detest others. I found some overly boastful, while others wallowed in their own bitterness and disappointment. Chalk some of it up to gender difference -- reading about these women's romantic lives didn't interest me but might fascinate a woman. For the most part, however, I enjoyed the stories and felt like I understood, at least to a degree, what they experienced. My favorite essays were by gamer extraordinaire Morgan Romine and astronomer Aomawa Shields. Ms. Romine discovered the advantages of being a female gamer (hyper chivalry!) and used it to carve out her own online empire... literally. Ms. Shields' story could inspire anyone. After quitting her astronomer job and starting a new career, she unexpectedly got a second chance and grabbed hold of it with both hands.

Having finished the book, I find myself with new ammo in my quest to understand my maybe-proto-nerdy girls, and perhaps to encourage them a bit. Do I have all the answers? Nope. Do I have some of the answers? Maybe.

"Rosie, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A robot."
That's my girl!

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