Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Default Geek

Joey Heflich, aka @MrBalls, just published the results from a survey he put together to investigate a certain gender issue in geek culture. But before I discuss that survey and its topic, let me give the background behind the survey, at least as I understand it.

Last week, I saw a link from @TheNerdyBird to a recent post by Joey Heflich on Guerrilla Geek, titled "Not all geeks are misogynists". In it, he discusses some issues on the perception of women in geek culture.
Recently a lot of words have been thrown back and forth between people debating whether or not women are accepted in geek culture. Some say that male geeks tend to create hostile environments unwelcome to women. Some say that beautiful women dressing up as Wonder Woman aren’t really geeks and are only pandering to us. Others say that being a geek girl means being subjected to a lot of undue prejudice. Almost no one is saying that we’re all equals. It’s all a lot of ugliness, something not normally associated with our culture and it has to stop.
Given some controversies that have broken out in the geek online community in recent months regarding geek girls, this is a topic worth discussing, and the post received many thoughtful comments. One commenter pointed out that the use of the term "geek girls" where there is no male counterpart (few ever refer to themselves as "geek guys") may "invite some of the unwanted attention that some female geeks receive". This is a valid point--that when we use the term "geek girls" we necessarily set ourselves apart from geek non-girls--and the commenter recognized that the attention gained this way is unfair. I bear him no ill will. However, I was inspired to respond to the comment in an attempt to defend the use of the term "geek girl". It's not a term that I really used until I started making friends in the online geek girl community. Now I embrace the term, as I associate it with all the friendly, awesome, and geeky ladies I've met through these social channels.

My response to the comment wasn't the tightest argument ever*, but one of my points was that in the current culture, the word "geek" defaults to male. Thus, some may use the term "geek girl" as a necessary clarification. From my comment:
I was on the subway** this morning and there was this huge geek explaining to a friend what the “Han shot first” debate is and how it’s actually a bit of a misnomer.

Can you picture the scene? What does it look like? Is the geek a guy or a girl? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most likely, you’re picturing a guy. Heck, I’m even picturing a guy, and I’ve had this conversation myself in a public place. My point is that males are widely perceived as the “default” for geeks.
This leads me to the survey I mentioned, which Joey put together in part to investigate this hypothesis of the "default male geek". He presented a situation with two geeks (Geek A and Geek B) described in gender-neutral terms, and asked survey-takers to indicate which gender they thought each geek described was. See the survey questions and results here. The survey was written fashioning Geek A after a male geek and Geek B after a female geek. The vast majority of respondents (86 to 10) identified Geek A as a male, but about half (49 to 47) identified Geek B as a male as well. This is in spite of only 3 of the 93 survey takers claiming that being a geek is a "guy thing".

Now, Joey admitted that this survey is informal and unscientific. I'm no sociologist, but I imagine it would be difficult to draw any strong conclusions from this study. Still, it's a good start, and there's at least enough in the results to provoke a conversation. The respondents to the survey, all geeks themselves (56:44 male:female), tended to assume that a geek, without any gender-specific information, was a male. Of course, it may be that the majority of geeks are male, so people who guessed that both Geek A and Geek B were male were just making the safest bet given the odds (not that there was a "right" answer in the survey). But it's one thing to recognize a majority and another to ignore the minority to the point of feeling comfortable assuming a default gender. If such a default gender is assumed, then perhaps it is appropriate for female geeks to clarify their gender with the term "geek girl".

Looking at the survey, there are a few issues I'd be interested to see investigated further:
1) What would happen if more geeks were described (in separate questions, in separate situations), with some fashioned after male geeks, some after female geeks, and some meant to be entirely ambiguous?
2) What if survey takers were not asked directly what gender they believed the geek to be (which may make them second guess their initial assumption)? This might be achieved by instead asking survey takers to write four complete sentences about, for instance, what Geek A did for breakfast that morning. Since it is remarkably hard to write multiple sentences in the third-person without using gender-specific pronouns, this could reveal which gender respondents pictured the geek to be without asking.
3) How geeky do survey respondents think a person is given their gender? For example, "At a con, Geek A is dressed as Han Solo. Geek B, his wife, is dressed as slave Leia. How many times do you think Geek A has seen Return of the Jedi? How many times do you think Geek B has seen it?" or something to that effect. Basically, is there a perception that he's the geek and she's just wearing the costume to make him happy? Or does anyone think it's the other way around?

Here I am asking a lot of questions, but I do want to put forth another question along with my hypothesis and some reasoning behind it. All of the people who took Joey's survey identify themselves as geeks. That is what the survey was made for: to look at gender perceptions within the geek community. What would the survey results be if the questions were posed to the general public, non-geeks included? I hypothesize that the geek community is much more aware than the non-geek community of the presence of female geeks. If you've been to a con, you've seen plenty of geeky women there as well as men. If you read gaming, comics, sci-fi, or fantasy websites, you've read columns written by women. But I think many people outside the geek community*** see geeks as much more stereotypically male.

I like to bring up the example of "The Big Bang Theory". It is one of the most popular sitcoms on television right now, an accomplishment it couldn't achieve by having only geek viewers. Four of the show's five main characters are true and total geeks. They are also men. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj are nerdy, dorky scientists who love video games, comics, science fiction, and fantasy. The fifth lead of the show is Penny, an aspiring actress who never really understood these geeky interests of theirs (she prefers shoes). In seasons 3 and 4, the show has introduced two regular guest stars who are both female scientists, showing that indeed women can be nerdy science lovers as well (though in biological sciences--leave the engineering and physics to the men). Still, who's at the comics shop every Wednesday? Maybe I missed it, but I have not noticed these ladies geeking out about comics, sci-fi, gaming, or any of the common geeky subjects that the men of the show love to gush about. This, dear readers, is the general public's weekly dose of geek culture, their window into the geek world. As much as I love the show and hope that it's helping non-geeks appreciate how lovable geeks can be, I wish they'd gone a step further to make one of their girls a geek. Who knows? Maybe Bernadette speaks Quenya, or Amy likes to cosplay as Zatanna. I guess there's still time to find out.

geek, geek, non-geek, geek, geek

* Have you ever found yourself typing a response online only to discover that what should have been a 15-minute internet-surfing break has blossomed into a forty-five-minute essay-writing session and you should probably get back to work before your advisor comes by and learns you still haven't made any progress? Happens more often than I'd like my advisor to find out. Also, see

** Not sure why I chose the subway--we don't even have a subway in Honolulu. Oh well.

*** People like Ginia Bellafante


Out of Sync said...

Loved your analysis of The Big Bang Theory to tie up the argument at the end, and I agree with the points you bring up.

In regards to the overall argument, the preconceptions that all geeks are male I believe (while perhaps are unfair) aren't necessarily unjustified nor surprising. There is gender bias in ALL aspects of the world:
- Nurses are perceived as always female,
- Trades people as male,
- Military personnel as male
The list could go on for quite a while.

My question to you is do you think that the fact that there is an overwhelming view that 'geek = male' is necessarily a bad thing? Well, yes, it is a bad thing. Ok perhaps a more appropriate question is, is it something to be too concerned about? Or is it just a case of, females just want to be recognized and treated equally and without indifference within society and the geek community?

Sorry... I am bored at work, hence the large comment lol.

Eleni said...

I love long comments :) and you ask a good question.

You're right that all sorts of professions and interests are associated with one gender over another. I recently saw an infographic comparing statistics on doctors, lawyers, and teachers, and the doctor and lawyer cartoon images were both males, while the teacher was a female. Of course, what else? *Rolls eyes*

The harm that can come from these biases in perception is that they help perpetuate the gender imbalances that produced them. For example, most physicists today are men. That's a fact (I'm pretty sure). But if a culture perceives physics as a "guy thing", then young girls will grow up with the impression that they shouldn't be interested in becoming physicists. Many will be discouraged from that path, and physicists will continue to be mostly male.

It's one thing to recognize a present majority, but if that majority is used to make it seem as if the other gender doesn't belong, then that starts being hurtful. There was the story last year about a 7-year-old girl asking to bring a pink water bottle to school instead of the Star Wars one she loved because the boys teased her saying that Star Wars is just for boys. It's NOT just for boys, and society shouldn't add to that myth. Demographics inevitably influence perception, but we should fight the urge to exaggerate differences. I guess it does come down to females (or other minorities, in other situations) wanting to be treated equally.

Rosalind said...

Life is absolutely full of gender bias, and I work hard to defeat them all as often as possible. Just in my little life I have the geek dilemma mentioned above. I am also the bread-winner and main contact for all important things and the financial whiz in my marriage. I also fix the computers and build the bookcases in our place. You wouldn't believe how many people try to talk to my husband and don't realize they will be talking with me. I also sing tenor in my church choir, and I am constantly correcting "men" to "lower voices" when our director asks for various people to sing.

Those are just off the top of my head.

Anyway, I don't think just because it is everywhere is a reason not to focus on the one's that affect you personally, and geek is one of the most important to me.

Anyway, awesome!


Kathy S said...

I think gender bias in the geek community is a little different than that among other professions or interest because the geek community is primarily online (at least these days). This makes gender identification more difficult since we can't also know the gender of the person we are talking to. Also it keeps those not in the community farther away from it. While those not in the medical community are often in hospitals or doctor's office, people that are not in the geek community have probably never seen them.
Of course, this only explains the way it is perceived now as obviously there were geeks well before the internet.
Just a thought.

Eleni said...

Rosalind - You go girl geek! I was always jealous of the tenor parts when I sang in my college chapel choir.

It goes both ways, too. I love that my boyfriend is the primary cook between the two of us. Also, I'm the one who got him hooked on the geeky things he likes to watch and play. And he's the biologist, while I'm the physicist.

Gender bias in a society is hard to overcome, but every little bit helps :)

Kathy - I guess people can lie about their gender in online games and forums, but I generally think I know what gender people are on blogs and Twitter. I think by making socializing with a huge number of geeks easier, the internet has helped geeks recognize the diversity in geek culture.

But I agree that there isn't much reason for geeks to mix with non-geeks in a setting where geek identification is obvious (unlike your doctor example, where it is clear to non-doctors that doctors of both genders exist). Maybe if you notice someone walking around wearing a geeky t-shirt, but that still doesn't mean much. But this isn't entirely unique to the geek world. The average person doesn't have much occasion to interact with groups of physicists, either.