A Geek, A Girl, But Not a Geeky Girl

Now and then, particularly on Twitter, I’ll see mentions of various “girl geek power!” initiatives, such as events like the Boston Girl Geek Dinner. My interest will be mildly piqued — I mean, if I see two terms that define me lumped together, I should get excited and feel a connection, right? But while those visual cues will usually get me to click, or maybe just think about clicking, I never follow through by reading or attending or doing whatever it is I should by all rights feel obliged to do. And lately I’ve been wondering why. Then, I realized: I’m a geek, and I’m a girl, but I don’t really think of myself as a geeky girl.

My Mom Won’t Forgive Me For This Post

My mom is a feminist — like, we’re talking  a women’s studies minor, bookshelves of feminist literature and longtime readership of “Ms.” magazine. I never got that interested in such things, at either an activist or academic level. To tell you the truth, as I proceeded along my life and career in web publishing/online news, I never much considered or encountered a glass ceiling. I never felt like I was at a disadvantage in my field or personal interactions because of my gender. In my first job, my manager was female, and I had multiple female colleagues. When I left for a new workplace, I found myself surrounded by women. Professionally, I’ve never had the impetus or need to identify as a feminist.

So, it could just be that I fell into a situation where I am not competing against men, thus it’s never been something I’ve personally had to deal with. But when I was at Podcamp Boston a few weeks ago, I suddenly had no choice but to think about it. A spontaneous afternoon session evolved about about empowering women to succeed in the social media realm. It took place out on the lawn in front of the campus center at UMass Boston, and it drew quite a crowd — and a range of opinions. I did not attend, though it was fairly easy to keep track from Twitter backchannel chatter during and immediately after the event, as well as the follow-up blog posts after the fact. Why didn’t I attend? First of all, like I said above, I typically don’t feel drawn to such causes or events. Second of all, it was a beautiful afternoon on Dorchester Bay, and I was laying out on a bench enjoying the weather.

While many participants came away from the event feeling empowered and heard, I found myself more intrigued by the detracting views.

On Self-Defeat

One of the best conversations I had at Podcamp Boston lasted about five minutes and took place mostly in an elevator. I encountered Diane Williams just after the session on the lawn, and I asked if she had attended.  She  gave me a weary look and we talked about the woe-is-me-ism that pervaded the session, the self-fulfilling prophecy of disenfranchisement, how in social media, of all fields, these arguments don’t hold water very well.

Liz, with whom I co-organized an ad-hoc lunch session for folks in higher ed and nonprofits, wrote an interesting post detailing how she felt looked down upon because she self-identifies as a mommyblogger. From her perspective, this spoke to a self-defeating tendency amongst women in the technology/web fields:

Ladies, we are our own worst enemies. It isnt the men, or the technology industry or circumstances. Its us. We are clique-y, bitchy and territorial and thats what stops us from moving forward and up, from being invited to be speakers and presenters in places, specifically the more industry driven conferences, where we dont already have a personal contact (or have already made a significant impact). We dont put ego aside and give a stranger advice and help. We dont try to eliminate stereotypes and prejudice, but instead we enforce them. We dont really listen, we only experience the surface. Noone wants The Drama.

We are stepping on our own feet. It really has to stop. But it wont, and thats the biggest shame of all.

Does Not Compute

I guess I just don’t understand reactions like Sarah Wurrey‘s, who was angered by Christopher Penn saying that all women had to do was “be awesome.”

I’m sorry, I was unaware that we weren’t already awesome. I can name at least 100 awesome women right now. Why is it the responsibility for changing the state of affairs all on us?

Um. I really don’t think he was saying you weren’t awesome now. But there’s a difference between being awesome in a closet and feeling comfortable and confident enough to wield that awesomeness. And really, in the realm of social media, I don’t think there’s a patriarchy waiting to beat you down. The “responsibility for changing the state of affairs” is on ALL of us, irregardless of gender. It’s called the democratization of media.

Sarah states, “Are there not currently TONS of women in social media who are incredibly smart, incredibly accomplished, and incredibly under-represented everywhere–from the stage at SxSW to the Power 150?” Sure. But I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence that that underrepresentation comes from some collective oppression. When Sarah says, “We’re saying that women who are already equally deserving of these chances, women who ARE ‘awesome,’ have been overlooked. And we’re asking that it be corrected,” all I can say is, most conferences I’ve attended in this space accept session proposals, and many are co-organized by women. Again, no evidence of collective oppression. Please prove this to me. (Also, don’t complain about people like Chris Penn saying “provocative” things like “It doesn’t matter what’s between your legs” when apparently the session was conceived with a name that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.)

Gina Minks also recapped the session, describing how women approach the issue from an emotionally charged vantage point while men approach it from a more neutral perspective — one that may lend itself to apparently dismissive comments like “just be awesome.” I agree with Gina when she says that women should strive to move to neutral — which is where I guess I am — but I am not sure that I see the need to “get guys to understand they play a huge role in this.” What is that role? If we’re the ones with the “problem” of perception, what is it they need to do? (Though, as a sidenote, some of the “guys” are stepping up as a result of this discussion.)

Against Arguing For Your Limitations

Cynthia Barnes had a good takeaway from the discussion, I feel:

we concluded that we need to change, one person at a time, and that its up to all of us to help each other. Encourage each other to get out there and share what we have. We need to mentor our fellow women, to make each other the best that we can be. As individuals, we should recognize the skills we have, be confident in them and start promoting ourselves – and support the others around us who are doing it.

This, to me, is concrete, achievable and doesn’t point fingers without just cause. I agree that more women should be out there talking about this stuff — a diversity of perspectives is always good — and if there is a disadvantage, real or perceived, collective will is a good way to conquer any shortcoming.

I was glad to see Chris Penn himself weigh in with a post after Podcamp, and I have to say, I believe he is spot on. He doesn’t mince words, sure, but if we’re going to squeal like there’s a mouse in the room at someone’s blunt (but inoffensive) speech, maybe we deserve the place we perceive ourselves to occupy. Anyhow, Penn cuts right to it, quoting Richard Bach: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” Seriously. If you’re going to complain about underrepresentation in engineering, I’ll listen. But social media? The argument doesn’t hold as much water.

All of the tools and technology are available to everyone. You have complete and total equality in terms of tools and raw opportunity to make your own game. How you use those tools, what results you create are only limited by your talents and your self imposed limitations.

Rakiesha Chase’s post really nailed it for me, though:

It’s like there are some women that are trapped in their vaginas and can’t look beyond being a woman to being…a person. If I defined myself by my gender, or my race, and then lived my life looking through glasses that only showed things related to those things, then I wouldn’t see much of life…

I made a comment in my PodCamp post that “self-hate isn’t sexy”. Basically, I feel that by considering some aspect of who you are a hindrance to progress, you are committing self-hate, and really, that’s #notagoodlook.

Maybe that’s it. In this context, I don’t see myself as a woman; just a person. I feel I’ve been lucky enough to always be treated like a person, and not a woman (by which I mean, coming in feeling defensive with a chip on my shoulder, like I have something to prove). I mean, I always feel like I have something to prove — but to myself.

Whither Moi?

Another thing that irks me is that I don’t fit the definiton of “girl” that a lot of these movements trumpet. On the “About” page for Boston Girl Geeks, it says, “Look, we’re girls. We’re social. We can like motherboards and MAC.” OK, I barely know what MAC is. I’ve been a tomboy for as long as I’ve had ovaries. The thought of going someplace like Ulta or wearing non-sensible shoes makes me want to die. So where do I go for dinner? Thanks, Boston Girl Geeks, for being so inclusive. Talk about a self-defeating movement.

I suppose we all pick our battles, and mine is simply not to wave the feminist flag. Maybe it’s because of this wearying woe-is-me-ism. If you start your fight from a prone position, aren’t you setting yourself up to fail? I do believe there is something to the tactic of winning by simply acting like a winner, by being confident in your own abilities and executing.

I don’t want to be a part of a movement that focuses on a perceived disadvantage. I’d rather focus, as Chris Penn suggested, on being awesome — on continuing to be awesome, and finding ways to become even more awesome. And gender, for me, is not relevant to that goal.

As Diane said, is part of the problem assuming you are in a deferential position, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of needing to prove and assert yourself, or feeling disinclined to speak up because other voices in the room are louder?

What if you just walk into the room like you own it? Imagine what you could do.


22 responses to “A Geek, A Girl, But Not a Geeky Girl

  1. Great post! I feel bad now, for I am sure I have made fun of mommy-bloggers before. I think Liz did a great job explaining how different they are treated. I can only imagine it is because many male bloggers don’t respect what they can never understand.

    BTW: I’m not sure what they mean by MAC either. Mandator Access Controls are obscure enough that only IT security folks would get it.

    I wonder if they mean Apple Macintosh — and thought it would be important enough to SCREAM it?

  2. I think Beth Dunn had some great points, too – there are definitely places, fields, professions, and events where there IS a structural inequality. Social media isn’t one of them. Democratized media isn’t one of them. In an open field, the only limits you have are the ones you bring with you.

    Thanks for your thoughts and candor.

  3. I’m pretty tired of defending my position at this point, but I will say this: your reasons for avoiding feminism are exactly why we still need it, and what I mean when I talk about privilege.

    You’ve personally never experienced sexism? That’s truly great. For YOU. But just becuase something hasn’t been a personal problem for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and you are exactly the type of person feminism needs, someone who hasn’t had to fight tooth and nail for every promotion, who can dedicate energy to helping OTHER women who perhaps haven’t been as fortunate as you.

    Also, for the record, I was completely and 100% appalled by the official name of that particular session. That kind of language, as well as what Chris and others have said (with constant references to “vaginas” in many posts I’ve read on this), is dismissive and condescending. As if boiling it all down to genitalia is even remotely appropriate.

    • I’m not saying it doesn’t exist (and when I’m talking here, I’m purely talking about web publishing/social media, my area of experience, not any other field or area of life); I’m just saying that there might be a better approach. Support each other, motivate and mentor each other, yes, definitely, but I also feel like the less we stop segregating ourselves as Women and start just being in the mix as People, the better off we’ll be. I think it’s a valid question: is part of the reason for a divide because we’re drawing it? Also, if the geek feminist movement (or whatever you want to call it) continues to have self-defeating and non-inclusive tendencies, then what’s the point?

      Yes, I’ve been lucky, sure, but I also have not seen any third-party, concrete examples of this disenfranchisement by the patriarchy in the web publishing/social media space. I would be very curious to see some. I would be curious to learn if it is as systemic within social media as such discussions would portray it. I think the great thing about social media is the potential to give anybody with something to say a platform on which to say it, and a mechanism through which to spread it. That’s why it’s hard for me to understand complaints about gender discrimination or disenfranchisement in this space.

      And for the record, I’m happy to help anyone who has felt disenfranchised — woman, minority, WASPY male with a cowlick, whoever — with whatever ability I have.

  4. This post sums up every thought (and then some) I’ve had about the session on the lawn.

    I’ve never experienced being put down by men or felt held back because I’m a woman. I appreciate others have. I am discomforted they’ve had those experiences. However, my experience with achieving goals is about hard work, about what you do with the tools and opportunities you are given.

    Christopher, as my friend and mentor, has encouraged me to reach for what I want. He does so because he wants to see me fulfill my potential.

    You nailed it as well for me: “In this context, I don’t see myself as a woman; just a person.”

    • Thanks — I think you make an important point I sort of skirted over (no pun intended, haha): there ARE people who have felt put down or held back. These things happen; the people with complaints are not making things up. I just don’t think it is systemic, and I think we all have the power to combat such isolated incidents and empower ourselves to live up to our potential.

  5. It’s probably the Seven Sisters alumna in me talking here, but I have a slightly different take on a lot of these questions, and I think you’re a little quick to dismiss and possibly even discredit some of the arguments you disagree with. In particular, I do think there’s still systemic discrimination against women. Systemic means it exists in or affects pretty much all areas of society in some way or another. I’ve definitely seen it in the media and journalism. I’m not really comfortable fleshing out some of my specific arguments here, so we should talk in person. You know where to find me!

    • I don’t deny it exists in media and journalism and is a widespread problem in a lot of fields; I was referring to my own experiences in the web field, but specifically social media. It just felt to me like there was a lot of concern and a sense of injustice being expressed without a lot of context, and I didn’t feel it was being addressed in a productive fashion.

  6. Also, I don’t think that identifying something as a problem one struggles against is admitting weakness or constitutes “self-hate.” I’m very skeptical of the phrase “self-hate.” Think about it in the context of race or ethnicity for a second and maybe you’ll see what I mean. Saying that sexism is a problem doesn’t mean that sexism is your fault, and it doesn’t mean you’re making an excuse or belittling yourself.

    • I think there’s a difference between saying “sexism is a problem,” and holding yourself back. One is a valid statement and we can look for ways to address it; the other is claiming defeat before you’ve even stepped up to bat. I think you’ll find both the productive people and the counter-productive people in any context.

  7. I wasn’t at the podcamp sessions and don’t want to comment on something I don’t know too much about. Your summation of what happened seems reasonable, and I wouldn’t say I see extensive evidence of oppression in the social media space.

    However, I always find it off-putting when people say they don’t feel a “need” to identify as feminist. To me, that’s like saying you don’t feel a “need” to identify as anti-racist because you’re not a minority. It’s a refusal to acknowledge that problems exist; ignoring issues does not make them go away. Being a feminist requires supporting equal rights for women: nothing more, nothing less. Just because you have not personally experienced oppression doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that you shouldn’t be opposed to it. You don’t need to read oppression into your own life at every turn (and doing so may in fact cheapen the real opposition that some groups encounter), but I do think there is a moral responsibility to be opposed to oppression where it exists. Call it humanism if the feminist label really bugs you, but there’s no reason to throw off the cloak of feminism because you personally have not encountered obstacles.

    • I’m all for equality, to be sure. Maybe I just differ on the tactic for achieving it. I understand that there are concerns, but I think it’s important that you assess the context and see which problems are real and which problems are perceived or anticipated. And if you’re going to use collective will to overcome an inequity, it’s important to not apply that will to exclusive and self-defeating ends. These are some of the problems I observed with the complaints about women not being prominent enough in social media.

      And again, I’m speaking only in the context of a limited field. In other fields, there are problems that are much more evident and complex and troubling.

  8. Great post Georgy! I will certainly be sharing with others.

  9. Tonya Goth Simmons

    I originally began following this discussion through Gina Minks’ blog. Although I’m not in social media as a professional (rather, I’m an e-learning instructional designer), I found the subject of gender equality (or lack thereof) in technology intriguing.

    As I follow the discussion through various blog posts and comments, I’m struck by the fact that much of the disagreement about whether sexism does or does not exist seems to be a generational one.

    Georgy and I have much in common – journalism degrees (mine in 1996) with brief forays into the profession only to land somewhere completely different. However, our experiences are about five years apart with very different results. I DID experience sexism – I was passed up for a promotion for a new hire (older white male) who was less qualified. When said new hire bolted b/c he couldn’t handle the work, I cleaned up his mess – on Thanksgiving Day way behind deadline, but that’s another story. There are other examples, but that is the most striking.

    Maybe in those five years things changed significantly. Maybe it’s a difference between the mid-West and the East Coast – things are slow to change here.
    I agree with Kerry’s point that being a feminist is about equality for women. I think the radical feminism of the 70s has tainted the term for those in my generation and younger.

    It seems to me that technology itself is anonymous and genderless and that makes it a perfect place for women to make names for themselves without the usual baggage. The small company I work for is nearly all women. One of my fellow designers is the single male employee.

    So, does gender bias exist? Absolutely, I think does. Does it exist for me in my present position? Well no, but having experienced it before I have no illusions that I will probably experience it again if go to work somewhere else.

    For you young ones – if you’ve never been discriminated against, great! I hope you never do. I truly hope that the world has moved on in that respect. But don’t discount others’ experiences if you haven’t (this isn’t meant to be accusatory), and just remember that we all filter our views through past experience.

    • For you young ones – if you’ve never been discriminated against, great! I hope you never do. I truly hope that the world has moved on in that respect. But don’t discount others’ experiences if you haven’t (this isn’t meant to be accusatory), and just remember that we all filter our views through past experience.

      I understand that, totally, and I don’t mean to discount the negative experiences people have had. Like I said in another comment, I just don’t see the tactic or approach some people have toward the situation as entirely constructive or productive.

      Also, with regard to the “feminism is about equality for women,” I guess my preference is not to approach my career as a woman trying to make something awesome happen; I come at things as a person trying to make something awesome happen. That, to me, is a truer equality. And again, that perspective just makes sense to me; like you said, we filter our views through our past experiences.

  10. DUDE. Great post. We have lots to discuss tonight!

  11. You sound like a good, sensible person, the kind of person I’d like to know and associate with and collaborate with. We’ll probably never meet and that’s fine. It’s just nice to know that people like you are out there.

  12. Georgy,

    I totally agree with your comment to my post. And that’s really how I approach things as well. I am who I am, and my talents SHOULD speak for themselves.

    I think the key factor here is how one deals with such experiences. You can be bitter and angry and keep bumping your head up against that glass ceiling. Or you can look for a place in the world without one – which is what I did. (Plus there was also a realization that journalism wasn’t really ever going to comfortable pay the bills or be conducive to raising children.)

    Ironically, I went to a gig as a civilian public affairs officer for a Navy Recruiting command and NEVER EVER had a sexism issue.

    I also agree with your comment about how you approach things. I think others have said too (and likely better), but if one approaches a situation with the attitude that it’s going to be a battle – it will be. I guess the Richard Bach quote kind of applies there too. I prefer to wait until the battle finds me if there’s going to be one.

    And my apologies, I didn’t intend to sound nearly so condescending in that last paragraph. Perhaps I should have composed in Word and let it sit for awhile before hitting submit.

  13. Pingback: Acceptance « Safe Digression

  14. Georgy, just linked back to this post, so sorry for the late comment! I thought you might enjoy Kate Harding’s take on women and blogging/social media, if you haven’t read it already: http://kateharding.net/2008/09/24/from-the-archives-on-being-a-no-name-blogger-using-her-real-name/

    For me at least, Kate puts bigger issues of oppression against women into the context of the interwebs. She used to blog a lot on Salon too (the nasty comments she gets there are hard to read). See also hate sites directed at female bloggers like Dooce, the vitriol Julie Powell gets, etc.

    I agree that if you manage to be entirely gender-neutral on the web, you’ll attract fewer haters. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for everyone.

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