Adventures in Ethics and Science

Blogging has been light because grading has been heavy. But Chad has a post that started me to thinking. (Danger! Danger!) And, since he has stated his desire to avoid a flamewar at this time, it seems only fair that I do that thinking over here so his space can be unscorched.

The question at hand, initially posed by Scott Aaronson, is whether there might be a shortage of women in science because women are more prone to be “repelled by nerd culture” than men.

What do we mean by “nerd culture” here? This is Scott’s characterization of it (along with his preferred strategy of making the non-science realms nerdier to boost nerd-acceptance):

… the vending-machine-fueled all-nighters, empty pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling, napping coders drooling on the office futon, etc. …

Sure, there are nerds could stand to shower more often, read more Shakespeare and less Slashdot, etc. But there are also plenty of “normals” who could stand to follow a chain of logic to an inconvenient conclusion, unsheath their sarcasm swords when confronted with idiocy, and judge people more by the originality of their ideas than by whether their clothes match.

In short, if the reason more women don’t study science is that they’re repelled by nerd culture, then de-nerdifying science is only one solution. The other solution is nerdifying the rest of the world! Admittedly, nerdifying the world might seem like a rather drastic way to increase the number of women in university science departments. But as you might have guessed, I want to nerdify the world for independent reasons as well.

Let us ease into this jacuzzi of worms gingerly.

First, let the record reflect that I count myself as a nerd, and have done so since my 13th birthday at least. (I’m going to completely ignore finer intra-tribal distinctions that distinguish nerds from geeks and so forth. Enlighten me in the comments if you must.) The nerds are my people. But my experience would tend to suggest that, as Joe Jackson said of something else altogether, it’s different for girls.

For example, the summer I was sixteen, I participated in my state’s first Governor’s School in the Sciences. One hundred students from throughout the state spent four weeks getting their geek on, going to science lectures and doing lab and field research. The male-female ratio was 65 to 35. Some of the male students saw this as a tremendous boon to the female students vis-a-vis dating (because the scene back then was pretty heteronormative and all 15 to 17 year olds were presumed to be interested in dating). However, one noted, “It’s actually not that much of an advantage for the girls, since the proportion of total-loser boys is much higher than the proportion of total-loser girls.”

In other words, there were more boys who fit the unwashed, FORTRAN coding, D&D Monster Manual memorizing, mismatched sock wearing nerd stereotype than there were girls who fit same.

It’s not that females who display these characteristics don’t exist; I’ve known some. It’s not that it’s part of the genome of female homo sapiens to shun vending machine fare, all-nighters, or squalor; I have embraced each in its turn, as have many other women.

Rather, the difference seems to be the fierce social pressure on girls not to be nerds. As much as you may want to let your geek flag fly, if you’re a girl it’s impressed on you that you must at least be able to pass among the normals.

As inconvenient as nerdiness may be for a boy from the point of view of attracting a date, boy nerds are generally acknowledged to have value. They are smart. They will contribute to society in all kinds of smart ways, possibly getting all Bill Gates and providing sales jobs for the jocks who got the dates in high school.

But it’s much harder, for some reason, for high school students (and a good many grown-ups) to see the value in a smart but socially inept girl. Such a creature is viewed as an abomination. What prospects for happiness could she have without the beauty and charm to attract a man? How could a female possibly be fulfilled by purely intellectual pursuits?

In other words, my sense is that it is not nerd culture per se that young women find repulsive. Rather, it is the firestorm of social harassment into which they’ll be thrust if they are caught embracing that culture that repels them. Take it from a former teenage girl: attracting the attention of The Crowd never ends well. Nerdly inclinations are best kept to oneself.

As much as I’d like to put this down to Teenagers Being Evil, I’m afraid the roots of this stretch much farther than hormone-induced psychosis. Exhibit A: It would seem that certain newspaper editorial boards are getting their tighty-whiteys in a wad over the increasing number of women availing themselves of higher education. And why is this a problem?

When there are markedly more educated women than men, marriage rates and birth rates are distorted.

Add to that:

[W]e’re concerned that fewer men are going to college, because this means that fewer will be able to take part in the high-tech (and high wage) economy of our region’s future.

High-tech jobs (and high wages) are for boys; getting married and having babies is for girls. A nerdy boy can still grow up to be worthwhile; a nerdy girl can’t, because someone would have to want to marry and impregnate her, and that’s a condition incompatible with nerdiness. For girls.

So yes, let us go forth and nerd up the world. But forgive me if I suspect it will take a bit more than increased comfort with empty pizza boxes and a taste for Jolt Cola to lower the real barriers to girls feeling empowered to get their nerd on.

Comments

  1. #1 Natalie Hudson
    May 26, 2006

    At Harvey Mudd College, where I spent my first two undergrad years, the boy-girl ratio was also something like 65:35. As for the girls’ chances of finding a (male) date, we had a saying: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

    I embraced my nerdiness growing up — I was always the weird girl with mismatched socks and ugly hair in the corner reading math books — until sophomore year of high school, when I “saw the light” and began dressing and acting more like my peers. It didn’t make me popular by any stretch of the imagination, but now, at 21, I can pass for normal most of the time.

    Part of me feels like I’m betraying my geeky side by working so hard to appear to be something I’m not, but I also know that presenting myself as ‘normal’ makes it a heck of a lot easier to find a job, make friends, get along with classmates, etc. I agree — the social pressure is tremendous.

    I think guys face similar pressures to fit in, but they can more easily ignore them. At my (tiny private) high school, male and female nerds were equally shunned by the normals, but the boys had reached critical mass: there were enough nerdy guys that they could all be friends with each other and not give a flip what anyone else thought. If a nerdy girl wanted a social life at all, her only option was to hang with the guys. (This doesn’t explain why there were more boy nerds to begin with, but it’s one way the inequality could reinforce itself.)

  2. #2 wolfwalker
    May 26, 2006

    Janet,

    Not a bad analysis, most of it, although I suspect you underestimate the influence of peer pressure on boys too. As a bookworm in high school in the early 1980s, I had a dreadful time. The only part I have a serious argument with is the last bit, about the NH newspaper’s editorial and what it meant. I followed the link and read the entire editorial, and I honestly don’t understand how you got that meaning out of it. It appears to me that the editorial is saying that young men not going to college is a problem for men, and for society as a whole. And I see a pretty obvious difference between the classic stupid-redneck line that “girls should be baby factories” and the very real problem that when women don’t have any kids, or only one kid apiece, the population can’t sustain itself.

    After reading the editorial and your take on it, I also find myself wondering what the effect is on women of being unable to find husbands who are their intellectual equals.

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    Natalie– when were you at HMC? I graduated in 1990, and the F/M ratio was lower than 65:35 then. (Where did you go after HMC?)

    I still say that one should embrace one’s nerdism. Now, mind you, there are a number of people who know me somewhat who tell me that I’m not a nerd. I easily come across as a “normal”, at least upon casual contact. When I think of nerdism, I don’t think of the whole unwashed thing.

    But… I’m a physicist, and I like it. I enjoy using words like “anisotropic” when it’s relevant. I’m a gamer. I read science fiction novels. I think that one should code one’s own web pages in XHTML using emacs. I graduated from Harvey Mudd, and then from Caltech. I had a cat named “1/sqrt(2) |zap> + 1/sqrt(2) |dart>”. I can quote chapter and verse from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    Still… it’s not so bad now, but there *is* social pressure on guys to not be nerds. There are parts of my nerdism that I keep in the closet much of the time, afraid to let it hang out, *even to the people who know I’m a nerd*. For instance, being a Physics Nerd is OK, since I have a PhD and all, and make money at it. But… I’m not always so open about being a gamer, or about the number of SF novels that I read. I was much more hesitant to embrace my nerdism back when I was in high school, and (to a lesser extent) college (where, at the time, “squid” was the most popular HMC term for a nerd).

    I think that the nerdy guys who can be friends with each other without giving a flip about what anybody else thinks are either (a) much more mature than most of us, *especially* in high school, and able to be themselves, or (b) much more clueless than most of us. You decide. But I’ve always felt the social pressure.

    Still… embrace your nerdism. Be who you are. I think that’s best. On the other hand, bathing and hygiene is important, and being able to pass through “normal” society enough to function is necessary. I can’t guess what it’s really like to be a female nerd, because I’ve never been one. But I do think there is room to be a nerd and still be normal enough.

    -Rob

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    May 26, 2006

    When there are markedly more educated women than men, marriage rates and birth rates are distorted.

    If by “distorted” that is “reduced”, then all I can say is — hurrah! Let’s make it a project around the world to put a priority on educating women first, and then the men once we’ve got the women educated. There are too many people in the world, and it’s only getting worse.

    One of the worst things about living in the USA is that even with a relatively modest lifestyle, I know that I’m living a stinking rich lifestyle and should feel guilty about it. If everybody in the world had a lifestyle similar to mine, the resulting energy consumption would lead to immediate globaly catastrophe.

    Since I’d hate to give up too much of my lifestyle (and, mind you, I’m not a Hummer driver or anything– I just turn on the air conditioning when the temperature gets into the mid-70’s, have a 1600 square foot house I share with my wife, run my computer allthe time, etc) — but I do recognize that it’s unfair to think that I should have a better lifestyle than most of the rest of the world, cognitive dissonance leads me into beliving that having the world population grow too much is a bad thing. A combination of some reasonable energy efficiency *and* contained population should at least provide the possibility of a world where most people can live with what we USAians would consider a “reasonable” lifestyle.

    I just don’t get this “must have more births” ethic that comes out of certain religious right elements. Yes, we want the species to go on, but raw numbers are not our greatest worry right now….

    -Rob

  5. #5 K8
    May 26, 2006

    Well said Dr. Free-Ride. And Natalie, I hear you. I went through a similar process in high school due to young adult and female oppression. In the last few years of grad school I’ve felt it more and less possible to just be myself, but I’ve also found that I don’t care what others think as I used to.

    That said, it’s infuriating that folks can make jokes about the paucity about women in science by saying that it’s that we just can’t take the squalor, or try to turn it into an argument around nature vs. nurture (which is one of the most useless dichotomies in science, as it’s NOT A DICHOTOMY). Let’s examine the broader issues, like blatant sexism and harassment, and other institutional barriers like postdocification and adjunctification that make women who want families choose other careers, or giving people with kids an extra year on the tenure track only to have it held against them. I won’t even go into the old boys’ club where the male faculty are chummy and don’t know what to do with the female grads or faculty so just ignore them or leave them alone.

    Yeah, it must be the pizza boxes.

  6. #6 Polly Anna
    May 26, 2006

    Oh, my goodness! Everyone makes things so complicated, socio-ideological and momentary experiential.

    God took a long time via the slow and tedious method that Mr. Darwin described to make the differences in boys and girls that underlie the answers to the original question (male/female differences in science).

    I fear that actions based on momentary socio-ideology and experience will take at least half that long to change things significantly.

    But it might be best to understand HER (God’s) methods to better understand why in order to adapt and participate?

    Dr. FR sez:
    So yes, let us go forth and nerd up the world. But forgive me if I suspect it will take a bit more than increased comfort with empty pizza boxes and a taste for Jolt Cola to lower the real barriers to girls feeling empowered to get their nerd on.

    Oh, my! God forbid. While there may still be a choice unless SHE programmed that in us also. Poor diet and inactivity is running neck and neck with tobacco for the number one sin in America in terms of condemnation to Hell and an early death (over 400,000 death per year each).

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart–Anne Frank]

  7. #7 Joe Shelby
    May 26, 2006

    I love the more inherent concept in such writings that the birth rate going down is a bad thing…

    yes, from a personal view, its tragic if you choose to only have one child and that child dies (which was a main incentive for have a dozen kids 150 years ago), but from a standpoint of the amount of actual food we can grow reasonably (and the giant pig farms of south carolina do not count as reasonable) and the work we can do around here and pay for, keeping the population growth down is a good thing, and it seems only good education can bring that about.

    social conservatives mourn the loss of their “traditional family values” but the truth is to modern society and to the preservation of the species (being evolutionary and abstract about it), we don’t need everybody to adhere to that type of arrangement for society to survive. We really don’t.

    They will never ever believe it, but the evidence (for, for example, lack of a total collapse of everything simply because of something like inter-racial marriage) is rather clear.

  8. #8 boojieboy
    May 26, 2006

    The distinction between nerds and geeks is an easy one the make, IMHO:

    Nerds aren’t cool but don’t know it. They still tend to aspire to “cool culture” in some respects.

    Geeks aren’t cool, but they know it and don’t care, and tend to actively cultivate their lack of hipness to the point where they manage to be cool.

    So there is geek culture, because geeks are actively geeky and organized. There is not nerd culture, there are just nerds. So in this respect, I think what Chad is calling nerd culture is wrong. But I suppose if what you mean by “culture” is large groups of people with similar habits, then by all means, call it nerd culture.

    The 70s electronic-rock back DEVO gives a perfect example of geekiness, in fact being the cornerstone of an entire genre of music I like to call geek rock. It includes The Ramones, The Violent Femmes, The Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, and so many others.

    Basically, these are life’s losers who got together and decided to rock. They tend to sing a lot about how chicks don’t dig them and stuff like that.

  9. #9 Uncle Al
    May 26, 2006

    What is a “shortage of women in science?” I looked through Morrison & Boyd, Atkins, Halliday & Resnick, Jackson, Goodman & Gilman… Physical reality respects objective competence. Its container is irrelevant.

    Social advocacy is the antithesis of objective competence. An advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment – and the more that is required, plus funding. If a level playing field selects against the functionally incompetent for whatever reason, good!

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/immig.htm

    Nature doesn’t care, we do. Nature keeps an honest score. If you are laid out on an operating table you sure as Hell want White boy Dr. Alan Bakke as opposed to the Black who ejected him from UC Davis Medical School for “compassionate” reasons (28 June 1978, California Surpeme Court). Dr. Patrick Chavis was ejected from the practice of medicine for killing people by incompetence and malpractice. Senator Edward Kennedy and others cited Chavis as a shining example of affirmative action (Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) prior to the hit. And so he was.

    http://www.bigeye.com/jj081202.htm

    By what advocacy mechanism do you propose to remedy a “shortage of women in science?” without stuffing the toy full of Patrick Chavis? If there is an excess of women in science or in any academic discipline (e.g., gender studies, gynecology, psychology, biology), whom do we eject to restore putative balance?

  10. #10 Fraser
    May 26, 2006

    This reminds me of Newsweek’s infamous article claiming 40-year-old educated women would all die single since they couldn’t find men who were older and better educated to marry them. Even assuming there will be a shortage of better-educated men, the assumption that women would sooner go single than change their standards is dubious, at best (I’d like to marry Salma Hayek, but I’m perfectly willing to compromise).

  11. #11 Bill Hooker
    May 26, 2006

    Trackback doesn’t seem to work for me at the moment.

  12. #12 Unlearned Hand
    May 26, 2006

    Who’s to say the women not going into science are incompetent? Maybe they don’t want to deal with dicks like Uncle Al who question their competence based on their gender. (I’m sure UC Davis Medical school has graduated at least a proportional number of white quacks as black quacks, by the way. How about some convincing evidence instead of anecdotes and empty rhetoric? And the writings of Lino Graglia count as empty rhetoric.)

    My better half experienced the phallocratic bias throughout her education in a nerd-boy dominated technical field and in her work experience is routinely ticked off at the ignoramus incompetent boys who do not believe she can do what she can because of her gender. I’d file it under castration anxiety. To paraphrase the Geto Boys, real gangsta hackers don’t flex nuts cuz real gangsta hackers know they’ve got ‘em.

  13. #13 Solomon Rivlin
    May 26, 2006

    If nerd = much higher I.Q. than average, then we must accept that nerdiness is rare, a minority. Nerdiness should be encouraged and cultivated, regardless of gender, from very early age, since most of the great advancements in science and technology will continue to be the product of the nerd’s brain. The establishment of a program “for nerds by nerds” would assure the early discovery and nurture of the young nerd, which also would allow the nerd to be the nerd that he/she is. The recognition by our society of the nerds for the treasure they are would result in their male-female distribution at the university setting to probably match their male-female distribution in the population at large.

  14. #14 Demosophist
    May 26, 2006

    It’s an interesting and refreshingly lighthearted speculation, thankfully without any policy handles. Note that the entity invested with power in this theory is society or culture, rather than the other way around. I guess if you actually believe the theory that women are excluding themselves out of concern about social ostracism the thing to do is to pull a Jackie Robinson, and start breaking down those social barriers as a personal project. But it’s not as though there’s a law or even a practice that excludes women the way the Robinsons and Paiges were excluded from the Majors, though I don’t know how one would convince a doctrinaire feminist of that empirical fact.

    But, like I said, to the extent that there’s a problem, you’re the solution. Just don’t forget to forget your toothbrush. (And if your faith in the theory isn’t sufficient to induce that sort of sacrifice then perhaps you’re just kidding us?)

  15. #15 Johnny Vector
    May 26, 2006

    boojieboy wrote of

    an entire genre of music I like to call geek rock. It includes The Ramones, The Violent Femmes, The Talking Heads, They Might Be Giants, Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, and so many others.

    The Ramones? No, they’re punk, not geek. And you forgot Barenaked Ladies. Okay, maybe they’re not total losers, but have you seen them dance? Plus, anyone who writes It’s nine point eight straight down/I can’t stop my knees is a geek at heart.

    Personally, I’d say the existence of geek bands is itself evidence that geekdom is in many cases a more inflexible label than the actual people to whom it is applied. In fact, a surprising number of my geek friends can rock out impressively well (particularly if “rock out” includes classical music), or have major other non-geek abilities and interests.

    That is, most geeks I know can actually relate quite well to “normal society” in one way or another. Unfortunately decisions influencing career paths begin in high school, where these other abilities and interests are less useful in being part of the crowd.

  16. #16 Paul Orwin
    May 26, 2006

    Ha Ha!
    Mudder’s everywhere, unite! (class of ’95, Biology)
    Semi-seriously, no one can come close to understanding nerd culture without a field trip to HMC, where nerd culture stands tall…The school famously sent out pocket protectors to prospective students, implicitly telling them (us) that we could let our nerd flag fly if we came there. I could write a book on what the place does you you mentally and emotionally…

  17. #17 Abel Pharmboy
    May 26, 2006

    I might add that Janet also mentions one of the patron saints of my angry young ostracized geek period, Joe Jackson. Don’t recall if he was openly gay at the time Look Sharp and I’m The Man were released, but he was considered a geek regardless, and the disdain the opposite sex showed for him was the primary fodder for those first two albums. Also recall that the consummate geek musician of the late 70s/early 80s was Elvis Costello, a former computer programmer.

    As for the topic at hand, I’ve been involved in the training of quite a few female geeks and most were quite attractive women who embraced and used their geekdom to career success. I think that the problem is more with us men who might be intimidated by women who are smarter than us and then pull all of this macho stuff to demean the smart women. I’ve seen it happen even at very high levels of academic medicine.

    As for me, I am very comfortable with my beautiful and brilliant wife who I met at “lab camp” type workshop. She went to colleges I could’ve never dreamed of and she had better SAT scores in 7th and 8th grade than I had as a senior. I won’t pretend to speak for her, but she has relayed stories where it was other girls (mostly in JHS and HS) that ostracized her for being a geek. There is plenty of blame to go around in accounting for the shortage of women in science and medicine.

  18. #18 Crystal
    May 26, 2006

    Hear, hear!

    As an adult geek girl (network admin/dba while it was hot, then back to school for my first love: vet science and a newer love in public health) I can’t agree more!

  19. #19 Trisha
    May 26, 2006

    I’m a nerd (or a geek?) and I’m proud of it!

    I think the shortage of women in science is more due to practical issues like how do you manage to have any type of family while in the middle of graduate school, a post doc or trying to get tenure. It’s hard enough for men, and even worse for women.

    Of course the outright sexism that still exists in university settings doesn’t help any either.

    On the grade school and high school level, maybe the nerdiness does play a role though.

    As far as there being more educated women and men – I swear I predicted this would happen many years ago but I can’t prove it.

    And if means that birth rates will go down, I agree – that’s a very good thing. No point in continuing to overpopulate the planet.

  20. #20 Sacha
    May 26, 2006

    Here is the official Nerd, Geek, or Dork test:

    http://www.okcupid.com/tests/take?testid=9935030990046738815

    It also explains the differences between each.

  21. #21 AK
    May 26, 2006

    Sorry, you opened the door, and I’m walking through:

    (I’m going to completely ignore finer intra-tribal distinctions that distinguish nerds from geeks and so forth. Enlighten me in the comments if you must.)

    I will split this trivial taxonomic hair even more finely and invoke Brunching Shuttlecock’s Geek Hierarchy.

    I think adolescence is brutal and uncomfortable regardless of intellectual or social adroitness, gender, economic class, etc. I agree wholeheartedly, however, with the argument that the social pressures on young women to conform to gender roles probably are more pervasive and influential than any presumed aversion to geekery.

  22. #22 James Killus
    May 26, 2006

    When I was attended an engineering school in the late 1960s, there were 6 female engineering students in a class of 1000 (over half of whom were engineering students). Recently, I’m told that the ratio is 1:3. When I was in school, there were few, if any, role models for the female students, not culturally, not locally. Again, now, very different.

    I will also offer this observation from much personal experience: appearance matters more than geekiness. Just the way things are.

    And, finally, where I went to school, we spelled it “knurd.”

  23. #23 Lab Lemming
    May 26, 2006

    Dr. Free-ride writes:


    Add to that:

    [W]e’re concerned that fewer men are going to college, because this means that fewer will be able to take part in the high-tech (and high wage) economy of our region’s future.

    High-tech jobs (and high wages) are for boys; getting married and having babies is for girls. A nerdy boy can still grow up to be worthwhile; a nerdy girl can’t, because someone would have to want to marry and impregnate her, and that’s a condition incompatible with nerdiness. For girls.

    There is an alternative, less provocative interpretation
    to this article’s gist. This is apperent when looking at the following:


    The cause behind it seems to be this: highly educated, professional women are having trouble finding male equals as partners.

    and

    We raise this issue not to denigrate the success women have had in improving their lot over the past forty years. These are real achievements that deserve our support.

    In otherwords, educated women are good, but uneducated men are bad, as long as women choose not to keep them as house husbands.

    In fact, an interesting approach to this question might be to ask where the expectation of a mate as an educational equal comes from. After all, when the highly educated were almost all male, this expectation can not have existed, because there were no equally educated women to be had. So perhaps the question should be rephrased to ask why women aren’t pursuing the “secretary solution” approach to finding partners, by picking up their help-desk boys and delivery van drivers to keep at home for child raising.

  24. #24 Curious
    May 26, 2006

    Dr Free Ride,

    Well said. You’ve described a lot of what I saw growing up while being interested in science. For me, though, the abysmal grade school I went to was far more influential in keeping me out of science. I was passionate about science and we had no science classes. That’s right. None. And it was a private school too. By the time I got out of 8th grade, I had been bored into hating school.

    I only went to college (in the late 80s) after almost dropping out of high school numerous times because of the total lack of intellectual stimulation, because I saw it I’d have to support myself. I was one of the few women in my major (some colleges called it science and most would call it social science, though of a technical variety). It was probably 8 males to 1 female. Most of my classmates were not date material much less mate material, and despite my efforts to flirt with one good looking smart guy, I don’t think he ever recognized I wasn’t one of the guys.

    Anyway, I tried that quiz someone linked. But I swear I wear contacts (not taped up glasses) and am good at sports!

    Pure Nerd
    69 % Nerd, 30% Geek, 30% Dork

    My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
    You scored higher than 69% on nerdiness
    You scored higher than 42% on geekosity
    You scored higher than 50% on dork points

  25. #25 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 26, 2006

    I’m just going to toss a little bit of kindling into the fire and let the conflagration continue:

    (1) I’m not desperately worried about repopulation problems in the U.S. (Seems to me, given recent debates about immigration and such, that many the citizen claims to be worried about the opposite.) So, I see no need to flag this as a social problem to lay at the feet of overeducated women.

    (2) Women don’t feel like marrying uneducated men? Why is that a problem? Maybe this is a good way to encourage boys to stay in school.

    (3) And, while we’re at it, where is it written that one must partner up to live a good and fulfilling life? Is it possible that well-educated women may occasionally be smart enough to make decisions because they are in their own best interests, not because they are what tradition or habit might have them do?

    (4) RE: the suggestion that I might have some sort of moral obligation to blaze a woman-friendly trail in the sciences, I’ve blogged about this before. The short version is that I’m busy trying to blaze a woman-friendly trail in another male dominated field at the moment.

    (5) Every Harvey Mudd student or alumn I’ve ever met has been cool.

    (6) Musically, I think we have a big enough tent for the geeks and the punks. (Journey, not so much.)

  26. #26 wheatdogg
    May 26, 2006

    I will jump in here as both a geek and a high school physics teacher (quite a bit of overlap there!). For 20 some years, I have been both amazed and dismayed by the “anti-geek” mentality that discourages girls from excelling in science and maths. There also seems to be a not-so-subtle bias that girls can’t “do” science and math, so teachers, family and friends steer them away from such pursuits. Gratefully, I can say the pressure is lessening as the years pass by, but it’s still there.

    Once, many years ago, I had a student — I will call her Sally — in my physics class. Sally was not an exceptional student, but she was energetic and reasonably hardworking. Definitely not a nerd, though. She dressed like a model from a fashion mag, her hair was carefully coiffed, her nails done, etc., etc. For her physics project, she chose to build a model bridge from popsicle sticks. I said great, and steered toward the right resources. Weeks pass. No bridge. So I ask her what progress she has made. “Oh,” she says, “my boyfriend told me it would be too hard to build a bridge, so I’m going to do a paper instead.”

    I was a fairly green teacher at the time, so I didn’t press her on the subject. Now, since I’m older and crankier, I probably would have insisted she do the bridge anyway.

    Another example from the math angle: I taught a girl whose math skills were simply awful. And she hated math with a passion. So I asked her, why do you hate math? She said she loved math until the 6th grade. Her teacher made students do problems on the board, and Kay (not her real name) messed hers up. The teacher proceeded to humiliate her in front of the class, calling her stupid. So for Kay that was when math began to be a chore to be hated.

    I would suggest that had Kay been a Ray or a Jay, the teacher would not have dumped scorn on a simple error.

    Our school is small, and we have the rep around town of harboring some of the weirdest kids around. So we have more than our fair share of geeks, artsy-fartsies, dramaturgues, goths and uncos (that’s what we in my geeky high school days called ourselves as non-athletes – “uncoordinateds”). Even so, the high school culture tends to place higher value on one’s outer appearance and glibness, than on intellectual enterprise and scientific curiosity. Nevertheless, I have had female students become architects, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers in almost the same proportion as male students, so clearly those who are comfortable with their inner geek (or nerd) manage to ignore the shallowness of their teen culture to succeed as geeky adults.

  27. #27 Laura
    May 26, 2006

    If you want to know if there’s a shortage of women in science, check the NSF: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/c3/c3s1.htm

    Women only represent 26% of the workforce in science and engineering fields. Those with degrees in science and engineering fields represent 46% of the workforce. That means a great many women abandon their chosen career.

    I think the very fact that there isn’t a law that says women can’t do science makes it even harder. We’re left fighting this amorphous problem that’s different at every institution. I’m on the tech side of a college, doing computing support. Many of our positions do not require a specialized degree and yet, we still only have 5 women on staff. We just hired a sixth. Out of 25 people. We were down to 3 for a while. I had a colleague actually say to me that he didn’t think we needed any more women in technology.

    By the way, it’s a women’s college.

  28. #28 David Harmon
    May 27, 2006

    One point which may not be relevant to gender issues, but it certainly relevant to the “geek stereotype” you cite: A condition called Non-verbal Learning Disorder has an “interesting” set of effects: Sufferers tend to be socially maladroit, physically clumsy, and/or neglectful of their appearance and surroundings. At the same time, they have enhanced verbal abilities, by which they give an impression of intelligence despite their other problems. If they don’t have other LDs such as dyslexia, they are often rapid and volumnious readers.

    Sound familiar? Now, I’ve heard that NLD is more-or-less equally prevalent in males and females, but I conjecture that the stronger social interdependence among females may work to their advantage in terms of being able to learn social skills and graces (that is, they’re more likely to find someone who can explain things verbally and without euphemism).

  29. #29 boojieboy
    May 28, 2006

    OK, for the record, that nerd/geek/dork test gets it all wrong. The critical difference is a psychological one: the relation between how others see you and how you see yourself. Psychologists use the term “identification” to describe each. How you see yourself is “self-identification”

    Geeks identify with their own social awkwardness. They have embraced their inner-geek and wear it proudly, like a badge of honor. They might even cultivate it to some extent. Hence the paradoxical fact that they can as a result gain some measure of coolness/hipness.

    Nerds do not identify with their social awkwardness. They wish they were like the cool kids, but know they are not, and may regard themselves as deficient.

    Dorks do not realize their plight. They think they are one of the cool kids, even though everyone else knows they aren’t. Dorks are oblivious. Think Napoleon Dynamite.

    This taxonomy leads to some strange realizations. Such as the fact that in the movie Revenge of the Nerds, the final climactic scenes where the nerds bands together and give the cool kids their comeuppance, they transform themselves into geeks. At the moment that they embrace their nerdiness, they are no longer nerds.

    More to come.

  30. #30 Jenna
    May 28, 2006

    That quiz: OH MY GOD. I’m a:

    Outcast Genius

    86 % Nerd, 52% Geek, 56% Dork

    You scored better than half in all three, earning you the title of: Outcast Genius.

    Outcast geniuses usually are bright enough to understand what society wants of them, and they just don’t care! They are highly intelligent and passionate about the things they know are *truly* important in the world. Typically, this does not include sports, cars or make-up, but it can on occassion (and if it does then they know more than all of their friends combined in that subject).

    Outcast geniuses can be very lonely, due to their being outcast from most normal groups and too smart for the room among many other types of dorks and geeks, but they can also be the types to eventually rule the world, ala Bill Gates, the prototypical Outcast Genius.

    Congratulations!

    Congratulations??! On being an outcast and lonely?! LOL.

  31. #31 Chris
    May 28, 2006

    Another example from the math angle: I taught a girl whose math skills were simply awful. And she hated math with a passion. So I asked her, why do you hate math? She said she loved math until the 6th grade. Her teacher made students do problems on the board, and Kay (not her real name) messed hers up. The teacher proceeded to humiliate her in front of the class, calling her stupid. So for Kay that was when math began to be a chore to be hated.

    I would suggest that had Kay been a Ray or a Jay, the teacher would not have dumped scorn on a simple error.
    I would suggest that the teacher was an asshole and you are reading too much interpretation into too little evidence.

    But then, I think that kind of incident would have rolled off my back – while I would have been pissed at the teacher in question, I wouldn’t have allowed it to redefine my self-image or my concept of the subject. I also have a Y chromosome. Are those facts related? And if so, are they related through the medium of social instruction and expectation, or more directly through differences in brain organization? Who knows, and even more importantly, *how* do they know?

    Even if the teacher wasn’t being sexist, it’s possible that the *students* could react to a similar experience in different ways, based either on innate sex differences or on learned differences based on socially defined sex roles.

    David Harmon: At the risk of serious digression, I don’t see why that condition is characterized as a “disorder”. Simply because it is different from the majority?

    And how do you (or anyone else) distinguish an “impression of intelligence” from the real thing?

    Are you sure we’re not just seeing “normal” people’s need to label anything different from themselves as inferior at work here?

  32. #32 Jenna
    May 28, 2006

    By the way, as a an adult woman looking back, none of my teachers ever stunted my science or math growth, so I think it depends on the teacher.

    It is sad, however, that in general “society” offers pressure in regards to gender roles based on sex– I’ve heard ‘stories’ where a woman herpetologist had immense trouble with her field because it was so male-dominated; our brains grow up around this type of social expectation and culture so thus this reinforcement ends up such that fewer women are in these types of fields. However, I think as adults consciously knowing about social/cultural pressures, we can change our minds– and others’ minds– by allowing for differing perspectives.

    As a 28 year old going into science, I’ve chosen to not have kids so that all my time can be for my career and for myself. And I think that it has to be taught that this type of choice (among others) for a woman is perfectly okay on all sectors– from family to society.

  33. #33 Lab Lemming
    May 29, 2006

    Has anyone looked into the possibility that all the capable, shit-hot female science grads have simply managed to use their science knowledge and skills in more financially rewarding professions?

    A lot of the really good science women whom I graduated with 10 years ago went into consulting or management type positions.

    As for kids vs career, they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive for anyone of any gender. At least in an ideal world, they ought to be independent variables.

  34. #34 Larry Sullivan
    May 29, 2006

    The “nerd” as product of evolution.

    This is only my second foray into these minefields Janet initiates, and much too long, I think. As newcomer here, I’d appreciate some feedback about this post – too long, too serious, whatever.

    And I seem to be playing the same tune – evolution. I think the ways the sexes relate, think about themselves, and think about the other, have to do pretty much with who’s in charge. As follows:

    There have been two distinct periods in human history: three million years of hunting and gathering, and the most recent 15,000 years of agriculture and urban settlement — movement and stasis. The first was orchestrated by the female, the second dominated by the male; the tradition of the first was instinctive, collaborative, gestural and oral; the tradition of the second, aggressive, linear, rational, and literate. The conversion from the one to the other clearly coincides with the changeover from oral to literate culture.

    Evolution from an upright biped with a brain the size of a chimpanzee’s to homo sapiens transported the species across 100,000 generations to a harmonious, egalitarian lifestyle which has been described as the most successful and enduring we have experienced. Along the way, we elaborated a sophisticated magico-religious system centering around the Mother Goddess, created the great art of the Paleolithic, and — as long as 15,000 years ago — shaped communities like “La Madeleine” on the Vèzére river in France, with terraced “row” houses accommodating about four hundred people. As at least one wise man has observed, creating a world does not require modern consciousness.

    Those wanderers evolved a commendably egalitarian community in which tasks were assigned through assessment of strength and skill. Female and male complemented one another faultlessly, the labors performed by each indispensable to the survival of the group. The men hunted and constituted the first line of defense against predators, while the women, children trailing behind, foraged for edible grasses and fruits, collected small animals, gathered honey and tended the campsite. By 10,000 BC, our nomadic forebearers had been rendering for perhaps 15,000 years the compelling images we find now in the caves of Spain and France. They cut and sewed clothing, wore jewelry, decorated body and face; they played flute, whistle, and drum in the service of myth, magic, and fun. They buried their dead: with food, eating utensils, clothing, make-up and its tools. And it is here, in the ritualization of death — the wishful denial of mortality — we must pause to record the genesis of illusion, for the creation of ritual presumes the beginnings of language, myth, religion and philosophy. It is the beginning of Time and the end of nature.

    Students of the human presence generally agree that for the first three million years the female patiently, maternally guided our social development, in consequence of the primate male’s generic indifference to child-rearing. Her richest resources were maternal instinct, the evolving human brain, and the mystery of creation – for until the discovery of paternity, we believed that the menstrual blood of the female was the unique condition for new human life. After all, menstruation ceased when a woman became pregnant and did not resume until she was ready to conceive again. On that intuitive basis she was accorded a privileged, magical status – and equality.

    In addition, there was no substitute for mother’s milk. Indeed, until pasteurization made animal milk safe, the maternal breast meant life or death for every newborn. Small wonder our ancestors endowed their female idols with awesome bosoms, or that such idols were spread from Spain to the Steppes of Russia long before the creation of agriculture. With hands on belly or breasts, they communicate the fundamental value of the womanly powers of procreation and lactation.

    The female actually provided the bulk of the tribe’s foodstuffs, elaborated the culinary arts, and invented the tools and techniques of pottery, basket-making, textile production, and early agriculture. In addition, she was the social center of the community, mediating conflicts between members of the tribe – including the dominant males – teaching the young the arts of gathering, and tending the hearth around which the community gathered at day’s end to share a growing intimacy which may be among the oldest of human social satisfactions. The wonder of pregnancy and the mystery of birth, supplemented by her technological contributions to the welfare of the tribe, lent the life-giver a special authority memorialized in the abundant “Venus” and “goddess” figurines dating from 25,000 BC.

    The summary for this period might be: women achieve and maintain equality due to the universal misconception that they are the carriers of the “Life” of the tribe.

    Males, meanwhile, were out hunting. Over the centuries, they refined their craft to the point where they sometimes spent a month or more away from the homecamp. The long forays away from the females and children saw the development of a male culture of the hunt, rich in myth and ritual designed to sustain the hunters in their isolation and to elevate them to the necessary emotional pitch for an encounter with prey animals. Here, male power was associated with the brain and penis, and symbolically with the horn, emblem of the sacred power of the animals. The life-power was thought to reside in the skull and vital organs, which were ritually extracted from worthy prey — and later from the bodies of the enemy dead — and eaten in order to acquire the qualities and power of the fallen adversary.

    By the end of the Paleolithic period, male and female hunter-gatherers had formed separate sub-cultures within which each sex had its “secret” myths and rituals – resulting in an openly competitive and acerbic relationship between them. The antagonism did not interfere with the ongoing reproductive life of the tribe, but the young were schooled and initiated in their own camps by their elder gender-mates.

    Thus, a rift was introduced into the human community even before the terrible centuries which preceded the settled urban-agricultural lifestyle. And certainly there was a close relationship between the harshness of that prolonged period – 10,000 to 2500 BC – and the appearance of modern consciousness. It is patent in the evolution of the species that the greatest advances are set in motion during periods of greatest hardship – Ice Ages, for instance – as evidenced by the flowering of culture immediately thereafter.

    We were mentored through the passage from an oral to a literate cognitive style, then, by the epidemic illness, endemic strife and warfare, widespread malnutrition and starvation attendant to the accomplishment of a settled life.
    At the beginning, evolution assailed us with an explosion of population exhausting the supply of fertile, livable land. The procreative good health reflected in our numbers at that point is pure tribute to the achievements of the hunter-gatherers, but the price of success was the plague of one another as a persistent environment, and the beginnings of pillaging and plunder, leading eventually to warfare and slavery. These developments presaged the construction of a settled agricultural lifestyle initially severe enough to precipitate significant reduction in the physical stature and longevity of the human population from the Mesolithic through the Neolithic eras.

    Somewhere near the beginning of the upheaval, some nameless husbandman – or husbandperson, as the genius may well have been female – while tending the domestic animals of the tribe, made clear sense of the mechanics of their breeding and was able to present evidence, in the manner of the times, for the action of semen in the process of procreation.

    The male seized the moment.

    The Bronze and Iron Ages saw a recovery and stabilization of average size and length of life, but at the cost of the inauguration of a stratified society based on wealth and status. The events of that 7500 year period engendered gross inequity in the power relations between the sexes, left us inalterably alienated from the natural surround, and put us in the business of running the world. No doubt it was chance – as is everything with evolution – that placed these events just where the Western tradition is rooted.

    By the third millennium BC, a male fertility principle had made its appearance in religious epic. Shortly thereafter, with the advent of Kingship came cadres of Priests beholden to the ruler, carrying with them into the religion a pantheon of male gods who eventually took over the function of fertility. With time, sexuality was split off from procreation, and the Mother Goddess demoted to consort of the reigning male deity. The new divinities were gods of technology and power. In their ascendancy the primacy of the body was repressed in favor of “mind” as man, now severed from the natural world, turned his seemingly unlimited intellectual powers to the task of analyzing, rationalizing, and technologizing every aspect of life.

    Somewhere along the way, we found ourselves counting “one, two, three,” recognizing the figure reflected from the water’s surface, naming one another and the objects around us, developing concepts like “me” and “mine,” “want” and “enemy.” The availability of a more flexible language accelerated the rationalization of the processes of life: goods, animals, and people could be quantified. Objects of value could be inventoried, records kept. The passing of the “I/thou” relationship made space for the “me/it” relationship, and left humankind finally and irrevocably separated from the creatures of the world, and from one another.

    With the last few centuries of the Iron Age (500BCE – Year One) came the end of equality between the sexes and the beginning of women’s delegation to secondary roles in the community. Animals were increasingly used as labor in agriculture, and new technologies of metal-working were developed for the production of farm implements, machines, and weapons. In this economy of “wealth” – a new category in human thought – men learned to accumulate “goods” competitively, while women and children came to be thought of as “possessions.”

    Headline for this period: men discover themselves as the “responsible” ones, and try to live up to the charge.

    That the new male traditions initiated in the stressful step across the threshold of consciousness rooted themselves firmly in the ground of our culture is clearly reflected in classical Greece. Aristotle’s De Generatione Animalium chronicles the inferiority of the female in chapter and verse, even to her description as “a mutilated male” lacking even “the principle of soul.” “The strength,” Aristotle pontificated, “is in the (male) seed.” The end result has been the Western Way of Life which continues to keep the sexes separate and unequal, just be force of habit.

    Could it be that “the nerd” is the synthesis?

  35. #35 Tree
    May 29, 2006

    EEEEEE! I also scored as an ‘Outcast Genius’.

    I can’t recall a single incident where I ‘rejected nerd culture’ because I was concerned about my feminine image (apologies if this is a bowdlerization of the hypothesis). However, nerd and geek boys have vigorously rejected me…especially when I won at Risk, or any other game (was a wargamer for a long time, better now), or had a brilliant idea at work (first as a biologist, then when I noticed that even with a Doctor’s degree, I wouldn’t be making as much as an Executive secretary, as a High Tech worker…right when the bubble burst, ow).

    Want to know how nerd boys feel about nerd girls? Suggest on some tech blog that human females do the mate selection. Science and logic will fly right out the door. The boyz might know Linux, but they’ve never heard of sperm competition.

    I don’t believe that intelligent women reject nerd culture (and I invite you to almost any SF convention as a check). I think that they are driven out by after enduring years of rage from passive aggressive male nerds/geeks who can’t tolerate intelligent women.

    And! Why are we talking about this when we could be reading Susan R. Matthews’ newest SF epic, Warring States?

    Tree, embracing her inner geek…nerd…whatever

  36. #36 JL
    May 30, 2006

    I feel your pain. It is so true that our worth, because we are female, hinges more upon reproduction in accordance with the “normals”.
    I think too a greater extent, nerd boys just can’t handle smart girls.
    I’m still looking for my dumb hunk!

  37. #37 David Harmon
    May 30, 2006

    Chris asks: “David Harmon: At the risk of serious digression, I don’t see why that condition is characterized as a “disorder”. Simply because it is different from the majority?”

    I generally agree — clinical psych has a real problem dealing with human variation on a basis other than “abnormalities”. At the same time, I suffer from NLD myself, and I’ll tell you, that “respecialization” comes at a nasty price! NLDers tend to get a quasi-random selection of problems from a fairly long list. Sensory thresholds, physical coordination, face recognition and interpretation, emotional self-awareness, social modelling, and other things that you wouldn’t normally think about — unless they’re effing broken! ;-) Depression and anxiety are common in NLDers, too for all the obvious reasons.

    Chris continues: And how do you (or anyone else) distinguish an “impression of intelligence” from the real thing?

    Which real thing? There’s several different kinds of intelligence, representing different clusters of abilities and talents. In practice though, most of those get names of their own: people with physical intelligence are “graceful”, emotionally intelligent people are “well balanced”, inductive thinkers get called “intuitive”, and so on. As noted by various studies, people generally describe other people as “intelligent” or otherwise, based on… their verbal abilities and skills. The problem with that for NLDers is that people don’t understand why this “obviously intelligent” person keeps stumbling over all sort of “simple” things….

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