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.