How do you effectively encourage young girls to stick with their math, science, and computer studies in high school? How do you effectively encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics? There’s no one perfect approach; you need a full toolkit that allows you to mend all the malfunctions and rip down all the roadblocks that gender roles, peer pressures, familial or societal expectations, and poor or misguided teachers can throw at a girl.
The editors of and contributors to She’s Such A Geek! thought one good tool to have in the arsenal would be an anthology of stories by real life women who’ve gone down the geek pathway. Let women tell their own life tales about what it’s like to grow up nerd, to be in the lab. And have them tell their stories about what led some of them to turn away from careers in science – that’s important to know, too.
But even the best of tools are useless if they are kept locked up.
I recently responded to a request for books for high school students about women in science. The requestor wanted books that had biographies of women in science and that would encourage young girls to go into science. I suggested “Sisters in Science” by Diann Jordan – which the requestor found acceptable – and “She’s Such a Geek!” – which the requestor admitted to liking, but didn’t feel was “appropriate…to purchase and put in high school libraries.” I’ve asked her why, but haven’t heard back yet.
However, I’ll bet I can guess why: it’s because the book includes the word “fuck” and because the book talks frankly, in many places, about sex and sexual orientation.
And, of course, our nation’s high school students have never heard the word “fuck” and have never discussed sex or sexual orientation. So it wouldn’t do to give them a book where these things crop up. Perhaps we could also recommend that “Catcher in the Rye” be removed from the high school bookshelves…oh wait. People routinely get in a lather about that book, too.
In one sense, I can understand the plight of my requestor. She is not actually in the public school system; she is donating books; maybe she feels she has to tread a fine line. But on the other hand, not being in the public school system, doesn’t that give you a little freedom to donate whatever the hell books you want to donate?
Here’s the problem: I don’t think you can talk honestly about women’s lives in science and engineering educational and workplace settings and careers without also talking about sex and sexual orientation. The political issues that affect women’s access to these careers are bound up in personal issues of identity: what it means to be a woman, to “act like a normal girl”, what it means to be a geek or a nerd, and what possibilities exist for combining the identities “woman” and “geek” in one body. How does one’s understanding of “woman” need to be reshaped or redefined in order to take on the identity “geek”? Does it need to be reshaped?
Several of the essays in “She’s Such A Geek” recount the author’s sense of conflict between geekhood and female sexuality, and how those struggles were resolved. For a young girl going through the same thing, reading about that struggle could be very reassuring. A young girl who is coming to terms with sexual orientation could find solace in Corie Ralston’s story.
Girls who are interested in “techie” things are often taunted with homophobic slurs, accused of being lesbian as a code for saying that they have compromised their femininity by expressing an interest in “masculine” pursuits. Girls need to know that regular, everyday women – straight or gay – can have careers in technology and have regular, everyday lives. They have partners and children and friends and family. They fall in and out of love. They experience all the sorts of things that human beings do. They just do it while having loads of fun messing around with techie stuff.
A “role model” book for young girls has to address sex and sexuality. It has to show what it’s like to deal with the vast majority of boys who are intimidated by smart women; what it’s like to deal with the ever-present comments on your sexuality in the workplace; what it’s like to discover your sexuality within and because of your geekhood. I think these are the kinds of true life stories that can help girls, as much as or more so than one more nicely varnished volume about the handful of women who’ve won the Nobel Prize.
Writing about the intimate and personal lives of women geeks, and putting that writing into the hands of young girls, is a political act with the possibility for great reverberation. So it’s no wonder some people are going to be reluctant to find such writing “appropriate”.
My suggestion to you is to buy a copy of “She’s Such A Geek!” and donate it to your local high school library. And then, if some girl’s parent finds out about it and tries to have it banned, so much the better, because there’s nothing like trying to ban a book to get teens to read it. That’s how my younger sister came to read “Catcher in the Rye”, after all.
Budding geeks need a nurturing community, and books like “She’s Such A Geek!” can play a role. Let me end by quoting Jessica Dickinson Goodman from “She’s Such A Geek!” Jessica, by the way, is a junior in high school.
Because I grew up around computers, I never really had to separate my geek identity from my identity as a girl…I was a confirmed geek before I ever really got into girly things, so I never differentiated between my geek self and my girly self. Having a well-updated laptop is way more important to me than having the latest fashion in dresses. My peers don’t always support this prioritization, but my friends are cool with it.
I hate to label myself a “female geek” because I don’t like being labeled as a “female” anything. Because there are so many ways of being a woman or a man, there’s really no absolute value of what it means to be either…To me, a geek is someone who is passionate about something…Without [my peer support group], my family and teachers, and without living in an area where books like this one get written, life would be much harder. I find that no matter what I do, I love the people who share my passion. That’s why I’ll always be a communal nerd.