The Delicate Sensibilities of Teenage Girls

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 " 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.

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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,

I know when I donated some science books to my old HS and public library a few years back, the HS ones had to be approved by the school board before they'd even be added to the shelves (and had to be approved by a committee for the public library). So it may not even get to the point of being removed...might not ever make the shelves in the first place, depending on the library's (and school's) policy.

Is the pipeline model still out there?

I never quite understood that argument. If the pipeline's leaky, doesn't it make more sense to plug the holes than to get a wider base?

I'm a "male geek" that is thoroughly disappointed in the number of females in my college classes (mostly comp sci and physics).
Our university offers a Women's Study course that is cross-listed with the Engineering department on "Women and Ethnicity in Science." This was a great class that opened my eyes to a lot of the societal problems that result in women being under-represented in the "hard sciences." More revealing than the class was a comment made on the first day (from both genders).

Men - Wow, this is the most women I've ever had in an engineering class!
Women - Wow, this is the most men I've ever had in a Women's Study course!

The lines were just drawn like that. Every man was in engineering, every women in Women's Studies.
From what I remember, this post is dead on. Much of the problem stems from Junior High and the struggle for acceptance that this time of life brings in everybody. Women's scores in math and science drop significantly during puberty (most likely due to wanting to be accepted), resulting in a lack of interest in high school and college.
Once (if) they end up making it into a geeky major in college, then they have to deal with the hoards of horny college guys wanting to get them in bed. In our undergraduate computer science program, there is ONE girl. To be a (tiny tiny tiny) bit more fair, there are about three in the graduate program.
The problem, as I see it, is reaching a certain threshold of female scientists into academia. We already have a lot of famous women scientists, but our current generation of teachers and advisers don't offer an easy outlet for women in these fields. It makes a little too much sense to me, but MEN AND WOMEN ARE DIFFERENT! This won't change! But, academia was established over the last several years in a way that is structured to get the most out of the male side of science.

I don't have any real way of knowing, but I'm assuming that being a female geek is at least as hard as being a male feminist :(.
Humanity still has a long way to go...

By Cye Stoner (not verified) on 16 Jan 2007 #permalink

If "wanting to be accepted" is really the case, then you wouldn't be seeing a subsequent drop-off at top universities. After all, in order to get into these schools you have to a) do well in math and science in high school, and b) spend so much time studying and preparing for national competitions that there's just no time for popularity issues.

It seems to me that the stronger explanation is girls' scores decline because teachers start making different assumptions about their abilities.

Once (if) they end up making it into a geeky major in college, then they have to deal with the hoards of horny college guys wanting to get them in bed.

Flirting isn't the problem, exactly. Rather, patriarchal views of relationships and women are. By viewing women as sex objects, men in engineering tend to automatically devalue their intelligence.

is reaching a certain threshold of female scientists into academia.

I'm not so sure. Female scientists can still have very patriarchal views. If scientific academia is anything like law, then the existing system will likely favor women who hold these views.

a female geek is at least as hard as being a male feminist

I doubt it. Male feminists only seem to have problems when they do distinctly anti-feminist things.

This is part of the larger problem in America of overcompensating morality. Sex and profanity proliferate within our culture. The more widespread it becomes, the more determined some people are to put forth an image of purity. It is a strange sort of idealism that prevents real problems experienced every day by youth in America, especially with sex and sexual identity, from being addressed and dealt with because that would necessarily require admitting that youth do deal with these issues. It may be possible that the bury-our-heads-in-the-sand approach, which prevents adequate communication about and discourages seeking guidance with sexual issues actually promotes some of the more unacceptable sexual acting-out which scares more socially conservatives into the white-wash approach. It may be a viscious cycle of feedback.

Yahoo, I got She's Such a Geek for Christmas. When I'm done with it, I think I'll pass it on to my niece, a college freshman.

"Once (if) they end up making it into a geeky major in college, then they have to deal with the hoards of horny college guys wanting to get them in bed."

That's one way to look at it, but the overt parts (stupid hit lines from classmates) are easy to identify, at least. It's the more subtle things that tend to really drive people nuts. In my case, I was staggered by having to live in a fishbowl. Every move watched by many eyes, every thing I did commented on; what I wore, what I said, where I sat to study, who I happened to speak to or walk near. For an extrovert who wants to be a performer, this might be heaven, but when you consider the personality of most geeks, it's a nightmare. I suspect this is a real part of the leaky pipeline problem.

Slightly off-thread but my daughter is determined, against the evidence, that she's no good at maths. She mentions this from time to time, for example when she's doing her maths homework.

"I'm no good at maths"
"Your teachers seem to think you're doing rather well. Your last report was excellent"
"[changes subject]"


"I really don't understand surds*."


"I find maths really hard. Everyone else finds it so easy"
"Haven't you been getting some of the top marks? They can't be finding it that easy."
"[changes subject]"

There's some kind of game going on here but I don't know what the rules are. She says she wants to study law eventually with the view to making lots of money. But it seems beside the point that she probably has more maths right now than she'll ever need as a lawyer. Her brother will also ask for advice on specific questions but has always seemed quite comfortable with being seen to be able to "do" maths in general. What does Aunty Zuska suggest?

*now sorted.

I read Shes such a geek.
The thing I found discouraging about it wasn't the word fuck or the essay on cybersex. It was the essay after essay about how women dropped out of academia. If I had read that after highschool physics it might have made the thought of geting through gradschool unattainable.
I'd be interested in others opinion about the book.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 17 Jan 2007 #permalink

On the other hand I found the bits about people dating very interesting. My mouth fellopen when I read the parts about guys just walking away when chicks introduced themselves as engineering majors.
That has never happened to me, and I hadn't considered it possible. Lucky I guess.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 17 Jan 2007 #permalink

I was one of the women who wrote about leaving academia. But the funny thing is, most of the guys who entered physics graduate school at the same time as I did are out of academia as well...seriously, like over 80% are doing something else. Physics is a tough field to succeed in for anyone.

I told my story, but I guess if I could put an addendum to the book, I would point out that most people--even those entering graduate programs at elite universities--drop out of the physics pipeline. I did not know this going in. Hard to say whether I might have made a different choice had I known, but I think it's important information to put out there. Girls, don't do physics--do engineering! There are so many more opportunities out there in medical devices, tissue engineering, biochemistry. You can have a career and help make things that improve people's lives as an engineer.


I remember long ago, my freshman year of college we had to take a seminar class in physics. The elcturer actually stood up and told us that of the 10 people in the room only one or two would end up profs. At the time I was pissed, why wouls anyone stand up and say something that discouraging? But I guess what it did do was make my first time hearing about the act of leaving academia ungendered. I'm glad I didn't hear it in highschool though it would have dampened the thrill of discovering I was really good at physics. After I established I was good, I could hear something like that and think "I'll show you". I'm glad Shes Such a Geek is out there, but I'm not sure how to achieve a similar ungendering in a book of essays written by women. Unless there was also an essay completely diedicated to leaving academia that features men and women as examples. In fact I highly suggest it.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink


Funny you should mention the need for an essay about leaving that would feature men and women as examples, because I have a couple of good friends (a male-female couple) who think that would be a good idea, too. I know that my male friend, who was in the same year as I was, didn't have the same issues of wondering whether he fit in or couldn't let down the male side when he decided to leave physics.

I wish there was an essay, somewhere in the universe, about Grad School sucking both for men and women. In my experience, the feeling of inadequacy were ahred equally by men and women, and there is a certain background of being miserable. In my first and second years my friends I would get togther and talk about runing away joining the cirsus or becomming architects. One of my male friends was having a bad week and then his car got towed and he had a sobbing fit. But it passes, in fact by my fourth year I was feeling pretty good.
No doubt there are special feelings of misery that women in grad school have- but it might also be heartening for female grad students to see that is sucks for everyone, its not just you, noone feels good enough. Maybe that would be a way to disentangle inadequecy with femaleness.

I also have to say, off topic I little, that there were some other grad students that made me miserable and when they left I felt better. They those students who have been so demoralized by gradschool they turned into wraiths, empty shells of people. They bought into that whole 'smart people are born not made' bullshit. They were convinced the profs were constantly judging our innate abilities. They tried to convince every other student to leave our field cuz they figuered eveyone was as miserable as them. also one was my TA and he did they thing where I would say something and he would ignore me then 15 minutes later come to the conclusion I had already said and act like he thought of it. They had the moral outlook of Salieri from Amadeus. I wish someone would tell all the little grad students to stay away from these people.

On the other hand, I definitley felt that leaving or doing poorly would let down all women in the field. Though that thought can be motivating in an I'll show them kinds way, it can also fuck you up pretty bad.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink

A good place to go to exchange stories with other graduate students in the midst of their struggles would be the Chronicle of Higher Education forums. There's one devoted just to grad school life, but many of the others would be useful as well. They print excerpt from the forums in the print edition weekly and there is some really good stuff in there.

Yeah, physics grad school does suck for everyone, especially in the first couple of years with endless problem sets, teaching, and the candidacy exam looming. I definitely knew that--all the guys and I would go out for beers after finishing our quantum mechanics problem set each week and muse about alternative careers if (when!) physics didn't pan out.

And once we got through those hurdles, it did feel better--for a bit. Then some of us went on to have success with our research projects and others of us didn't, and when you see the divide opening and yourself falling on the wrong side of it, it can be pretty demoralizing. I did take the "I'll show them" attitude to hang in there and get my Ph.D., but that was also kind of isolating, and does not the foundation of a happy career and life make. So I made the rational decision to leave physics, even if it took a while for me to completely come to terms with it emotionally because of all the gender issues that had been tied up in my decision to pursue it in the first place.

Anyway. It's healthy to remember that physics is a pretty tough community. I knew a guy who had entered grad school at 18, passed the Ph.D. candidacy exam with the highest score, and published a handful of single-author papers in Physical Review Letters--but his last advisor when he graduated wouldn't write him a recommendation unless the student did some research on the advisor's own topic. The student left to go into finance, but it shows you how political it can be. (I don't know if it makes a difference that the student was Chinese and the advisor was Russian, but it might.)

By he by, has everyone seen this comparison of grad school to a cult?

Is info about academia and its hardships better to give people sooner or later? One doesnt want to be discouraging but one doesnt want people to feel the horrrible guilt for leaving either. Also does anyone here know the pipeline leak rate from postdoc to junior faculty? Is it something like 66%

By Carpenter (not verified) on 18 Jan 2007 #permalink

I'd say it's better to give people info about grad school sooner rather than later...though I don't know if it would have discouraged me unless it had come from the mouth of someone who had actually done a Ph.D. in physics, someone who had "been there."

I have a friend who ended up doing mechanical engineering because she babysat for a married couple who each had physics Ph.D.s and went on to work in R&D in the automotive industry. Their advice? Do engineering, not physics, because there are better job opportunities in engineering. (The wife is currently taking an early retirement buyout from Ford. Good thing my friend went into medical devices and not American cars!)

My mouth fell open when I read the parts about guys just walking away when chicks introduced themselves as engineering majors.

heh. I recently attempted to discourage a guy by casually mentioning that I had a graduate degree in Physics. I don't know if it worked or not.

a married couple who each had physics Ph.D.s and went on to work in R&D in the automotive industry.

f**king a, what part of R&D in the automotive industry is a bad job opportunity? I would give my left arm to have an R&D position in just about any industry!

as the holder of a PhD in physics who sought job opportunities outside the university environment, R&D positions are hard to find no matter what your degree is in. There are far, far more jobs in manufacturing than there are in R&D, and most of those jobs are boring, sustaining jobs, not even manufacturing process development. All those jobs are open to holders of Physics PhD's.

By Frumious B. (not verified) on 19 Jan 2007 #permalink

Frumious B.--

Yeah, the couple who wound up in automotive industry R&D did just fine, as you point out. I think they just wanted to save my friend some of the extra hassle of trying to sell a physics background to companies that would be looking for engineers. In this day of hypercredentialism, not having the right degree in the right discipline will bounce you out of consideration from the get-go.

Even if someone with a physics Ph.D. has the intellectual capability to pursue many tangentially-related careers, many companies want plug-and-play. If there are more job opportunities in engineering than in physics, then it makes sense for a student to go straight into engineering and not spend time getting a less readily marketable degree in physics. Knowing what I know now, if I could do it over again, I wouldn't do a Ph.D. in physics.

When I started tomajor in physics they told us all the skills we learn as physicists would enable us to work in almost any field. Even if that were true, noone seems to have told the outside world, plenty of people I know who have left had a hell of a time finding a job cuz noone knows what a physicist is. It would also be valuable to teach wwomen who major in pure science, and dont plan on academics as a career, how to market themselves to the world. Too much of it seems like luck to me.

By Carpenter (not verified) on 19 Jan 2007 #permalink

"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."

As one of the exactly three lesbians in the hard sciences that I'm aware of at my 40,000-student mammoth state university, I'd like to know where these people get that idea and how I can get there.

By ironpoptart (not verified) on 21 Jan 2007 #permalink