Explaining (Away) Women Geeks

Liz Henry’s delightful, insightful skewering of the sexism deployed in an article about Google VP Marissa Mayer provides a very recent example of a pattern noted by Ruth Oldenziel in Making Technology Masculine: Women who love technology require an explanation; men who love technology are just being masculine. Oldenziel notes:

Whenever women enter computer rooms and construction sites as designers, hackers, and engineers…they need to be accounted for and explained. For decades scores of newspapers have reported, commented, and elaborated on the many “first” women who trespassed the male technical threshold as engineers, presenting them often as news.

Oldenziel describes how prominent women were singled out as “firsts” and presented as one of very few, while scores of “lesser known” women and their technological labor went unacknowledged.

From New York to California engineering journals, corporate newsletters, and local newspapers singled out women who trespassed on the male domain of engineering, often adding local touches and highlighting them with phototgraphs to suit the particular occasion. The publicity on women engineers – one might even call it overexposure – shows how we continue to view their entry into the technical domain as an exotic but more likely exceptional, strange, and alien event. It also illustrates how we forget, erase, and (re)invent the history of women. More importantly, these reports show how we consider technology men’s natural domain – a penchant that does need explanation, however.

The article on Mayer follows this pattern, simultaneously overexposing her – a female Google VP must take some explaining! – and erasing her, attributing her success to powerful male associates and focusing on her looks and “womanly” hobbies. Thus, she can be celebrated even as she is diminished. In the end, we need not be threatened by her; she is an aberration, she’s still a real woman despite that odd love of technology, she didn’t really do that geeky stuff all herself anyway. Technology remains firmly enshrined as a masculine domain, and Real Women don’t do technology.

The links between technological change and gender relations developed neither in isolation nor independently. Instead, they shaped each other. In the cultural grammar of the twentieth century, the simultaneous erasure and overexposure of flesh-and-blood women engineers like [Isabel] Ebel, [Audrey] Muller, and [Leonore] Traver evolved together with the shaping of a new technical world inscribed as male.

It’s depressing that this early-twentieth century narrative is still in use today. We need articles that present female role models for others to see. We don’t, however, need them to create the appearance of oddity, freakishness, exoticism. In Liz Henry’s words,

Journalists should not “disappear” women in tech by canonizing one saint who they love and hate, praise, objectify, and revile. There are a lot of us here!

Maybe women scientists and engineers ought to have a handy checklist to give reporters who are planning an article on The One Woman Scientist/Engineer On Earth. After all, geek women are busy, and we can’t sit around all day while reporters sketch our caricature. How about something like this to help things along?

  • Are you planning on describing me as
    (A) not what you’d expect,
    (B) surprisingly pretty,
    (C) a rarity, or
    (D) all of the above?

  • Will you be emphasizing my Womanly Attributes?
    (A) Yes,
    (B) Yes, in detail, or
    (C) Yes, in detail, with references to giggles and cupcakes.

  • Will you also explain how technology has unsexed me?
    (A) Yes,
    (B) Yes, while simultaneously infantilizing you, you “geeky super-normal enthusiastic girl”!

  • Are you planning to include intimations that I slept my way to the top?
    (A) Yes,
    (B) No, just an attribution of your success to Powerful Male Associates. Who you probably slept with.

  • Will you end by asking when I’m going to give up all these crazy ideas and go back to full-time Womanhood?
    (A) Yes,
    (B) Yes, because you scare the boys.

Well, there’s a start. It may not cover everything, but it should help streamline your interview time and let you get back to your geeky supernormal enthusiastic girlish science.

  1. April 9, 2008 at 12:35 am

    Graduating a few years ago, I am surprised just how often I had to prove to my male professors that I deserved to be there. And yes, I also graduated in the top 10% of my class. I find it unacceptable when my female peers were pushed out of the program by the attitudes they encountered and not by the grades they had in the program. And at commencement, my degree was handed to me in the same fashion of everyone else. My observational skills must have missed the silver platter.
    And with the percentages of women in science programs decreasing again, I do not see how one can reasonably claim “reverse discrimination.”

  2. Kerry
    April 9, 2008 at 6:23 am

    Don’t feed the uncreative trolls. Let’s train them to do unique tricks before we give them treats.
    Mackenzie, kudos to you and your roommate for following your passion. Keep building your strong support system as you move to the next stage of your career in computer science.
    If you enjoy reading about the sociology of women in computing fields, the book “Unlocking the Clubhouse” is great. It describes 4 years of collaborative research by a computer scientist and a sociologist who studied computer science students at Carnegie Mellon. There’s no single silver bullet to explain why women leave the computer science field but I think they capture many of the contributing dynamics – and they explain why addressing the exclusionary elements will lead not only to a more diverse computer science field, but also to more productivity in academia and industry.

  3. Eric
    April 9, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I can’t say I’m on either side of this issue as it isn’t one I’ve given a great deal of consideration – I care much more about the science than the scientist, so I don’t read the fluff articles regardless of the gender of the scientist.
    I do find it a little funny that Zuska criticizes the article for “focusing on [Marissa’s] looks and “womanly” hobbies” about 2 inches below a picture of herself sporting a caption that reads, in part, “Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.” A little too hypocritical for my taste.

  4. Julius
    April 9, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Paul: It would stand to reason that large companies might want to have some window dressing to trot out for the occasional interview in some industry journal, to make the company look progressive, inclusive, and so on. A few annual salaries wasted on employees of lesser merit is a cost of doing business, an investment in good press and public relations. You never see smaller companies doing this, because they have to concentrate on developing their products or services, as opposed to marketing thereof. When was the last time you saw a woman as part of a tech startup development team? My point exactly.

  5. M.Z.
    April 9, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Aww… the troll is pulling out legal threats. It’s so cute! Can we play with him again on the next post?
    Affirmative action according to Julius: when some woman (who clearly sucks at technology because SHE’S A GIRL) gets hired/accepted instead of me (but I’m a genius!). Perhaps he could try buffing up on his computing skills so he can compete with us stupid women.

  6. Julius
    April 9, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    L: I’d like to see you give a workable definition of affirmative action that does not effectively result in the admission of women of lesser merit. When backed into a corner, women will often argue semantics to the point of absurdity, but you’ve really taken that behavior to its limit. Let’s see you get yourself out of the corner you’ve painted yourself into.
    pulez: This is not about hitting nerves. This is about exposing your hypocrisy. You have no compunctions about using argumentum ad hominem, argumentum ad baculum, or any other aggressive, violating tactic you can think of to try and silence your opposition, as long as it serves your needs, but cry foul when such tactics are used in the opposite direction. You represent the very worst of hypocrisy. You have no credibility left whatsoever in this exchange.
    You have also not explained how I “slag off” on women. I have not insulted anyone. The truth is the best defense against such accusations, and the truth stands for itself. Feel free to argue points of fact, but I am done engaging your rhetoric.
    You argue for the feminist position, so for the scope of this discussion, I am compelled to consider you a proponent of such views. If you wish to be considered otherwise, then argue otherwise. Pretty simple, yes?
    As for the silencing, there have been attempts to silence me through technological measures on this very forum. They have been pathetic at best. However, they have shown me what feminists really think about freedom of expression. Namely, they don’t.

  7. Julius
    April 9, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Zuska: Also, I note that you gleefully gush about fearful men being castrated by strong women. Is that what you get off on, sexual violence against men? You really are a model feminist, aren’t you?

  8. Julius
    April 9, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Kakalina: Thank you for providing the first reasonable and sound definition of affirmative action in this thread. I imagine that this definition is familiar to pretty much everyone here. Even so, some of the other participants were attempting to sneak through fallacious definitions of affirmative action in the hope of salvaging their losing position. Typical feminist tactics.
    However, you state that only minorities are the beneficiaries of affirmative action, which is false. Women are beneficiaries as well. The question remains: If women need affirmative action, how can it be claimed that they show equal or higher merit to men? And if they do in fact show equal or higher merit to men, then how can affirmative action be justified?

  9. April 10, 2008 at 12:50 am

    How dare you create a hostile environment for anyone? You are such a hypocrite that words do not suffice to express the extent of it.
    Your presumptious attitude is further marred by your baseless insults. If you cannot argue on points of fact, save your breath. Thanks.
    First, I don’t know that he was being any more hostile than you. Second, his insults didn’t seem baseless to me. You had it coming by spewing all this affirmative action/reverse discrimination crud. Third, you’re being awfully hypocritical yourself by thanking someone when it’s obvious you’re not sincere and by arguing without points of fact yourself. You’re just declaring your hatred for women.

  10. Julius
    April 10, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Hate crime is not a civil matter, it’s a criminal matter. So I’d be filing a criminal complaint with the police in your jurisdiction — and you’d be looking at jailtime, not financial damages. Feel free to look up precedent on online harrassment to see that your kind of behavior has consequences.

  11. April 10, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Julius, you are truly a fucking wacko. If you feel threatened (although I’m not sure how insecure someone has to be to feel threatened ON A BLOG), then why don’t you walk away from YOUR FUCKING KEYBOARD, YOU FRIGGIN’ IDIOT!
    Oh, btw, did I mention that you are an idiot?

  12. Julius
    April 10, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I’m waiting to hear an answer to the merit / affirmative action contradiction. Is there somebody here capable of anything other than argumentum ad hominem? I’d love to hear some substance for a change.

  13. Julius
    April 10, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    PalMD, did you just argue that feminism is a dogmatic religion taken on faith with no basis on reality? Sure sounds like you did. And from the level of discourse taking place on this board, I find it hard to disagree with you on that one!

  14. April 10, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    What exactly are you not understanding here?

    Hey, Julius! You got those cops on the case yet?

  15. Julius
    April 10, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Dr. Free Ride: Again, that’s equal opportunity, not affirmative action. Affirmative action is positive bias i.e. reverse discrimination. What exactly are you not understanding here?

  16. Julius
    April 11, 2008 at 5:32 am

    Academic: You’re referring to employment in the private sector. Things are a bit more sensible in that area, at least in theory. But in academics, it’s completely out of control.

  17. April 11, 2008 at 10:49 am

    I once worked through a temp agency (in IT) and ended up working with the even more rare and exotic Black Woman in IT species. Let’s be honest, minorities are underrepresented in IT as well and to be a minority woman, well, a rare breed indeed.
    She was actually transported in a litter by 4 white male IT nerds and fed grapes and fanned by a bronzed hard body. She would show up whenever she wanted and commanded everyone around. You knew someone was lucky when her litter would head to someone’s cube for they were being blessed with her presence.
    Alright fine, the sarcasm might not come through for those of the troll persuasion. She worked her ass off and was incredibly intelligent. I still see her at “networking” events and she still has a passion for IT, she’s now in management and I’m sure her sleeping with someone (or at all) had anything to do with it.

  18. April 11, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    Dude, you are a total fucking wackaloon. Why don’t you just move on with your life?

  19. Barn Owl
    April 11, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Someone who publishes a lot of inconsequential papers cannot be said to excel in any meaningful way. Winning grants, however, carries more weight, as the evaluation process usually considers the prospect of practical applications more prominently.
    Ummm…where to start with this one? I’m not sure that owls can roll their eyes, but I’ll give it a try.
    Oh, yeah. You know, J, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to “win” (your choice of words, not mine) grants without a solid and consistent track record of publications in peer-reviewed journals.
    And what do you know about the evaluation process?

  20. J.
    April 12, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Academic: Which claim of mine do you claim to be unjustified?

  21. J.
    April 14, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Affirmative action itself is sexist, but reversely sexist against men, so congratulations, Wobbler, for disproving your own argument.

  22. JustaTech
    April 14, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Zuska, I would like to thank you and all the other women in science and engineering who have gone before me. Thanks to your hard and tireless work I have (thankfully) only had one sexist professor. And I can choose to wear a skirt to the lab and not be mistaken for a secretary. For my part I make sure that my undergraduate lab workers understand that brains and hard work are what gets you ahead in the lab. Thanks to all of you this whole comment thread has been a glimpse into what I thought was an extinct worldview.
    (As a side note: the observation of another’s fear does not implicate the observer in enjoying said fear or wishing to cause the observed person to be subject to that fear.)

  23. J.
    April 15, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    No answer is really needed. JustaTech either advocates the oppression of women and enjoying their fear (in which case his or her position as a feminist is hypocritical) or he or she only advocates the oppression of men and enjoying their fear (in which case he or she is a sexist terrorist) and in either case he or she is morally bankrupt and has no credibility left.
    It is amazing to see what barbarians you people really are behind your facade of progressiveness and egalitarianism.

  24. April 16, 2008 at 6:30 am

    It is amazing to see what barbarians you people really are behind your facade of progressiveness and egalitarianism.


  25. April 17, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    OMG! Viking kitten overlords! PP, that’s awesome!

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