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?
(B) Yes, in detail, or
(C) Yes, in detail, with references to giggles and cupcakes.
- Will you also explain how technology has unsexed me?
(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?
(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?
(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.