Are geeks driving women away from IT? LiveScience thinks so and has a study to back it up. Different industries have different cultures and I can certainly believe that geek culture is off-putting to a lot of women. Indeed, the article cites it as a possible reason for the gender disparity within IT. Some people are tempted to chalk up the disparity totally to biology. While biology may play a role, I think that’s a mistake. Part of the decision of what to undertake a career is who you will be spending time with. Any workplace dominated by people of a particular persuasion, including gender, is likely to be less hospitable to people that break the mold. This is true in groupings outside of gender and also true in both male-dominated and female-dominated work places. And it’s true in male-dominated work places of the blue collar and white collar varieties, though it can be true for different reasons.

It all brings to light the question of whether or not it’s true that geek culture drives women away from IT, which I think is true, and more importantly the question of what can be done about it. On that point, I think the answer is “not much.” To my great relief, the article suggested at the end that the issue may not be the geek objects that were putting off the women but rather the female perception of the objects. Change the perception and you can make headway on the issue. There’s nothing inherently masculine about a lot of it. My response to that is… “You’re absolutely right… but good luck.”

Changing cultural perceptions of Star Trek or gaming systems is not a particularly easy task. Particularly since, for reasons pertaining to biology or something else, it really is guys that are interested in these things. But that’s not all that’s at issue here. It’s not just that it’s “masculine” stuff. Indeed, I would question if it qualifies as “masculine” stuff because they tend to be associated with the sorts of guys that are, shall we say, not masculine in the testosterone-addled traditional sense. A World of Warcraft poster and a New York Giants poster send two different messages. While it’s possible that women will be off-put by a work place dominated with either of them, my guess is that the former is more off-putting (and not without reason).

In its own way, anti-geek discrimination makes sense. Women that don’t want to work with geeky guys would do well not to work at places where desks have Warhammer figuring collections n them. It’s one of those cases where a message is sent and a message is received.

Which brings me to my fear when I read articles like this (sans the last few paragraphs). If it’s determined that the problem is the “masculine” objects and the solution is not to change the perceptions of these objects, I’m afraid the solution will be to kill the messenger. In this case, I mean “take down that poster!” That’s honestly where I feared this article was heading.

There are reasons for a workplace to ask its employees to keep office decorations to a minimum and I guess that’s fair (depending on the reason). Further, there are things that no office should allow because they will be perceived as offensive or distasteful by even quite reasonable people. My fear is that where this is all headed is a bridging the two concerns into something that that makes my stomach turn. The notion that decorations that are merely off-putting will be considered a special light sort of offensive. In other words, in order to please hypothetical women that might be interested in IT, pressure will be applied to sterilize the workplace. Not of all decorations, but of ones that might be off-putting to the hypothetical women. Realistically, the result will be curbing office decorations as a whole.

I see this as problematic not because it isn’t an employer’s right to do so, but honestly because I don’t consider it a particularly good idea. It’s one of those things that gives comfort to petty little management exertions of authority. Allowing employees to wave their geek flag allows the employees you already have to feel more comfortable. Forcing them to take that flag down saves the company not a penny and favors potential employees that don’t exist over the ones that you are relying on to contribute to your bottom line.

Further, even if you force geeks to not fly their flag so high, all you’re doing is taking away the signaling mechanism. They’ll discover that they work with a bunch of geeks eventually. In fact, it probably won’t take long at all. So consider the anime scroll on the wall something like Truth in Advertising.

Except the coke cans. You can make them toss those.


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About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

9 Responses to Raising The Geek Flag

  1. logtar says:

    It is not often that I find you to be this wrong on a subject or observation.

    While I do not disagree with the story, I do agree with your take on it as to your reasoning behind it.

    I think that geek culture of the 90s and past really was all about the things you mentioned, but the newer generations don’t see the geek in the same light and it has become a lot more cool to be a geek.

    I now know of at least a handful of closet geeks, jocks that used to D&D and keep it secret because of the perception… however the younger generation is getting to be more open about their hobbies and woman are joining and enjoying the games that maybe before were not for them.

    You mention WoW and I game with several woman, including my wife now. I would say out of our core player about 50% are actual females… and not pretend one like it is always suggested, but girls that I have either met or talked to over vent.

    Also see exhibit A
    http://www.youtube.com/jointheraid
    watch the girl interviews from this channel

    I think woman are not getting into IT because it is just not something that appeals to them and while the company might be a factor, that is probably the one that is being helped by others factors rather than being a driving one.

    The field is just full of people that cannot communicate properly and it does not directly relate to being geeky, maybe only children is more of a factor but I don’t have data on that to back that up beyond my personal experience of dealing with IT people that also happened to be an only child and could not communicate properly.

    So in conclusion, more woman are geeks themselves, more people are also being open about being geeks and not just the ones that did not care to fly the flag high. I don’t think that we will see male dominance in our field in the next 10 years anymore.

  2. trumwill says:

    I agree that geekdom isn’t as uncool as it once was, but it’s still there. The difference is now you can be a geek and still be cool even if you’re not a millionaire. But there’s still a collective image (and actual) problem.

    I don’t agree with you about 10 years hence because (a) I’ve heard it all before and (b) the numbers are trending in the opposite direction. I heard growing up about how engineers (the geeks of the day) were having daughters that were going to be geeks and how male domination would cease. It hasn’t. Nor has it with computers.

    As for WoW, I’d be interested in seeing some statistics. I’m skeptical that there is actual parity, but that remains pretty far removed from my experience. I know a couple female WoW players, but I know a heck of a lot more male ones.

  3. ? says:

    I heard growing up about how engineers (the geeks of the day) were having daughters that were going to be geeks and how male domination would cease. It hasn’t. Nor has it with computers.

    My daughter excels at math and science, and has elements of the nerd-girl personality (despite her beauty), but her ambitions still run in a female direction: pediatrics.

    Speaking personally, my perception back in high school of the male dominated nature of engineering was part of its appeal because it was a way of asserting my masculinity. I wasn’t good at sports, nor could I charm the opposite sex. But I could do math and science and girls couldn’t.

    I have little evidence for how widely my attitude is shared among the men in the profession; obviously, it’s something we would be reluctant to talk about. But extending Trumwill’s firm-specific analysis to the field as a whole, I would guess that if engineering were to lose its aura of Something-That-Men-Do, it will turn away far more men than it will attract women.

  4. trumwill says:

    You bring up an incredibly interesting point, Phi. I’m not sure quite how much “girls can’t do this!” factors into the equation, but the social environment that repels some girls attracts some men. A dirty little secret within IT, particularly younger IT people, is that they don’t really have the love of computers that they did in yesteryear. You expect this sort of thing when a transition is made from a niche to an employment market, but one of the things I’ve seen around me (as I’ve increasingly been working with people younger than myself) is that a lot of these people are still geeks, culturally speaking. So why would these people with no particular love of computers end up in the IT field? Well, money for one. But I also have to wonder if a factor isn’t that it’s exactly what their peers are doing.

    When I was working in Estacado, I worked mostly among non-geeks. Even the software development and network administration were staffed with people that saw computers primarily as a way to make a living and who would watch American Idol before watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. This stood in stark contrast to Deseret. There’s no question which environment I felt more comfortable in, Mormons and all.

    So… take (more of) the geek culture out of the IT sector, you may not just see a drop in morale but could also see fewer people going into IT in the first place. Then again, in this economy, where else is there to go?

  5. logtar says:

    http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/58076

    Stats on WoW girls, and like I sad, just in my guild we have a considerable amount of actual females.

  6. trumwill says:

    Well, 39% is higher than I would have guessed (I would have guessed 33% or so), but it’s not parity. Does Nielson report on the user habits in addition to number of actual users?

    It beings to light a question though… what do the numbers have to be before the perceptions change?

  7. SFG says:

    IMHO, this is feminism gone mad. We’re going to start destroying a culture that’s important to the people who keep our computers running because it might offend people who don’t really want to go into the field anyway?

    If I read much more of this stuff, I’m going to start voting Republican.

  8. SFG says:

    Y’know, I see this post, and I keep forgetting and thinking it’s about an actual geek flag we could wave. Maybe you should make one. 😉

  9. trumwill says:

    I wonder what such a flag would look like? A coat-of-arms would make sense, given our attraction to D&D-type stuff. Except instead of a lion, it would have a pair of taped glasses or something and a calculator.

    Or maybe the Evangelion nerd logo. It’s based on the Evangelion NERV logo, except instead of the leaf it has a calculator and replacing the words along bottom is “Teenage girls in tight suits. God, this is Heaven” (it’s in reference to an anime convention, replacing the original words “God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.”).

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