Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom

In e-mail, Brian asks:

Women in Geekdom. Why is this all exploding now? Where is it going?

I am assuming Brian means women in geek-related fields taking a stand against the both latent and overt sexism in those fields and having to deal with outsized, histrionic freakouts some geek dudes are having about it in response.

What’s happening? To explain, let me go to one of my favorite little bits in the film The American President, which I think these days is best known as writer Aaron Sorkin’s rough draft of The West Wing. The scene has President Andrew Shepherd navigating his way through a Christmas party at the White House and coming across a florid, very concerned man in a green jacket:


	An informal Christmas party is underway with maybe 20 GUESTS,
	some of them familiar faces.


		Mr. President, militant women are out
		to destroy college football in this

		Is that a fact?

		Have you been following this
		situation down in Atlanta? These
		women want parity for girls'
		softball, field hockey, volleyball...

		If I'm not mistaken, Gill, I think
		the courts ruled on Title 9 about 20
		years ago.

		Yes sir, but now I'm saying these
		women want that law enforced.

		Well, it's a world gone mad, Gill.

Right now geekdom is positively stacked with Green Blazered Men, who are shocked and concerned that women in geekdom are suddenly not just satisfied with the idea that they have equal standing, opportunity and engagement in the geek world — they are actually pushing for it to happen, and pushing back against the men who are resisting that, whether that resistance is passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive. Or to put it another way, more and more women in the geek world seem to be done with the idea they need to just put up with this shit anymore, and it’s making the men who have been dishing out the shit — whether they knew they were dishing it out or not — a little defensive. And when Green Blazered Men feel defensive, they sometimes also get sort of angry.

Which doesn’t precisely answer the question of why now? Well, the best answer for this I can come up with is that it’s the second decade of the twenty-first century, isn’t it? If I were a woman geek being asked to put up with a whole bunch of sexist bullshit in my community, and pretend it wasn’t happening and that this is what actual equality in my community looked like, I would hope that my response would be to say, loudly and publicly, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” So that there are women who are actually saying this, loudly and publicly, doesn’t surprise me and is also something I support.

And of course those women are catching hell for it. Many male geeks (it seems to me) are unaware of their casual sexism and/or have uncritically bought in to how things have always been in the culture, because why wouldn’t they? It’s a nice set-up for them (and by them I should note I mean us, because, hi, I’m a male geek). I think people are inherently conservative about social structures that favor them, because a) duh, and b) most people assume their own life experience is similar to other people’s even when they’re told otherwise and are given specific examples. When they’re confronted with this ignorance, they feel defensive and feel like the real problem is the person who is complaining, because they themselves are not bad people, therefore the person making them feel bad must be.

Add this to the fact that a lot of male geeks are also emotionally immature and/or seeking status with other male geeks — male geekdom is extraordinarily status sensitive, which is a subject worthy of its own separate discussion — and it’s not surprising that an immediate reaction by so many male geeks to women pushing back is HULK SMASH. The Internet obviously facilitates this sort of thing by allowing for anonymity and gatherings of like-minded folks who offer a comforting bubble of “my thinking is how everyone thinks.” So it’s easy for hordes of anonymous male geeks to strike out at women — who often do not have the same sort of anonymity when they complain publicly about the sexism of the geek world, and who indeed have a target painted on them as soon as they open their mouths.

This is not to paint every male geek with the same brush. There are plenty of male geeks who are also fed up with the sexism of geekdom; there are others who show their ass with a bout of public sexism — intentional or otherwise — who then actually pay attention to what women and others are telling them about that sexism and try to do better (there’s often a difficult “but I’m not a sexist!” protest phase to this, followed by a 101-level discussion of sexism, which is its own issue. Lots of smart, clever people don’t like to think they need entry-level enlightenment.).

Also, sexism in the male geek world does exist on a sliding scale, from jackassed geek bros who loathe and fear women and everything about them that they cannot penetrate at the top, to the dude who for no particularly good reason suspects women aren’t good at FPS games but is otherwise fine with women geeks at the bottom. Some of these dudes will find it easier to let go of their sexism than others.

And with that said, the final reason I think this is all exploding now is because I think the acceptance of overt and covert sexism in geekdom is on its way out — not as a feature (it will always be there, because some people are just fucking sexist assholes, and also, geeks) but as a dominant aspect of the field. A useful example of this I can offer is what happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when a ton of US states suddenly passed laws and state constitutional amendments banning recognition of same-sex marriage. It happened because a bunch of people who were abjectly terrified that gays and lesbians would have equal access to the rights and privileges of marriage were able to leverage the latent and often unexamined homophobia of a bunch of other people into terrible, bigoted, hateful laws.

Why then? Because Massachusetts allowed same sex marriage, and because gays and lesbians as a class had begun saying “enough of this shit,” when it came to being denied the right to marry, and it just plain freaked out a bunch of people who didn’t understand why gays and lesbians couldn’t be happy knowing they could get married, just as long as it was to someone of the opposite sex (no, really. This was an argument for a while). And then the more organized members of the freaked-out brigade looked at the demographics of gay acceptance and realized the clock was ticking.

They were right. Here in 2013 a more than bare majority of Americans approve of same sex marriage, marriage equality is the law in several states, and the percentages are going up in both cases. There will be places and people who will need to be dragged into the world of marriage equality kicking and screaming, but it’s a question of when, not if, at this point. Too many people, gay and straight, have decided this is a thing that will be.

And so with the geek world. Women geeks are largely done with letting this sexist shit go uncommented upon, a growing number of men geeks are siding with them, and that number is going to continue to grow. Women geeks certainly aren’t going to shut up now — too many of them are all in on this. Good for them.

But, yeah, sexism in geekdom is a thing, is still a thing, and will continue to be a thing for a while. Not every male geek is going to just willingly unload his sexism. Whether they want to admit it or not — whether they consciously know it or not — they see it as having value; something that offers status and an exclusive identity. They like their green blazer.