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Feature:Female Geeks

Kirrily 'Skud' Robert who is both a female, and a geek has written a response to a recent flamewar on Slashdot that discussed the presence (or lack of presence) of both sexes in the geek realm. Hit the link below to read what she has to say.

In following up to the "keep the jerk/lose the jerk" discussion, a few people called for a female writer to address why it is that there are so few female geeks, and who/what/where they are, if there are any. Well, nobody else has one it yet, so here's my take on the matter.

First off: ignore the crap

Everyone's heard that girls aren't encouraged to take technical subjects at school, that all the computer games around are violent and only appeal to boys, that somehow women's brains are built differently and just aren't cut out for logic and technical detail. Well, whether it's true or not, I'm not going to go into it. You can read it in the mainstream press if you want to; it's been done to death. I'm bored with it.

The stuff that I think's interesting is of a slightly different flavour. I want to talk briefly (well, kinda briefly) about some random interesting facts about female geeks.

1. We're hidden

Half the time you probably don't even realise we're here. Lots of us use nicknames or have names that aren't obviously gender-specific. For years I've gone by "Skud" (for the reasons why, see http://w3.cc.monash.edu.au/~krobert/whyskud.html) and had people assume it was male. Even when I use my real name, people have no idea that

"Kirrily" is a feminine name, and many think that my surname (Robert) is my first name, and vice versa. I've had a huge pile of email addressed to "Dear Robert..." or people following up to me in usenet with "I agree/disagree with what he's saying..."

It's not anyone's fault really; the statistics are against us. If you come across a random person on a technical newsgroup or mailing list, chances are something like 20:1 that the person's male. You're fairly safe - statistically speaking - in just assuming that the person's male. And the girls sometimes obfuscate their gender in order to be taken more seriously. God knows there's a lot of ditzy, clueless women out there, and to be honest most geek girls just don't want to be associated with them. Mind you, there's a lot of clueless males too :P

2. We're way up the bell curve

Because it's so hard to be taken seriously as a female geek, you either get really good at it or drop out. On the bell curve of geekiness, the girls are clustered right up the top end, or scattered down the bottom end. There's not many on the upper curve, because that's where most of the guys have their territory staked out.

Female geeks usually aren't just part-time computer enthusiasts; they really work at it. If you can find a female sys admin, network engineer, or anything else really technical, take a look at her skills and interests. Then compare them to the "Portrait of J. Random Hacker" provided at the back of the Jargon File (aka The New Hackers Dictionary; you can find it from http://earthspace.net/jargon/) You'll find that she bears much more in common with the hacker discussed there than any randomly chosen male in the same field.

3. We're mostly apolitical

At least, we tend to get political about things other than gender. Or if we are getting political about gender, it's not by whinging about how there aren't enough women in technical fields. Most hardcore geek girls are sick to death of hearing well-meaning "feminists" make statements like "Computers are inherently male and exclude women" when it's obviously grossly inaccurate.

A year or so ago, a local arts festival had a series of forums hosted at an internet cafe/bar, on topics of an internet/new-media/etc nature. I attended one entitled "women and the web" just to see how awful it was. It was really awful.

Some conversation snippets:

Them: "Women find computers really hard to use."
Me: "I don't, and I think your statement marginalises and degrades women in technical fields."
Them: "Uh, duh..."

Them: "And there's, like, all this pornography and stuff..."
Me: "Yeah, it's great that the technology can be used for all forms of communication, isn't it?"
Them: "Uh, duh..."

OK, so I was being a brat and making life hard for them, but I was really quite disgusted at how removed from reality they were. This is why feminist theories on technology are mostly the domain of humanities types, and us geeks just get on with our coding :-)

4. Recruitment policy?

I don't think the numbers of female geeks are due to rise significantly any time soon. What's likely to grow is the number of women who are competent with technology and who can, say, set up a PC for themselves and use the software on it. Most of the current crop of female university students can at least use a Wintel PC, because they've grown up with it, but this doesn't mean that they're suddenly going to start writing operating systems named after themselves and achieve world domination with a cute avian logo :)

No, I think what will happen is this: People will recognise that basic technological competence isn't anything too special, and the ranks upon ranks of boys who get geek-cred for being able to install Win95 will be matched by ranks upon ranks of girls who just aren't impressed by it any more.

Then, finally, we'll get to see just how the gender ratio of the true geeks/hackers is balanced. My guess, to be honest, is that there'll be more males than females for a long time to come.

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Feature:Female Geeks

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It is not best to swap horses while crossing the river. -- Abraham Lincoln