Saturday, October 20, 2012

She's Such a Geek!


 “What does it feel like to be a female in a male-dominated industry? I have nothing to compare the experience to, having never been a female in a female-dominated industry or a male in any industry at all.” – Devin Kyle Grayson.

She’s Such a Geek! Women Write About Science, Technology, & Other Nerdy Stuff, edited by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders (Seal Press, Avalon Publishing, 2006) delivers 24 autobiographical vignettes about growing up, working, and living as a female noted for, and often defined by, her relationship to one or more STEM studies: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  The editors (who also contributed) selected these stories from among 200 entries. 
Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, editors.

The editors note that in 2001, “56% of bachelor degrees in science and engineering went to women, but women hold only 25 percent of jobs in science and engineering. More women than men are graduating in the sciences but a hostile job market and chilly graduate programs are keeping them from achieving their goals.” 

That correlates well with blind studies reported on this blog, October 2  showing that in university science laboratories, even women managers discriminate against female applicants.  Moreover the male attitudes that have not changed include a deeper problem of condescension, the old-fashioned gentleman’s insistence on protecting a woman from physical work and physical risk.  (“The Dress,” by Diana Husmann.)

Nonetheless, the plural of anecdote is not data; and the plurality of anecdotes here may call the data into question.  Each story is unique.  Draw your own generalizations. 

For myself, I see that the private sector rewards what the university does not. (See “The Making of a Synchotron Geek,” by Corie Ralston, and “Suzy the Computer versus Dr. Sexy,” by Suzanne E. Franks, and “Geek Interrupted” by Jean Shreve.)  Small universities and liberal arts colleges appreciate what Big Name Research Institutions do not.  (“Professor in a Circuit Board Corset,” by Ellen Speritus.)  Life often takes you places you did not imagine when your focus was on the SATs.  (“Job Security,” by Kirsten Abkemeier, “Universe: the Sequel,” by Aomaya Shields, and “All Our Boys go to the IT Industry in America,” by Roopa Ramamoorthi.) 

Yet within each of these 24 narratives are many more commonalities and differences, any of which could be used to draw thin conclusions or question broad generalizations.  That, to me, is the ultimate lesson here: statistics about populations hide the realities of individuals.  

Be that as it may, within the complex array is a core reality: “Females have made up nearly half of the science classes I’ve taken ever since [high school], right up through graduate school.” But although 40% of her peers are women only two of the grads and post docs who deliver seminars are women. “Here’s what really made me feel awful: I didn’t notice this lack of women speakers for over a year. … If I’ve interacted with women working in science across the world, across cultures, and religions, how could I fail to notice their absence right here at home?”   The answer(s) might be highly nuanced.

My wife is not the girl I married.
This story opens with her on vacation with family friends for her thirtieth birthday. They ask about her work. (Doctorate studying nucleosomal proteins).  They ask if she has a boyfriend. (No.) “It’s because you’re too smart.” (“Sex and the Single (Woman) Biologist,” Nina Simone Dudnik.)  Of course, this theme repeats in several other stories: boys don’t like girls who are too smart; or the ones who do are other nerds in engineering; sometimes even they do not.  Even so, this cannot unify all of the narratives because several of the women are lesbians; and others simply are not challenged or perplexed by their relationships with men - whether professional or romantic (or both).

Four biographies come under the rubric "Geek Interrupted" including an eponymous entry by Jean Shreve.  Here, too, is a core reality that cannot explain more.  Kristin Abkemeier's passion for art granted higher status to her physics until she worked for a dysfunctional company that ultimately (as we say) "extended her opportunities."  She closes with this: "As I sat down and began my own drawing, I smiled. I'd seen these shapes before in many physics problems I'd solved. their symmetries representing repeating cells or wires or atomic nuclei.  But today, those shapes were the building blocks of my new life as an artist."  (Actually, in that, she is not alone.  Several others in this anthology also embrace fine arts.)  Elizabeth Severson drew an undergraduate advisor who did not help her plan for graduate school and from the subtext Severson had some other problems.  The final tally finds her at an insurance company.  "I'll always be a math geek because I'll always be proud of what I learned and excited to learn more,  and I'll always want to share that pride and excitement with anyone who'll stand still long enough to listen."  Aomawa Shields was on a trajectory for a doctorate in astronomy until she hit a neutron star of a professor who told her that she should consider another career... which she did... and then by another path, she returned to blend in her passion for acting and skills with computers to work at the Spitzer Space Telescope.

The last seven sketches come from the far side of STEM and the mainstream of nerd: gaming and comics.  Perhaps even more than the others, these offer multidimensional projections of gifted, talented, and motivated (read:  driven) people. 

Quinn Norton (“Dreaming in Unison”) discovered that sleeping with several members of her guild only gave them all a reason to ask her to leave.  But she found a LARP (live action role playing) club.  As “Chaot” the vampire, running the streets, she thought she heard her playmates.  She climbed a tree to a second story garage where two families stood by their cars, children running about while the grown-ups reviewed the movie from which they had just come.  She leapt the barrier.
“I, in all my weirdness, appeared out of nowhere and walked quickly by them.   The parents never noticed me, but the kids did. They looked at where I’d come from, and then at me. They crouched closer to their parents and clutched one another. I looked over at them, opened my eyes wide, and gave them a slightly snarled smile.
“They followed me with their eyes as I walked down the stairs. They never saw Quinn; they never even saw Quinn playing Chaot.  All they ever saw or knew was Chaot, mad vampire, coming from and going to nowhere.  With a mysterious grin, Chaot had given the lie to the boring world their parents described, where everything stays the same in the dark as it does in the light.”

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