Who are You Calling a Geek?

In my last post, I threw out the fact that I didn’t feel the word ‘geek’ was necessarily going to encourage young girls to see science/engineering as a career for them, a point that was picked up both by my fellow OT blogger Sylvia McLain over at Girl Interrupting, and also by some (female) commenters on Twitter. My previous post was written around Easter-time for Fabiana, so well before publication of the Geek Manifesto put the term Geek into even more prominence. Like Sylvia, and as I discussed in an earlier post with a rather different emphasis, I remain nervous about how the word is being used and diffused, although not specifically because of its origin as a (circus) freak. It is, as Alice Roberts has said, divisive, splitting ‘us’ off from ‘them’, which is particularly dangerous when trying to convince the teenage girl that she wants to be both normal/conformist and a scientist. We should do nothing to make her think she has to make a choice between the two. I may be wrong, but I think the connotation for adolescent males is nothing like as prone to raise internal conflict as it is for females. I also think this is why all those who I’ve spotted currently expressing anxiety about the use of the word are women.

Mark Henderson used the term, in the title of his book, as a badge of pride to include both scientists and non-scientists who care about the scientific method and applying this method to evidence-based policy. In that approach he uses it as a call to arms for those of us already well within the fold, who, broadly speaking, are beyond the stage of trying to work out who we are and what motivates and interests us. That association seems to me legitimate and, although I would not go out of my way to label myself as a geek, if others want to it’s not going to cause me any problems.

However, for individuals – male or female – who are at that critical stage at school of trying to work out subject choices and career aspirations, if they raise their heads and consider what labels go with different options and how they feel about these labels, the word geek may set off alarm bells. If I turn to the Daily Mail as a typical bellwether of public mood, what stories hold the word geek in their headlines in the past few weeks? Here are a handful:

  • Geek chic: Bill Gates’ 1979 Porsche Turbo to be auctioned off at starting bid of $21,000 (May 23rd)

Little in that to appeal to adolescent girls

  • One small step for geeks: Nike trainers made with space-age materials used by NASA (May 18th): Geeks are not generally known for the quality of their sneakers…..

Nope, I don’t see that as a great attraction either. So how about:

  • The ‘geek’ who is learning how to party with his Facebook billions: Eduardo Saverin was portrayed as the nerd double-crossed by his scheming room-mate… but now HE’S the one living the Hollywood lifestyle (May 29th)

Leaving aside the recent downturn in the fortunes of Facebook,  Saverin is not an obvious role model or someone who is likely to appeal to girls (unless we are going to create a generation of Geek’s Wives to accompany WAGS).

Perhaps worst of all is the following story about the star of America’s Next Top Model  – which probably many teenage girls watch, although maybe in one of its other national manifestations  – Tyra Banks (March 23rd)

  • Making geek chic: Supermodel Tyra Banks is unrecognisable as bespectacled librarian in kids’ show Shake It Up

As a supermodel and chat show host, we’re used to seeing Tyra Banks looking stunning in glamorous outfits. But in a new acting cameo in hit Disney show Shake It Up, the 38-year-old is unrecognisable as geeky librarian Ms Burke. With her hair held together with pencils, oversized glasses, ill-advised eye shadow all over her lids and eyebrows, Tyra looks a far cry from her usual self.

I fear this sort of story is going to say that ‘geek’ is dowdy and a way of transforming an empowered (as well as rich and glam) woman into a loser. Again, not a message that will inspire the average adolescent girl this is an adjective she wants to get her hands on.

Moving on from the Daily Mail, I came across this random blog  which begins The “geek” image is based on a lack of fashion sense…..another negative message. This write-up finishes with a final sentence saying

The main idea with the geek chic look is to be an individual and wear what no one else does, just make sure you’re comfortable and happy with your style yourself.

Which for the self-confident young (or not so young) adult may be a positive message, but for the unconfident, not-sure-who-you-are-or-what-your-fashion-sense-is-just-want-to-conform adolescent, is about as terrifying a statement about fashion as one could find.

So, for those like Mark Henderson with his book, and those like Gia Milkovich, Brian Cox, Evan Harris and Simon Singh who featured in the Geek Calendar and who want to wear their geek badge triumphantly – go for it. I don’t mind implicitly belonging to their band (and have pledged my contribution towards a copy of the Geek Manifesto for every MP).  But please let’s be wary about extending that label as a convenient catch-all for scientists and science-lovers. The wider populace has not caught up with the positive spin the self-proclaimed geeks speak to, but still see geek as a term more of derision than delight. As the first web-based dictionary I found upon Googling, defined the word

1. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)

2.a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.

3.a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.

This is not going to appeal to many pubescent girls just shedding their Barbie obsessions, or battling confusion over their (lack of) career advice. I am much less sure how testosterone-fuelled teenage boys will react to the word, but I do feel we ourselves will be guility of turning off a further group of girls from pursuing science by our own actions, beyond that due to the marketing strategies of Disney, Lego  or T-shirt manufacturers and their like.  Please can we be more aware of the potential dangers of using the word geek for outwards-facing communication, as opposed to simply among consenting adults.




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8 Responses to Who are You Calling a Geek?

  1. Wynn Abbott says:

    “I may be wrong, but I think the connotation for adolescent males is nothing like as prone to raise internal conflict as it is for females. I also think this is why all those who I’ve spotted currently expressing anxiety about the use of the word are women.”

    I feel uncomfortable about the discourse on ‘geek’ moving in gender direction, on this basis. The term can be applied negatively to both genders for exactly the same reasons. You’re offering a personal anecdote in support of this, in that you’ve ‘only noticed women expressing anxiety about the use of the word’ – but, this may be a reflection of your personal networks.

    Over the last few weeks I’ve engaged in conversation with a number of others (including quite a few men) who have ‘expressed anxiety about the term geek’. If there is a gender imbalance with those expressing alarm, I haven’t noticed it.

    However, a question which came up in conversation earlier today was “are scientists in some disciplines more likely to use ‘geek’ to self-identify – or be described as – than others?” For example, are computer scientists more likely to self-identify – or be described as – a ‘geek’ than biologists? If the answer to that question is yes, and there are more women working in life sciences than IT, it’s easy to see how linking ‘geek’ with gender could possibly be confused with linking ‘geek’ with a discipline.

    My personal anecdote is that I studied Biochemistry (predominantly female) and worked in a biochemistry laboratory for a few years (again, predominantly female). I don’t remember anyone describing themselves as a geek (male or female); that may have been more to do with the discipline than the high number of female students/staff.

  2. Kate Jeffery says:

    We didn’t have the word “geek” when I was a kid but the sentiment was certainly there – I knew as a teenager that there was something abnormal about me, and science was something I had to absorb quietly in the privacy of my own bedroom.

    I’m proud of being a geek now. I don’t honestly think the problem is the name. If we suppress one name, another will simply bubble to the surface (witness “speshuuuulllll” in tones of derison to refer to the learning-impaired). What we need are more (or, indeed, *any*) sciency geeky and yet cool role models. I suspect that those attributes are mutually incompatible however!

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am much less sure how testosterone-fuelled teenage boys will react to the word

    Perhaps you could explain why it is acceptable to stereotype boys as being at the mercy of their hormones.

    Please understand that you are not redressing an imbalance by doing this; you are contributing to the problem.

  4. Ursula Martin says:

    Athene – at a risk of bringing levity to a serious point, following your post I looked at the Daily Mail web-site myself (must have too much time on my hands) and found a story about “The scientific way to find your perfect bra size: New formula promises to do away with the measuring tape. Former Microsoft employees, Michelle Lam and Aarthi Ramamurthy banded together to start True & Co. after realising that bra shopping is too often a dire experience.”

    See – girls can do high-tech – as long as it plays to the Daily Mail’s other enthusiasms about women who are “too fat”/”too thin”/”have failed to shed their babyweight”/”been caught in an unflattering frock while nipping out for a pint of milk” etc. Alongside which crimes being geeky is fairly harmless I guess.

    Don’t get e started on the DM’s long running campaign to show that every food stuff either causes or cures cancer.

    Keep posting, great stuff.

  5. I suspect there might be a generational thing going on too. Recently I attended Pi Curious, a wonderful comedy night that was unapologetic about glorifying being a geek/nerd – all very tongue in cheek with lots of references of the spectacles and pocket-protector variety. The audience at the Bloomsbury Theatre seemed to be primarily made up of cheerful, hip-looking undergraduates, about equal numbers of men and women, and they were lapping it up. I personally like the geek-chic movement – it doesn’t necessarily have to be divisive. I see it more as a celebration of liking science and being interested in how things work. Seeing as how when I was in school, such an attitude was a one-way tickets to unpopularity, I’m all for the change.

  6. Jennifer: I see it more as a celebration of liking science and being interested in how things work


    I’ve always told undergraduates, A-level students, and GCSE classes (when I’ve visited to give talks or when A-level/GCSE students visit Nottingham for various events) that they should embrace their geekiness.

  7. Brigitte says:

    As semantically inclined person I was wondering about the semantics of ‘geek’ too and, as in so many things, it’s context, context, context…. As explained in this nice blog that I found while googling for geek and nerd: http://www.goingthewongway.com/208/difference-between-nerd-geek-and-dork/. This googling expedition was brought on by remembering that my son once came home from school and told me that he and his friends had had a long discussion about whether they were cool, nerds or geeks. I won’t tell you the result, mainly because I can’t remember it now, but I remember that the discussion also covered the issue of who was ‘allowed’ to call you what for what reason and the issue of whether you wanted to self-identify with the word or not.

  8. Wynn
    I think geek has ‘traditionally’ been more applied to subjects like computing than eg biochemistry and that may well have something to do with the gender angle. But my concern is not with the label for those ‘in the club’ (and this remark applies to Jenny’s comment too) but how it may put off adolescents thinking about whether they want to join. I am not really interested in whether boys and girls might be put off in equal numbers so much as whether it puts anyone off – and I’m afraid it does. I just suspect, as you say on purely anecdotal grounds, that it may be even more of a turn-off for girls.

    My comment was intended as a biological fact not something pejorative about boys. There can be no doubt adolescent hormones differ between the sexes and I don’t feel at all equipped to comment on what boys may feel at that age. I think you are being unnecessarily sensitive on their behalf.

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