Thursday, February 01, 2007

Liveblogging from "She's Such a Geek" reading

I'm at Modern Times bookstore on Valencia in San Francisco & we're all being extremely geeky. Passing around this strange blobby white musical toy with spikey shapes... Giggling about the perils of installing LaTeX on one's Macbook... Me and Corie and Ellen and Cynthia decided that instead of the Geek Hierarchy we should create a Geek Matrix (keeping in mind that "matrix" means "womb"... and not-necessarily-hierarchical network) with different areas or spectra of grrl-geekitude. That way we can avoid feeling that physics trumps sf-geekery, or genetics kicks the ass of Dungeons and Dragons.

There's a huge crowd - standing room only! Tonight a group of more science and tech oriented geeks will be reading from the book. Annalee talks about the germ of the idea for the book. She and Charlie were at a hacker conference in New York, Annalee was presenting with another woman on a panel, and were introduced by the MC as "the only 2 chicks at the conference." She stood up and flipped the guy off. When he said it, Annalee had looked out at the audience and saw all the women in the audience get this look on their faces like "Oh, okaayyyy, we've heard that fucking joke before." With that sort of statement the women who *are* there get erased. People aren't expecting to see them and don't hear their voices. Charlie was there in the audience... and from that experience we wanted to make the point that we're here, we've been here for ages. And not to let people forget we're here at the conference and are not the only 2 chicks.

Charlie: Seal Press asked us at the proposal stage to tell them how the other books in the genre did. You know, the books about women who are geeks and stuff? We went online and we searched. And we searched and searched and we searched. And we found like one book, Geek Girl, that sold like 2 copies, from 1992. The only book about female geeks... And we put out our call for submissions and were astonished at the response we got. It got blogged everywhere and people had been waiting a long time for this!

Annalee: Defining what we mean by "geek". Technical, scientific, cultural arcana. Physicists, biologists, programmers, Harry Potter role playing games. Talking about the ways various areas are male-dominated and what it's like to be a woman in that environment.

First reader: Kristin Abkemeier. Has a phd in experimental condensed matter physics. Radioactive Banana is her blog. And at sheessuchageek.com.

Kristin: How did I become a geek? Job security.... (Kristin reads her essay from the book.) Her mom tells her she'll always have a job.. and how her own parents hadn't encouraged her in science. Kristin loved reading and books and drawing - but was discouraged... Compared to this other kid, "wonder boy John"... And ended up testing into a 7th grade math.

[I must note that I begged my parents to take that same exam in the early 80s, because all the guys I competed with in math class for the top grades were taking it and got to go to a summer school - but my parents couldn't figure out how I would get to the school, which was an hour away in downtown Houston.]

...
Next up! Ellen Spertus, Associate Prof of Computer Science at Mills College - & she also works at Google. She's written for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Glamour...

Her original title for this article was "From Male-Identified Misogynist to Sexiest Geek Alive". The best way to have status in her household & family was to disdain anything feminine and act like a male.

[God... me too. This is one of the essays from the book that I read just nodding and then shrieking ME TOO over and over!] Went to one of the first computer camps in 1981. The male/female ratio was 6 to 1. Ellen told an Infoworld reporter she was disappointed there weren't more girls. And was misquoted by that reporter as saying she was disappointed there weren't more boys.

[the whole audiences hisses and goes "wooooo" angrily.]

Jenn Shreve reads her article.... On growing up fundamentalist... was taught that evolution was evil and wrong... ATM cards and the mark of the beast... Then rejected all that. Took to the Internet immediately... sneered at poeple who couldn't deal with Pine or HTML. And yet stayed in the Humanities... though I scored way higher on the math than on the verbal sections of the SAT....




*applause*

Corie Ralston - BS in physics from Berkeley and phd in biophysics. Works at Lawrence Berkeley Labs... IROSF, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, as well.

[ I swoon... I totally love Corie... ]

Corie: My unofficial title is "Beamline Scientist" - how cool is that. I'm one of only 3 beamline scientst out of 200. At first my job title was "beam boy." I lobbied to be called "super duper beam chick" but it never caught on. The filming of The Incredible Hulk took place there.. The synchroton does not produce gamma radiation... but if it did, and you were exposed to it, you would die - not mutate! *everyone cracks up* I love working every day in a place that reminds people of comic books. How did I get to be there? It certainly wasn't anything like becoming the mutant hero of a comic book. Physics teacher in high school... Reading Heinlein & Asimov etc. without really noticing how every female character in Heinlein books at some point become hysterical and have to be slapped around by the men. (About Asimov:) If you can imagine intergalactic space superhighways why can't you imagine a female astronaut? (huge applause from audience) I dealt with this by identifying with the male characters.

[GOD... me too.]

Annalee then introduces Charlie Anders, author of the award-winning novel Choir Boy. Writing in McSweeney's, Punk Planet, Wall Street Journal, Tikkun, etc. and is the publisher for Other magazine & runs Writers With Drinks. Which happens next month at the Makeout room Feb. 10.

Charlie: I'm a policy wonk...

[Kristen whispers to me that "we used to talk about wonks in the Clinton era. Nobody does anymore. Nobody THINKS anymore..."

I want to tell Kristen that that's exactly what one of Charlie's novels is about... Clinton-era wonks and their wonkitude. ]

Charlie: Minutae of health care field. Weird complicated things to learn. Managed care. Weird permutation, intricate structures that actually *mattered* to everyone. This was all about hard-charging guys chasing *hard* news. My pursuit of arcane policy issues distracted me from my socially assigned gender role as a male reporter. My gender discomfort finally spiked on the day my inner palace of wonkdom came crashing down.... "We don't want any of this "what does it mean shit." " A bomb went off in my head... New job - my new boss liked wonkitude... Every day was like Christmas... My co-workers were used to me hopping around the office excited, "Wooo! I found a new crazy thing on page 900 of the Federal Register!!" Fast forward, I'm legally a woman, on hormones and with a drivers' license that says F... ambition... to make a serious wonkish contribution to the world... feminism.. child care and faulty gender assumptions.

Charlie then introduces Annalee Newitz, science writer, contributing editor at Wired, Salon, Newscientist, Techsploitation syndicated column. Editor of other magazine.

Annalee: "When Diana Prince takes off her Glasses"
Geeks - bbses... Wiznet - chat rooms! On the BBS I had a gender-neutral handle, Shockwaverider. Everyone assumes I'm male and I don't bother to correct them. Cracking... breaking copy protection. I get them to teach me about assembly language and cracking mac software... phreaking... Linux... Linux Cabal. As a journalist... suddenly I realize I'm the only woman in the room full of journalists and one of them is asking me "how did you get him to *tell* you that..." I suddenly hear the implication in the reporter's voice and respond... "I flirted with him that's how..." Why didn't I tell him the truth, I spent weeks hanging out... made Cthulhu jokes... I could have said, if you actually take the time to talk with people and get to know them, they talk with you. That's my philosophy of reporting. A few weeks later I decide to write a biosci article using only female sources. Each source referred me to more amazing women... Fruit fly gemone searching tool...

[That's my friend! Well, my ex... really... the fruit fly genome geek... *glow of pride* She's such a geek!]

Woman from the Audience: Thank you for the book! We want a sequel at least on the web, we want more stories, we want to contribute!

Annalee & Charlie: Yes! Lovely! blog it! Stick it on the web!

Me: Tag it "shessuchageek"

Kristin: We could have a she's such a geek blog carnival.

Guy from audience: What would you say the environment is today for 15-17 year old girls?

Annalee: The teenager from the book isn't here tonight

Ellen Spertus: Yes it's somehwat better... And at Mills... (I missed her answer)

Kristin: Larry Summers did women a real favor by being a jerk 2 years ago... in the 70s it was all "hey women can do anything!" and no acknowledgement that there are factors that affect women... women who say "i need a wife"... child care... atmosphere.. finally being discussed, thanks to larry summers.

Corie: Summers, ex-pres of Harvard ... said that there are just fewer women at the super elite end of science... not putting in the 80 hours a week necessary to be tenured... and said there was no sexism in the field...

Annalee: and he said that women's brains were different. He said this at a conference about women in science. It was what got him drummed out..

Ellen: That's not the full story.. he had done many other offensive things and that was just the last straw.

Annalee: yes. and since then a lot of money has gone into studies...

[Liz's note: Here is a great compilation of links and stories about the Summers controversy: Summers on Women in Science, from WISELI, the Women in Science & Engineering Institute at University of Wisconsin-Madison.]

Woman in audience: Is that just in the united states? Now, in other countries the situation is different.

Annalee: Not just, but it's worse... and in the US it's worse among white people; white women lag more behind white men... than women do [in other races/cultures/ethnicities]

Woman in audience: Women in India in sciences, engineering... it's considered to be a 'developing country" but things are much better there for women in science ...

[Liz's note: Here's a link on women at IIT in India - and another with stats over several years]

guy in back: You can see it just going to Toys R Us...all the creativity and science is on one side of the story, vs. the other side which is all pink.

*murmur from audience*

Charlie: You can do a lot of creative things with dolls, you know!

Annalee: I've seen some amazing women hack on dolls...

Woman from audience: I teach science at a college... photos on the walls... 1890 to today. 1890 to 1940 is half women and half men. 1950s all men. 60s, 70s, 80s, few women - and now, about 1/3 women. WWII and backlash against women... men in the 50s... and the war.

Woman in audience: A comment on that in WWII they were using more women in science and research in RUssia - math and sci education for women but then the women went more into being educators...

Annalee: There's some great studies of women in computing.. they were actually called "computers"... during the war in the U.S. and no one knew if ocmputers woudl become a big deal...

[Liz: here's a ink from the IEEE Virtual MuseumWomen Computers in World War II.]

Jason: Do you feel like men's attitudes have changed or gotten better?

Corie: Men now, male students, are more accepting of women...as fellow students and as their teachers and mentors... than they were when I was in school. They're more okay with it.

Ellen: My mom was totally wrong that going into computer science would be a bad way to meet men. And now I talk to high school girls... and project photos of good looking comp sci guys ... there's this calendar.... of good looking computer geek guys... and I tell them, "he's a good cook..."

OMG she just broke me... hahahah! [Which calendar? The Studmuffins of Science ones? Or is there a special computer geek one?]

Guy in audience: Computer geek culture, it's all about being outsiders, alienation, outside mainstream, not jocks, etc. So why isn't geek culture more of a clean slate in terms of gender?

[Liz: I could talk about that forever, and would really like to know.]

Annalee: Boys growing up as geeks, unfortunately being called fags, etc. Instead of creating cultures that were more friendly to women and the feminine, a lot of them reacted by creating an even more macho culture, especially in engineering and some of the sciences. There's a lot of dick-measuring, jockeying. Even the language used in hacking, penetration testing, popping the cherry of the machine. It's part of the slang. You fuck the ass of someone else's computer. And of course computers are "boxes"... and we all know what a box is. The jocks picked on us and now we're a macho enclave.... But that is changing. What's missing is networking and these men have friends who are men, and if they did have friends who were women there would be better... we can build networks of friendship. Bridges...

Corie: If you're male and a geek you're important and smart. If you're a woman it's all about your value based on your looks. They don't get the same sort of treatment in the outside world.

Barton: (from Mills) my perception of what is geek comes from th 50s science fiction and the production that came after that. what do you think about geek as a notion evolving. how is that changning in the future?

Jenn Shreve: the fact that I'm up here shows it's changing; i'm not a physicist... I'm a writer. But i have a passion for these things and for tech... and that tech is more ubiquitous opens the door... it becomes more acceptable. Now everyone .. takes part in things that were narrow before... like chat rooms... so the definition is changing.

Woman in back: What exactly is a geek? I think of library science geeks...

Charlie: Were you here at the beginning? We defined what we thought geek was

Annalee: We loved the librarians, we had a whole contingent...we could have a whole book of librarian geeks. But it's not really male dominated... we didn't include it but we wanted to focus on the areas in culture where people would think of a guy when they think of somone in that area. Comic books, various sciences...

Loren: Back in the 80s I was a contractor. Most of the agencies i worked for were run by women and dominated by women. Best business to be in for women b/c it was the most flexible and had the best pay, flexible hours, for women to be in if they had children. But that isn't true anymore.

Women in audience : I disagree, it's a great field to be in to work from home and to make a lot of money if you have kids... as a programmer.

[Note: two other women in the audience came up to me after the reading and agreed that computer science was still the best thing for working at home as a professional and making money.]

Guy in audience: Please come to Google and talk to us about this and how to get this message out more broadly and maybe on a video on Youtube, or something like that. Girls in high school, get it to a broader audience, they would be inspired by it.

Charlie: That would rock! We have a video of another reading and can send you the link... and would love to come to Google.

Guy from audience: Are there any women you know who are into pro sports, except for baseball...

Charlie: Stanford women's basketball rocks....

Jenn: Sports reporters... very macho culture... I was the only woman and that's when I'd really feel that only woman int he room feeling.

Annalee: I've heard women talk about being a jock and a geek ... various sports... prepared them for the endurance to say, program all night.

Charlie: In fact Jessica who was supposed to be here is a wrestler and when people question her geekitude she just beats them up.

Annalee: Yay, thanks for coming, go buy the book!

The guy behind me begs Ellen for a photo of her in her circuit board corset...

[Earlier, as I laced Ellen into her corset I thought of Violet Blue's article "Web Celebs and My Rainbow-Flag Bikini - which I highly recommend -


A bit of my own geek story, about growing up a computer nerd, women's networks, and helping out with tech stuff in disaster relief, was in Other magazine # 9 but isn't in the book (for those of you who asked!) As I liveblogged this reading, taking photos and emailing them to Flickr, browsing on the spot to find links to add for the readers, and chatting in another window at the same time, and posting to Twitter... which is my normal level of blog-geek multitasking around friends, it was funny to field the questions of women around me who were not quite so bloggy or Web 2.0-ish (or "annoying and technopretentious"). At least I amused them!

One reaction I've heard a lot from women as I go around talking about the book and showing it off - is that many women who are geeks thought about submitting a story to it, but then kind of sighed and figured they weren't geeky enough. I've heard women a hundred times geekier than I am say this, with geek street cred that would blow your mind. And then there's an even more complex reaction as women realize that their disbelief in their own geek studliness is part of their own internalized misogyny, and they get angry (at themselves and at the rest of the world) and it's a very hard thing to look at. The essays in the book are empowering, and make people very happy by letting them know they're not alone in their geekitude, but some elements of the essays can also get people on a train of thought that is sad, anger-triggering, or difficult -- The thing is, it's a very productive difficulty. I felt the same reaction happening among readers to the Tiptree biography last year.

It was a great reading, the audience stuck around for ages, talking and full of positive energy, getting signatures and telling some of their own stories. I hope we can hear some of those, maybe on the She's Such a Geek blog in interviews or guest posts!







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1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Just discovered your blog 10 minutes ago after wandering in here from Google Blogsearch (I am bored at work, searching for something intelligent to read).

Fantastic blog post - one of the best I've read in ages.

I am from the era when you were lucky to see one girl in a computer science class too. I think it's a lot better now, but still only know a couple of girls working in the industry.