I know I am always going on about the gender divide in the sciences and particularly in computing*, but it's not my fault things keep happening that I feel the need to share with the world. The other day I had this conversation with my 10-year old girl scouts:
Me: ...and I have this t-shirt because I'm such a geek. [for the detailed-oriented among you: it was a 'this is a wug' t-shirt, and yes, they got it right]
Girls: No! You're not a geek! You're nice! And you look nice! [ah, bless their little souls]
Me: Huh? What is your idea of a geek?
G: They have small round glasses. And ugly t-shirts. And they're not nice.
Me: No! If anything, that is a nerd. A geek can be nice. [admittedly, a low blow on my part against the nerds, but hey]
G: No, that is a geek. And they spend a lot of time with computers.
Me: How do you know that I don't? In fact, my job involves working with computers and writing computer programs.
G: Reeeeallly? But no! You're nice! It can't be!
I am pretty sure I am not alone** in my distinction between geeks and nerds, which sees the former as a more-or-less good thing, if slightly obssessive, and the latter as decidedly socially inept. In fact, you can be any kind of geek in my lexicon: a philology geek (ehm ehm), a library geek, a cookbook geek, etc. It just means you have a really intense interest in that area, but it doesn't necessarily affect your sense of style or human interaction. Randall Munroe agrees with me, therefore it must be true***.
Anyway, my point was not so much that 10 year old relatively posh girls can't tell the difference between a geek and a nerd, but that, at this point, the idea that geek=bad and computers=geek (and therefore =bad) is already firmly entrenched so that someone who is 'nice' (and I am flattered that my awkward interactions with them haven't persuaded them otherwise) cannot possibly have more than a passing interest in computers. Clearly there is a lot of work to do - and work that has to start a lot earlier than I thought.
I know that this isn't a representative sample of girls - that they are fairly sheltered, and girly, and pink-wearing, and all that. And I suppose I could see it in a positive light: hopefully I have played a small part in wearing away their stereotype, so that they might start to see that computer skills and social skills are not in complementary distribution. And it's not just about being women, though that is certainly a complicating factor - computing as a whole too often gets a bad press, and this just reminded me how all-pervasive it is, and made me sad. It's a little trite, but I suspect that this negative impression comes from some unspecified aspect of the outside world - tv? cartoons? parents? - because it's unlikely that they have encountered hard-core computer enthusiasts at their all girls' school. Which makes me think that a) the outside world is really quite pernicious and b) all girls' schools continue to sink in my opinion if one of their effects is to heighten traditional sex stereotypes in this way.
Ok, I am not making much sense. I can't decide if I am fretting more about the anti-computing sentiment (which I can't in all honesty entirely dismiss, having spent some time inside a computer science department) or the anti-women-in-computing one (which is my pet peeve). Either way, I guess, the answer is to get 'em while they're young - ideally not like this ("now you can play with adorable babies and take care of cute kittens" - what happened to fighting dysentery and explosive bananas?!).
* Also, fear not, as I am rapidly developing another pet rant/crusade obsession, which I will be no doubt nurturing when I get back to the UK, so I will be able to diversify somewhat.
** Obviously this is the most authoritative, unbiased source on the subject. No self-selection involved, oh no.
***Original here - the alt text reads "The definitions I grew up with were that a geek is someone unusually into something (so you could have computer geeks, baseball geeks, theater geeks, etc) and nerds are (often awkward) science, math, or computer geeks. But definitions vary."