Identifying as a geek

I mentioned in my introduction post that I haven’t had to struggle internally to identify as a feminist. But the title of this site leads to another question: is it as easy for me to identify as a geek?

And the answer is no. A lot of this is pretty trivially heretical stuff. I mildly tend to being a morning person; left to my own devices, I do not tend to observe a 28 hour day, it’s sometimes as short as 23.5 hours. I am quite staggeringly indifferent to cats. I loathe being bathed in fluorescent light all day and jokes about the alien environment of the big blue room puzzle me. The thought of a world where human communication is as simple as TCP/IP’s SYN and ACK packets makes my skin crawl (I’m a computational linguistics student specialising in lexical semantics, mustn’t wish myself out of a job). I don’t eschew caffeine, but have never been tempted to consume it more than once a week or so. Given these examples and others, there are a lot of (computer) geek insider-status affirmation jokes and rituals that are as foreign to me as mating rituals at nightclubs are.

Some of this is me, and some of it is culture, and some of it is gender I think. I’ve never felt like I had to pass a test to count as a woman, or as a feminist. I feel like I trip over geekdom all the time. I don’t have pithy anecdotes of key experiences, but I strongly identified with Dorothea Salo’s discussion of “honorary guys” in Sexism and group formation:

A woman can be an honorary guy, sure, with all the perquisites and privileges pertaining to that status—as long as she never lets anything disturb the guy façade.

That is, I feel like I’m admitted to geekdom under sufferance, and womanhood and feminism don’t feel like that. But I know this experience is not universal, for many women reading geekdom is your skin and female gender like a coat that doesn’t fit all the time, and for others neither is problematic or they both are. How did you come to feminism, and geekdom, and womanhood (if you’re a woman)? Does one of them fit better than the others at the moment, and does that feed into your questioning anything?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

25 thoughts on “Identifying as a geek

  1. textjunkie

    I have more of a problem identifying as a woman than as feminist or geek, to be honest. Every time I’m with a group of women it seems like their priorities and interests diverge from mine drastically; I’m thinking of a discussion in a women’s group in my profession that I was at, where the main problem most of the women identified with their work was support for children. It’s certainly legitimate, but it’s not a concern I would ever think of. My concern was more about needing more computing power to get my work done.

    Though I’m not the computer geek most of the folks commenting on this board are, so I may not be your target demographic.

    1. Skud

      I think we should make it a rule around here that anyone who identifies themselves as a non-computer geek should volunteer to write a guest post about their area of geekdom ;)

  2. Emily

    Hear hear! I agree with your post whole-heartedly! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that feels like she doesn’t fit the stereotype beyond just gender of the cat-loving, caffeine-addicted type!

  3. Asad

    (I’m a computational linguistics student specialising in lexical semantics, mustn’t wish myself out of a job).

    Oh, you too (well, minus the lexical semantics part insofar as it doesn’t have to do with information extraction, sentiment analysis, or obscure aspects of Chomskyan minimalist syntax)? Nice to meet you.

      1. Asad

        Thread drift…

        Thanks for the link. If you’re interested you can email me for the link to my CV. I saw the paper on synonymy and sentiment polarity. I’m currently working on sentiment polarity at a sentence and document level focusing in particular on identifying the holders of opinions in such a way that their attitudes towards topics can be tracked over time (who thought what about what).

        You appear to be in Australia. Were you at ACL in Singapore? I was there and met lots of Australians.

  4. Yatima

    Oh great great and TIMELY post as I struggle with imposter syndrome right here! I just realized – like in the last week or so – that when I identify as a geek feminist, the word “geek” is modifying the word “feminist”. It’s me bringing my nerdy, analytical, scientific-method-worshipping left brain to the fight for human rights.

  5. Dorothea Salo

    I’ve not had difficulty considering myself a geek, but I absolutely have had trouble considering myself a computer geek.

    I do have a Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land feeling with regard to fandom, however. I read and watch a lot of the same stuff fandom reads and watches, but the culture is just… really not me.

    1. Mary Post author

      Oddly, if you said “computer person” or even “computer nerd” I’d have no problems. (Or perhaps not oddly, since I have a CS/maths background as one half of my undergrad education.) But “geek” for me has a lot of cultural baggage around keeping odd hours and disliking literary fiction that has somehow resulting in a set of bonding rituals that whisper outsider at me in a way that women’s bonding rituals don’t even though in reality I’m a worse fit for them. Too close is too far, perhaps.

  6. Shaula

    Mary, I’m interested in how you, and the other writers here (and commenters) define geek, for yourselves.

    1. Mary Post author

      I’ll try and solidify my thoughts about that, it would probably be worth a follow-up post. Anyone else got thoughts?

      1. Skud

        Only that I define it broadly — perhaps as “a socially misunderstood fascination with minitiae in one or more fields” or something like that — and that my post about “non obvious geekdom” the other day was intended to dig into that a bit.

  7. Azz

    Like textjunkie, I have the hardest time with “woman”.

    At fifteen, in search of other pursuits, I ran across The New Hacker’s Dictionary, and immediately knew that while I had not yet learned to program, I was home.

    Geekdom is deeper than my skin. I was trained to take a geek approach to the world since birth. It’s in my genes. I want to poke at things to see what makes them work, and I apply that fascination, that process, that love, to almost everything I do. Geekdom is my heart.

    I define geekdom as the intersection of passion and analysis, and investigation in addition to knowledge.

    Feminism is my skin. I cannot help but be aware that I have a female body, and it pisses me off when people like me are treated with inequity.

    Woman … is an area that causes me conflict. I definitely have a female body. I wear skirts. I have long hair. I will, on occasion, wear lipstick. My voice is generally higher than that of men. But I feel excluded in many gatherings of women, and my first instinct when in an environment that only allows women and does not allow men is to flee it.

    1. Olivier

      “I define geekdom as the intersection of passion and analysis, and investigation in addition to knowledge.”

      I love this. Can I use it?

  8. Hazel

    I have difficulty identifying with either femininity or geekiness. Among groups of women I am an outsider because concerns of fashion, dating, beauty tips and raising (or aspiring to) a family are alien to me. Among geeks I’m an outsider because I like things I shouldn’t and don’t like things I should, and I feel enormously girly.

    Among women geeks I sometimes feel even more girly, because a lot of women geeks I know have an enormous hostility towards “pinkness”, for lack of a better term, and their fiction role models strongly emphasize aggression and violence, in a way that makes me uncomfortable; again, I’m an outsider. I don’t want to be “empowered” and I don’t want to “kick ass” and I feel girly and weak because I like “pink” things like non-violent conflict resolution.

    Women geeks don’t like the stereotype that they are all fat, ugly, socially maladjusted women who write slash because they can’t get boyfriends. I feel like the butt of “get out of my fandom, you make my fandom look bad” a lot of the time. I am “girly” because the only video games I play are sims, and I like characterization and relationships, and I prefer fantasy to sci-fi, and hate horror.

    I am drawn to people who apply the term “geek” with modifiers, because they don’t (usually) hold to a universal definition, or a reading checklist. When someone admits to being a “knitting geek” or “linguistics geek” or “indy music geek” I know they won’t turn their nose up at me because I don’t read H.P. Lovecraft. I like being surrounded by people who love things I know nothing about. I’ve read maybe two romance novels in my life, yet none of my romance-novel-geek companions thing I’m an ignoramus for it.

    1. gchick

      Hazel, I think you’re spot on about “geek with modifiers” — I can’t and don’t want to represent all of geekdom (or even all of female geekdom) any more than I would want to represent all of what women are or do or stand for. I can do computer geek, or video geek, or keeps-score-at-baseball-games, but the broader the category, the more exceptional and unicorny the reaction (maybe because it’s increasingly abstracted from the nitty-gritty of actual stuff we geek about?)

      I have no problem at all with calling myself a geek, but that’s because I’ve come to define it in terms of that personality of happily obsessive poking and tinkering; I think when I was twenty, I really was worried on some semi-conscious level that the real geeks wouldn’t ever respect me if I didn’t take a strong stance on vi vs. emacs. These days, I feel like I’ve been too many rounds to worry about the surface stuff.

  9. Cesy

    I’ve never had a problem with seeing myself as a geek, despite the fact that I can’t stand coffee and like to go to bed early and wake up early.

  10. Meg Thornton

    I tend to have very few problems identifying myself as a woman (although I do have problems identifying myself as part of the “typical woman” marketing demographic – I see this as a failing of the marketers, though, not my identity) or as a feminist (I figure I’m pretty much feminist by default because I don’t tend to regard being female as necessarily being inferior, and get annoyed by a lot of the social bullshit surrounding femininity). The one I actually have the most trouble with is “geek”, because for me it defines the spectrum of interests too narrowly – I tend to identify more as a writer than a geek, because I have an overriding interest in everything and the way it all slots together, not just technology.

    I’ve earned my living as a helpdesk worker (and I actually prefer that to trying to carve out code – my biggest problem there is I’m lazy and don’t want to have to re-solve problems other people have already resolved) and I know I’m more technically savvy than the average bear, so to speak. I can beat most male helpdesk types I know hands down when it comes to taking geek purity tests and similar, and I’m certainly able to learn and retain technical information without too many troubles. But it’s not my sole focus and passion – in fact, it isn’t even a central focus and passion, it’s just one of many. I’m also keen on history (I’ve occasionally tried to create a timeline of historical events for the sheer heck of it, so I can get a sense of what happened when); I’m fascinated by the sciences in general (although I tend to find mathematics and theoretical physics entirely too dry for my tastes); I’m also keen on mythology and story; the history of language; anatomy; physiology; medicine; psychology; gardening; crime theory and a whole heap of other subjects.

    I’ve found through conversation that this generalised interest in everything known to mankind is fairly characteristic of people who write for enjoyment (whether or not they’re published authors, or people making a living out of writing). So I identify as a writer. It’s what I am, far more than a geek. Geekery is what pays the bills. Writing is how I live.

  11. elspeth

    I have always comfortably identified myself as a geek. Geeky about books, geeky about tabletop games, geeky about music, geeky about relationships, geeky about how people work, geeky about cats.

    I have a female body. Identifying myself as a woman is not something that comes easily to me. I’m not womanly in any way that I can easily identify, except physically. I wear clothes from the women’s section – because they fit better and are generally more comfortable than clothes in the men’s. The typically female activities I engage in such as knitting and cooking – knitting I view as something highly akin to programming, and cooking is just really tasty applied chemistry. I don’t do makeup, I wear flat shoes, I have odd ideas about relationships, and the only thing I want to raise is a cat. In a room full of women, it is rare that I feel comfortable and not like an impostor.

    1. S.P.Zeidler

      add me with the slight variation that I’m quite definitely a woman, just not partaking of the female gender role much, and in a room full of stereotypical women more readily bored out of my mind than uncomfortable. But, you know, you can ignore all the prescriptions of what is feminine (or manly) and still (or because of that ;) have loads of fun and a good life.

    2. Erika

      I have a female body. Identifying myself as a woman is not something that comes easily to me.

      Definitely, same here.

  12. Erika

    I am definitely a geek, sometimes a feminist, and technically a woman.

    Geek: I’m a professional programmer who likes programming, so I probably can’t avoid being a geek even if I wanted to. Socially, I suppose I am a geek in the bad way (no makeup, no social skills) and the good way (gets Douglas Adams references, willing to talk about math). If I had to pick a mainstream American culture hat to wear, it would be geek, but I’m not entirely happy with it. I’ve got a secret liberal arts intellectual hat that I can’t let go of quite enough to resign myself to a life of conversations about Elvish and Middle Earth weapons design.

    Feminist: I’m a feminist if you define feminist as generally supporting the right of women to live as they please and be respected and not abused. I have plenty of war stories from the trenches of woman in geekdom, as female software developers will. I’m a feminist if you define feminist as getting hopping up and down mad at sexism on a regular basis. But I’m not a good feminist, which is to say, I don’t follow the party line (in very similar ways I am not a good liberal or a good atheist). I don’t like feminism 101 and I don’t agree with half of it. But I am a feminist. Just not a good one.

    Woman: Which brings me to the last point. I am technically a woman, and I have no problem with that, but it’s not a strong part of my identity. I know that a lot of women feel really comfortable around other women, or only feel comfortable around other women. I have my usual level of awkwardness around women as around men. My husband is my best friend (really). When I’m in a knitting circle or something I feel kind of like an imposter– you’re letting me into your space because of my gender, but you don’t know, I’m not really one of you. I’m not sure why that is. I think that’s part of why I’m uncomfortable with a lot of feminism. I don’t implicitly trust women, or implicitly distrust men. I went to a women’s book group for a while, not feminist, just women only, and they started talking about how men had no emotions. To maintain the peace I would have had to agree, and I didn’t, so I left. Not hating people based on gender is really important to me, whether it’s women or men. Women are not my people. People are my people (or maybe little furry aliens are my people). In any case, feminism just seems like a step along the way to a better society, an important one, but not the end-all by any means.

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