Quick hit: the gender binary fractal in geekdom

Unless you’ve been inexplicably failing to click on every link in our linkspams (you didn’t know that would be on the exam?… sorry), you read a fair bit of Sociological Images already. However, they get a Quick Hit because their recent post The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary: Or Blue vs. Turquoise continues on a theme I discussed in one of my earliest posts here, “Girl stuff” in Free Software.

Lisa Wade writes thus:

The gender binary-that is, the rule that everything (oh animals, jobs, food, kleenex, housework, sound, games, deordorant, love and sex, candy, vitamins, etc) gets split into male and female-is fractal. That means that, for every male or female version of something (say sports versus dance), there is a further gendered split that can be made. If we take sports, we might divide it into the masculine football and the feminine swimming. If we take swimming, we could probably divide it down further. Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

This strongly resonates with me. It doesn’t mean that I think this is how things should work, but I think it’s often part of how they do work. Do you find this in your geekdoms of choice? How does it split up your geekdom? Have you seen your area of the fractal shift over time and do you have any theories about why; for example, did the arrival of more women or more men make something more feminine or masculine? How explicit is it? (In Free Software it can be very explicit and essentialist. “Women are good at words and other people, so documentation is more feminine. Women are bad at maths — which is basically the same thing as computer programming right? — and at isolated work, so coding is more masculine. QED.”)

Update: Just a note that the question is not precisely “where do the women cluster in your geekdom?” (although that’s interesting too), but “which parts of your geekdom are considered more suitable for women/more womanly/less manly?”

19 thoughts on “Quick hit: the gender binary fractal in geekdom

  1. Rebecca

    I am a computational scientist at a large supercomputing facility, and in my experience, the applied math/numerical analysis field is more populated by women than are other related fields, like the development of supercomputer technology, tools, programming languages, etc., or the scientific fields that use supercomputers. And within the applied math/numerical analysis field, it seems from my perspective that women are well represented in numerical optimization, possibly because there have been some great women pioneers in this field such as Margaret Wright. I doubt that women represent anywhere near 50% of the practitioners but we do have good representation when it comes to the names of great optimizers working today.

  2. textjunkie

    Interestingly, when I got out of mathematical psychology and into genetics, suddenly I was no longer the only female in the room and often was working on all-female teams…

  3. Melinda

    This is an extremely rough/crude generalization, but my experience has been that the lower in the stack you go the fewer women you encounter. More women in application protocols than in, say, PHY, more women doing applications software than operating systems, etc.

    1. Eivind

      Not only is it fractal, but the patterns tend to be aligned with traditional gender-stereotypes.

      For example, you could say that technology-companies have few women overall, and that’d be true. But if you look closer, you notice that the ones who -are- there, tend to cluster around the more traditional female roles. We’re a tech-company, and at first glance appear not-so-bad, with around 35% females.

      But most of them are in design or human resources. Amonth the ~third of the employees who are programmers, there’s -1- female. (and around 10 males)

      I’m thus thinking the gender-gap is worse than it may appear, because numbers like “only 35% female students in natural sciences”, disguise the fact that even those that are there, tend to gravitate towards the stuff that’s more traditionally female, say biology rather than physics, user-interface-design rather than device-drivers.

      1. Mary Post author

        You do need to consider feedback effects though. I don’t think, for example, that it was inevitable that biology was always going to be “girl science”, the rationalisations of it being feminine (say, “it’s to do with life! and so women who are caring, will care!”) are post hoc: explaining the presence/preponderance of women, not attempting to predict it before they arrived. Women weren’t supposed to be able to do science at all.

        1. Eivind

          True, gender-stereotypes aren’t static, but change gradually over time. They tend to drift rather than jump though, for natural reasons.

          It wasn’t inevitable that biology should end up being “girly”, agreeed. But it’s also not random, nor close to it.

          The path, for drifting from taking care of children, sick and elderly, and to become, for example, a veterinarian or a doctor, isn’t -that- convoluted.

  4. HonoriaG

    I’m involved in nordic style-LARP, and have noticed that a lot of the time male larp writers fall into the role of auteur, while women end up doing a lot of less glamorous behind the scenes work. They pretty much function as producers, but don’t gain the respect that that title would imply. This resonates with my experience from web advertizing school where the male students gravitated toward an identity of entrepeneur/creative, and the women somehow always ended up making sure everyone was on time for the meetings.
    I’ve never felt actively pressured to stay away from the “boy’s stuff”, I think it’s a more subtle case of expectations – the times I have ventured into the “artiste” part of LARP geekdom I’ve just felt really VISIBLE and open to criticism.

    1. Bene

      The film industry tends to fall along these lines too: men direct, women produce. A more balanced but still skewed line happens in television. I’m not sure why this is–some combination of more opportunities/less fiscal responsibility, maybe, or perhaps it’s more subtle.

  5. Jonquil

    Salaried and consultant software technical writers are mostly women, at least judging by my previous employers. This holds true among API and programming writers, not just for the screen-shot GUI writers.

    I think the split among book writers (O’Reilly and so on) may be different.

  6. quartzpebble

    In chemistry, organic synthesis is a very male-heavy subfield; most flavors of biochem are relatively female-heavy. I believe that in most subfields, PhDs will be more likely to be male, and assistant/associate level workers will skew more female.

    In fiber arts, it seems that making tools is masculine and using them is feminine. I know of no well-known women who make spinning wheels or drum carders, for instance. Raising and preparing fiber (I think) is more balanced.

  7. Mary Post author

    In computer science, I’d say that operating systems is the canonical “boy stuff” subspeciality and AI “girl stuff”, together with HCI.

    This is rather relative of course: probably the big names that occur to people from AI are all men, but within computer science I think if you meet a woman and she says she’s in AI, computational linguistics or similar subspecialties it’s a little more “oh, of course you are” than if she says she’s in operating systems. I’d love to hear how operating systems itself subdivides…

    1. Mackenzie

      What, you mean like how no girls use Linux because Macs are prettier?

      EDIT: Apparently the sarcasm tag gets filtered if I don’t use html entities. Grr.

      1. Mary Post author

        I can’t tell from your comment whether you appreciate this, so just to be clear, I’m describing what I see as the gender binary played out in computer science, I’m not endorsing it.

  8. koipond

    Sticking with HonoriaG. In my geekdom I’ve come across far more women who like LARPing as opposed to Table Top RPGs. I haven’t had a lot of conversations as to why that is, it could be the fact that creepy smelly basements are usually involved, but there are a couple of groups in Toronto where women play a large part in the playing.

    However, as also was mentioned they don’t spent a lot of time with the Plot team again for a lot of the reasons stated.

  9. lsblakk

    My first thought is how women in bands are more likely to play bass than be the drummer. which doesn’t mean there aren’t kick-ass female drummers, but it’s totally expected when they play bass. I certainly count this among the many reasons I love to play drums in Guitar Hero, as well as wanting to learn to play real drums someday.

    In my work environment, I am in a more technical group where we have 2 women including me which is I think the highest saturation to be found in the teams of the engineering section in our company. We spend a lot of time working with all OSes on various real and virtual machines. I find that the deeper level of hardware set-up is more picked up on by the males – so knowing that particular chipset serial number, or obscure filesystem is being used in the nether reaches of a mobile phone. There’s not an obviously female counter to this, but I’m often called the “outreach” person who is a bridge between our group and the other teams – so maybe that makes communication itself more female? I don’t believe this to be true since many people can and do communicate well, but it’s probably an offshoot of the “women write documentation” phenomenon where I’m often trying to make sure that we leave a clear understanding of what we’ve done behind us for the next folks who will try to do our jobs.

  10. Stoft

    It’s not clearcut but in my workplace and considering the people I went to uni with there is a tendency for women to head for project management and testing whereas men tend more towards development. This is just a guestimate and by no means an actual head count, it may be that I just happen to know a lot of women who ended up in testing/project management (and I know quite a few men who ended up there as well now that I think about it).

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