The Girlfriend and The Geek

This is a guest post by Cate. Cate has a BSc in Computer Science from the University of Edinburgh but escaped from graduate school to be a Software Engineer at Google. She used to be an international hobo, teaching programming in the US and in Shanghai, training in martial arts in China, qualifying as a ski instructor in Canada, and aimlessly wondering around Europe. For now, she lives in Kitchener/Waterloo, Canada. She was the Instigator of Awesome at Awesome Ottawa, and is a co-conspirator for Awesome Foundation KW. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Accidentally in Code.

7/365 - Baby I don't care

Credit: flickr / nataliej

On the one hand, I’m delighted that Geeks are now pretty cool, and that all kinds of people who wouldn’t have before used it as a descriptor for themselves proudly own it.

On the other, my friends and I were discussing this “WAG” culture that has come as a result, and something we were terming “the girlfriend”.

Usage: “Oh X? She’s not a techie, she’s a girlfriend“.

Meaning: A woman near tech, by virtue of the fact she’s dating a techie.

Here’s what bothers me. A woman being celebrated as a “techie” when the actual “techie” work is being done by someone else (note, this does not necessarily have to be her boyfriend, we’ve just observed that to often be the case). If her boyfriend was into football, there’d be a similar role for her – coming up with “strategy”, promoting the team, whatever, but here’s the difference – no-one would be calling her a “female footballer”.

It’s frustrating to me and my friends, because we need more women in technology as role models. But we want those role models to promote being a geek not dating a geek! Geek culture is transmissible, but ML is not, it turns out, an STD.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of dating geeks, and glad that geeks are having an easier time finding dates. But we want to inspire women to stay up late at night learning how to code their own idea, not just to ride on the talent of someone else. Can we not describe someone who’s little more than a lead user as a “developer”? Can we be clear about the distinction between commenting on technology, and actually building things?

There’s a role for the girlfriend, for the lead user, for the commenter, but I think it’s a supporting one. The other might need some pheromones, in fact read some Alpha Dream pheromone reviews. I think we need to be clear who does what. People organizing talks and panels don’t always understand the difference, or that a woman who can’t actually write a line of code has little credibility presenting on that topic to a crowd of people who do.

Anyway, next time you see a girlfriend being lauded rather than a genuine tech woman, call it out. Suggest a better role model, or be that yourself. Explain the difference.

I know it’s hard. Every awesome technical woman I know is completely overcommitted. Maybe we’re not standing in the spotlight because we’re actually getting shit done. However the alternative is we have the story of what it means to be a tech woman told by the girlfriend, or another woman near tech, instead.

Sorry girlfriend, you’re not a geek. You can totally be one of us though, we’d love you to join us; but it does take some work to earn it.

32 thoughts on “The Girlfriend and The Geek

  1. Eva

    On one hand, I agree with you that people should be lauded for who they are and what they do, not who they know (for any permutation of know). On the other hand, I’ve been on the other side of the assumption. My husband is a computer programmer and he has geeky hobbies, so sometimes people assume I’m a hanger on. (I was in graduate school for CS and already had the same hobbies when he met me, it’s part of why we got on so well!)

    The girlfriend is sometimes a geek, don’t flip the bozo bit on her just because she’s a girlfriend.

    1. Terri

      Yeah, there’s a bit of a vicious circle there: am I being assumed not a geek because every woman is assumed not a geek, or am I assumed not a geek despite my assertions to the contrary because the last woman encountered claimed to be a geek but just happened to sit through the matrix on her first date and didn’t even like it? I’ve hit both assumptions, sadly. :(

      1. Eva

        I once had an author at a book signing tell my husband to have me read his book (I was standing right there and had been introduced) so I could “understand my husband’s [geeky] hobbies better”. The author thought so little of me as a “wife” that he assumed I didn’t understand anything about my husband, didn’t share his hobbies, and still had nothing better to do with my time than be dragged to a book signing, who’s main topic was things I didn’t understand or care to learn about on my own!

        Even if I wasn’t a geek, I would seriously hope I’d have more self respect than that. Gah.

  2. Natalie L.

    Funny. I didn’t realize that geek was a term reserved solely for people with one very specific sort of educational background or job.

    1. Mackenzie


      I think “in tech” and “geek” need to be decoupled in this post. Skud’s “women in tech / women near tech” post makes sense, but “she doesn’t code therefore she’s not a geek?” Not so much. She could be a kickass network admin or write RPGs. I’d call those geeky too.

      1. Serena

        I think you’re missing the point here. It’s not about who’s a geek and who isn’t. It’s the differentiation between role models for “women in tech” and “women near tech”.

  3. Jess

    I have honestly never seen this happening. Only the opposite–as Eva describes, legitimately geeky women being dismissed as ‘the girlfriend’ because they are dating a guy, who MUST be the real geek whether or not he actually is geeky. Even the example you give is of someone saying a woman is ‘not a techie’ because she’s ‘just a girlfriend’. Do you have any examples of what you’re describing?

    I do think that there’s a big disparity between the numbers of female *users* of technology and female *developers*, absolutely. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen women getting lauded or held up as ‘lead users’ or ‘main commenters’ on mainstream tech sites, though.

    1. Pewter

      I’m going to have to agree with Jess here. I think partly this is a casualty of the broadening of the geek ‘label’, maybe that’s what Cate is getting at? I don’t think I’ve seen a geek woman promote ‘dating geek guys’ in lieu of actual geekery, beyond perhaps pointing out that sharing hobbies is a good thing.

      I dunno. Are we talking about what constitutes a geek, or about non-geeks taking credit for their partner’s geekery? Very confusing article.

      (And for the record: I’d call myself a geek, but I do not have a tech job, nor a tech degree. That said I don’t stand up and call myself a programmer.)

    2. Terri

      Skud talked about the problem at length here: Women in tech/women near tech. The problem is more evident on the “we need a geek woman speaker” level than it may be on a personal level. It’s a source of much frustration to me, for example, that my local girl geek dinners seem to be focussed heavily on networking and business, and seldom include a woman who just likes building robots or whatever. Networking is totally valuable, but when you rarely or never feature a girl geek whose focus is on creation of new technology as opposed to building her brand… I think you’re sending an unintentional message that needs to be examined.

      Anyhow, I don’t think this post is about dismissing people as the girlfriend, just recognizing that this is a proto-stage and people in a supportive role are just that, supportive. We already make a point about this in the Wednesday geek women submission posts:

      per How Not to Do Ada Lovelace Day, profiles of women focussed on them being a supportive life-helper to a man geek will not be accepted (collaborative geeking with men of course accepted)

    3. Kirstin

      Props, Jess.

      I spent most of my early and mid twenties being “the girlfriend”. Being “the girlfriend” makes you invisible, disempowers, and discredits.

      Further, “the girlfriend” argument is divisive, not empowering; and we should be empowering each other, not ripping each other down.

    4. Erica

      I agree with Jess … I think the terms shouldn’t be coupled together like that. I don’t think a career path or a college degree or course of study is the “only” way to be a geek or a girlfriend of a geek or whatever you may think. There are many, many reasons that us women are “geeks.”

      I also have only seen this be an issue in the opposite form … where a woman is assumed to just be involved in something because of their significant other. I have been in those shoes many, many times … I honestly can’t remember a time where a woman was given “geek” credit for something her man had done.

  4. Dorothea Salo

    This approach, conference gigs aside, also threatens the female-geek pipeline. I wasn’t always able to write code. If, when I was still learning how, I’d been dismissed as a mere “girlfriend,” I don’t know that I’d have stuck with it.

    (Well, TBH, I’d probably still have coded, because I learned to code to solve problems, not because I found it particularly enjoyable. I’m still that way; I don’t like programming much, but I do it because stuff has to get done. But had I been so treated, I seriously doubt I’d have entered any geek communities, online or off-.)

    1. Palaverer

      Amen. Guess I’m not a geek because I don’t write code. Then again, neither does my BF or any of the self-identified geeks I hang out with. There’s a huge problem with this article’s narrow classification of “geek.”

  5. Siri

    Wow. Wow. I can’t believe I just read this article here of all places. This is … so fucking dismissive and kind of offensive! First of all. No one is “just a girlfriend”. Period.

    From what I can see, and correct me if I am wrong, your complaint is that women who aren’t coders don’t deserve to speak to a room of coders, be called a geek or a techie, and that their contributions are always in support and therefore aren’t as important. I have … varying disagreements with all of that.

    First of all, I have a problem with the fact that you are calling these women “girlfriends”. To me, that’s a gendered insult that doesn’t actually do much to explain or fix the problem. It’s also dismissive of both the women in question, since they might not even be girlfriends (by your own admission), and of actual non-techie, non-geek girlfriends of techies/geeks. It’s dismissive of the women that you’re talking about because instead of talking about their qualifications (or lack thereof) you are reducing them to someone who is nothing more than just a romantic/sexual object, with no talents of their own. And in the second case, where a woman *is* actually a girlfriend, you’re ignoring her own career (which she probably kicks ass at!), her own hobbies (which she probably stays up late at night to perfect!), and … just … the fact that she has her own fucking life outside of who she is dating and the career of her significant other.

    Second of all, I resist the idea that the only people who coders can learn from are people who can code. Because it’s not like someone who is talking to a roomful of coders about, say, accesibility issues in programs has anything useful to add unless they can code, right? Right.

    Third of all, there are other ways to be a techie and be a geek that have nothing to do with building robots or coding. I know women who are film editors and cinematographers and camera assistants who can do things with technology that my brother who *is* a professional programmer has no clue about. There’s more than one type of geek and more than one genre of technology and if a woman is working on innovations in sustainable textiles to make really pretty dresses or on new types of farming technology for green agriculture than those things are just as worthy of the labels techie and geek than programmers.

    Fourth, projects, particularly large ones, take all kind of skill sets and people and to put one type of person — programmers — above all others is wrong. Go write your beautiful code — if you don’t have users or commentors on it then who fucking cares. If you don’t have someone to worry about the really boring shit like doing accounting for the company or marketing or documentation so that people actually know how to use your wonderful program then you would have to worry about that. Knowing the business aspects, working at costumer support, reporting bugs in programs, it’s not insignificant. It’s important work. It’s ALL important work. Show some respect for people who do different stuff than you do.

    And listen. Even if a woman is the helpmeet to her techie significant other, she doesn’t deserve the amount of sexist vitirol that this post throws at her. Sure, she’s not going to star in my Ada Lovelace Day essay, but domestic work, childrearing, or whatever it is she does is important and that work, her work, deserves respect.

    Stop making it seem like the only women who work hard or deserve acclaim are programmers. Stop making it seem like women who don’t code don’t work hard or deserve acclaim on their stuff. Stop making it seem like there is only one way to be good at technology or to contribute to developing technology. Stop making it seem like if a woman is not interested in coding she is letting down all women everywhere, that she is nothing more than a drain on technology or something to fuck. Stop calling women girlfriends. They might not be programmers, but that’s probably because they don’t have time between all the other cool things that they’re doing.

    1. Cat Allman

      Thank you, Siri!

      I used to refer to myself as “only” a “demi-nerd”, aka a sort of geek. After all, I’ve been a sys-admin – but only on Macs, PC’s, small networks and graphics equipment. I’ve repaired bugs in Postscript code – but didn’t written the code in the first place. I’ve put machines together, but never soldered anything onto a board. I’ve managed an IT department to a 30% profit margin and 99% uptime – but it was for a relatively small business. I’ve worked for open source tech companies off and on since the early 1980s including my current full-time job – but primarily in marketing and community management, and we all know that isn’t work and doesn’t count.

      Well, I’m done! I’m through apologizing to men AND women for somehow not being technical “enough”. Columns like the one above stink of internalized sexism and the kind of classic queen-bee behavior that keeps women from being able to trust each other. The author has a right to her opinion, obviously, but I ardently disagree with her coupling not being a coder with being merely some sort of second rate consumer of tech and/or sexual accessory to the people doing the real work.

      And on what planet does it help women get more recognition as technologists to “next time you see a girlfriend being lauded rather than a genuine tech woman, call it out. Suggest a better role model, or be that yourself. Explain the difference.”? Seriously, WTF. There are several deeply offensive analogies that I won’t make here, but I encourage the reader to substitute class or race for gender and consider the statement again.

  6. sheenyglass

    There’s a role for the girlfriend, for the lead user, for the commenter, but I think it’s a supporting one.

    I’m not a girlfriend, lead user or commenter (unless commenter means commenter on blogs), but if I was I would be a little insulted. To lump these roles as “supportive” and dismiss the people who perform them as “rid[ing] on the talent of someone else” implies that these roles are inferior (possibly even semi-parasitic [talent-riders] to the primary role of programmer.

    1. Tiffany

      I would be a little insulted too. And discouraged. What if being a lead user/commenter is how this hypothetical girl starts getting interested in furthering her technological education? She may just be ‘a girlfriend’ with a supporting role to you, but we all had to start somewhere and being dismissive is not going to encourage anyone to start learning how to code.

      Plus, regardless of any interest in ever learning how to code, lead users and commenters are terribly important to any project, I don’t think it’s just a supportive role.

  7. zvi

    The thing that I like about geekfeminism blog and wiki is that it describes geekery broadly, including both cultural geeks (people who like comics/sf/nerdcore/etc.); people who do coding; and people who do what we claim is the other, important, technical-yet-not-coding work [like support, documentation, testing, design] right up until the time we hit a dick cred measuring contest.

    Also, at least in FOSS, I very much want the strategists and cheerleaders considered as part of the geeky cadre: I usually call them fundraisers and community development, but toe-may-toe/tuh-mah-tuh is fine, as long as we’re not insulting about it.

  8. Katherine

    I consider myself a geek, though my area of professional expertise is civil engineering, not IT. A lot of the geeky hobbies I got into because one of my previous boyfriends introduced them to me, so I could have easily been blown off as ‘just a girlfriend’. But where else was I going to pick up these hobbies? I didn’t have a big group of geeky friends to introduce me to these things, neither of my parents had enough time for geeky hobbies, I didn’t have a computer or the internet at home during my childhood so I couldn’t find these things myself. Yet I am fundamentally attracted to most of the geeky hobbies I’ve encountered, once I know of their existence (not that I have time for any more at the moment!) I suppose I was lucky the people I met through my boyfriends’ hobbies didn’t dismiss me as ‘just a girlfriend’ but were also able to treat me appropriately for the level of skill I showed at each hobby, explaining things in my newbie phase while not being patronising.

    I do get that you are more referring to women near tech being promoted over women in tech, rather than in the hobby sphere. But like the other commenters, I think we need to be careful not to appear to be dismissing someone simply for their girlfriend status – after all, a significant portion of female geeks are going to be a wife or a girlfriend too.

  9. Liz Henry

    I’m happy for “geek” to mean culturally a geek, but I know what you’re talking about. People do assume that if women programmers collaborate with a boyfriend or husband, that the guy is the actually the programmer and the woman is doing something else like organizing or documenting things or doing the community building or whatever. It basically also means for me that if I ask any guy at all for help on a project, it comes off as if I didn’t really do it, while men can collaborate with each other and even have differing levels of ability as programmers without having a finger pointed to say that one of them isn’t “real”. I think the risks are the same for authorship collaborations in other kinds of writing. The guy gets assumed to be the real writer and the woman his assistant or secretary.

  10. the15th

    Well, I like the post, although I also agree that legitimate techies are sometimes unfairly dismissed as “the girlfriend” in a way that doesn’t happen to men who pick up geeky interests through friends. I can think of at least one blogger and former techie girlfriend who writes for a sort of fashion site and doesn’t post anything particularly technical or geeky, who constantly seems to be speaking on some tech panel as the sole “girl geek”. It pretty much enrages me.

    Of course, it gets more complicated when you consider that there are male media personalities who get invited to speak on topics well beyond their expertise, solely on the basis of their friendships and connections. Exclusion of women creates a lose-lose situation; we can either attack the qualifications of faux women techies while dubious male “experts” get a pass, or we can allow them to represent “women in technology.”

  11. Brenda

    I too have been frustrated with the Women near Technology groups – but I say anyone who self identifies as a geek is a geek. It’s not for anyone else to decide for them.

    1. Liz Henry

      Yeah.. and part of the tension around all this is that it *does* get frustrating and does feel damaging, but it is damaging on another level to be a woman patrolling the borders of the male sanctuary and going “well I get to be in it and YOU don’t”. That’s not something most of us want to do and we realize the reasons why it’s utterly bogus. I do think about it though, and realize that *there is never a point of technical competence or proof where I would feel securely on one side of the line*. And that isn’t the fault of any other women, or of myself, it’s that the definition of what is acceptably secure of a position in a position perceived to be powerful or of solid status, is extremely fluid to allow women to be booted out of it for any number of reasons.

  12. Lindsey Kuper

    I agree with the point being made here by Cate, in the sense that I’m sick and tired of women who are held up as examples of “women in technology” actually turning out to be women near technology, as Kirrily Robert’s earlier post so aptly put it.

    Here’s an example: I was hopeful when I read the text of this post by Jolie O’Dell, but very disappointed when I watched the video that went along with the article. The video starts out by saying, “A recent Facebook Developer Garage saw much more participation [than past such events had seen] from women engineers. We decided to talk to some of the women in attendance and ask about their opinions and experiences working in this male-dominated industry.” Okay, sounds good! But that promising introduction is followed by interviews with three women who are not engineers. They are, in order, a marketing executive, an engineering manager, and a product manager and strategist. Of course is not to say that they aren’t fantastic at the jobs that they do. I suspect that they are. But is it really the case that there were no actual female engineers to be found at the event? Because that’s sure how the video makes it look.

    The first woman interviewed in the video starts her very first sentence out with, “I’m not a coder myself…” What kind of a message does that send to women who are or want to be, then? And the second woman interviewed says, “You can absolutely find very hard-core women systems developers who sit in a dark room and write code all day.” I actually think it’s hurtful both to would-be women programmers and to the profession of programming itself, to propagate the idea that that is what programming jobs are like. At both my current research engineering internship and in my computer science Ph.D. program, neither my colleagues nor I are ever sitting alone in a dark room. We’re talking to each other, unreservedly and passionately, all day long. We could never get anything done if we didn’t.

    Having said all that, I disagree with the point being made here by Cate in the following sense: it suggests that being a computer science geek is the only legitimate way to be a geek. That incorrectly delegitimizes a lot of valid forms of geekery: for instance, being an architecture geek, being a model railway geek, being a letterpress geek, being a lute-tablature-of-the-15th-century geek, being an audiophile geek. Have you ever heard two women talking about a knitting pattern and not been able to follow all the intricate technical jargon? They’re geeks. Know a woman who knows the ins and outs of tax law? She’s a geek. And none of them somehow become any less geeky by happening to date a computer geek; that’s just absurd.

  13. Jen

    It seems like the poster is basically saying is that often organizers of conferences about computer programming will invite a speaker who is (a) a woman and (b) not a programmer. Possibly because the organizers don’t know any women who ARE programmers, or didn’t bother to look for one, or looked but couldn’t find one, and this gives a false impression that women in general are not good at programming. I think this sounds like a good and useful issue to discuss.

    However the author says ‘geek’ when I think she really means ‘computer programmer whose current job mainly involves writing software’. A lot of commenters have objected that ‘geek’ has a much wider set of meanings than that.

    It also seems to me that ‘woman near tech’ is given two separate meanings, which are mixed up together in the post: (a) someone who works on a tech project in a non-programming role, like documentation, administration, management, or promoting the project, or (b) a woman who knows a little bit about tech because her boyfriend or husband is in tech, but who doesn’t make any contributions of her own. I think it’s a really bad idea to mix these up because they are fundamentally not the same, people in group (a) do important work that deserves respect and recognition and they shouldn’t be dismissed as being ‘girlfriends’.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with learning about and becoming interested in tech through a partner. I would hope for geek spaces to be welcoming to someone like that, especially since I know there’s a chance they will take a more actively geeky role in the future.

    It is a big problem someone is assumed to be a ‘girlfriend’ rather than a real programmer just because they happen to be a woman. But ‘girlfriends’ are not to blame for this – the people making the sexist, dismissive assumption are. (And actually I don’t like using the term ‘girlfriend’ – if a man was interested in tech because of his partner we wouldn’t call him a ‘boyfriend’, and defining someone according to their relationship to a man seems sexist to me.)

    I think that when you get angry about sexist behaviour, it’s important to get angry at the right person. Some people have a sexist attitude that women can’t be programmers, and some conference organizers don’t invite any programmers who aren’t men to speak at their conferences. But ‘women near tech’ and ‘girlfriends’ aren’t responsible for these sexist behaviours – the people doing the sexist behaviours are. If conference organizers are failing to invite women programmers to speak, (and perhaps in a lazy bid at gender balance are inviting women who work in a non-programming role instead) then we should call that out as being unacceptable. But it’s the fault of the conference organizers, not the fault of the non-programming women in tech who got invited to speak at the conference (who, incidentally, may well make an incredibly interesting and useful contribution). Recognition isn’t a zero-sum game, women programmers aren’t going to win more recognition by taking it away from women who aren’t programmers, but by promoting ourselves and challenging sexism.

    1. Eva

      “Not that there’s anything wrong with learning about and becoming interested in tech through a partner. I would hope for geek spaces to be welcoming to someone like that, especially since I know there’s a chance they will take a more actively geeky role in the future.”

      Part of the problem is that in many geek subcultures this is exactly what happens. Women are scorned for being “hangers on” and treated as second class citizens if they came to the hobby/knowledge/activity/etc. because of a significant other. As you point out this is completely backward, we should be welcoming new people, rather than scorning them. There shouldn’t be a huge gender divide where a couple who takes part in a hobby together is immediately assumed to be unequal, and in some cases there is.

      1. Eva

        (Opps, I meant a mixed gender couple in that last part. Was typing faster than I was thinking there!)

  14. Amanda

    Tech is geeky, but not all geeks are techies.

    Some geek women are techies, but not all geek women are techies.

    This is *not* a case of all geeks are geeky, but some are geekier than others. And this could have been worded a hell of a lot better to an audience of women who are constantly defending themselves and their interests, tech or otherwise.

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