Confession: I’ve been a girlfriend

True story! I’m a wife now. I’ve moved up in the WAG acronym.

There’s been a lot of pushback on Cate’s guest post and with good reason, because it can be easily read as positing that geek woman are mutually exclusive from women who have a geek partner dichotomy:

  • She’s not a techie, she’s a girlfriend
  • the girlfriend… the lead user… the commenter
  • a girlfriend… rather than a genuine tech woman
  • the girlfriend, or another woman near tech
  • Sorry girlfriend, you’re not a geek.

Here’s another thing: there’s a lot of geek my then-boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to. Linux was a big one. A great deal of the C programming language. Digital music, both ripping and listening. Actual other living geeks, as opposed to Eric Raymond’s J Random Hacker. Suffice to say that his influence on the nature of my geekdom has been substantial (and vice versa, which needs to be said).

And frankly while a lot of people are introduced to geekdom or new geekdoms by partners, it’s considered rather a shameful thing in my experience, especially if it was a male partner. If a man taught a woman to do something, or a man remains better at that thing than the woman he taught is at it, it’s as if the woman doesn’t have that interest or skill at all. She is assumed to be the man’s puppet.

There is something real, in my experience, about less involved women being asked to give “the woman’s perspective” on geekdom, as if their experience is “more woman” than that of heavily involved geek women, as if very geeky women have forfeited “the woman’s perspective”. But there’s also equally difficult experiences:

  1. the assumption by geeks that a woman geek with a partner, especially a male one, is not geeky, or only geeky because of internal relationship dynamics, rather than being ‘really’ geeky (whatever that means)
  2. the experience some non-geek women or newly geek women report, of experiencing hostility from geek women for “making them look bad” and from geeks in general for being too mainstream or feminine (and hence boring or thoughtless)

We’re not going to get anywhere with the above by talking about girlfriends as if they aren’t us, or as if they can’t become us or we them. I think that adopting girlfriend as a metaphor is harmful: the primary meaning is (some subset of) women who have a partner. Anything said about metaphorical girlfriends will quickly be taken to apply to literal girlfriends, as in women who have partners, and used against them, even if it was supposed to be a metaphor for women who are granted some credibility as more woman because they are less geek (which is, I think, what Cate is using the term “girlfriend” to mean, although it isn’t totally clear to me).

We have to not feed the “femininity is mainstream and therefore not geek” beast.

Additional concerns about Cate’s post that were raised in her comments and which I share:

  • the geekiness hierarchy in which people who build things trump people who comment, use, or analyse in geekiness. If nothing else, I personally spend a lot of time writing feminist stuff on the Internet, as well as coding, and I’m not accustomed to thinking of one as the less geeky activity than the other
  • the conflation of “geek” with “programmer” or “computer geek”, which as several commenters noted we’re rightly committed to not doing around here

By the way, a little bit of background on our process: guest posts here tend to be selected by one author and put up here, we all have access to the “Guest Poster” account. So that accounts for the appearance of a guest post with a message/metaphor that I at least don’t especially like, if you are wondering! There’s no cabal, etc.

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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.

20 thoughts on “Confession: I’ve been a girlfriend

  1. Pewter

    Thank you for this response. While I didn’t agree with everything about Cate’s post, it did facilitate a lot of discussion and I hope the response doesn’t put her off from continuing to write about women and tech from her perspective :)

  2. Laura

    I’m a girlfriend, now wife, too. Even though my husband started off as the coder between us–he has the CS degree, not me. I took my interest in tech in a different direction. I did web design and development in an educational environment. I taught him things about CSS and HTML that he didn’t know. And, eventually, I, too, learned to code and now teach many different tech skills, including coding to young women. But, I, too, was written off as the girlfriend/wife more often than I liked. It still happens.

    Of course, I know many girlfriends/wives of techie guys and vice versa–techie women with partners. Some of them are also techie–often in completely different ways. And some of them are just interested in other things. More often, I see the partners of techies dismissed rather than lauded. But I also know that as a “gf/wife” myself, having somewhat ridden on the coattails of my husband, I often don’t feel techie enough in my own right to stand up and take credit for my own accomplishments.

  3. Siri

    Man, thank you for this post. When I wrote my comment on the first post it was right after I’d read it and I was seeing red. (In a way I wish that I had waited to post my comment and to revise it, but I had a case of internet road rage … oops. Eh, I still stand by what I said, I just could have been clearer.) Anyway, going back and rereading the post I’m still just as angry as the first time. It’s a relief to hear that at least there’s one dissenting opinion from a mod.

    (But “girlfriends”? Really? Really? That is the word she decided to use? We have enough people coming up with gendered slurs already; we don’t need feminists to start adding their own to the pot. Especially since feminism should be for all women, not just “everyone except the women we don’t like”.)

    1. Mary Post author

      I see the metaphor as not too far removed from the “mother” = “non geek” rhetoric (which we have a wiki article about), which I also get blindsided by regularly, since I’m a mother.

      1. Siri

        Oh man, you’re right it is a lot like the “mother” rhetoric! I didn’t make the connection … but then again I’m also not a mother. *g* Both are just a way of separating women in “normal” roles from women in the “abnormal” role of geek, which is not just cool. And when you connect either “mother” or “girlfriend” to the idea that they are “just support” that can be even more damaging. For one, it can push women into those roles when they don’t want to be pushed there, and it can also come define jobs that are done mostly by women as support jobs, even if that’s an unfair charaterization.

        An example of that last point, from my own field, is that women in film often end up being producers, instead of, say, cinematographers. And I think that there’s an unfair characterization–particularly outside of the film industry–of producers and the production department as being “support staff” to the more “creative” roles of cinematographer or director. And that’s simply not true. Not only are there a lot of creative parts to being a producer (and a lot of technical/not so creative parts to being a cinematographer or director), but to simply dismiss a producer as “support staff” is to ignore the fact that they are usually the first person on the project from way before it even starts shooting, and the last person off the project, working on it even after it’s premiered. They often clock more days on the project than the director does. Part of their job is to iron out logistics, yes, and make sure that everyone gets what they need within the budget that they have, but there are a lot more parts to the job than that, and to dismiss it as being simply support for the people doing the “real” work is insulting. I think a good example of this that hit the news semi-recently is the Daily Show thing where they were called out for not having any women on the writing staff — and that is definitely a problem — but the call-out also ignored the fact that at the time a lot of the show’s producers and production staff were women. And when this was pointed out I saw a lot of people dismissing that, because, from their view, the women who worked for the show were just support staff and therefore didn’t count.

        Now of course, film and software development are two very different fields so I don’t want to equate jobs or anything (cinematographer =/= coder), but because both have a lot of problems with gender disparity and with some jobs being “more acceptable” for women (and those jobs often being labelled “support staff”), I really push back at the tendency to berate women for the jobs they have or don’t have within the idustry. I also really push back at the idea that some jobs are more worthy of respect than other jobs.

        1. Mary Post author

          Part of their job is to iron out logistics, yes, and make sure that everyone gets what they need within the budget that they have

          And a very interesting thing about this is that that role can also be named COO or director of operations in a corporate space, and suddenly it’s not “just a support role” any more.

  4. Tony Mechelynck

    I like this post: «either-or» assumptions are indeed to frequent.

    So, confidence for confidence: I wear a suit, and a shirt with a necktie. From all I read, this should at once brand me as «not a geek» or at least «not a FOSS geek». But ask people who know me…


  5. Shauna

    When I first started visiting my local hackerspace, I refused to let my then-boyfriend come along, for fear of seeming like “the girlfriend”. I got into coding on my own, but he got me an arduino for my birthday and taught me how to use it, leading me to seek out a source of parts and equipment bigger than my sock drawer. I was worried people would see his CS PhD and electronics experience and assume that my interests were merely copying his. Or maybe even just that they’d peg him as the geekier of us and direct all their interest/questions/friendliness at him.

    It’s my experience that when I’m worried about how I appear to someone I’m expressing internalized misogyny somehow. At the time I thought I was a less valid geek because I learned about electronics from my boyfriend and not from taking apart old computers in my parents’ garage when I was ten years old. In retrospect I wish I had just said, “Yeah, I *just* found out how to make a throwie – isn’t it cool?” and run with it. Because the type of person who would have dismissed/ignored me isn’t the sort of person I want to spend afternoons playing with voltmeters with anyway.

    Tangentially: one reason why a lot of women might get into programming or more male-dominated subgeekdoms via a relationship is that it can be hard to find mentorship when you’re just starting out. A knowledgeable significant other is a great way to start getting involved – they’re happy to spend lots of time with you and you don’t have to worry about annoying them with dumb questions, you know they want you to succeed and are willing to collaborate with you, etc.

  6. Jenn

    I was a girlfriend once, but I was interested in FOSS and he dealt with Macs. So what little he taught me I used to become the CLI goddess I am today.
    Sometimes you have always had the interest but not the means, and if you find a geeky guy with the means and you like him. It is just win win.
    I grew up without computers but loved every minute I had in school with them, my ex had a computer to use since he was born. When we started dating I confused him by being interesting in the old machines and wanting to use them or repurpose them.

    Why can’t everyone just be geeks without worrying about who exposed them to the tech or who owns the equipment? Shouldn’t we be happy that people are learning and are excited about it?

  7. regis

    The question of “techie-enough” with ‘women staff’ vs ‘women developers’ becomes more muddled when you look at how women often get shunted or encouraged into the softer-skills part of tech.

    1. Jenn

      I was confused by that at my current job. The female managers saw me as becoming one of them. The male managers and tech leads saw me becoming a tech lead or a developer. I currently training to be a tech lead.

    2. Lisa

      That’s one of the subtler hurdles I’ve noticed myself. It’s not quite at the level of the secretary assumption (I’m in a very heavily male dominated field in some very heavily male dominated industries, so I have been the only woman in a non-administrative position more than a couple times).

      I’ve started new jobs and had people tell me they were so happy to finally have a woman’s perspective, and have found people nudging me over into the more people oriented positions, like user interface, personnel stuff, and even marketing projects.

      Thing is, I am not a people person. I am an extreme introvert, and I am nowhere near as good at this people-y stuff as I am at–you know–my actual job. But it also sucks for people who do work in those fields, the assumption that any random female human can just step in and do their job. Those jobs all take specialized skills and experience and talents that I admire and value, but do not personally have.

      The only way to really foster a fair, equitable, and welcoming environment for everyone is to recognize and value people for their individual talents. And when we tech women dismiss and devalue the roles of non-tech or less-tech women, we’re not doing that.

      [Slightly related story that I just want to tell because it was so cool: I developed an information system for a client once, and I ended up training the on-site secretary to do the training and maintenance on it after I left. She’d helped me with some usability testing, and her ability to pick up on the concepts and underlying structure was so good that she was worthless as a usability tester–she figured out even the really badly designed parts with no trouble. After I left, I was informed that this ridiculous sexist jerk who’d been the bane of my existence there was LIVID. He thought he was going to be in charge, and the idea that the SECRETARY got the promotion he’d thought was his almost killed him. So that was a nice unexpected bonus.]

  8. Lindsey Kuper

    My comments on Cate’s post haven’t come out of moderation — which is fine, since other commenters pretty much covered the bases there, and since I had my say on my own blog. But I wanted to mention that if Cate’s post had just used the words “woman near tech” instead of “girlfriend” every place that “girlfriend” appeared, it would be a lot less problematic! And I think that’s the spirit with which it was intended. But, honestly, I’m not sure that the post brings anything new to the discussion that Kirrily’s original “women near tech” post didn’t. I’m nevertheless glad that the “women near tech” thing came up again here, because it’s important to me.

    I also wanted to add that I’m thrilled that the Geek Feminism blog represents geek feminists with a variety of opinions, and I hope that it will continue doing so. I’m glad that the various contributors, regular and guest, don’t always agree with each other; it means that I don’t necessarily agree with everything that appears on the blog, but I think we end up much better off as a community for having discussed our differences out in the open.

    1. Mary Post author

      My comments on Cate’s post haven’t come out of moderation

      Sorry for the delay: your comments both on that post and here were spam-trapped. I’m digging through the spam now, the filter seems to have been fairly aggressive recently.

  9. Ingrid Jakobsen

    We have to not feed the “femininity is mainstream and therefore not geek” beast.

    I agree with this so much. But there’s this mostly invisible other side to this (which at least GF has talked about before), of how much geekness, for many male geeks, is very much masculinity – not mainstream masculinity, but an alternative masculinity which I think is now recognised quite widely.

    We have to also not feed the “(male) geeks have no idea how to interact with living actual women” beast, among many others.

  10. AMM

    I’m having a hard time keeping straight what this is about.

    If it’s about people’s skills/interests/accomplishments being dismissed because they’re female (maybe under the pretext that they’re just doing it to please their SO), that I understand (I think it’s stupid, but at least I understand the concept.) But there’s also this “not a _real_ geek” thing I think I’m hearing, which I can’t wrap my brain around. Maybe I’m confused because I have no idea what a “real geek” is supposed to be.

    Maybe it’s time to retire the whole “geek” concept.

    For one thing, it seems to be a catch-all term that covers a lot of very different types of people. I don’t see, for instance, what programming has to do with gaming (maybe because I’ve programmed my whole life but games–especially computer games–bore me to death.) And is sewing (which I see as a techie thing) “geeky”? I don’t see what these things have in common, other than that these are things that, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, neither girly-girls nor manly-men would have wanted to have anything to do with.

    For another, it sounds like geekdom (whatever that means) is turning into a culture or lifestyle which one can adopt without having any contact with any actual content. Otherwise, how could one have “geek poseurs”?

    1. Restructure!

      Jason Tocci of Geek Studies wrote his dissertation on geeks. I read a chapter of it (I asked for it), and IIRC, “geek” is just a nicer term for “nerd”, and the thing that makes a geek a geek is being ostracized at one point. That is, that’s the thing that all people who self-identify as geeks (and nerds) have in common.

      I’m probably oversimplifying it a bit.

  11. Elizabeth G.

    Sorry if this is a bit off topic. I would like to talk about the concept of what it means to be a “real” techy. Yesterday, I defended my MS thesis in Mechanical Engineering. I already have a BS in Aerospace Engineering and I spent two years in industry. Yesterday afternoon I was at the lab helping one of my other teammates move some stuff between room and one of the scientists that we share the floor with saw me and said “Wow! You are carrying something other than papers, like a real engineer.” I don’t think he knew that I had defended that morning. I responded, mostly to my teammate I was walking with “If I am not a real engineering by now then I never will be.” I do a lot of simulation code development work and I do a lot of spherical stuff. It is true that you don’t see me getting dirty in the shop very often. I really do feel like we hold women to a higher standard then men. to be a “smart” woman, we have to get all A’s (preferably A+). To be a tech person we need to always have our hands dirty. It seems that for men we are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they have the skills that make them “real” engineers but women have to prove it constantly. That is why I am seriously hesitant to tell any woman that she is not ______ enough.

  12. elizabeth

    I’ve been a “girlfriend” for a long time, mostly in music. When I was a kid following my guitar playing boyfriends around, the disrespect sucked but wasn’t unwarranted (plenty of “girlfriends” were trying to skate admission or get free drinks and it was just a huge mess). When I started djing it was downright annoying because often the manager/promoter/owner would assume it was my boyfriend’s gig. Or if we were playing together managers/promoters/owners often wouldn’t give me the time of day.

    As someone who also considers herself a geek, it’s just been a frustrating experience. Thank you for starting this conversation.

  13. Margarita Manterola

    I completely agree with this post, and I -as many others- dislike the other one.

    As Mary, I came to Linux through my then-boyfriend-now-husband. And while I’ve always admitted it, sometimes I feel I should lie about it, because it makes me fall in the “girlfriend/wife” category.

    Any “Girlfriend” can be or become a tech woman. I wish we wouldn’t judge women by the way the come into tech, and just welcome them instead.

    We obviously don’t want women who don’t know what they are talking about giving conferences, because that could give the impression that women don’t know what they talk about. But there’s a long distance between that and shunning all girlfriends, ’cause they aren’t “tech women” they are “girlfriends”.

    In my experience, I find that the opposite is too much the case. People (many times including their boyfriends) tend to think that ‘girlfriends’ won’t be interested. So, they don’t invite them to events, they don’t welcome them into user groups and the like, because they are ‘girlfriends’.

    My point is, then, exactly the opposite of the one made in the original blog post: we should encourage all women to participate, ‘girlfriends’ included. We don’t want to be discriminating women by how they got into tech, we want all of them joining us.

    And so, I’d say: Welcome girlfriend, you can be geek too.

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