Science Bloggers for Students DonorsChoose Challenge

Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Open Letter to...Nerd Girls

Do I Have What it Takes to be a Nerd Girl? Probably not.

I am a Nerd and I a Girl.  I love Science and believe in STEM outreach to under-served audiences by Many Means Necessary.  I came across a blog post by USA Science & Engineering Festival that asked the question: “Do You Have What it Takes to be a Nerd Girl?”, and my initial reaction was I sure do.
Nerd Girls is an engineering outreach program for girls and young women.  Pretty sweet, huh?  There’s a television show upcoming and this is the casting call for video auditions.

My initial reaction to the video turned my enthusiastic smile into to a frown within 30 seconds. Really?  Young women wearing capes, over sized tortoise shell eyeglasses, and very high heels running down hallways reminds me of a comic book.

Who is this message for? (and bookmark this question, because I’ll be asking other STEM outreach efforts this same question in upcoming posts).

THEIR MISSION
We want to encourage other girls to change their world through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, while embracing their feminine power.

For girls and young women obviously but what type of young women?  The reference to embracing feminine power gives me a big clue.  The femininity they promote is a very conventional, even sexualized femininity.  And as I watched the video, I really felt like this campaign is not for young women like me: the not so girly-girl types.  So, if I were young enough to audition I wouldn’t.  To me, it is abundantly clear that Nerd Girls is an outreach program for the ‘beautiful ones’ - the charming pretty girls who are prom queen who might hide their smarts.  And you know what? Those girls probably do need role models just like the ones Nerd Girls provides.
But that still doesn’t make me like this program anymore. It sells a trite uni-dimensional version of feminine that automatically eliminates all 'others'. I was turned completely off by it. And yes, I'm responding in a very personal matter.

This is me on a good but average day.


I’m no girly-girl.  Some might describe me as a plane jane or even tom-boyish – mainly due to my preference for jeans or shorts, cotton tees, I love being outdoors, and getting dirty.  Don’t get me wrong. I clean up nicely, very nicely for the right occasion.
I guess this could be my Nerd Girls get-up.
But I’m not rocking high-heels and short skirts and sporting eye make-up on the average day.  That’s not me. 
And in science, there is a mix of us – uber fems, plain janes, and tom boys.   To be a fair feminist science scholar you recognize and embrace the whole continuum of feminine presence, not just the Barbie Doll version of it. That’s why I have a problem with this program; and I'm not the only one my Science Blogging BFF Oyster's Garter agrees.
Conceptually it is a great idea; however, please, don’t pass off this outreach effort for ALL girls/women. Why? Because off the wham I thought it was clear that “The not-so-popular girl, the cute but chubby girl, or even the smart but pimply faced girl - you know – the types of girls who most expect already do well in science and math and proud of their academic prowess” need not apply to be a Nerd Girl.

11 comments:

Greg said...

I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that on an average day you run at a 45 degree angle. That alone makes you a total nerd!!!!!

But seriously, this is very much worth exploring. A few preliminary thoughts:

The hotties as engineers theme was made one order of magnitude (in the decimal system) worse when they shifted the focus to engineering makeup. I suppose that it is true that there are makeup engineers and all, but it was a bad move for at least two reasons, one coming and one going. (But no need to belabor the details.)

You said "by many means" and not "by any means" which is obviously appropriate, and the trick is, what of the "any" should not be in the "many." A valid way to reword that question is this: What is the effect, and the over all cost, of rejecting an approach because it is near that line? In other words, is it OK that a significant STEM-outreach effort be trashed, and that trashing degrade into the usual "I hate you enough to stop you from doing what I insist you do, eleventy!!!11!!"? Or, is it simply necessary that such a trashing happen.

I think the cost can depend in part on what kind of herd effect there is. Is this one part of a spectrum of diverse approaches? If so, leave it alone. Let it do its work in its own way, bringing in individuals that might otherwise not be brought in. If it is a mere objectionable chapter in a large corpus than the damage is minimal. If, on the other hand, this is the main message most girls get about stem, then it may be better to smother it while while you can.

Also, if your target is girls/young women, why is the narrator a dude? Is this a recruiting tape for "girls gone wild ... the geeky engineering school edition"?

I'm looking forward to your further comments on this. Also, I'd like to see if there are other materials this group has produced that show greater depth and breadth.

membracid said...

Yes! What you said!

I would have had no interest in this type of show. Greg's comment about "science girls gone wild" is about what I was thinking.

Why can't there be a spectrum? And what the heck do they think I wear when I work?? Heels are not work shoes.

Sigh.

Lotharloo said...

Personally I believe in any video that promotes women in math or sciences real nerd women should be used. In the math department of my uni, there were many girls who studied pure mathematics at the PhD or masters level and each one was different. There were quiet ones, outgoing party ones, religious ones, and so on. You could not generalize a certain stereotype to all of them.

Super Mon said...

I agree with your post entirely.

With some re-working this idea of "Nerd Girls" could be really cool, but the way it stands it basically leaves me with the same feeling I get when reading Cosmo or Vogue. Bleh. It's not inclusive. It's a bunch of skinny white girls, with professional make-up doing photo shoots with fans blowing their hair.

I love the idea of women coming together to talk about engineering, science, technology, etc. I love the idea of outreach to girls. I love the idea of cross-university, multidisciplinary collaboration.

But, their overall message in this video is lost by their approach. Beyond that, I think it's poorly done. As in not high quality or good writing. It's about how awesome they look in stilettos and how cool it would be as a chemical engineer to develop make-up. Bleh.

Background Check Company said...

Being nerd is cool if that was your true image .. a signature of true you.

Alex said...

This is part of the unfortunate trend for any group that has been traditionally ignored or underrepresented. I think that Greg is right that this would be more acceptable if it was part of a diverse campaign that better reflects the spectrum of women out there are or would be interested in science and engineering. This is partly why I've enjoyed PBS/NOVA's "The Secret Life of Scientists" shorts since they've been diverse on more than one level, representing the kinds of faces and personalities that I've witness in nerd women.

Madhu said...

I'm with you completely, Danielle. It is an odd video indeed, and I was particularly irritated by the bit about chemical engineering for makeup! What a narrow conventional perspective on women in STEM indeed.

I also found the choice of "Supid Girl" for the soundtrack rather ironic given the image of the "girls" being shown, pouting and posing for cameras with makeup and fan-blown hair!

So I say - you go girl! Show 'em what real nerd-girls are like.

Isis the Scientist said...

I think you're one of the most beautiful people I know.

Cherish said...

I had thoughts on this a while ago:
http://mareserinitatis.livejournal.com/457578.html

In the past couple years, I still have a lot of mixed feelings about this. I don't feel like I should have to conform to this particular view of women in order to be taken seriously. I think there are a lot of analytical women who would find this a turnoff. On the other hand, there may be some for whom it would be an effective recruiting tool. I just really am not sure what the ratio of win to backfire is...

DNLee said...

Thanks to everyone for comments and weighing in on this matter.
And to Greg - You make many great points, as you usually do.
You're right, there is a spectrum and this program does indeed speak to a very real demographic.
But after much thinking I am not advocating to scrap Nerd Girls. But I am saying they need an overhaul of their message.
Why? What I don't like (and it's what grates me about general messages like these) is that this program claims to define itself as THE outreach for girls/young women in STEM and it defines what feminine is. By setting the platform and presenting these NERD Girls as THE definition of girl/women, they inherently alienate anyone who doesn't fit this mold and tells them - well this program ain't for you.

Do I have a problem with feminine/girly girl scientists? Not at all. In fact Dr. Isis is one of my fave science blogging sheroes and she's totally girly-girl - super high heels, hotness, and banging bangs. She's being herself and showcasing her feminine power yet simultaneously makes it clear that ALL definitions of femininity are welcomed. There are no inherent (ugly) others.

So until Nerd Girls revises its presentation and becomes more inclusive of ALL types of feminine smart beauty, I'll continue to be a hater.

FrauTech said...

Yeah I guess my problem is why don't they have a mix like you would find in any dude-bro movie. I mean, even going back to WWII movies, you usually found a range in who was in your squad. While this wasn't necessarily true for real life, this is how it was portrayed in a movie. Even in todays dude-bro movies you usually get one stereotypical hearthrob guy, a funny(maybe fat) guy, a nerdy guy, etc. There's no equivalent chick movie that shows that kind of spectrum. Even when multiple races are used, the lead is always/still white, and the supporting cast are all stereotypically pretty/thin women. The kind of "nerd" woman you might be exposed to on TV (maybe Willow on Buffy or Kaylee on Firefly, possibly even Scully on X-files) are still very pretty in the mainstream way and their nerdy skills or nerdy cred is more an accessory that the main character can have/use when needed, not something defines them or ever even alienates them. Great post btw.

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