Geek feminism as opposed to mainstream feminism?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I broke my own Ask a Geek Feminist rules, and held back a question from the first round until I had time to dig up a few more references. I’m still not happy with it, but have run out of editing ideas, so time to throw it open. Here’s the question (I’ve added the links to it myself):

Note that throughout this post “geek feminism” is used fairly broadly: I don’t only mean “this site and its readers”, I mean spaces with a feminist focus on geekdom in general.

There’s lots of feminism online that, aside from being online, isn’t particularly geeky. Or at least, isn’t tech/science/math-geek geeky. What do you think they’re missing? What issues are the big names like feministing or feministe or pandagon completely missing because of their non-geeky nature?

I remember when the whole Kathy Sierra death-threat news erupted on non-geek feminist blogs, there were a few comments specifically from self-identified geek feminists that carried the sense of “screw you, mainstream feminism, for just noticing us now and acting all shocked. We have to put up with all sorts of shit in geek spaces all the freakin’ time, and this – while awful – is just about typical.”

So… is this still where you see non-geek feminism as being? Does that sentiment reflect your present or past views of the non-geek feminism communities?

I’ve wanted for a long time to write about “why geek feminism” and I’m using this question as something of a jumping off point. We have commenters who read widely in the femiblogosphere (I only read a couple of sites, and tend to focus on the intersectional ones) and I am hoping they can more directly answer the question about what the big names there are missing.

Geek feminism, like feminism in other subcultures or feminism concentrating on intersections, draws on a set of experiences that geek women have. Some cautions about what I’m going to say here:

  • I’m not claiming any one of these issues, or even the sum of them, are limited to geek women; and
  • I’m not claiming that if these aren’t true for you, you can’t identify as a geek woman, or a geek feminist. Some of them are true for me, some aren’t.

Women as numerical minority.

One of the most major geek women experiences is that of being in a numerical minority. It’s not universal, there are many geekdoms that are majority women (many media fandoms, for example), and not coincidentally these are sometimes viewed from the outside as not very geeky. But many geek women find that their hobbies and careers place them in highly male-dominated spaces.

This means various experiences are common among geek women:

  • hearing how some men talk disparaging about women (especially about women as sexual and romantic partners) when they’re in a space where they feel like they have enough allies;
  • being used to being thought of as a woman first, and everything else a distant second; and
  • having experiences that are now thought of as “old fashioned” sexism, such as being spoken to slowly or with lots of kind references to cooking and babies, being asked by a customer if they can talk to “the technical guy now please”, being assumed to be at a geek event to accompany a husband, being asked to make the coffee or take notes, being treated as the “nanny” figure who won’t approve of drinking or swearing.

One converse about women as a numerical minority is that women in some geek professions are to some extent beneficiaries of the gender pay gap. I’ve seen a figure given a lot which suggests that women computer programmers earn about 90% of the male salary as opposed to the general norm which is more like 70%. One piece of analysis confirming this trend in IT careers at least in the United States is Daniel H. Weinberg (2004) Evidence From Census 2000 About Earnings by Detailed Occupation for Men and Women, which gives the following pay ratios:

  • Computer software engineers: 83.3%
  • Computer programmers: 89.3%
  • Computer scientists and systems analysts : 84.5%

These figures certainly aren’t unique to IT: nuclear and aeronautical engineering are listed in the top 20 most equal fields for pay, health workers feature prominently, and fields with highly standard pay scales such as postal work do too.

So women may benefit financially in some geeky fields. That said, one or two geek women have privately said to me that they are sometimes made to feel uncomfortable talking about geek feminism in some non-geek feminist spaces because if they say they work in a highly paid profession they are therefore assumed to have the least problems of any woman. Some geek women certainly have lots of privilege due to their salary, but their workplaces are not free of sexism for it, sometimes rather the reverse.

For some geek women, their strongest experiences of victimisation may be as a geek.

This is broadly going to be more true if the geek woman is otherwise privileged. To take myself as an example: I was sexually harassed and assaulted as a child and teen. I was also bullied and made an outsider for being a geek (essentially, “square” was the term used at my high school, I know it usually means rule abiding or adult-pleasing, but it mostly meant academically high achieving at my school) and it was the latter that was the focus of my teenage miseries. As an adult woman, harassment and oppression as a woman has magnified in size, partly due to not doing a lot of non-geek socialising but also because the oppression of women has become more visible to me as a feminist.

There’s a persistent reaction to this that seriously misreads it, as though up until becoming aware of this stuff I was happier, so that I would have been happier about my experiences of sexual harassment and assault if they’d never become politicised for me. I don’t agree: feminism is not always entirely pleasant of course, but dragging stuff into the open is one way for me to push back against the conditioning that that sort of thing is just part of being a woman.

But some geek women have a different relationship with feminism when their strongest social outsider experiences are related to a different part of their identity (as many other women do when oppressed on another axis).

Geeks believe themselves highly rational and independent of social influence.

Perhaps the FLOSSPOLS D16 report put this best (it was a report into gender in FLOSS, hence that specific terminology):

F/LOSS participants, as in most scientific cultures, view technology as an autonomous field, separate from people. This means that anything they interpret as ‘social’ is easily dismissed as ‘artificial’ social conditioning. Because this ‘conditioning’ is considered more or less arbitrary, in their view it is supposed to be easily cast aside by individuals choosing to ignore it… As a result participants largely do not believe that gender has anything to do with their own individual actions.

So it’s common for geeks, although hardly unique to them, to analyse sexism in terms of I’m too smart for that or I was victimised [as a geek], and am therefore intimately acquainted with how bad it is and now incapable of perpetrating or benefiting from oppression of others. But it’s part of the systemic geek feminist experience, to believe ourselves and others or at least other geeks as rational actors. Geeks then divide into believing themselves not sexist, or as rational sexists (studies show that… or but it’s to my reproductive advantage to indiscriminately sexually approach women, the end.).

This applies to geek women’s view of the world too, and means that many geek women come to feminism with some distrust of any analysis that gives social conditioning real power, and that if and when we do decide that it has it, we have to talk to a lot of people who don’t believe it.

Geek ciswomen may have struggled with aspects of their womanhood in light of their geekhood.

I’m making this point about cis experiences because all of the self-reporting I know of on this subject is by ciswomen, and I don’t want to imply that cis people’s experence of, essentially, being annoyed with their gender identity can be equated with the experiences or oppression of trans or genderqueer people. Trans and genderqueer people, if you’d like to discuss whether identifying as a geek influenced your relationship with your gender identity in comments, please do, or if you’d like a new thread opened up, I’ll get on it. (Special note to cismen: I realise that geek cismen have also often been victimised as less masculine and conforming men, but this thread isn’t about your experiences. See Restructure!’s recent post for why.)

Geek ciswomen often have a slightly complicated relationship with what it means to be a woman. It’s not an uncommon experience for us to have felt more comfortable socially with geek men than with non-geek women, and to have largely been friends with geek men at times. This is particularly true for many geek ciswomen when we are teenagers. It’s fairly common for geek ciswomen to remember a period of being actively misogynist, along the lines of: “I can see why men find women so bad, 99% of women are indeed trivial and annoying” or “I get treated in a sexist way, and it’s the fault of other women, for inviting sexist behaviour.” Ellen Spertus talked about this in an interview (note, I can’t tell how she is using the term male-identified for sure, but it seems to mean something like sympathised with men and their complaints about women rather than was a man):

… I was pretty male-identified and was somewhat misogynistic. Specifically, I thought that technical fields required more intelligence and effort than non-technical fields and that women’s underrepresentation meant that they were stupid and/or lazy. I no longer feel this way.

Geek ciswomen may also have been taught misogyny, along these lines: these are my people, my clever geek friends who welcome me! If they hate women, there’s must be a reason for it, something the women did!

It’s also common for geek women to have bought into geek hierarchies: we’ve talked about that several times on this blog in fact (Girl stuff in Free Software, Metagaming: Casual vs Hardcore, Women and geek prestige) and avoided things they thought were for women and therefore easy, boring, or at least likely full of female modes of socialising which geek ciswomen feel victimised by.

So geek ciswomen may come to feminism late and reluctantly. It’s an identity that very clearly sets a geek feminist apart from most geeks, and sometimes one’s current or former dear friends.

Geek feminists often feel like feminist newbies

Geek feminists often have come to feminism in their adult life, sometimes via immersion into the deep end of feminist theory via, eg, fandom discussions with academics. This has good points, of course, if it results in a humble approach to women’s lived experiences and to providing All The Answers. But it can also mean a feeling that the tools of feminism are best wielded left to The Experts with women’s studies majors, or an activist CV, etc.

There is an experience I’m not capturing here that perhaps someone wants to comment on: only realising that you’re geeky in adult life, due to applying a geek approach to something the stereotypical (computing, science) geeks don’t recognise as geeky. It can be hard to criticise geekdom when you, or other geeks, don’t feel that your geek nature is accepted.

Geek feminists are invested in geekdom

This is important. Geek feminists see ourselves (I think) as either wanting to improve existing geekdoms by acknowledging how oppression is perpetrated inside geekdom and trying to teaspoon it out, or to build new improved ones, or both. Geek communities and geek interests simply don’t appear “that important” to many people, feminists included. (See also Moff’s Law.) It is important by definition to geek feminists.

Of course the Internet and social justice activism are big places, and not everyone has to be active on the subject of geek feminism. But we are.


Mustn’t miss this one, although it holds for most writers and commenters at other feminist blogs too. The issues we talk about are real and should be talked about. But they are issues affecting privileged women, who are largely highly educated, employed in safe conditions with a reasonable salary, and have leisure time, among other things. As noted above some geek women are perceived by some feminists as being close to too privileged to have problems.

Geek feminists in feminist communities?

What are your thoughts, commenters? Have other feminist spaces been unsatisfactory when it comes to geekdom and its issues? What could geek feminism learn from other anti-oppression spaces?

Clothes and geek feminism

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I’ve been chewing over various things about clothing and geek feminism since our recent posts about clothing and grooming (Kylie’s, Terri’s first, Terri’s second). I still think I can’t address it satisfactorily, but I thought I’d lay out various angles in which we might think of clothing and grooming in geek feminism.


  • I refer to “geek women” a lot in this essay. All of these considerations apply to other people too in varying degrees, and sometimes more acutely. But given the nature of this blog I am focussing on geek women’s interests, and pressures on them.
  • This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of factors that figure into geek women’s grooming: it’s meant to be long enough to demonstrate that a lot of us have to care about it. Undoubtedly it is a somewhat privileged list too. You are welcome to raise additions in comments.

Clothing as labour. The vast majority of the clothing the vast majority of people reading this wear is made in factories in the developing world, by people working in dangerous and exploitative positions.

Grooming as make-work. Naomi Wolf, for one, made this argument in The Beauty Myth, that consuming women with endless grooming related chores and insecurities is a method of oppression. (I am barely read in feminist or cultural theory, undoubtedly hundreds of names could be listed here as having addressed aspects of this.) laughingrat raised this in our comments.

Clothing and grooming as geek interest. Some geeks take a geek-style (intense, analytical, open-ended, consuming) interest in various aspects of clothing and grooming. As examples of how you might do this, there are a lot of knitting geeks; there are historical recreation geeks who make and wear period clothing using period technology; there are people who study the semiotics and sociology of fashion.

Clothing as geek in-group marker and grooming as rejection of the mainstream. John writes in Terri’s comments that someone well-groomed in mainstream corporate style can be assumed to [be] trying to cover for a lack of competence in technical matters ”” or really want to be a suit. You often can’t, in this framing, be a geek and a suit both. You have to choose, and advertise this with your grooming.

Within geekdom, clothing is sometimes a pretty unsubtle marker of your allegiances. What cons do you go to? What programming languages do you prefer? What comics do you read? You wear shirts that allow this to be determined on first acquaintance. (This isn’t unique to geekdom of course, see also fashion labels and band t-shirts.)

Avoiding overtly female-marked grooming. Women in male-dominated workplaces often desperately want to avoid anything that might cause them to be (even more) othered because of their gender, especially since caring about grooming is frequently trivialised.

This may need to be balanced by expectations in some groups these same women move in by choice or necessity in which interest in grooming is required.

Grooming in order to own/celebrate your gender. This is important to many trans people. Conversely to the above about avoiding overt gender marking, quite a few geek women also choose to do this in order to point out that there are women RIGHT HERE in geekdom who can bring the geek.

Grooming as a marker of striving to “fit in” generally. If you have unusual grooming, or grooming that is marked as “other” or of a lesser group, people with power over you will read this as likely to be trouble or not one of us. Conversely, dressing like those people, or like their other subordinates, signals will do what it takes to fit in, won’t make waves.

Unusual grooming as marker of power. Alternatively, if you have power over other people, you can mark this by unusual grooming, or grooming usually disdained. Ingrid Jakobsen raised this in comments.

Grooming as marker of a ‘healthy, competent’ woman. For women especially, being groomed and striving to meet beauty standards is considered an informal indicator of mental health. Being considered poorly groomed or lazy about grooming can invite assumptions about being depressed or similar. (This is especially othering of women who do have mental illnesses, who continually receive the message that they shouldn’t have them, mustn’t display them, and will be in big trouble if they do, all while they quite probably have less energy to deal with the whole mess.)

And of course, a privileged woman might get annoying concerned questions, whereas a less privileged women might find, for example, that assumptions about her mental health play into questions about her ‘fitness’ have access to society, to care for her children and so on.

Grooming for self-esteem. Partly due to internalisation of the above, many women in particular feel happier, more confident and more powerful when they’re “well groomed” by mainstream standards.

Grooming which others female bodies. See the thing about conference t-shirts. Many don’t cater for curvy bodies. If they do, they often cater only for small curvy bodies. And they almost always assume a gender binary of curvy women who want curvy shirts, and square men who want square shirts.

Sexualised grooming. Women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as to be conventionally attractive.

Overly sexual grooming. At the same time as needing to be attractive, women are expected to present their bodies in such a way as not to be “asking for it”. (There is, of course, no middle-ground, see Rape Culture 101.)

Grooming for fun. Geek women may enjoy applying shiny, bright, matching, creative or cherished clothes and decoration to their bodies.

Grooming to get things done. Geek women may need to lift things, fit clothing to a prosthetic or mobility assistance device, run, avoid having a baby pull painfully at their hair, all kinds of stuff.

There are a great many intersectional things I have not addressed here, as a white, wealthy, abled cis-woman. A very very incomplete list would be: considerations about grooming to match your gender identity, considerations about grooming to satisfy people policing your gender identity, minimising grooming in order to preserve your spoons, grooming to honour and be part of your ethnic identity, grooming to meet beauty standards designed for white bodies and white faces, trying to find cheap clothes that won’t be judged in job interviews.

This huge list is just a set of things you could possibly be trying to signal or adhere to or avoid with your grooming. Hopefully this illustrates some of the tensions for geek women: for example, they are called upon to dress in both the feminine, careful style that signals “healthy and competent” but also in the masculine-coded casual style coded as “knows what the hell she’s talking about when it comes to [say] science” and also in something that won’t get them hassled as being unattractive in the street but also not hassled as too attractive…

I hope this has helped break down grooming and clothing as a geek feminist issue, or rather, massively multidimensional tightrope, a bit more. When women, and members of other marginalised and othered groups, consider their appearance, these are the kind of factors that go into it. Of course, in order to be accepted as geeks, we’re supposed to do all that and not care about clothes, right?

Identifying as a geek

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

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?