Nerding While Female

I am a dork. A dweeb. A nerd. A geek. Have been since it back in the day when those were insults. I’ve got nerd cred a mile wide and Everest deep. I learned Basic on an IBM clone in the 80s. I owned pirated VHS copies of Explorers, War Games, Short Circuit, and The Last Starfighter. I listened to They Might Be Giants. I’m an old school platformer with mad skills and I can tell you where all the hidden passages, power ups and secret endings are in Super Mario Brothers from the first NES game through Mario 64 and beyond (Including the Lost Levels -  released as Super Mario Bros 2 in Japan). I demolish my comic book reading, old school D&D playing husband at online tests of Geek knowledge. 

Nerd and geek culture have historically been closely associated with an interest in science. Not every nerd is a science person and not every science person is a nerd, but there’s a pretty long history between the two. For girls and women like me, nerd-dom and science share a pretty key problem – gatekeeping and credential checking.

I’m a science educator, I run science outreach programs. While most of my time is spent on higher level matters, I get plenty of time on the ground directly doing science with kids. One of the things I do each year is recruiting for our programs. This involves visiting local schools to give quick flashy demonstrations, teach a little science, and plug our programs. When I go on trips, I make sure to play the part. I wear the lab coat, the goggles, and gloves. I also wear t-shirts from shows and games I enjoy and know kids will recognize.  Many kids compliment my choices. Well, girls do. Boys are another matter.

Uncannily, and without fail, at the end of my demo, or even sometimes during, a male student between the ages of 11-14 will interrogate my knowledge of the icon I’m wearing. 

“Do you reallyplay Fallout?”

“Which one is Fineas and which one is Ferb?”

“Do you know who all of those Nicktoons on your shirt actually are?”

Yes. Ferb has the green hair. Rug rats, Angry Beavers, Hey Arnold, CatDog, Aah! Real Monsters, and Rockos Modern Life – all of which, I might add were on the air before you were born.

One kid actually grilled me on all the Easter eggs in the intro sequence to Gravity Falls. I played my Gravity Falls ringtone for him.

They’re not really challenging my knowledge of a particular property, they’re challenging my right to be in “their” sphere. The fact that girls and women make up a huge component (and often the majority) of fandoms does not dissuade these little gatekeepers from demanding my credentials at the door.

Image Credit: B Todd

Image Credit: B Todd

Now you could argue that their suspicion comes from my adult status, rather than my gender, but it doesn’t. I know because male instructors who wear similar apparel just get compliments or asked about their favorite parts of property x [1]. 

It’s kind of cute, at first, watching them try to play it cool when I unleash the tsunami of useless pop culture information I’ve collected over 4 decades, but after a while it gets really tiring. After a while, it stops being cute. It’s just another collection of microaggressions

There’s a sad and sour absurdism to the fact that our culture anoints even preadolescent males to police the identities of women old enough to be their mothers or even grandmothers. Women experience this in many spheres, pop culture and science, but also sports and technology.

If a man wears the jersey of a sports team, he is presumed to be a fan. If a woman wears it, she is presumed to be on the bandwagon with a male in her life who is a fan and will be subjected to inquiries about whether she is a “real” fan. Women will also be held to higher standards for being able to claim fandom. 

The same goes for science. Boys and men who express an interest in science or actively pursue science education and careers are presumed to have 1) genuine interest, 2) be competent unless they demonstrate otherwise, and 3) are accepted in their choices. Women who express interest in science or actively pursue science education and careers are more likely to 1) have their interest questioned, 2) be presumed to be less competent, and 3) be treated warily by in group members

Women in STEM disciplines report being asked to prove their competence and credentials over and over again. In a truly comic instance, transgendered neuroscientist Ben Barres reported overhearing some of his colleagues commenting that his work had always been “better than his sisters.” Professor Barres, who transitioned only a few years earlier had no sister in neuroscience.

The problem of “the poser” is hardly new. It is often cloaked in a search for “authenticity” to make sure that casual other don’t “pollute” a pristine space for those who genuinely “belong,” but really it’s plain old exclusion. This becomes rather obvious when you look at who is challenged and who is not.

I’m a grown woman with a PhD and a lot of experience dealing with exclusion both personally and from research and teaching perspective and I can confirm, it’s exhausting and demoralizing. It’s also difficult to challenge in the moment. Sure, I can prove my bona fides, but I shouldn’t have to. What else should I say, though? “Hey tiny male human, it’s cute that you think you get to decide if I’m nerd enough, but you’re just being a tool of patriarchy.” I’m not sure that would be effective. Sometimes I turn it back on them. “Yes, I do like such and such. What do you like about it? What is your favorite character?” Honestly, they usually don’t catch what I’ve done, but I’m an older woman in a position of authority. I remember being younger and feeling like I had to prove myself. Let’s face it, as women, we often we dohave to prove ourselves. Opportunities and evaluations may depend on men approving of us and the deck is stacked. Even when we’re not dealing with an potential authority figure, we’re conditioned from an early age to be compliant and polite. When we push back we’re “abrasive” and “pushy” or for girls, the dreaded “bossy.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to help girls push back, and there are some tactics, but 1) it’s not reasonable to expect adolescents to suavely push back in situations that fluster grown adults 2) as I’ve mentioned before the notion that “fixing the girls” as a solution is just wrong

What we really need is to be collectively working on the gatekeepers, pushing  back against double standards of competence and belonging, training our sons to interrogate their own notions of what “belongs” to boys and boys alone, and recognizing that very little in life is a zero sum game. Including more girls and women in the world of STEM is not taking something away from the boys and men, it’s giving everyone more. More creativity, more collaboration, allies.


So how does one deal with microagression theater? There’s no perfect answer, but here are some tips I’ve found helpful.

One tactic I advocate for is using L'esprit de l'escalier. This is French term, meaning the “wit of the staircase.” It’s when you think of a snappy comeback right after it’s too late. The thing is, the rude, stupid, and exclusionary things people do and say follow themes. Start paying attention and you’ll notice these themes. Spend a little time thinking of how you want to handle them the next time and give it a try. See what happens, refine you technique. Carry note cards (Nothing cools some ones jets like waiting for you to pull a notecard out of your bag and then reading it to them). Read or simply state your prepared response, and the, this part is important, stop talking. Resist the urge to qualify, or joke, or lighten the verbal punch. Just let it sit in the silence. It can be quite therapeutic to watch the verbal salad that starts spewing out of people when you calmly and flatly call out their rudeness and dump it in their laps.

I like the notecard bit because it really drives home how unoriginal the aggression is. If there’s a prepared crard, it’s clearly not new to you.

 Here are some sample texts you can use: 

“That was very rude.

“That is inappropriate.”

“Are you really interested in my answer? Because it sounds like you just want me to agree with you/shut up/accept your ludicrous premise.”

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that . . . Nope, still didn’t get it. I thought you said, X, but that would be very rude. What did you say?”

“Yeah, I know.”


“I’m not going to answer that.”

“I’m so sorry. This must be very embarrassing for you.”

“I’ll give you a moment to get your foot out of your mouth.”


[1] Poetically, the only shirt I wear that I don’t actually have a personal connection with is a kawaii-style figure called Pusheen. I had no idea who Pusheen was when I bought the shirt, but I thought it looked cute and I needed a third shirt for the buy 2 get one free deal. No one has ever questioned my right to wear Pusheen, as kawaii is traditionally the realm of women and girls.