Geeks gone wild

Are the Nerd Girls set to redefine our image of female engineers?

Published June 12, 2008 4:00PM (EDT)

This week's Newsweek has an article that's got me all confused. Titled "Revenge of the Nerdette," it's about the Nerd Girls, a group of young female engineering students from Tufts University who are among a growing subset of American women "challenging the notion of what a geek should look like, either by intentionally sexing up their tech personals, or by simply finding no disconnect between their geeky pursuits and more traditionally girly interests such as fashion, makeup and high heels."

The article includes a video highlighting some of the Nerd Girls' recent projects, including building a solar-powered race car and answering e-mails with engineering questions from around the country, including a request to help build a solar-powered lighthouse. (These shots are spliced between other scenes where they're posing for modeling shoots.) They then invite other "nerd girls" from around the country to join their Facebook and MySpace pages.

So why am I confused about how to react? After all, I'm one of the countless girls who got turned off by science in ninth grade, when miserably boring biology and physics classes made me decide that there was nothing interesting in the entire field. (I'd rather take French, of course -- they have chocolate croissants.) I was, obviously, wrong about the whole "science isn't interesting" thing -- these days, it's one of my favorite subjects to write about. Would I have gotten interested in science earlier if I'd had role models telling me that science was cool and, as the Nerd Girls stress, applicable to situations outside the classroom? Maybe. In that sense, the Nerd Girls are definitely a step in the right direction.

My confusion, though, stems from the fact that the Nerd Girls video makes it seem like sexual appeal is a necessary component to being part of their group. The cool thing is not just being interested in subjects like engineering; it's being interested in engineering and being physically hot. Because, I mean, anyone would expect a dorky-looking girl in thick glasses and a librarian's chain (me in middle school) to be interested in science, right? It's the hot girl, the cheerleader, who surprises you when it turns out she spends her spare time designing race cars.

I think what the Nerd Girls are doing is a good thing overall. It is extremely refreshing to see a group of young women capitalizing on their intelligence and, in doing so, potentially convincing other young women that it's cool to flaunt your brain in addition to your body. And perhaps the Nerd Girls aren't as all about their sexuality as the video makes it seem. I certainly hope that's the case -- ideally, we'd convey to young women that they shouldn't be afraid to be into science even if they aren't holding down part-time modeling gigs, and that there's more than one definition of what it means to be "hot."

Also, not to rain on the solar-powered parade, but it makes me nervous to see the Nerd Girls place so much emphasis on playing up sexuality when, for many female engineers, sexual harassment is a major factor in driving them out of the field. To quote from Newsweek, "A recent Center for Work-Life Policy study found that 52 percent of women leave [their jobs in science and engineering], with 63 percent saying they experienced workplace harassment and more than half believing they needed to 'act like a man' in order to succeed." Sure, it'd be good to encourage a workplace where you could "act like a woman" (defined, in part, by the height of your heels) and not feel like your job was threatened. But then again, wouldn't it be better to have a workplace where scientists and engineers were allowed to act like scientists and engineers -- and gender and sexuality were, as much as is possible, left out of the picture?

I know that Broadsheet's got a bunch of science-y women in its readership -- what do you all think?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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