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Girl Geeks: Tech women are out of the mainstream

In circus parlance, a "geek" is a sideshow performer who does disgusting things such as bite the heads off live chickens. More commonly these days, a geek is a socially awkward person who's enthusiastic, smart and skillful with computers. She's Such a Geek! is a collection of essays by gifted tech women who don't fit the narrow sugar-and-spice stereotype. Some prefer math to lipstick and light-sabers and dragon fighting to swooning over the latest teen idol. And some do both.

As editor Annalee Newitz writes in its introduction, "The women you'll meet in these pages will explain what it means to be passionately engaged with technical or obscure topics -- and how to deal when people tell you that your interests are weird for a girl."

Most of the writers were encouraged by their parents to pursue their non-conventional interests. Growing up they were considered equals with men until puberty when suddenly, being a girl meant being of less importance.

"College was an eye-opener in many ways. I... began to see how other people view, or refuse to view, girl geeks," writes Corie Ralston, staff scientist at the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. At the end of her post-doctorate studies in science, she found her male academic adviser "had already planned the rest of my life.... The only problem was I had realized that I didn't want to go into academia."

Other women ran into a common expectation that women scientists will abandon their advanced educations, in science or math, for traditional (sans career) family life.

That only men were considered scientists plagued Indian scientist Roopa Ramamoorthi, who has two doctorates. When a carpenter was told that the women in the white lab coats were scientists, he shook his head and said, "No really, you are not scientists." Ramamoorthi's wry final observation was, "I guess he assumed we were technicians working for a 'real scientist,' a male one."

Newitz, 37, who has a doctorate in English and American studies from University of California-Berkeley, has written for Wired and is a columnist on AlterNet.org. She studies "the relationship between mass media and American Culture." Her co-author, Charlie Anders, is the publisher of Other -- pop culture and politics for the new outcast and is the author of "The Lazy Crossdresser."

They solicited stories of women "nerds" and "geeks" over the Internet, and were were "just completely flabbergasted" by a flood of submissions. "We heard from programmers at Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, and women who'd worked in nuclear power plants and flew airplanes," writes Newitz. In an interview she added, "Cross-infiltration, that's what we're trying to chart in the book -- we're at a tipping point. The number of women in geeky pursuits is rising. Mainstream culture is noticing."

In some social realms, there was definite hostility to women. Newitz says, "It's a vicious circle for women in gaming -- no one believes they really exist."

Quinn Norton is one of them. A skilled Live Action Role Playing (LARP) player (think Civil War enthusiasts enacting a new battle), she enjoyed the games but found, "Part of my skill appeared to be putting up with a ton of harassment directed at my characters and me. At the time, I had to be able to handle abuse and sexual innuendo in huge doses. It was a requirement."

Another game designer, Mara Poulsen, found to her dismay that producers wanted more sex in their video games than realism. One figure, a woman fighter wearing plate armor, was turned into a babe in a chain mail bikini, she recalled.

"The artists hated the changes. It limited their creativity to confine them to juggly women in skimpy clothes. Not to mention the great conundrum of the video game heroine: Why, if she's out clashing with the bad guys, would she be wearing an outfit that exposes most of her vital organs?"

The book is not for the faint-hearted. One essay on computer sex is complete with discussion of sex tools and online orgasms. It makes for lively reading -- preferably in private.

Newitz says that society is changing in that "some of the younger women in the book are still struggling with the issues of getting men to respect their ability" but "with each new generation, it's getting easier."

She describes her writers as women of today and tomorrow: "They adore genomics, are obsessed with blogging, hack their own sex toys, and aren't afraid to match wits with men or computers."

Get ready, world.

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She's Such a Geek! By Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders Avalon Books, $14.95

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