From ‘Geck’ to ‘Geek’

In today’s world, language evolves as quickly as it takes a hashtag to go viral. Take the word, ‘geek’; with its early Dutch cousin, ‘gek’, meaning mad or silly, the word ‘geek’ as we know it derives from, ‘geck’, first used in the 16th century to mean a fool or simpleton.

In the early 1900s, having spread as far as the USA, ‘geek’ was used as carnival slang, specifically for performers who used to bite the heads off chickens. By the 1970s and 80s, ‘geek’ had become a label for the smart, but unpopular kids at school and used interchangeably with ‘nerd’. This echoed through the following decades, until the birth of the digital revolution.

Since then, we’ve now witnessed the rise of the ‘uber-geeks’ from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs. These are now the people you want to be when you grow up: now so-called geeks populate the world’s rich lists. Clearly, as much as the meaning of the word ‘geek’ has changed beyond recognition, so has what it means to be a geek in terms of social and cultural standing.

The word ‘geek’ has taken quite a journey, even used nowadays as a verb. We all ‘geek out’ over TV shows, novels, films and more. ‘Geeking out’ is cool to boot: research shows that people are four times more attracted to potential partners who have a hobby or interest they are passionate, even obsessive, about, rather than someone who dresses well.

We’ve all heard the phrase “geek is the new chic” before. Indeed, there have been campaigns to get the dictionary definition of ‘geek’ changed since its earlier schoolyard definitions no longer hold. These days, geeks aren’t just chic: they’re changing the world one line of code at a time.

"Brainy is definitely the new sexy..."

‘Geek’ hasn’t just become an acceptable title, it’s become a way of life for millions worldwide. Swathes of people now consider software development a hobby. And while technology is geek’s fiefdom, today pursuits which were once considered geeky, from comics, to fantasy fiction, video games and sci-fi, have astronomically large audiences.

If you’re looking for billion-dollar franchises, look no further than the Marvel films. ‘Avengers’, ‘Iron Man 3, ‘Avengers Age of Ultron’ and ‘Captain America: Civil War’ all topped a billion dollars in the worldwide box office. Marvel’s total takings around the world since 2008 is an eye-watering $12 billion. It says everything that the new ‘Star Wars’ films are being made by Disney, brands like Doritos are now sponsoring video-game competitions and drone ‘rodeos’ and more people around the world play online game, ‘League of Legends’ than tennis.

Geek culture has truly made its way into the mainstream, just as more and more geek heroes lead popular films and TV casts. Our TV screens are littered with loveable geeks, from Britain’s ‘The IT Crowd’, to US drama, ‘Silicon Valley’. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is one of the most successful shows in TV history, and likely so thanks to the hilarious ultra-geek at its heart: Sheldon Cooper, B.S., M.S., M.A., Ph.D., Sc.D.

Classic geek, Sherlock Holmes has been beguiling readers for well over a century. The colossal popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent incarnation of the detective only serves to reinforce just how attractive geekiness has become. It’s Sherlock’s rival and love-interest, Irene Adler who rightly points out that “brainy is definitely the new sexy…”

Whether it’s Sheldon or Sherlock, while these TV geeks are often quirky or unusual, it’s the characters’ difference which is celebrated. Thanks to stories like these being told, perceptions have changed and the word geek is no longer a cross to bear, but a trophy.

Representation versus reality

We can all agree that the internet has been a vastly valuable resource for democratising technology and its related skills. Want to become a hacker? Make like 13 year-old Pakistani computer-whizz, Ahsan Tahir. Having learned his trade from Youtube videos, he is now making waves in the cybersecurity world, spotting bugs for companies as big as Google. He does his ethical hacking after school, before he gets down to his homework.

However, from professions associated with geekiness, such as science and tech, to hobbies which tend to come under this same umbrella of geekiness, such as gaming or cosplay, there is still progress to be made. While these fields are ahead of the curve in many ways, most are are woefully behind the times when it comes to female representation and inclusion.

Recently, tech magazine, Wired, was criticised for a cover story about the next generation of brilliant hackers (they have since changed the title following the backlash). The list was predominantly male and white, and only bolstering the stereotype that tech professions and geekiness in general are a male preserve.

Women count for less than 20% of the workforce at Google. Numbers for women in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) fields professionally are more worrying, at less than 15% in the UK. But is it as simple as saying that girls aren’t interested in these geek-oriented pursuits as boys? Or, as British Prime Minister Theresa May recently put it, are there truly “boy jobs and girl jobs?”

At the same time, there are statistics which paint a contradictory picture. Women count for 42% of video game players in the UK. However, women rarely identify themselves as ‘gamers’, unlike their male counterparts. Despite this, gaming is still stereotyped as a male pastime and plays into our wider cultural beliefs about masculinity.

Behind the scenes, there is a negligible number of women working in the gaming industry. Such a lack of representation is a likely contributor to the male-centric nature of the games, from the characters players inhabit, to how the women within the games are characterised. Indeed, it’s this latter factor which arguably puts women off gaming and taking on the mantle of ‘gamers’, the signifier of a community not built to accommodate them, and which rarely puts them centre stage either as creators or active characters.

Over in geekdom’s representation on the small screen, the show ‘Silicon Valley’ has come under fire for its stark lack of diversity both in terms of gender, and minority and ethnic representation. The show’s makers defend the show’s demographics as reflecting the reality of the industry’s current makeup, pointing out that while it’s not ideal, it’s real.

Nonetheless, the worry remains that, if these careers and pursuits are portrayed as the territory of males, just as with gaming, STEM subjects, and other areas of geek culture, women won’t come forward and take part.

Gamer girls CC Joe Flood

Where my ‘Girl Geeks’ at?

It would be wrong to say, of course, that there are absolutely no ‘girl geeks’. Just look at Felicia Day, actor and gaming enthusiast, a high profile geek who is loud and proud about her passions.

There are, of course, some brilliant female characters in geek culture, from Buffy of ultimate geek hero, Joss Whedon’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ to ‘Wonder Woman', who will also hit the big screens this summer in a re-boot, ‘Catwoman’ and beyond.

So why does this image of geekiness as a male occupation prevail? Why are the numbers so poor for women in geek professions, and females so invisible in geek culture? If we return to the issue of language, it’s worth noting that the title ‘girl geek’ suggests differentiation: an ‘other’ to the intrinsically male connotations of ’geek’ in itself.

This ‘other-ness’ permeates the workplace: women in male-dominated, ‘geeky’ professions often have to struggle to be recognised for their work. In her reflection on the previously mentioned article in Wired magazine, one young woman points out how, when women are coders or hackers, the focus is often on their simply being a woman: “They always focus on the fact that it’s like, ‘You’re a girl, congrats.’” It’s when we see women as the norm, rather than as the exception that proves the rule, that real progress will have been made.

It’s no secret that language shapes our world and our perception of it. As such, do terms like ‘gamer girls’ and ‘geek girls’, or even having exclusively female ‘power lists’, perpetuate exclusion? As long as the language is not all encompassing, how then, can the reality be?

‘Geek girls’ versus ‘Gamergate’

Looking deeper, there can be no doubt that the issue takes root early in childhood: in how we raise our sons and daughters. The folks behind Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls expose just how few stories for young girls feature a female lead who both speaks and isn’t a princess. Language and story are what we rely on to imagine what is possible for ourselves, and what is beyond the realm of possibility. It’s clear those possibilities are being curtailed at an young age for girls.

Evidence even shows that girls are writing off STEM subjects as a viable career option by the time they hit their teens. Clearly, something is telling women and girls that these pursuits aren’t for them.

Not only are girls in geeky professions and pursuits seen as unusual, an off-putting enough factor in itself; there’s also evidence to suggest that, those that choose to enter and engage with it they aren’t necessarily welcome anyway.

Who can forget scientist, Tim Hunt’s comments that women in labs “distract men, fall in love with them and cry when criticised”?

Take the popular geek pastime, gaming: you only have to look at the ‘Gamergate’ controversy to see how far some will go to put a ring-fence around geek territory.

A pertinent example is Anita Sarkeesian, creator of YouTube series ‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games’. The videos drew intense ire from gamers for highlighting how maligned female characters are in some of the most popular video games.

As a result, Sarkeesian recieved death and rape threats at her home, and events she was scheduled to speak at had to be cancelled due to bomb threats. Whether you agree or not with Sarkeesian’s stance, the response is unjustifiable and goes some way to indicating why women steer clear of such hostile territories.

Sarkeesian is not the only example of women facing severe online abuse for speaking up. Wrapped up in the same online storm, Felicia Day commented on the ‘Gamergate’ controversy, noting that she was worried that doing so would lead to threats. Day was promptly ‘doxxed’: where her private details such as her home address were shared publicly, proving her point with perfect irony.

Even ‘geek girls’ attract hostility. Events such as ComicCon and Cosplay are incredibly popular, and while male-dominated, do draw significant female audiences. Such events have given rise to theories about ‘fake geek girls’: women who go to these events simply for attention, rather than a love of the material, be it comic books, sci fi or otherwise. The immediate questioning of women’s intentions and integrity, and the assumption that women couldn’t possibly be as invested in geeky activities as men, certainly makes for an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Ultimately, the dearth of women in the geek world comes down to a confluence of numerous factors, from opportunity, to cultural education, to the inclusivity of the world itself. The outcome, nonetheless, from threats, to fewer women in STEM subjects and beyond, is worrying for the future of both geekdom and opportunities for future generations.

Who run the world?

Traditional gendered arguments about girls taking less interest in subjects like science don’t hold if you look at examples like Russia. Russia boasts a huge number of female scientists, at 41%. There, the view of girls taking STEM subjects is more positive, with more female role models, and a gender-neutral approach to the school curriculum.

Russia’s near gender parity in this area only goes to show that it’s time to ditch the excuses and change our societal perceptions of acceptable roles, subjects and interests for women if things are to improve.

Thankfully, there are positive initiatives seeking to drive change. UK-based software engineer, Sarah Lamb, noticing in 2005 how underrepresented women were in Information Technology, established Girl Geek Dinners. Founded in London, the organisation now boasts 64 established chapters across the world. The dinners feature speakers and offer networking opportunities to women in the industry, with the long term aim of raising the profile of women in a traditionally male workforce.

Seattle, USA is home to the recently established GeekGirlCon, an inclusive celebration of all that is geeky from comics to game design, and honouring “the legacy of women contributing to science and technology”. GeekGirlCon is incredibly inclusive in its approach, with everything from ‘introvert alley’ for those who need a bit of solitude from the crowds, to gender inclusive toilets.

For women working in the gaming industry, there are numerous communities and support groups, from WIGSIG (Women In Games Special Interest Group) to Women in Games International. These, and more, promote increased equality and push to bring more women into the profession at a grassroots level. Equally, there are female led companies developing games for girls, from Her Interactive to Silicon Sisters.

International Women in Engineering Day is held annually in June to celebrate the achievements of women engineers and encourage young women to take up the profession. Supported by UNESCO patronage, the day sees events held in schools and organisations, not to mention coverage on major news channels from BBC to Sky News. Such positive publicity can only help the cause.

In the UK, communications companies such as BT and Vodafone have launched schemes to tempt schoolgirls into STEM subjects, and there are plenty more examples.

Cardiff Girl Geek Dinner CC Guardian Cardiff

Let your library inspire you

It’s vital that we encourage young girls and women to pursue geeky subjects and follow their passions, no matter what they are. Of course, libraries play a crucial role here. If we are to prevent girls being put off STEM subjects by their teens, we must show them that these are viable careers. More than this, young girls need tools at their disposal: learning resources, support, advice. Libraries can, and have a duty to, offer these.

More than this, libraries can play a positive role in culture, and changing culture. Stock selection is everything: are there enough works by and about diverse people, worlds and experiences? If libraries can ensure people have access to the right stories, inspiring and imaginative stories, stories which show us a different, better world, things will start to change.

Geek out with our resources:

Learning Games Get your kids learning from a young age with games covering everything from science, to maths, to language.

Magazines With everything from ‘New Scientist’ to ‘How It Works’ we’ve got everything needed to satisfy curious minds.

Online Business School Develop your career skills and set yourself up for a bright future with our online training.

Journal Papers JSTOR boasts thousands of academic papers on everything from science to history. The perfect resource for academics, or those simply looking to learn more.

Atomic training Learn everything from how to use Adobe Photoshop to how to master the art of influence in this fantastic skills and career resource.

From the catalogue:

‘Persepolis I and II’ by Marjana Satrapi

‘Supergirl’ by Mike Johnson

‘Astonishing X-Men’ by Whedon, Joss

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky

‘Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software’ by Vikram Chandra