It’s a long-standing image: A guy, usually pale, usually in glasses and a button-up shirt. He spends his days in a science lab and his nights playing games with similar-looking friends.
While most people would immediately recognize this as a description of a geek, the reality of who fits the geek mold is changing.
In September, the Internet Advertising Bureau released a study that found 52 percent of gamers were female, a demographic that, in 2010, was just 40 percent. Women also make up 24 percent of students in STEM programs. That might seem like a small number, but during the 2012-13 academic year, it was only 14.5 percent, according to stemconnector.org.
But that doesn’t mean the transition into a more equal geekdom has been smooth.
Gwen Orr is a junior at ASK Academy in Rio Rancho, a charter school dedicated to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She is, in many ways, a typical geek: She’s interested in science, she loves anime and she plays video games.
She’s also encountered surprising and sometimes sexist reactions to her desire to pursue a career in a STEM field. She said people have asked her how she’ll balance a career in science with raising a family or assume that wanting a career means she doesn’t want kids.
Most of the comments come from other students, she said, but she does notice differences between how she and male students are treated by the school as well. Male students are often chosen over her to represent the school and they are the ones singled out for internships, Orr said.
“It’s just the little discrepancies in equality that get me,” Orr said. “Whether it’s intentional or not I have no idea, but it is disheartening to say the least.”
The Daily Lobo was unable to find a working phone number for ASK Academy and could not request a comment.
When it comes to video games, Orr said she receives worse treatment.
“I tend to keep my gender a secret (online) to avoid anything like that. But when I game in real life, at comic cons and such, I do get a lot of awfully sexist comments. Like ‘I didn’t know a girl could be good at this game,’” she said “When I do play online and I have a bad game or am just not playing well, I am usually met with the comment ‘you play like a girl,’ which gets me pretty annoyed.”
Orr’s experiences are not unusual. A study by higher education website Diverse found that 40 percent of women had been discouraged from pursuing STEM careers, and of that number, 60 percent said those comments were made during college and usually by a professor.
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However, some see UNM has a haven for women who want a piece of the geek domain. For the fall 2014 semester, 1,723 women were enrolled in STEM programs, and 183 women were awarded degrees in those fields.
Kelly Lanahan, a senior mechanical engineering major, said her classes are well-balanced between the sexes, and there have even been instances when women have far outnumbered the men, she said. Professors too seem to focus on individual student’s capability rather than student’s sex.
“Professors are very supportive and pretty neutral. My engineering design teacher actually warned the boys about how good the girls were in the class,” Lanahan said.
Gaming has been a different story for her. Like Orr, Lanahan said male gamers treat her differently when they learn she is female.
“It doesn’t happen much, but I have actually just pretended to be a guy most of the time when playing games,” she said. “I have had issues when playing with friends that mention I am a girl and have left because of people being overly critical, condescending, or mean.”
Not everyone sees the issue as one of gender, however.
Alumna Miranda Bourke works full-time as a content producer for her YouTube channel, Wargamer Girl, which features videos about tabletop game Warhammer 40k. Bourke said she rarely sees the sort of issues others have had while breaking into the community.
“When I first showed up, people did wonder if I was legitimate or not. It was only a few months before I was quite well received,” she said.
For Bourke, male geeks often use her as a way to convince other women to play.
“I’ve met so many guys at conventions who are happy to see my videos to prove to their wives that women do in fact play games. Many show (my) videos to their daughters to encourage them to want to learn,” she said.
Bourke thinks part of the reason the geek world struggles with its expanding territories is that original members feel ostracized.
“Geekdom is no longer associated with being a social outcast anymore. In fact, it is so popular all kinds of people want to consider themselves geeks,” she said. “I think geeks started feeling like their culture was being invaded. Not solely by women, but by college bros and the like. These new games became so accessible that anyone could just plop down and play.”
She also said a part of the problem is the nature of the Internet. There, people lose their identities and, with it, their basic instincts toward civility.
“The Internet just acts as a big douchebag shield. So you see all kinds of horrid comments, frommen and women,” she said.
Nick Flor, a professor at the Anderson School of Management, said he thinks the general low number of women in STEM fields has less to do with outside factors and far more with an individual’s choice.
“I had one student — a really fantastic female in the film and digital media program — she got her bachelor’s in fine arts, but she was an excellent computer science student. She was the best programmer in her class, but she just didn’t want to go into computer science,” Flor said.
After that, he said the student got an MBA at Anderson and went on to work at Lucas Films.
As for the treatment women receive online, Flor too said he thinks it’s not geeks who harass others, but cyber-bullies instead.
“There are people who love harassing other people; they get a thrill out of it. And they just look for opportunities for you to say something to disagree with and then they just jump all over you. It’s just the most heinous — it’s terrible,” he said.
For Orr and Lanahan, though, each said the troubled waters surrounding the things they love, online or in the classroom, would not stop them from contributing to geek culture.
“I’ve learned to ignore it,” Orr said. “I love the scientific fields way too much to give it up because others think I shouldn’t be there.”
Jyllian Roach is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @Jyllian_R.