May 2010 gave birth to a meme that makes my blood boil every time I see it: the Idiot Nerd Girl. The meme features a teenage girl in thick-rimmed glasses with the word “nerd” written on her hand. The top caption typically makes a statement of nerd culture, while the punchline caption ruins that credibility with a statement that demonstrates ignorance on the topic.
While nerds usually welcome their fellows with open arms, it isn't a surprise that a few vocal misogynistic male members try to spoil the fun for the rest of us. Those guys aren't the ones I'm really addressing here, because nothing I can say will change the way they think. This article is instead for the rest of us; the people who aren't discriminatory morons.
It is clear that things are changing in nerd culture, too. I started attending San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, and at that point the ratio of female attendees was lower – somewhere around 20%. Since then, though, that percentage has risen steadily, reaching 40% in 2012. Comic-Con isn't the only measure of nerd culture, but it is a pretty good bet that this trend means that women are coming into a new golden age of fandom.
So why is it important for us to go out of our way to encourage women, especially young women and young girls, to embrace their nerdy side? Here are a few reasons you may not have thought of:
Reason 1: Consider the alternative
Nerd culture offers people a place to stretch their minds and swim in their imaginations. It doesn't really matter what your flavor of nerd-dom is; being a nerd is good for the brain.
A group of academics, including Jake Halpern who wrote the book Fame Junkies, conducted a survey among 650 middle and high school teenagers that focused on celebrity. The teenagers were asked which of the following jobs they'd like to have: CEO of a major company, Navy Seal, US Senator, President of an Ivy-league university, or personal assistant to a famous singer or movie star. Shockingly, the teenagers overwhelming chose to be a personal assistant to a celebrity (43.4%, compared with 23.7% selecting university president, 13.6% choosing US Senator, 9.8% choosing Navy Seal and only 9.5% choosing to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company). Young Americans are obsessed with celebrity so much that they'd rather be the assistant to a celebrity than a wealthy, powerful CEO making 215 times the salary. Something is desperately wrong with this picture.
Let's replace that obsession with celebrity with something that is more productive. Encouraging young girls and women to embrace nerd culture will expand their mind and open their eyes to possibilities beyond the vanity of celebrity obsession.
Reason 2: Female nerds are critical to our country's success
Nerds are smart. Heck, nerds are brilliant. Our obsession drives us to dream big, and we're fascinated by science. This might be a sweeping generalization, but nerds are smarter and more likely to be drawn to career endeavors in science and technology.
I live in the United States, and we're facing a shortage of workers in technology and science. Only 4.4% of American undergraduates are enrolled in the so-called STEM fields (that's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Compare this to Singapore's 33.9%, China's 31.2% and Germany's 12.4% and you soon realize that we need more nerds in this country as soon as we can get them. By 2018, the US is expected to have a deficit of 224,000 hi-tech workers, and as time goes on this gap is projected to be even wider.
The point is that we need more brilliant knowledge workers, and to get them we need to encourage young people to get engaged with science, technology, fiction, fantasy, and anything and everything we can use to kick-start their mind. Women are an untapped resource of brilliance that we can't afford to ignore.
So how do we encourage the next generation of young women to embrace nerdiness? Here are 4 things we can do right now:
- Enjoy nerdy things with your kids. Watch cartoons, buy them comic books, conduct science experiments with them, and use gaming to teach them how to master computers and encourage problem solving skills.
- Tell your daughter (and the daughters of friends and family) she is pretty, sure, but much more importantly praise her for her intellectual successes. Try asking her what's she's reading before you praise what's she's wearing. Encourage her to study those STEM fields; just consider how much better her life will be when she has an in-demand high paying job.
- If you are a proud female nerd, do your part to mentor the rising generation of geeks – be they girls or boys. Share your knowledge with those willing to hear it and you'll be fostering a love for the things you hold dear.
- Band together to stamp out boy's-only mentality in nerd culture. Misogyny has no place in modern society, and is especially dangerous to nerd culture. That brings us to my next point…
Reason 3: The contributions of female nerds make nerd culture vastly richer
Have you ever heard of Jane Espenson? She's one of the brilliant writers behind every show you've ever loved. Her credits include: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Game of Thrones, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Once Upon A Time and her new web series Husbands. Yes, that's the strongest nerd portfolio one could ever dream of having. Jane is a brilliant writer who brings a uniquely clever voice to whatever work she's doing.
How about Holly Conrad? Holly is an epic-tier costume designer. Her most famous work was unveiled at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011 and was featured prominently in Morgan Suprlock's documentary Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. Holly constructed not just one, but six amazing costumes featuring characters from Mass Effect 2. Her Commander Shepard costume was perfect, but the most impressive costume was that of the Krogan warrior Grunt, complete with complicated animatronics that made the costume come to life with expressiveness any Hollywood movie would be lucky to pull off. (Check out the additional images at the end of this post to see the amazing costumes and the trailer for the documentary that shows them off!)
These are only two of the plentiful examples of how strong, brilliant women are already responsible for much of the nerd culture you love. Humanity needs more intelligent stories, more scientific breakthroughs, more genius ideas just waiting to be dreamed, and we're not going to get nearly as much of that unless we start to encourage girl geeks. For the sake of nerd culture – all the things you love – do your part to foster goodwill with fledgling female nerds.
Here's the trailer for Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, which features the costumes Holly Conrad created. Tell me you don't get chills when Grunt yells “I am KROGAN!”
Share your ideas about how we can encourage female nerds in the comments section below!