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Techsploitation

Women Like Me Exist

By Annalee Newitz

I GET A LOT of random emails--when you write as much as I do (especially online), it's just one of the perks/drawbacks of the job. Usually it's "hey, you suck," or "I liked your column on Cthulhu" or something like that.

But I got an email the other day that's been haunting me. It was from one of those free accounts--hotmail, I think--and the sender's login name was very generic, "tim349." He wrote simply: "I didn't know women like you existed." His comment was strange and ambiguous, and sparked a lengthy internal dialogue that I won't bother reproducing here. Suffice it to say that tim349's email summed up something I've been feeling for quite a while: that, for a lot of people, a woman cannot be a technology expert and exist at the same time.

Normally, I don't like to complain about gender crap, because then I get into the whole problem of sounding whiny and not existing. I become "a woman" who "has issues" or something retro-1970s like that. I cease to be techno-dork and become non-existo-dork. Of course, it doesn't help that I also occasionally write about my sex life, which does have the unfortunate side effect of reminding people that I have a pussy.

But sometimes you just have to put your foot down and talk about the irritating realities of a world that hasn't entirely caught on to the idea that when you mix pussies and technology, you don't always get the fascist sex-droid from Metropolis or the brainless, anti-male robo-chick from that flick Eve of Destruction. Sometimes you get Seven-of-Nine from Star Trek: Voyager or Jet Girl, both of whom can be female and handle machines just fine, thank you very much. Of course, these women are fictional. They don't exist.

Do you see my dilemma?

Here's another example of the pussy-does-not-equal-techno-brain problem (not that I'm bitter, or ranting). The other day, I accidentally hit a "reply to all" on an email list. Big deal; it happens sometimes. But some dude on the list took it upon himself to explain to me, "Try hitting 'reply to sender only,' otherwise everyone will get your email." Hello? Do I not WRITE ABOUT TECHNOLOGY FOR A LIVING? Would he have written that email to Po Bronson or even Joe Schmoe? Probably not.

All these thorny gender-related FUBARs are weird to talk about because I'm a tomboy and I think men kick ass. I'm not under the false impression that men are responsible for oppressing me. In the first place, I'm not oppressed. And 95 percent of the men I know are so anti-sexist, it's unbelievable. They watch beer commercials and get pissed off about "de-humanizing representations of women"; they put Barbie dolls in their cubicles at work; they're attracted to butch women who wear jeans and hack sendmail.

The fact is, I became a geek because geeks generally don't give a shit what gender you are, unless they're about to hop in bed with you (that whole sexual-orientation thing, you know).

What I'm really talking about here is how people's assumptions can lead to rudeness, cluelessness and, in a worst-case scenario, oppression. Of course, as tim349's email made clear, assumptions can be challenged, too. But sometimes I just get fucking sick of challenging everyone's assumptions. I want my gender to be a mere biological fact, a scientifically measured phenomenon, rather than a sign that says, "Condescend to me!" or worse, "Teach me how to reply to email!"

It's not like I live in a patriarchy. There's definitely an old girl's network in the computer industry. Women engineers and technophiles have formed their own groups, like WriterGrrls or the Society of Women Engineers. We network with one another; we compare our salaries to men's; we occasionally go to that women-only hot tub place in San Francisco.

But it feels like running away, like we're fleeing into a women-only dimension that doesn't exist in the real world. Plus, for me, there's the whole "men are my friends" issue. So I'm back to square one, just fighting to exist outside the pages of science fiction, snarling about sexism rather than working on my next article about routers or Apache or the illegal DVD decoder that's going around.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'd rather be a geek than a girl. But I hate having to make that choice. Do you know what I mean?


Annalee Newitz (tabloid@jps.net) is a surly media nerd who thinks gender should be optional.

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From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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