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Exploring IT and the Geek Factor

     Last Wednesday, four collegiate-level institutions in Calgary, Alberta, hosted the one-day Explore IT Conference, designed to introduce ninth-grade girls to careers in IT. A total of 500 girls attended the conference at all four venues and participated in hands-on activities such as designing a Web site and building a network. Sweet.
     Lasha Dekker, vice president of developer and platform evangelism for Microsoft, Canada, gave one of the conference keynotes and spent a couple of hours with a focus group of the ninth-graders. According to Dekker, "Some issues brought up included fears that their friends will think \[working in IT\] is a geeky thing to do, and that IT work is not very social. They were concerned that there were limitations for women in this area of technology, and they felt there is a stigma associated with IT in terms of it not being a very exciting place to work. They also had the impression that IT workers are chained to a computer and their office for all of their days." 
     It's interesting how this image of geekiness plays both for and against IT in all manner of ways (witness Best Buy's appropriation of the pocket-protector stereotype for its Geek Squad campaign). In research at Carnegie-Mellon University from 1995 to 1999, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher studied around a hundred male and female computer science students. They discovered a similar assumption among those students--that computer scientists eat, sleep, and breathe computers and have no other interests. Margolis and Fisher found that many of the male computer science students were able to shrug off the stereotype. The female students, however, found the image more distressing and threatening.  
     I'm struck by the sticking power of the IT geek stereotype, even among people who have ample evidence of its inaccuracy. Why is it that so many of us consider technical proficiency to be the sole province of male dweebs?

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