Revenge of the Feminerd: Nerd Brain = Male Brain?

Jarrah E Hodge
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The "Nerd Herd" team from Chuck

Happy Star Wars Day, feminerds. May the fourth be with you!

In my last post I talked about how we think of nerds as people who are intellectually focused and slightly obsessive. But I’d also argue that a lot of us attach a gender (male) and race (white, South Asian, or East Asian) to the stereotype of a nerd. When I asked for suggestions of who pops into mind when you think of the idea of nerdiness, white guys accounted for most of the answers I received. And just do a quick Google image search for “geek”—most of the results you’ll get back will be pictures of skinny, white men in bottle-bottom glasses.

In addition to race and gender, because much of the way we define nerdiness has to do with intellect vs. emotion, the nerd stereotype also interacts with our ideas of mental health and mental illness.

Purely going by textbook descriptions, the traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome do seem to mesh with an extreme idea of what it means to be a nerd, such as above average intelligence, rigid behavioral patterns, and literal interpretations of others’ communication. For example, some have speculated the character of Sheldon (an archetypal nerd character) on the Big Bang Theory is based on someone with Asperger’s.

(I’d like to note that many autism advocates and researchers argue that the only reason we see Asperger’s Syndrome as a disease at all is only because some people with Asperger’s have a harder time conforming to traditional and arbitrary social behaviour.)

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge Psychopathology Professor and cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen) has devoted much of his career to studying autism, including Asperger’s Syndrome. Baron-Cohen describes Asperger’s as “the extreme male brain,” which is problematic in that it implies there’s a gender continuum of brains from male (logical, unemotional) to female (emotional, irrational).

Unfortunately it’s not just Baron-Cohen sending that message, but an age-old stereotype that women are naturally emotional (therefore not as represented among the “machinelike” nerds), while The Onion has (jokingly) commented on the lack of black nerd characters in pop culture.

Feminist scientists like biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling have looked at how male-and-European-focused school curricula and social expectations have played into historical gaps in academic achievement, and there’s been no convincing scientific evidence to back up the idea that reason is naturally the realm of men or people of a particular race.

Benjamin Nugent acknowledges that “nerds” as we currently describe them didn’t really come into existence as a recognized social group until the 1930s. Given that, it certainly seems like the reason we see the nerd stereotype as male and white or Asian is because of the mistaken idea that logical pursuits are more natural for these groups.

Luckily there are growing efforts to broaden what it means to be a geek or nerd. My local coffee shop in New Westminster plays host to a group of sci-fi loving, feminist knitters every Sunday afternoon who gather to knit and talk about all things nerdy. Geek Girl Con and WisCon are making the convention scene more inclusive for women. And more and more people like the guys at Black Nerd Comedy are using funny YouTube videos to show that nerds aren’t all white. Then there’s all of us Bitch readers. Let’s spread the word that anyone can be a nerd, and be proud of it.

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17 Comments Have Been Posted

I'm a nerd.

I'm also somewhat upset by the description of a brain of someone with Asperger's as "the extreme male," because to me, that seems incredibly inconsiderate to women with Asperger's. Not only are they being told something is "wrong" with them in how they interact (or not) socially, but that statement suggests that if a woman has Asperger's, she's not even a proper woman. Disappointing. I'm getting really tired of the whole "male brain/female brain" thing anyway, when it's used to uphold glaringly untrue social norms.

The idea of "nerd=male" is

The idea of "nerd=male" is something I've overtly run into. Prime example...during college I went in for an eye exam with an (older male) opthamologist. He's making small talk and he asks me where I'm going to school. He asks if I'm going to be a vet (a common association with my school) and I say no, I'm going to be an engineer. He goes quiet for about 5 minutes before asking if I do well at chess. I think it's an odd comment, but I roll with it saying that I'm not really sure, I've never played. He pauses and then goes "Oh, well I figured you would be because men are good at chess and if you are engineer, you must think like a man."

AWESOME. Or not.

This idea of "male brain/female brain" and men as logical/women as emotional does a disservice to both genders.


Wow - what your opthamologist said is so not cool. Thanks for sharing the story - shows how things have really not changed for women in science and tech.

I'm starting a science PhD

I'm starting a science PhD program in the fall, so theoretically I'm about as nerdy as it's possible to be. However, going along with the female nerd = male brain theory, I've noticed that stereotypically feminine bahviors and dress tend to get female scientists labeled as not serious enough about science, or at least more likely to not get taken seriously. So I face a dilemma--give up my sundresses and act "more like a man" or potentially get put into the not-serious-about-Science box early? Nerds need a wider range of gender expression available to them!


That's really interesting that you've been pressured to act less feminine to succeed in science. It's also interesting to think about how this might fit in with the idea that nerdy men or men who are really into science/technology are stereotyped as less physically masculine even if they have "the extreme male brain". Maybe there's this pressure because of the concern that the profession isn't allowing men to prove themselves physically on a regular basis? I'm not sure but it's definitely something to think about.

I have no idea. I'm still

I have no idea. I'm still trying to figure this out. I tend to feel more comfortable in plain clothes and worry that I'm supporting the stereotype of serious women scientists as 'masculine', but at the same time, I'm not going to wear clothes that make me uncomfortable. Fancy and/or fashionable clothes have proved that they attract attention that I'm not comfortable with.

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I am a Proud Female Nerd

Because I am indeed a nerd, I sometimes (often) post on internet message boards.

I sometimes use a username which doesn't indicate any specific gender.

I often get mistaken for male.

Now, I'll grant you, part of this is because I post on boards whose users are predominately male. So people make assumptions if you don't explicitly identify yourself as female.

But I've also been told that my posts "sound male." I'm serious. I've been told that I don't post "like a girl." And I hate to say it, but I'm kind of proud of that. Because I know when men say that I don't post like a girl, they mean that my posts are logical, well-reasoned, confident, assertive, knowledgeable, and matter-of-fact.

Of course, that has everything to do with having an analytical brain and nothing whatever to do with having ovaries.

But it just goes to show how people conceptualize these things.


Woah, yes! And weirder than that, IN REAL LIFE I have been told on multiple occasions by both men and women that I "don't count as a girl" because I am somehow masculine. I'm not even that masculine! I like dresses, cooking and sewing! But I guess because I have an informed opinion and the ability to defend it, and because I find other topics of conversation more interesting than others, I'm actually a man or something.


In real life, as opposed to fictional depictions of geeky pastimes, I have experienced Science Fiction fandom as containing a strong female presence running the cons and writing the fanfic. Anime and manga fandom also has a lot of female fans, understandable since the yaoi and shojo sub-genres are marketed to women specifically.

In my experience, computer/Internet geekery is more strongly male-dominated, with lots of off-hand comments along the lines of "even your mother could do it". In my job (librarian), my co-workers know I have skills, but Jo Schmo off the street sometimes thinks only male staff can help with computer stuff.

My less nerdy interest (but it's still nerdy if you get into it enough) of punk rock/stoner metal/indie rock is possibly the most sexist, people just assume you're only at shows because your boyfriend dragged you there.

Good point

Very good point - and I agree - there has been more opportunity for inclusivity in the "real world" (at events, local nerd gatherings, etc) than in the stereotypical depictions. And it's interesting to look at how it varies by fandom/area of interest, like you mentioned. Maybe one of the reason sci fi cons have been more inclusive is because many sci-fi fandoms like Star Trek and Firefly promote a vision of a more equal future.

One of my areas of geekery is Euro-boardgaming. Although it's very strongly male dominated I've rarely experienced sexist commentary at any of the gatherings I've been to. But a lot of the games do have some fairly sketchy themes, especially from an anti-racist standpoint, which I'll get into in a later post. For example this past weekend I was at a boardgaming fundraiser for charity and in the silent auction there was a game about a harem with the tagline: "Which Sheik Will Attract the Princess?", as well as a game called "Heart of Africa" with a large portrait of a white colonialist in front of several faceless black people on the cover. And, probably most offensive, a game called "Africa 1880: The Game of Exploration and Exploitation". Yuck

I've tended to notice that

I've tended to notice that whatever the area, the more hardcore-ly interested in something you become, the seriously you'll be taken if female/non-male. Once a passing interest deepens into fascination, the more sexist the arena, and once it becomes something by which you attempt to make a living, it becomes even worse. Anything beyond a hobby or passing interest, and suddenly almost any field becomes male-dominated. There must be some exceptions, but this has been my experience even with such typically non-nerdy subjects as art and writing. And the subjects that are typically female-centered, like sewing and makeup, are not considered "nerdy" pursuits and their intellectual or cultural value is diminished, even though the time, energy and thought put into such endeavors shows the same dedication that stereotypical nerds show for Star Trek.

I'm glad to hear that conventions, etc. have more female representation than is depicted, say, in movies, but the fact that cultural depictions still seem to refuse to acknowledge female nerd presence is bothersome to me.


I'm a NON-BINARY NERD. Suck that, essentialists.

(but yeah, as an FAAB person with Asperger's I've been told that the only acceptable way to be nerdy is to ~*glam it up*~ and have skills secondary to looks, to basically be the "hot librarian" and not have interests that are too technical. I do like glamming it up—though in more of a queer way than a transitional femme way—and sometimes I feel bad for being in a "feminine" field [languages, although I'm a really hardcore linguist and foreign-language lover, which I think on the whole is somewhat androgynous] instead of a science. Seriously, though, let's have way more nerd diversity.)

Oops! I meant "traditional,"

Oops! I meant "traditional," not "transitional." Freudian slip much?

This is so very true. As a

This is so very true. As a female non-white nerd, I certainly get strange looks and reactions when I admit to being a nerd. When I joined the science fiction club at college, my parents' reactions: "Isn't that for boys who like Star Wars?" I then had to explain that I'm a girl who likes Star Wars. They are still confused.

Being both an academic nerd and sci-fi geek results in all sorts of entertaining reactions from people. I rather enjoy being openly a nerd and seeing how people take it. I might as well be proud of it; it's lots of fun and very satisfying.

I think this is connected to

I think this is connected to the view of science and technology as the "true" nerd fields. People might call *themselves* a "history nerd" or a "art nerd," but people who are very knowledgeable about those fields or intellectually interested in them get described by others as "buffs" or some other indication of their interest. And science and tech are seen as very male fields (as well as something for white and South and East Asian men in particular). I don't know which of these fuels which, or if they fuel each other, but I think there has to be some kind of connection.

Aspberger and the sexism

There is an sexist part of Aspberger to no end.

There is so deep problems with this assumption. I once know somebody female that was quite obviosuly for us that know her someone that should be diagnosed with Aspbergers (and I have an Autism Spectrum diagnosis so I sure as hell know what I am talking about), and according to all the Internet tests fitted it quite well.

When she tried to get a diagnosis and some kind of support to take part in education she was ill treated and basicly seen as someone who was haveing angst and depression related problems and offred a recipie for angst-reduction medicine.

It is a big problem that the world of medecine seems to think in sexist terms around this.

I hope the language barrier still made this text readable.

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