Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Nerd Masculinity

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | September 07, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: geeks, gender, masculinity, Nerd Masculinity, nerds, workplace protections

I'm teaching a class this semester on Gender, Work and Family.Bill Gates.jpg

My class of thirty-one bright-eyed bushy-tailed students and I talked about nerd masculinity, also the subject of the first article in the reader.

It's called "Being the 'Go-To Guy': Fatherhood, Masculinity and the Organization of Work in Silicon Valley," by Marianne Cooper ( in Naomi Gerstel's reader "Families at Work").

I started by asking about their experiences of gender at work, and they told me stories that made my head spin -- young women being told by a corporate restaurant chain (in a memo no less) to dress "slutty," (but not "skanky"), of bars hiring only females as bartenders, but only "pretty women," because only men spend much money on alcohol, and they shell out even more if the bartenders are "pretty," of how to get more tips from customers (show more skin), of the firms that won't hire men as receptionists, and more.

Usually it's hard to get a word out of these students, especially in the first class of the semester, but they were on a roll.

Then we moved on to the nerds. There's a "new masculinity" in town, according to Dr. Cooper's research. The Nerds.

Here's the money quote from the first page of Dr. Cooper's article, written in 2000, after her examination of men, masculinity and fatherhood in Silicon Valley, with a few emphases in italics that I added:

What I discovered through my examination of these men's work and family lives was the emergence of a newly constituted masculinity that coincides with the new way work is organized in the new economy...[A]s a gendered construct, this new masculinity functions as a key mechanism of control in high-tech workplaces that rely on identity-based forms of control. Second, they show that the successful enactment of this new masculinity shapes how these fathers both think about and manage their work and family lives.

New masculinity? Nerds?

I asked my students how nerd-ism could be seen as a form of masculinity, when nerds are mostly viewed as non-masculine. Isn't the opposite of masculinity, femininity? Are these nerds feminized men, or are they masculine in a different way? Isn't masculinity all about Arnold Schwarznegger and Robert Bly's Iron John?

And I also asked how masculinity could be seen as a form of control. Isn't the essence of masculinity, as it is usually seen, the idea that one takes control, rather than being controlled?

They didn't have any answers, as of yet. Their assignment for next Tuesday is to summarize the whole article. It's a lot of homework, given that the article is 20 pages of fairly dense text. But it's a 300 level class, so it's to be expected.

I did mention to them that my research area is LGBT workplace law and policy, but I didn't come out to them. I'm waiting for the fourth week, when we do LGBT families at work.

But I wonder about nerd masculinity particularly in the context of FTM masculinity. I spent last week with a lot of FTMs at Lavender Law. Some of them are as masculine as anybody, and some are kind of femmy. (Is that politically incorrect to say?) And yet a lot of the natal males at the conference were quite femmy. Are these all forms of masculinity?

Or are masculinity and femininity concepts whose usefulness have expired? That can hardly be possible, given the experience of my students with gender at work.

Oy vey, I think I'll have to do my own homework assignment. What do you think?

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And of course there is the issue of people at work who still think it is okay to use the word "gay" as if it means "cheesy". I've had many heated discussions with "real men" (whatever that means) & tried to explain how important it is not to keep repeating that something is "gay" when they really mean something completely different. Whether Nerds or not I am often reminded while working that we have a long way to go before most folks understand how powerful words are...

Oye vey indeed!

Read about my life as a Gay Hollywood Extra. Just Google: John Starr Blog

Speaking as an FTM nerd, I hope you post whatever it is that they and you come up with.

When I'm not saving the gay universe, I'm supervising nerds at the University. Trust me, establishing masculinity is CENTRAL to their interactions. They do it in a weird way, and I throw a wrench in things for obvious reasons, but the alpha-male struggle is still there--being smarter and being virile are the same thing.

Nerd masculine/nerd feminine? Um…well, depends on the type of nerd now doesn’t it? Because there ARE different types of Nerds.
What is a ‘Nerd’? A person who is very dedicated and well studied on their subject matter knowing a vast wealth of knowledge of that subject.

Like me, I am an Aircraft Nerd and I am very well paid for being a Nerd. I know who made it, when, where, how, what was used, what was used before and why it didn’t work, I know the limitations of it and the supply shortfalls and how/why those exist…

In short, I know a heck of a lot of everything about aircraft. Some of its useful, some of it is just so much noise. But, sometimes that ‘noise’ is useful in a different direction.

And as of right now Jillian, I think you went the ‘elitist’ tract with the ‘Nerd’ stereotype and are portraying only ‘IT Nerds’ as ‘THE Nerd’.

I'd definitely say there's a nerd masculinity. I hung out with the nerds all the time in high school (OK, I was one of them), and they can, at times, be a fairly macho, misogynistic bunch. You can't want to pwn someone without indulging in a bit of masculinity.

What's interesting about the computer nerd in particular is that in the 80s and 90s there was this weakling stereotype. But as people have essentially grown reliant on information technology, the computer nerd is now the one in control...skinny and socially awkward as they may be from living in front of a computer.

I'm a butch female computer nerd, but even then when I was younger a lot of older butch women would just be like "pfft, you're not butch." But in the IT department or just among other computer nerds, I'm definitely perceived as butch.

There's still an intellectual competitiveness...intellectual masculinity? I mean, a girl fixing their computer is like a girl fixing their truck.

Check out The Big Bang Theory on CBS for a study of nerds. It has several archetypes, and is a very funny show. I definitely recommend it.

The doctor who started me on testosterone (ten years ago) looked after lots of transpeople in the area and was also trans herself. I remember bits and pieces of the conversation we had about starting hormones, but her most memorable line was the last one. She looked me dead in the eye and said: "You do realize that everyone will think you're a nerd, right?"

I doubt she was precintly foreseeing my current career as professional geek (more of Jillian's variety than the Silicon Valley sort), but I think it was a tidy way for both of us to confirm that neither suffered any illusion of the normative nature of my masculinity. I was (and am) a pretty femmy dude for that corner of the planet, but I have also lived places where I was entirely within the acceptable range of normative masculinity. Context is everything - I still periodically get "ma'am"ed on the phone, but it doesn't bother me because my dad does too.

We just had here in Atlanta what has been dubbed, "Nerdie Gras," which is the unofficial name for Dragon Con. It has become one of the largest Sci-Fi conventions, if not the largest in the world.

Having been to many such conventions in my life, I can say that it is a great place for the so-called nerds to be in charge. These conventions are run by what would be considered stereotypical nerds, giving the men (and some of the women) a chance to flex their masculine muscle.

A Sci-Fi convention is also a place where gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation gets severely blurred. Here, people also get to express their "species identity and their inter-species sexual orientation." The haters hate these conventions because they take diversity to a galactic level, when the narrow-minded bigots are not even willing to accept diversity within the human race on this planet. To me, this acceptance and strong embracing of diversity is one of the major positive side effects of Nerdism.

We have been joking about how many trans women we know have been IT and other nerds before transitioning. Also, nerd sexuality is... different. I say that after hanging out with bunches of manga and role playing game nerds. Many have a bent for cross dressing or identify with lesbian heroines. Though not all. I know some pretty "normal" nerds as well. It's more as if the nerd habitat allows for a certain freedom that attracts gender queer people. So thinks my friend who has dated nerds. She found them to be somewhat unconventional in bed, often passive or masochistic, or it felt like "lesbian sex".

I think you're confusing nerd masculinity for introverted power. Introverts are usually thinkers, and this means that many times they can innovate, jump ahead of the pack, and start leading others. Bill Gates is an example. I'd say Seinfeld is an introvert, too. There are others. Bill Gates would only be classified as a "nerd" since he does not care for his physical appearance as much as some other men. There is also the voice.