Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

“Mom, I know I need to wait for Dad to help me with my math homework.”

“Mom, you’d never be able to build this Lego set.”

“Mom, you’ve never coded anything?!”

All of these are things my amazing 10-year-old future engineer has said to me.

She really doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings. She’s just calling it like she sees it. Her dad, her idol, is an engineer. They design stuff, build stuff, talk deeply about science-y stuff, and code stuff. My day job is in marketing and I don’t do any of that stuff. 

And frankly, I haven’t done myself any favors, talking about how confusing her math algorithms are to me (this is not a Common Core post, but it’s true fact that I do not recognize how to do long division anymore), how I’m “not into” building things, how I’ve never been interested in coding.

But it does hurt my feelings when she writes me off because the things I know are different from the things she and her dad know.

And most of the time, they’re not as relevant or valuable to her, because the things that are relevant and valuable to her fall very reliably into STEM and sometimes STEAM. There’s no “H” in there for humanities, which is where my particular strengths lie (I tried, but SHTEAM just didn’t work).

It’s not a new feeling for me. I’m quite used to being outnumbered by engineers and scientists. In my job, I work with many clients in various technical or manufacturing fields. Most of my closest friends are in STEM fields. I’ve joked–often–that our family theme song is, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other,” and it’s funny because it’s true.

But that means in addition to comments like those from my daughter, I’ve also heard things from adults like:

“We’ll design and build the products; you marketing people just figure out how to put the fluff around them.”

“It must be easier to get a 4.0 in liberal arts than engineering, anyway.”

“So you just, like, get people to buy stuff they don’t need, right?”

Artes Liberales
The seven original liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic (logic), arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. By zentolos (Artes Liberales Uploaded by lansbricae) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I understand that my field is not one that’s easy to grasp unless you’re in it. My undergraduate degree is in “rhetorical studies”–one of the original seven liberal arts. When I tell people this, nobody knows what it means, but it’s essentially the study of persuasion. In other words, I know how to make a really convincing argument about almost anything (except, it would seem, that rhetoric is just as important as knowing Java).

I do know I have a chip on my shoulder. For awhile, when I would be in a group of STEMmy types, and they started getting all STEMmy in their conversations, I would shout, “Agapanthus!” They would pause in shock, at which point I would say, “See? I know stuff, too.” (Agapanthus is a perennial flower. Don’t ask why I know it; the point is, most people don’t.)

The focus on STEM in education, toys and games, and particularly on encouraging girls to pursue their passions in those fields, is vitally important. My daughter is directly benefiting from that focus every day. But I see trouble, too; she has been so encouraged and supported in pursuing her STEM passions that somewhere along the way, unintentionally, she’s started to think they’re “better” or “smarter” than others. As her parents, we are always on the lookout for comments or behaviors that indicate this. It’s in these times that my husband really comes through for me:

“Hey, Mom had to take math in elementary school, too. She got an A in it. She can totally help you.”

“Mom’s not great at building things like you are, but she’s really good at talking in front of people, which you and I aren’t as good at doing.”

“Mom doesn’t code, but she’s a great writer.”

I understand that the world today and the world of the future will require people who can think the way STEM fields encourage them to think, and do the things STEM fields encourage them to do.

But there still has to be someone to sell it, talk about it, criticize it, praise it, write about it, draw it, visualize it, identify how it fits in society, and verbalize how it’s changing us as a people. There still has to be someone to convince others that it’s the best thing to do (or not). Rebecca Angel’s excellent GeekMom post, STEM to STEAM, shares wonderful examples of how the technical and the creative work better together. I would add that the art of discourse persuades others to care about the results. Without someone to promote an amazing new technology, no one will know about it, so no one will use it, and everyone loses.

Last year, our daughter was in fourth grade, and her teacher assigned monthly speech topics. The kids had to develop a speech within a certain subject each month (things like, “Share one of your family’s holiday traditions and the history behind it,” or, “What would you do if you were ruler of the world?”) and deliver it to the class. When she came home with the first assignment paper, our daughter was beside herself. What would she say? How would she ever survive having to talk in front of her whole class? She asked her dad for help. He smiled and said, “Don’t look at me. You need your mom for this one. She’s an expert at this stuff.”

It was my moment to shine.

Over the course of the school year, she learned how to research topics, organize her ideas, formulate her key points and deliver them confidently–without notes. She was amazed when I had handy tips to help her curb her tendency to fidget, eliminate non-words (um, uh, like, you know), and keep herself from rambling. She probably got tired of me ambushing her at breakfast with, “What’s your introduction? What are your three main points? What’s your conclusion?”

But you know what? She got an A on every single speech. And at the end of the year, after rehearsing her last speech for the last time, she gave me a big hug and said, “Thanks for helping me with all my speeches, Mom. You really know a lot about how to do this. I never would have done as well without you.”

I learn new things every day from her, and she’s learned that I have a lot to offer, too. The best part is that she’s learning that all types of knowledge are valuable, and that diversity of thought and interests are important, because that makes us all better!

Now, I need her to teach that to a few grown-ups I know.

Jessie Atchison is proudly geek-adjacent. She does a lot of geeky stuff with her husband and daughter where she feels like a poser, but always has fun. Her priority is raising an empowered girl geek in the most geek-friendly time in history. Her favorite place to be is on her bicycle. She wants to be Wonder Woman when she grows up.