Chris Bourg, director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has issued a prime directive that “Star Trek” posters and nerdy cultural images should be removed to create a more welcoming workplace for women: “Replace the Star Trek posters with travel posters, don’t name your projects or your printers or your domains after only male figures from Greek mythology, and just generally avoid geek references and inside nerd jokes. Those kinds of things reinforce the stereotypes about who does tech; and that stereotype is the male nerd stereotype.” It is not clear if the MIT seal is also problematic as a male dominated (and fairly geeky) cultural icon.
On her blog, Bourg insisted that
“There is research that shows that workplaces that are plastered with stereotypically ‘tech or nerd guy’ cultural images – think Star Trek – have negative impact on women’s likelihood of pursuing tech work and of staying in tech work in general or in that particular work environment.”
Bourg cites Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science which does advance this view. The authors found that “simply changing the objects in a computer science classroom from those considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., Star Trek poster, video games) to objects not considered stereotypical of computer science (e.g., nature poster, phone books) was sufficient to boost female undergraduates’ interest in computer science to the level of their male peers.”
As someone who was viewed as a dysfunctional nerd among a school of nerds at the University of Chicago, I beg to differ. There are plenty of female nerds. I went to school with them. As an academic, I find this low-grade analysis to be increasingly intolerable. First, it makes a highly dubious association of the nerd culture to male domination. Second, it seeks to deny geeks the right to express their cultural values and icons. Finally, it treats women as emotional snowflakes who are discomforted by a picture of Spock.
How an individual woman identifies herself or embraces cultural icons vary greatly. In her bio, Bourg herself illustrates the diversity in such identifications: “Since my gender has been misidentified too many times to ignore, let me make it very clear here: I am a cis woman. I was assigned female at birth, identify now as female, and use feminine pronouns. I also identify as butch and queer.” In other words, gender generalities are inherently dangerous propositions.
As for Star Trek fans, Bourg’s demand for male to assimilate seems eerily familiar: