Over the last few years, Mark Zuckerberg has become a household name. For some, he was just one of many IT guys. For many he’s probably just Jesse Eisenberg with a new haircut. For everybody in the know, he’s the creator of the biggest social media platform ever. Facebook isn’t just one section of the internet. To one in seven people on the planet, it is the internet. Early science fiction must be crying its eyes out in admiration, or terror. Or both.
Achievements aside, Zuckerberg is a complicated figure for our generation. Facebook has been a crucial tool for innumerable social justice efforts and networking between them. It’s also one of the companies, along with Netflix and Tesla Motors, to offer gender-reassignment surgery as an employee benefit. At the same time, the man and his ‘Free Basics’ service have come under fire because it could potentially violate the principle of net-neutrality, or an ‘open Internet’. There’s a whole lot of things a whole lot of people wish the Facebook CEO hadn’t gone and done, but there are times when the guy hits the mark (pun intended).
On Sunday, Zuckerberg had the best response to this woman’s comment:
In the face of what must look like an innocuous wish, Zuckerberg points out to her that women are not meant to simply hang off the arms of rich and successful men. His response seems basic enough – I mean, we should all know this right? – but too many of us don’t, and it really does mean something when a public figure of his stature feels the need to counter obsolete attitudes about women.
There has been a long tradition in American pop culture to place the ‘nerd’ at the bottom of the food chain. Remember Brian Johnson from The Breakfast Club? That tradition was slowly changing by the time Lizzie McGuire’s Gordo, or NBC’s Chuck rolled around, and then BBC’s Sherlock came and made “brainy the new sexy“. Nerds are getting a whole lot of love, these days. But what hasn’t changed so far is that nerd culture and ‘nerds’ themselves are predominantly male.
This links up beautifully and disappointingly with the widely held belief that STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are male fields. Why? Because of that other belief that nature (and not us) is sexist, and made women incapable of ‘nerdery’. The history of science – that part which is most easily accessible to people, plus the part which makes it to our textbooks – has done a great job masking the contributions of women in STEM, since physician Merit-Ptah began practicing 5,000 years ago in Egypt!
Even though women have been a huge part of science, there isn’t much to show for it. The ‘gendering’ of even professions has built an attitude against women in science. This is supported by casual remarks and so-called jokes by the many Tim Hunts of the world. So even if material conditions appear to be conducive for women’s larger entry into STEM, social codes of conduct control not only what women wear and eat, but what they study as well. The Huffington Post reported that “less than 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science go to women.”
But does getting an early start make it any easier? Nope. The American Association of University Women published a comprehensive study of the gender gap in these fields, showing that while girls consistently outdid their male peers in these fields in school, there was a sudden dip in the number of women in STEM higher education or jobs. Part of the reason for this is, as USA News has shown, the way sexism affects “hiring decisions for lab positions, selection for mathematical tasks, evaluation of research abstracts for conferences, research citations, invitations to speak at symposia, postdoctoral employment and tenure decisions.”
With all of this weighing against women, Loretto’s remark is not just a cute thing grandmas say to embarrass their grandkids. It’s part of a larger and unquestioned system that doesn’t think women are good enough.
We’re all free to question Zuckerberg’s politics where it errs – but credit where it’s due. We need more of his “be the nerd” advice, and less of Tim Hunt’s sexism. So ladies, don’t date the nerd. Be the nerd!