Why We Shouldn’t Use Words like “Nerd,” “Dork,” or “Geek”

via Flickr User blobbei

Photo via Flickr User blobbei



When I attended the Garden State Collaborative Kick-off event (part of the National Girls Collaborative Project campaign to advance women and girls in STEM), I decided to trek forty minutes north and stay in New York City during the event. I knew I’d have a few extra hours in the evening and was excited about attending a tech seminar in Brooklyn. I wrote to a friend who is an avid technologist and also happened to be in the city, asking “Want to try to check out this speaker while we’re both up here? Too Dorky?” to which his response was “What kind of question is too dorky? Isn’t dorky a good thing?”

I had always been aware and indifferently in compliance with the EdLab Group policy against descriptors like “Nerdy”, “Dorky”, or “Geeky”. The often negative association propels stereotypes and taps into societal perceptions that dissuade women from STEM careers. However, as someone who considers herself to be a self-aware person, with a job that requires championing the advancement of women in STEM fields, this was a reality check about how deeply entrenched tech-based stereotypes are in our society. For me, this email illuminated the seemingly harmless terms have a much larger connotation.  

Using terms like “geeking out” or “nerding out” have the implication that this “geeky” or “nerdy” activity isn’t something you’re supposed to be doing in your free time and subsequently isn’t something “social”. Since the words “geek” or “nerd” usually allude to social awkwardness, using derivatives of any of those words within the context of STEM fields continually dumps subject areas into a social binaries. STEM fields are not “cool”.

This not only perpetuates the perception that STEM fields exclusively attracts workaholic introverts, it also establishes a division between STEM fields and the humanities as two mutually exclusive entities. Despite a myriad of cynicism, the overly idealistic Generation Y wants to work to change the world. Social justice is “cool”, computer programming is not.

An easy, widespread example is Kony 2012, attracting over 70 million viewers around a single issue. Their target audience was undoubtedly college-age, young twenty-somethings who are social media regulars. The video was about Kony, but ultimately the appeal came through a sense of youth empowerment. Young adults were turned on by seeing other young adults rising to action against injustice. Yet, the sexy idea of human rights and the backlash about hypersimplification of warfare complexities in developing countries greatly overshadowed the STEM components that enabled this transient awareness movement to take place. We increasingly see this interaction with technology (and subsequently “STEM” fields) in almost every facet of our lives, but it’s easier to have perceptions and socialization processes dictate how these systems, issues, and campaigns are defined rather than redefining them ourselves. In the hype Kony 2012 campaign, STEM assumed a peripheral role.

Although this one example of many, we continue to emphasize content over medium, even though these two areas are increasingly interrelated. STEM skills are critical to participate in modern day society, building the framework in which we interact. The norms surrounding these subject areas serve as the backbone of how these areas are perceived - and it all starts with words like “Nerdy” and “Geeky”.