The Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Tricia Berry, the director of the Women in Engineering Program at The University of Texas at Austin, with the provocative subtitle "Stop Calling Me A Geek."
"In schools and in society, 'geek' still carries a negative connotation that many girls and women do not associate with. Using a socially awkward loner as a symbol for STEM isn’t an effective method for attracting girls to these fields."
In response, The Mary Sue, a site dedicated to geek culture with an inclusive, feminist angle, wondered "Is Geek Still A Dirty Word?"
There is no right answer, because there is no single accepted definition of geek. I feel pretty comfortable in the geek milieu, ever since I did a volunteer stint as a web design teacher in Ghana with Geekcorps. But prior to that, I did not identify with the label geek or nerd.
I agree with The Mary Sue commenters that the archetypal geeks and nerds have become much cooler since I was a teenager.* "Socially awkward loner" is no longer the primary definition of today's geek. But I do agree with Tricia Berry's point that labels can be counter-productive.
I've become a lot more sensitive to this issue after receiving some very thoughtful feedback from one of our campers this past summer. In her otherwise positive assessment of App Camp For Girls, she questioned the promotion of geek identity. She doesn't have anything against geeks, but she doesn't identify herself as one. Instead, she felt minimized rather than empowered by all the geek/nerd talk. According to her, a girl's interest in technology should just be considered smart and modern, and very likely one of a variety of interests and not so narrowly categorized.
This feedback really impressed me, even more so coming from a 13-year-old. We will be paying a lot more attention to this. It's always fun when you connect with people by rallying around a common identity, but we need to be cautious about alienating people at the same time.
*It would be worthwhile to do some kind of survey with girls. I asked my niece, an unscientific sample of one smart 16-year-old, and she agrees with the Washington Post piece. There is a connection between geek and uncool in her mind.