It's sweltering in Boston, and a dozen Tufts University coeds are out in shorts and tanks, attracting the usual stares. Only today the stares are for a different reason: the girls are huddled around a 750-pound machine that looks like a spaceship, long and wide with a bubble-shaped cockpit open to reveal a mass of pipes and wires. It's actually a solar car—one they've built from the ground up and hope to race next year. Suddenly sparks fly, and the girls jump back. They may be engineering whizzes, but they know a hazard when they see one. They call a teacher over to help solve the problem, as Alex McGourty, 21, gets ready to take the wheel. A junior with blond hair and freckles, she built her first car engine in high school: a biodiesel "veggie mobile" she ran on McDonald's fryer oil. McGourty revs out of the driveway, and almost immediately dislodges the car's chain. Campus police block off the street, and the baseball team, just returned from practice, lines up to watch. "Look out," a construction worker yells. "It's the Nerd Girls!"
The Nerd Girls may not look like your stereotypical pocket-protector-loving misfits—their adviser, Karen Panetta, has a thing for pink heels—but they're part of a growing breed of young women who are claiming the nerd label for themselves. In doing so, they're challenging the notion of what a geek should look like, either by intentionally sexing up their tech personas, or by simply finding no disconnect between their geeky pursuits and more traditionally girly interests such as fashion, makeup and high heels. In fact, calling them "nerd" is no insult at all—the Nerd Girls have T shirts emblazoned with the slogan. The crew includes Cristina Sanchez, a master's student in biomedical engineering (and a former cheerleader) who can talk for hours about aerodynamics. Caitrin Eaton, a freshman, asked her boyfriend for a soldering iron last Christmas. Juniors Courtney Mario and Perry Ross giggle when they talk about what fascinated them most about "No Country for Old Men": how did the assassin's air gun work?
These girl geeks aren't social misfits; their identities don't hinge on outsider status. They may love all things sci-tech, but first and foremost they are girls—and they've made that part of their appeal. They've modeled themselves after icons such as Tina Fey, whose character on "30 Rock" is a "Star Wars"-loving, tech obsessed, glasses-wearing geek, but who's garnered mainstream appeal and a few fashion-magazine covers. Or on actress Danica McKellar, who coauthored a math theorem, wrote a book for girls called "Math Doesn't Suck" and posed in a bikini for Stuff magazine. Or even Ellen Spertus, a Mills College professor and research scientist at Google—and the 2001 winner of the Silicon Valley "Sexiest Geek Alive" pageant. They tune in to shows like "GeekBrief.TV," a daily Web series hosted by 26-year-old Cali Lewis, and meet friends at Girl Geek Dinners, the first of which drew more than 600 women. However they choose to geek out, they consciously tweak the two chief archetypes of geeks: that they're unattractive outcasts, and that they're male. "For a long time, there's been this stereotype that either you're ugly and smart or cute and not suited for careers in math, science or engineering," says Annalee Newitz, the co-editor of "She's Such a Geek!", a 2006 anthology of women writing about math, tech and science. "One of the big differences between Generation X geeks and girls in their teens now is really just an attitude—an indication that they're much more comfortable."
That comfort level has as much to do with culture as it does with technology. Depictions of geeks as socially awkward math whizzes date back to caricatures in tech-school humor magazines from the 1950s, such as MIT's Voodoo. But the geeks of MIT were strictly male, as were subsequent takes on the stereotype, such as the nerdy men of 1984's "Revenge of the Nerds," and Screech on "Saved by the Bell." Today's girl geeks are members of the first generation to have been truly reared on technology. They grew up on gender neutral movies like "Hackers" and "The Matrix," and saw the transformation of Willow on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from awkward geek to smart and sassy sex symbol. They've watched the geeky pursuits of technology and comic books transform from fringe subculture to pop mainstream, and they've capitalized on that geek-chic mentality to elbow their way into it.
In 2007, girls won both the team and the individual categories of the Siemens Competition for high-school students in math, science and technology for the first time in the competition's history. A recent Pew Internet & American Life project found that among users 12 to 17, girls dominate the blogosphere and social networking sites; they're also beating boys when it comes to creating Web sites of their own. Even women gamers far outnumber men ages 25 to 34, according to a 2006 study by the Consumer Electronics Association. "Back when the Nerd Girls began [in 2000], people would say, 'Why do you have to call yourselves nerds?'—like it was a bad thing," says Panetta, an electrical- and computer-engineering professor at Tufts and the founder of the group. "But I never get that question anymore. It's OK, it's smart, it's cool to be a nerd, and the girls are just embracing that."
Yet there is still a dichotomy between the culture and the workplace. Forty years ago women made up just 3 percent of science and engineering jobs; now they make up about 20 percent. That sounds promising, until you consider that women earn 56 percent of the degrees in those fields. A recent Center for Work-Life Policy study found that 52 percent of women leave those jobs, with 63 percent saying they experienced workplace harassment and more than half believing they needed to "act like a man" in order to succeed. In the past, women dealt with that reality in two ways: some buried their femininity, while others simply gave up their techie interests to appear more feminine. "For most of my life I hid my passion for all things scientific and tried to focus on pursuits that were 'allowable'," says Cathy Malmrose, a Berkeley, Calif., mom who, at 38, is now the CEO of a computer manufacturer. "Instead of getting to play on my brother's TRS80 [computer] and study the sciences, I went into elementary education."
Which may be one reason that many of these tech-friendly women are working their pumps so hard. They're trying to break down stereotypes by being as proud of their sexuality as they are of their geekiness. "Just because I get dressed up Saturday night, that doesn't mean I won't do better [than a guy] on a test on Monday," says Nerd Girl Sanchez. Turning geek into chic isn't always easy. It took Google's Spertus, who is 39, years before she could proclaim herself girl and geek in the same breath. But it happened when she won the award for "Sexiest Geek Alive," a now annual pageant that began in 2000 as a spoof of People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Spertus beat out the men in her competition, and at her crowning, she paraded onstage in a corset made out of a circuit board and a high-slit skirt with a slide rule strapped to her leg. Still, some women worry that being too sexy could hurt them. At the San Francisco Girl Geek Dinner earlier this year, Leah Culver, 25, the developer of Pownce, a microblogging platform, described the extra efforts she's made to convince potential employers that despite being attractive, she's actually, like, competent. "I used to carry around a copy of my computer-science degree in my purse," she said. The ideal, of course, is having gender be a nonissue, and for a few, it is. "I consider myself a normal girl who happens to like math and science," Sanchez says.
She may not be in the majority now, but if her fellow geek girls have anything to do with it, she will be. Outreach programs such as TechBridge, an after-school workshop for middle- and high-school girls, and MAGIC (More Active Girls In Computing), a national mentoring program for aspiring computer scientists, are among the dozens of programs aimed at getting girls to think about futures in science and technology. The Nerd Girls also conduct weekly outreach: "We try to give them real examples of what engineers do," says Panetta. "You love watching special effects in 'Harry Potter'? That's an engineer. You like the iPhone? An engineer made that. Cheerleading? Dancing? How about sports engineering?" Because you know, girls: the geeks really are inheriting the earth.