They’re hot. They’re sexy. They solve quadratic equations. They’re the Nerd Girls, and they’re out to explode the myth that a woman can’t be both smart and drop-dead gorgeous.
“There’s a stereotype out there,” Danielle Vardaro, an engineer for Boeing, told TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb Friday.
And it’s not a pretty one. Women are still rarely thought of as engineers, said Karen Panetta, a belly-dancing professor of engineering at Tufts University and the founder of Nerd Girls.
Panetta, who is also the worldwide director of Women in Engineering for IEEE, the international engineering society, has traveled the country talking to young schoolgirls about careers in engineering. As part of her work, she had kids draw pictures of what they think an engineer looks like.
Almost invariably, the pictures are of males wearing glasses.
Panetta described how her profession is viewed: “We’re homely, dirty, gross … we don’t have any fashion or style sense, and we have no friends.”
Hence, Nerd Girls, who are out to prove that geek is chic and brains are beautiful.
In addition to Vardaro, Panetta was accompanied by three other female engineers, any of whom could find work as a model. Cristina Sanchez is pursuing her master’s in biological engineering at Tufts. Lauren Jones is a computer engineer working on reducing the size of microprocessors. Reshma Taufiq is helping Nike build a digital presence in India.
The women are also talented in music and the arts, are physically active, and love dressing up and shopping. But they’re also delighted to get a soldering gun for a birthday present.
“We’re here to say, you can be not just one-dimensional. You can have everything,” said Taufiq. “You can be smart and athletic and fun and have it all.”
“We’re trying to show how diversified engineers are and how talented we are,” added Panetta. “Everyone has talents in drama, dance, art, music. All these women have exquisite talents.”
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But the group also has its critics — including some feminists who see them as exploiting their sexuality.
“All of us are pretty, attractive women, and the criticism was about using sex to sell science,” said Taufiq. “It’s really not about that. It’s about being comfortable with who you are, putting your brains out there.”
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But are men comfortable about it? Do the Nerd Girls find that men can be intimidated by smart women who know their way around things mechanical?
“I would say so a little bit,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes, when someone asks you what your major was or what you were doing: ‘I’m an engineer,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ ”
The women said that most of the expressions of shock come from people outside of their schools and jobs. “We haven’t encountered a lot of criticism within school,” said Jones. Just the same, she added, “It’s nice to have groups like Nerd Girls. It’s all girls working together on this great engineering project and time to be away from the guys.”
One of the projects the group is working on is building a solar-powered car, and one woman in the group wrote a computer program that will automatically call her cell phone when she’s on a bad date with a message to come home immediately.
Gifford admitted that she’s never had a proclivity for the sciences, but she applauded Nerd Girls.
“It’s hard for me to spell math and science,” Gifford said. “I so respect people who have minds that go there. Find out what you love. What can’t you wait to do in the morning? What do you dream about? That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
For more information about Nerd Girls, visit nerdgirls.com.
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