02:00 AM Aug. 03, 2002 PT
LAS VEGAS -- As the geeks gather once again for their annual hacking hullabaloo, one question is asked over and over again:
"Where are the women?"
And that's in spite of the fact that Defcon, billed as the computer underground's biggest annual computer security event and party, isn't the boy's club it was four or five years ago.
There are some women here -- a smattering of wives and girlfriends, a few reporters, a couple of lawyers and doubtless some female federal undercover agents. There are also some women who identify themselves as hackers or computer geeks.
But most of the women say they didn't come to Defcon to sharpen their computer skills or relax with their colleagues. They are here because they are intrigued by hacker culture.
"I came for fun and freedom. There's no place else I've ever been where being a woman is such a plus," explained Loreli, 22, from New Paltz, New York. "Flash a bit of nip at a Defcon vendor and you can basically get whatever you want for free. I think it's so weird that some chicks have a problem with that."
Women who would rather buy their own T-shirts say they avoid and are annoyed by those who have been dubbed "scene whores" -- women who openly admit they are more interested in meeting men who hack than in learning how to hack themselves.
"The scene whores showed up years before us girl geeks did. So some of the guys now assume that any woman who is here is just a groupie looking to get laid," Noelle Nardine, a systems administrator from Illinois who isn't attending Defcon, said.
"So you have to prove you have coding skills every time you meet a new person at Defcon," Nardine added. "Eventually, attending these shows just became a major effort for me, so I don't go any more. I know a lot of women who feel the same way."
Others dispute the allegation that attending Defcon is difficult for women.
"Hackers are into intelligence, and it doesn't much matter what kind of body houses your brain," Toronto systems analyst Tamara Jovell said. "Frankly, I find it refreshing to be in a place where men get truly and totally turned on by how I think."
Many Defcon women say that after they have proven they are more than competent with computers, they are rarely hassled. And they point out the men also have to prove themselves before they are accepted by respected members of the hacking community.
But many women feel that it's harder for them to cut through ingrained assumptions that "girls don't really like computers," a woman who wanted to be identified only as Nartian said.
"The problems are caused by some women who will date a well-known hacker in order to become elite just by association," Nartian said. "The scene whores aren't respected for what they do but for who they are doing. And it leads to men thinking we're all clueless and creates a real schism between us women and the girls."
A woman who wanted to be identified only as "Kat," and who describes herself as a "hacker hangaround," agreed there is a schism between "the chicks in baggy T-shirts and the ladies in latex."
Her advice to women who are disturbed by her "happy attitude" and scanty clothing: "Just get over it, girls."
"I'm here to have fun, and me and my friends don't much care what the other chicks think," Kat said. "So get over your worries about being mistaken for a real woman and just lighten up, ladies."
Kat said Defcon is a single woman's "dream holiday" and insisted that with a flash of flesh she could have anything she wanted or needed.
Male hackers seem amused by the antics of the so-called scene whores, but most insist that after attending a couple of computer security conferences the eager charms of these ladies become somewhat less appealing.
"It's nice for the youngsters that these highly enthusiastic girls are here," a New Mexico programmer named "Quiet" said. "But at this point in my life, I'm looking for a real woman who can debug software and troubleshoot a network."