It’s a weird world for nerdy girls. In one way, it seems as though life has never been better. There are projects celebrating self declared nerds, like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girl Programme, Karlie Kloss has her own tech school where girls can learn to code, and academically, we’re excelling. Last year, in the US, a study found that more women were likely to have college degrees than men.
However, if you’re at school, whether you’re often at the top of the class or just feel passionately interested in a particular subject, there’s a chance that your nerdiness is not being supported. Have you ever wanted to ask a question or dig a little deeper, but worried about whether the other people in your class would think you were a bit, you know, keen? How many times have you known the answer, and felt nervous about putting your hand up? Do you ever wonder where all your nerdiness is getting you, and whether life might be easier if you kept your head down?
If you need inspiration and proof that one day, the geek will inherit the earth, you need to meet our Shero Anne Miller. Anne is one of few female ‘elves’ working on TV show QI, and at 29, one of the youngest. She started working on the show five years ago, and most impressively, she’s written the latest book of QI facts. If you’ve ever watched Stephen Fry on the show and been dazzled by his knowledge, it’s worth remembering that some of it comes from Anne.
She’s a big fan of the people on her team, but admits that the world of obscure facts and the world of television does get a bit male dominated. “To be honest, my lack of experience helped me a bit – when I first started trying to work in TV, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. If I’d known more people in the industry and had them tell me about how hard it can be, it might have put me off!”
The newest series of QI has finally put a fabulously nerdy woman front and centre – Sandi Toksvig, we love you and we often wish that you were our surrogate auntie – so I talked to Anne about how to celebrate the nerdiness in your nature, and use it to pursue your dreams.
Firstly, how did you get your amazing job?
“After uni, I got onto a talent scheme in Edinburgh called The Network which led to a longer six month programme. I met amazing people and learned loads about TV in a short space of time, and as a result of that, I got a short contract job as a researcher on a different programme. When that ended, one of my mentors was able to put me in touch with people at QI, and I spent a day in the studio learning about how it was put together. I stayed in touch with the people I met, and impulsively sent them an unusual fact I found – ‘A vulture can safely swallow enough botulinum toxin to kill 300,000 guinea pigs.’ They loved it and asked me to send any more I found, so I used to email a few facts a week, which helped me to keep building the relationship with them.”
What’s your typical day in the office like?
“It’s research heavy, so we all sit with unusual books and bits of text and search out interesting facts to include on the show.
Often, we’re working with a particular theme – each series corresponds to a letter, and then the theme will begin with that letter so I know if I’m looking for facts about something specific. But sometimes random things will pop up – I’ll come across something weird about onions and file it away for when we get to O! As well as the main show, we have the podcast, No Such Thing As A Fish, the radio show The Museum Of Curiosity and a new TV show, No Such Thing As The News. And I just wrote the book, so it’s quite busy!”
Is this what you always wanted to do?
“Actually I wanted to be a neurosurgeon! I even changed my Highers [Scottish exams, like GCSEs] because I realised I hadn’t picked enough science to get into medical school. My parents helped me to persuade the school to do it, they were really supportive of me. I think I was lucky, and my family and school was quite unusual. I loved learning, I was good at it and I was surrounded by people who made me feel as though there was nothing I couldn’t do.”
Why did you change your mind?
“I still think that being a doctor is the very best thing you can do, but if I’m honest I wasn’t totally committed to it. I’d started to get curious about other things. I did politics at A level and I loved it, and that’s what I studied at university, and I think that if you’re going to be a doctor you need to be completely committed.”
Were you ever bullied for being clever or nerdy?
“I was really lucky, it didn’t really come up. I think I had one fight with one girl who deliberately tried to trip me in the corridor. My parents talked to the school and I really just wanted to leave it, so I tried smiling at her before she could say anything nasty, and she was nice to me for a whole day. What’s weird is that I thought she was singling me out, and years later I’ve discovered that she was horrible to everyone I knew! To be honest, it helped that I went to school in St Andrews, which is fairly remote. There just wasn’t the time or space for people to be that mean, if you really wanted to go out of your way to bully someone outside school you’d have to get on a bus and they only came once a day! When I was at school Facebook, Instagram and Twitter didn’t exist, and I think that made a huge difference. It would be much harder now.”
Were you popular?
“I had my own crew of creative people. We didn’t like the popular girls, and they didn’t like us, which was fine. There was no real rivalry, we just ignored each other. I remember thinking that I was really glad that I wasn’t popular because they all wore the same clothes and had the same haircut, and it looked like it was loads of effort. I didn’t want a side fringe!”
What would you tell your 13 year old self?
“‘Try everything’. I love my job, but I wouldn’t have found it if I wasn’t curious, and confident enough in my intelligence to keep giving different things a go. When you see a careers advisor or go to a careers fair, you don’t see the breadth of different inspiring jobs you can do, you only meet the people who work for companies who have paid for a stand! Sometimes the path isn’t obvious, and you have to make a way for yourself – if you want a job and it seems like the door is shut, try getting in through the window.”
Anne’s book, 1342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted, is out on 3 November. QI, hosted by Sandi Toksvig, is shown at 10PM on Fridays on BBC2.