From an e-mail message:
I'm an avid reader and sometimes commenter on your blog. I seem to agree with you about non-gender-based workplace issues but often disagree with you on gender-based issues. Nonetheless I always find your take illuminating. I would love to get your thoughts on a recent email exchange I participated in while at work as a post-doc at a major state research university.
On a department-wide email list for all post-docs, I received an invitation to an event that was not addressed to me. The email was addressed only to women; it invited women to attend a women's scientific society dinner held on the university campus. I understood that I was excluded from the event because of my gender.
This email traffic and the event itself are so far into my post-doc one of the only instances where I have felt discriminated against; this certainly isn't the norm. It would be easy enough for me to ignore this single incident, I suppose, but nonetheless it's rankled me. To me it seems like an example of a disconnect between the ideals of a discrimination-free workplace and the practices that supposedly further this ideal. I would be very interested to hear if you have a similar take (or not).
Appended to the e-mail message was some correspondence between the postdoc and the organizer of the women-only event. In this e-mail exchange, the postdoc asked the event organizer to send such announcements only to women, the event organizer explained that it is difficult to maintain an up-to-date e-mail list and she doesn't want to risk missing anyone, and the postdoc politely suggested that she should attempt to organize a specific e-mail list anyway. She apologized for the spam, noted that she also gets e-mail about activities that are not intended for her, and suggested that he just delete the e-mails.
There are two issues here: the existence of an event specifically for women, and the fact that e-mails announcing the event are sent to everyone, even those excluded from the event.
Ignoring all other considerations, it may not seem right or fair that women have women-only professional/social events like this. But we can't ignore those other considerations; they are important and explain why such societies/events even exist. Protesting a dinner for an underrepresented group should not be a high-priority target for dismay about discrimination in the workplace.
First let's make the workplace discrimination-free for everyone in ways that really count (e.g., opportunities, salary, resources, promotion, respect); then such organizations and events will not be necessary.
The exclusion of men from this dinner does not harm the professional standing or opportunities of the excluded men. The women who attend this dinner will not obtain special career opportunities that are closed to men. The dinner is an attempt to bring together certain people who might otherwise be at a disadvantage owing to their sparse representation in the workplace (a physics department).
As the organizer of the women-only dinner noted in her e-mail to the postdoc, as a woman in physics, she is well aware of what discrimination feels like. These women-only events, however, are not the cause of discrimination in the workplace and do not perpetuate it. They exist because there is discrimination, and these events are an effort to alleviate some of the problems.
I know some men in my field of science -- some of them quite young -- who do not think that discrimination against women in science is a problem. They don't think of their female peers as less intelligent or able than men, and therefore they simply don't see the problems. They are puzzled when women make a big deal about feeling isolated or excluded, or about being patronized or insulted. These men are certainly against outright harassment and abuse, but they wonder if the more quotidian forms of discrimination might be better interpreted as whining by overly sensitive women who see everything through the lens of gender.
Yet there is a problem. Look at the data on employment statistics in the physical sciences and you will see it.
To my correspondent: If you were excluded from an event intended only for members of an ethnic minority, would you feel the same way? I was recently talking with a colleague who told me about an event that he attended for Hispanic and Native American scientists and science students. I can't imagine feeling "discriminated" against for being excluded from this event.
I wish I could say that my only experience with "discrimination" was not being invited to an event like this.
Are there any female postdocs, grad students, or faculty with whom you could have a serious and respectful discussion about this topic? Maybe hearing about the experiences of someone you know in real life might give you more insight into how discrimination has affected some of your friends and colleagues. Unfortunately, the women we really need to hear from are those who didn't make it to grad school despite having the ability to succeed and thrive as scientists, but even among those who do make it, some surely have stories to tell.
Also: Do you know for a fact that men are not welcome at some of the events that are seemingly only for the women in your department? It seems that the dinner in question is intended only for women, but I have given talks or participated in panel discussions hosted by women-in-science and/or engineering societies, and men are welcome at these events, even if the societies have "Women" in their names. The events are advertised broadly because the events are open to all. Would you be interested in participating in some events if they were geared towards discussions of career opportunities (for example)?
One of my colleagues once complained to me that male grad students and postdocs would not feel "welcome" at a panel discussion on careers because the event was organized by women and most of the panelists were women. The event in question was open to all, and was not even sponsored by a women-only professional society. It was just organized by women, that's all. My colleague feared that the event would therefore be attended mostly by women and would focus on "family issues", and therefore men would be uncomfortable about attending. He feared that men were being excluded, even if not in an official way. I told my colleague that if I restricted my participation in professional events to those that were attended by a majority of my own gender, I would never go to a conference or committee meeting or even a faculty meeting. He said "That's different". Is it so different?
But I digress. From time to time, I participate in events that are restricted to women STEM faculty on my campus. In those cases, the announcement e-mails only go to the women STEM faculty. There aren't many of us, though, so it is easy to restrict the list. In the case of a large and frequently changing population, it's probably better to err on the side of not missing someone, even if this results in an irrelevant e-mail to others.
In any case, the dinner mentioned in the e-mail above is likely part of an effort to alleviate a problem -- the underrepresentation of women in a particular field of the physical sciences -- with a social/support/networking event. These events don't solve the overall problem, but such events were important to me early in my career when I was often treated in a different (not as good) way as my male peers when it came to salary, resources, and professional opportunities. Meeting with other women scientists helped build my confidence and provided me with much-needed advice.
All early career faculty should have access to support networks and career advice if they want such things. Groups that provide peer support or other mentoring for early career academics and that are open to everyone should be present on every university campus. In addition, in certain departments or university units, there may be a need for additional support organizations for various underrepresented groups.
Women-only societies or dinners may "rankle" some men, but I hope that men who support the ideals of a discrimination-free workplace will realize that real discrimination occurs in the scientific workplace. If we ever solve these problems, perhaps women-in-science (or analogous) groups will seem like quaint anachronisms rather than a lifeline, but we are not there yet.
7 months ago