This spring I went to an awards ceremony and felt my usual discomfort when a female student was given an award that is designated specifically for female students. The award always goes to a female student who is talented enough to get an award for which all students are eligible, so why should these women have to settle for what is in all ways (monetary, prestige) a lesser award?
In regard to this particular award, I have trouble separating my dislike of the general concept from the fact that the retired (male) professor who established the award was not a friend of women in the department. Or, I should say, he was a particular friend of certain women, but not in an appropriate way. To other women, including me, he was very un-nice. In days of yore, a favorite pastime of his was to mention his very close friends in high administrative places at the university and to inform me that if I disagreed with him about a certain issue, he could get me fired (I did not have tenure at the time; this is one of the reasons why tenure exists). I suppose he established this award for female students so that he could be seen as progressive and enlightened, but I think of him as patronizing and cruel.
These awards involve different issues from those raised by the existence of women-only social events that are sponsored by societies for the support of women in science, engineering, or other fields in which we are underrepresented. There are some similarities in motivation, but the differences are significant.
Women-only awards are perhaps well intentioned, but I greatly dislike them because they imply that the only way that women will get awards for intellectual achievements is if the pool of candidates is considerably narrowed. The specific women-only awards with which I am most familiar are low in prestige, low in reward ($), and in some cases (e.g., scholarships for students) the existence of these awards may result in better awards being preferentially given to male students because there is another option for female students. Women-only awards have negative unintended consequences and may defeat the purpose for which they were created.
I think that women can be overlooked by awards committees when it comes to recognizing scholarly achievements, but the solution is not to create special awards only for women; the solution is to start noticing women and not expecting us to do more than men to get the same level of recognition for our work.
A few years ago, my department chair explored the possibility of nominating me for an award given to women who have succeeded in Science. Fortunately he first explored this possibility with my closest colleague and with my husband, both of whom let him know that I would hate being nominated for this award. In fact, although I appreciated his considering me for an award, I would have found this particular one humiliating. To me it would be like saying "You're a pretty good scientist, for a woman."
I do not feel the same (negative) way about awards that recognize the achievements of women (or men) who have made contributions to improving the educational and career opportunities of women and girls. That's different from awards focused on scholarly achievements, even if being a successful scholar helps someone be more effective in other efforts.
I also do not feel the same (negative) way about efforts by organizations, including grants agencies and universities, to make a sincere effort to support the research of women scholars by making sure that women are not at a systematic disadvantage when it comes to funding or job opportunities. Ensuring that women are fairly represented in these ways should be part of ongoing, systematic efforts to eliminate overt discrimination and to ensure that more subtle forms of discrimination do not occur. These are essential efforts.
Organizations should examine the mechanisms by which awards for scholarly achievement are made. For example, who nominates candidates: a specific committee, or any individual working in the scholarly field relevant to the award? Are self-nominations accepted? Are there efforts to look broadly at the full range of possible candidates for the award or is there an unspoken assumption that only the most obvious best candidates will be considered? How are decisions made when considering nominees with similar records?
I think that if some pretty basic efforts are made to look carefully at nominees or applicants for awards and scholarships, women will naturally receive recognition for their scholarly achievements at a rate that is in line with the representation of women in their academic disciplines.