Monday, May 03, 2010

Left Behind

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.

My thoughts:

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.


Kea said...

OMG, I can't believe this made him 'feel bad'. If I took 'discrimination' that way I wouldn't have made it past kindergarten maths.

WAKE UP PEOPLE. When I was young and innocent I used to think it was kind of OK for guys to ignore the women problem (I'm an unemployed theoretical physicist, by the way) but now I've seen the light. There is no longer any excuse for a guy like that to display such ignorance about the situation for women and minorities in his field. NO EXCUSE. They've had decades now to think about privilege and what it does to science (= bad stuff). If they care about science, they should educate themselves and do something about the 'culture'.

Unknown said...

Wonderfully stated. I've participated in several groups aimed at supporting women in science, especially those focused on graduate students, and have ran into many people along the way that question the fairness of such exercises.

What these people (who are not always men) often miss is that these groups are not discriminating against men by trying to give women some advantage, but that they are small attempts to make up for the massive lack of support for women. Which is generally something that is hard to appreciate if you're not a woman.

aluchko said...

As a healthy educated white male I'm never really in a position to accurately judge what discrimination feels like. I can sympathise with other white males who claim reverse discrimination, but I feel their claims fail since discrimination is fundamentally non-symmetric.

Discrimination is the privileged using their privilege to exclude the unprivileged. There's no such thing as reverse discrimination since the unprivileged don't have the power to exclude the unprivileged.

I think we tend to make these claims since we've never been discriminated against and as such don't really understand what discrimination feels like, or what purpose the occasional accommodations (affirmative action, scholarships, special meetings) given to the unprivileged really serve.

John Vidale said...

I mostly agree, however the claim that no benefit accrues to the attendees (in your "The exclusion ..." paragraph) is wrong, I would hope.

I know the similar functions my wife (as a faculty member) attends DO provide access to some weighty administrators and visiting scientists, and the goal is to provide enhanced information and networking for the attending women.

I think the accurate statement is the benefits do not come close to erasing the inequalities, but they are real.

Anonymous said...

when I read the e-mail from your offended male reader, I really wondered if he was joking or being sarcastic or writing it as a parody. seriously?? when a member of a privileged group feels offended and excluded for not being invited to a dinner for underrepresented/disadvantaged groups, it seems to me this person has some serious cognitive flaws. On the contrary he should be happy that he is not included as it reinforces and validates his privileged status.

FSP, are you sure the e-mail was being serious and not a joke??

Anna said...

Thank you for this post. Funny thing: I actually read your blog mainly for the gender related stuff. I'm from Finland and our academic system differs somewhat of the US and I don't relate so much to the other stuff (although I do read it with great interest as well).

What I've noticed is, that we have it a little better here, but there is still work to be done. I feel like the professors and staff are ok, I have mostly problems with fellow students. Although the staff problems might of course rise once you get to be one of the staff. But mainly I've heard of problems with professors that don't get along with anyone, not just women.

I have a business degree and have noticed some of these things also in business life. I decided to get into sciences, because I thought I was on the wrong field and I don't regret my choice. But I think it's wonderful to read about other people's experiences, so that I know I'm not alone and that I can do this.

So this post was a lot what the attitude in Finland is. We are already equal, what are you complaining about. The problem is that even though the legislation and opportunities are at least in theory pretty equal, there is still a lot to do with the attitudes. Guys don't understand how it feels when you always have to prove that you actually have a brain, especially if they think you're attractive. And how it feels when there are so many people who think you just can't do it. It makes me feel like I can't make any mistakes and that stresses me out more than anything.

Ok, I'm not writing my own blog post here... Just wanted to comment on this and generally thank you for writing this amazing blog. It really keeps me going :)

Myriam HH said...

Let me play the social scientist here:Iris Marion Young, in her 1990 book, "Justice and the Politics of Difference", explicitly addresses this issue of women-only events.

She assesses whether such events are just or not and conclude that, yes, they are because they work in favor of fighting against discrimination.

Anonymous said...

You explained the situation in the exact same way a church clergyman would spew a bunch of bullshit to explain: "Why would a loving God allow babies to be born with horrible deformities or send infants who die before baptism to hell"?

A much simpler way would have been to say "Discrimination happens in ONE direction only" That' a law of physics actually, in fact the only one that has been endorsed by the feminist censorship council. Given that even E=mc^2 has had to be censored for its deep rooted sexism, you can imagine how high the standards of the feminist council are. It is shameful that this postdoc is ignorant of this single biggest law of physics.

Anonymous said...

Those men in your department who don't believe discrimination is an issue need to see the numbers in my college. While the discrimination isn't overt or hostile, women in my college are simply not accepted. In the almost 6 years that I have been at my university, only 2 out of 6 women have received tenure. They received their tenure appointments 4-5 years ago, and they were both in the same department. In the past 3 years, 3 women have been dismissed before even being allowed to go up for tenure, and one was denied tenure. In that same time, only one man was denied tenure, and he will be allowed to go up again since he went up early in the first place (a second man was just denied reappointment last week).

It has become clear to me that women in my college must have a level of accomplishment/success that FAR exceeds that of their male counterparts in order to be reappointed and receive tenure. I could go into more detail, but I think the 30% tenure-rate for women in my college speaks for itself. Numbers like that don't happen by accident.

Anonymous said...

"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"

Ummm... except that women have been shown to have a statistically lead at high school AND college levels. Drop the charade...seriously...just ask the NSF for a grant to write a feminist Bible you can preach in which God requires men to be born with the "original sin" of being sexist. It will be less vain and selfish than the time you wanted to list your personal career advancement as "broader impact" in your proposal.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Aww. Poor widdle d00d got his speshul fee-fees hurt by da mean old laydeez.

Anonymous said...

How dare she cause him all that added effort: the reading of the subject: line, the PRESSING of the delete button!

Don't she realize what is involved in pressing the button? There are millions of neurons firing, muscles have to be flexed, wear and tear is accrued by the keyboard, the bits on the computer rot just a little bit faster! Those are neurons that could have been used for macho manly testosteron-fueled RESEARCH! She is destroying SCIENCE by making our brightest postdoc minds waste away their precious time. Sure, technically he only gets paid $20/hour, but money is not important, he is a SCIENTIST!

Do NOT waste his time with the pushing of a button!

Anonymous said...

Feeling left out or getting the short stick for not speaking up and being the victim of discrimination are completely different. I was hired the same time as a male. He has a nicer lab (bigger, windows), a larger start-up package, and is the golden boy of collaboration. Nicer lab: he works w/ the faculty member in the lab next door and our chairperson wanted their labs to be close. Larger start-up: he asked for more than me. Golden boy: he works in a hot area.

He hunts and shoots guns. Many of the men in my department and other departments in my college do too. He has that bonding opportunity. I've been to a "ladies day" at the shooting range and it was fun, but I'd rather go hiking. By not throwing myself into this activity, I miss out on bonding w/ men in my department.

I don't think the issue these days is as much active discrimination as it is boys liking to play w/ boys and girls liking to play w/ girls. The problem is that the professional benefits of those social engagements often benefit men more than women b/c the people in power are still mostly men. So the women have their little luncheons and the men go shooting. Who's going to be regarded as more powerful, virile, and ambitious by a male chair? The women eating their little salads or the big, strong, shooting men?

This is just the way it is. I've tried being the big, strong girl, but then I'm just seen as the rebel loudmouth. There's just no winning, so I keep my mouth shut and do my work and play w/ my Barbies.

MM said...

FSP: "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 think this comparison was very good. I've got some male aquaintaces, who are vehemently opposed to racism and ableism (as well they should), but fall short on acknowledging sexism.

It's strange! It's like they can admit the existence of every other kind of mistreatment and injustice, but not this particular one.


Anonymous said...

Unlike some above posters, I do think the guy actually was serious, and actually IS puzzled by the existence of such groups.

A lot of guys in science haven't really had a real liberal arts education. If women's studies or minority studies courses even existed at their university, they were probably considered easy "joke" classes by most peers, men and women both. Most science majors I know at the university where I'm a grad student believe such classes are relics of the past, and that the only real subjects are science and math.

Yet, men and women from these backgrounds usually themselves do not think they discriminate or are discriminated against. Most men do have good intentions and do treat women fairly, even if they don't even know what "hegemony" means.

It's not hard to go from that to being a graduate student/post doc and being irritated by all the "advantages" women are given by having "so many" grants/fellowships only for women. It's especially annoying problem in the biological sciences where there actually are approx 60% of graduate students who are women. Male grad students I know have told me to my face that they think it's unfair that they can't apply for the women in sciences grants.

Anyway it's a harder problem then just to say "wake up men!" It takes a long time and a lot of reinforcement to learn how privileged you are. Most never do.

Sophia said...

Aaaw, my heart goes out to this poor, discriminated against d00d. Life is so unfair, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Ha. I have organized a few such "diversity" events recently. The invitations always go out to both men and women or all colors. Guess who shows up? It's almost as if making the event exclusive makes it more intriguing to the excluded. If it had been open to everyone, would your reader have ever considered attending? Would it even have registered?

(The comment about events focusing on "family issues" only being of interest to women really sticks in my craw. Male scientists don't have families? If men stepped up to the plate and took more responsibility for these ho-hum family issues, they wouldn't be so insurmountable for the rest of us).

Amy Chess said...

Wow. As a female, soon-to-be-ex postdoc, I have to say that I have encountered discrimination MORE as time goes on. When I was an undergrad, I couldn't imagine that gender discrimination was so awful. In grad school, I started to see evidence of discrimination, and as a postdoc, it has only gotten worse. i know that people see what they expect to see, but going into this, I didn't really expect to see all that much discrimination. The reality of it is that it is subtle, and therefore difficult to combat in many instances.

Some examples (in case your readers want to know the types of things that go down in academic science):

A male colleague "jokingly" told me once that if my research wasn't going well, I could just get pregnant again. Haha. I didn't laugh.

It has been told to me by male colleagues that it doesn't matter that I don't get paid as much as the male postdoc in our department because my husband makes good money. Can you imagine the reverse comment being made to a male postdoc with a wife who commanded a decent salary?

I once mentored a male undergraduate who only shook the hand of the male technician (and did not shake my hand) and made a casual remark about how he would have thought that the technician was the one with the PhD.

Those are some of the more salient examples. They don't represent the more extreme cases of harassment that you hear about, but they definitely add up to make you feel inferior and unwanted. Many of the comments are said in a joking manner, in an attempt to make them seem light-hearted and (in my mind) discourage attempts to question their intent.

I also think it's scandalous that men would not care to go to a "women-oriented" career panel that is open to all, just because they FEAR that much of the discussion might be centered around family issues. Gasp. Really? If you really don't want to be involved with your family, keep your sperm to yourself.

Female Science Professor said...

Note that men may or may not have been interested in attending the career panel organized by women; all I know is that my colleague feared they would feel excluded. Based on my other interactions with this colleague, I think it likely that he was projecting his own fears and his general discomfort with serious women.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it takes a women's studies course to see the problem... just having a few female friends in fields with low representation should be enough for anyone with an iota of empathy. And even if you're from planet Vulcan, the logic required to understand the problem is not that difficult.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 7:09

"Who's going to be regarded as more powerful, VIRILE, and ambitious by a male chair? The women eating their little salads or the big, strong, shooting men?"

Nope... no stereotypes there.

Besides: "Virile"= "having the nature, properties, or qualities of an adult male" (Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary)

Grrr!!! How dare sexist department chairs think that women do not behave like adult males!!!

Kevin said...

I would have felt discriminated against (though not overly concerned) if I was sent an invitation to an event that I was explicitly not invited to. It doesn't happen here, though. There are plenty of events to support women in science and engineering, and to support minority students in various fields. But the events are always careful to make their invitations inclusive. What happens in practice is that the intended targets of the events respond, plus a small number of supporters of other races, ethnicities, genders, ... The desire for supportive groups is met, without having to set up reverse discrimination.

Incidentally, I have no problem with private groups setting up women-only events, but I do have some trouble with a state university doing so, as they are explicitly legally prohibited from doing similar men-only events. (I have problems with state-supported athletics in general, in part because of its explicit discrimination.)

Anonymous said...

There is a simple 1 line answer to this stupid male postdoc who wants equality of opportunity with women:

"All genders are equal, but some genders are more equal than others".

Anonymous said...

I would have felt discriminated against (though not overly concerned) if I was sent an invitation to an event that I was explicitly not invited to.

If this would make you feel discriminated against, then I have to assume you simply have zero frame of reference for what discrimination is like.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

FSP, I have to applaud you for continuing to blog on in the face of so many anonymous sexist trolls in the comments.

I'm late into the conversation, but here's my two cents' worth:

I think that, in the interests of feminism, dinners like the ones in question** should be open to men. I say "open to," not "run by." Men in male-dominated fields might learn something from being in that sort of an environment, where women are openly discussing issues of discrimination, and celebrating their professional accomplishments. Further, simply being in the gender minority might give men a greater awareness of the day-to-day experience of their female colleagues.

(**I exclude groups meant to support women who have been victims of some sort of male-perpetrated abuse.)

Alex said...

Will anon at 5:54am please purchase some carbon offsets for all the straw that he is burning? If I didn't know better I'd think that he just elected a new pope.

John Vidale said...

to anons @ 8:00 and 8:02 -

the suggestion that men with families should "step up to the plate" or "keep our sperm to ourselves" wrt attending "family-oriented" events is offensive.

I'm sure they help lots of people, but I prefer to talk to family-oriented colleagues and friends when questions arise, and find most panel discussions unhelpful, on any topic.

Katrina said...

He's a postdoc and has been in the academic world for at least 8-9 years. You would think by now he would have learned that emails are sent to entire listserves to avoid missing someone and as a result sometimes you get emails that don't apply to you. All you have to do is click delete, it's not that difficult. If I had a dollar for every listserve email I got that that was irrelevant for me, I'd be rich!

Anonymous said...

Ah, so basically the ends justify the means. Small discriminations are OK as long as they're fighting big discriminations? It's OK to hurt some people to prevent more hurt to other people?

It seems totally reasonable to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on all discrimination.

Anonymous said...

All the above points are legit, but I fail to see why they can't allow men to attend the event. If one or two men that are interested in WomenInScience-issues want to attend, why exclude them?

I would expect the same sort of inclusiveness from an event relating to issues concerning any other minority in any other situation.

Are men so toxic that the presence of one or two would ruin an event like this? That's not a rhetorical question, I'm curious.

Slightly bitter said...

Oh that the postdoc had put the effort into campaigning for gender equality or finding out how he could help improve opportunities for women in science that he had into complaining about his not being invited to a single dinner.

(And what makes his feeling the arbiter of the email list?!?!? I can't count the number of listserve announcements I've gotten that have nothing to do with me!)

sib said...

@ JohnV - i enjoy reading your comments; i always find them tempered, well thought out and reasonable.

yolio said...

This guy really does not understand what discrimination is.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in both female and male-dominated labs and teams, as well as sexist and equal teams in science I can well say that, despite all the discriminations that goes on, male-dominated labs with younger members are the best ones for equality. They are more orientated towards equality and scientific competition, though, being a pretty girl, I can sometimes feel the testosterones running...still, as long as it doesn't affect me academically I stop caring as it's more to do with animal instincts than anything. Usually, by just pointing it out or blatantly ignoring them it doesn't usually pose a problem. Maybe you'll disagree...(I guess having survived extremes do increase the thresholds)

As for the worse perpetrators in general for discrimination, at present women-dominated labs, in my experience, are worse than others (not counting the overtly sexiest lab of course). Jealousy are often the root of that but speaking as a female scientist in the physical sciences I do feel ashamed to have to admit that.

For now, despite the potential of experiencing sexism in some lab I feel more at home in male-dominated labs for their more scientifically oriented attitudes. Of course, the younger the lab the better.

m @ random musings said...

My department has a "women in science" lecture series; really the only female-only aspect was the gender of speakers. The audience is a pretty representative display of the student/faculty population.

As a female grad student in the sciences,I am constantly on the lookout for mentors who can provide examples of the life I want to lead. The simple reality is that due to social structure and biology, different demands are placed on males and females.

As FSP nicely put it, labor statistics suggest that the number of females that can serve in role-model are limited. So is it wrong to create an environment (even if just for a few short hours) where an underrepresented group can seek out those models?

To the posters who have commented about the relationship between males and family issues: Grad students on TA funding do not earn vacation or sick leave at many schools. Who do you think that affects more?

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting discussion.

I want to make one point, and it's basically a response to the commenter who wrote:Are men so toxic that the presence of one or two would ruin an event like this? That's not a rhetorical question, I'm curious.

All of the women-in-science groups I've participated in, both locally and nationally, say that men are welcome to attend all of our events. None are exclusive; we rarely have more than 1 or 2 men attend. This is usually no problem at all, as they are in almost every instance either savvy guys looking to take advantage of the career networking opportunities, and/or husbands/boyfriends of women members.

Having said that, 1 man can be toxic, as I experienced one time at a local women-in-science book club. We discussed the book, and when we were done, I mentioned that I was doing some work with a national women-in-science group and we could use more volunteers.

The man then proceeded to argue with me that there was no need for this kind of work, saying that sexism doesn't exist in science.

I gave him an earful, but I was very upset by the experience and never went back to that group. I have had to deal with that kind of nonsense at work, in the Real World, and while blogging, but I never expected to be confronted by it in this group!

I think it's a huge disservice to activities designed to promote women in science that toxic people (of any gender) ever be allowed to participate or even, in some cases, assume responsibility, to the exclusion of
those seeking a safe and supportive atmosphere of peers.

I filed a complaint, but I don't know if anything changed. I certainly never received any kind of acknowledgment or apology from the group, although a few of the other women who were there thanked me for standing up for them and setting a good example.

But it was so upsetting, I'm getting mad again now just thinking about it. That kind of thing just shouldn't happen.

Quantum Triviality said...

I have something I wonder if you would be willing to do a blog post about: What if I am the opposite of the postdoc? Meaning I am a white male in physics who thinks women and minorities are discriminated against (and I am not suffering from "reverse discrimination"). What can I do to help increase diversity? I have attended various things intended for women/minorities and while I find the discussion engaging, the talk I really want to have is, what can the majority (white and asian males) do to make the minority feel more included.

Sophia said...

"Are men so toxic that the presence of one or two would ruin an event like this?"


Enginerd said...

I like the way you addressed that. I keep running into people who tell me that anything supporting a minority group is just letting people in to university that shouldn't be here, and giving them an unfair advantage. Ugh. I just want to bash my head into a wall. I wish I knew more people IRL that I could get advice from for dealing with people who can't see their own privilege.

Anonymous said...

"Are men so toxic that the presence of one or two would ruin an event like this? That's not a rhetorical question, I'm curious."

This is a question I've wrestled with as a coordinator of events for women in mathematics. I've done things both ways -- exclusively female or labeled "women in math" but open to all. I've had a few respectful guys come and learn and add to the second kind of event. I also have had to deal with situations in which a man essentially came in bad faith: he came not to learn from the speaker or panel but to stand up and tell women that they're not discriminated against and that such events were bad for us in some way. This has not been a consistent problem, as when everyone stares at the guy and says, "Honey, what does this have to do with PDEs?" he often realizes his jerkiness and we return to the subject at hand.

The stickiest situation is this, though: you've got 35 or 60 women in a room and three guys. You've got one female speaker. After the talk, it's opened up for questions. Two of the three guys launch into an aggressive debate right away; not a single woman raises her hand for at least ten minutes. What do you do? You are not creating the environment desired -- one in which women practice speaking out loud and being confident. The entire discussion, even if it's on women in science, is taken over by the two guys. What if they are not jerks? What if they are not bitter? What if they're well-meaning trying-to-be-feminist guys who are just used to being the first to talk and the first to be listened to, in this case by crowds of women? My own personal way to deal with this is pitch in on the argument myself... but I don't know if this is the best way.

(The last seminar happened just a few weeks ago at a major research university whose state name starts with Mi, at a talk on women in science.)

Anonymous said...

This is true, the male student shook the hand of the male tech. because males are NOT supposed to touch any body part of the opposite sex. So don't be offended....

I once mentored a male undergraduate who only shook the hand of the male technician (and did not shake my hand) and made a casual remark about how he would have thought that the technician was the one with the PhD.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:09: "Larger start-up: he asked for more than me."

This is your fault, right?

(why didn't you do the research before hand to find out the max. start-up the chair was prepared to give or had the female gut to ask for more....)

You got what you asked for....

Anonymous said...

I would tell that post-doc that he really ought to watch very carefully how women in his department are treated versus men.

I've been paraded around as the 'token woman' on far too many occasions. I've also been completely bypassed by my advisor on some rather important networking opportunities. In both cases, it seems awfully difficult to make good contacts because I've either not been taken seriously or not known to exist.

I've been told on more than one occassion that I simply wasn't good enough and shouldn't have made it or been accepted various places...and yet I continued to go beyond and do well. I was told I should leave my position because of a pregnancy. I have had to listen to regular discussions on how women simply aren't as intelligent/capable as men are, which is the real reason why there is a gender disparity in science.

I have never seen many of these things, or other remarkably similar experiences, happen to male colleagues.

These sorts of events are some of the few where you aren't either a novelty or an embarrassment. You're simply a woman with an interest and ability in science, wanting to meet other people with similar interests and abilities. And frankly, I've found those opportunities hard to come by without the support of women in science groups. So many men assume that women have attained equality. They would be horrified if they knew how much overt sexism still exists, and they continue to close their eyes to the subtle.

VR said...

No men I know would feel bad about women's only events. (I am a male postodc in engineering.)

However,here's what what frustrates almost every aspiring male academic I know:
It is at least 3x easier for a woman to find a faculty position in an engineering department (assuming same advisor, similar area, quality of work etc.)

Anonymous said...

So...dear women in science: I am a male, I hit the gender jackpot when I was born and I am lucky to have all the privileges I have. And I pity all of you women scientists who have to struggle with all these troubles in your career paths. I know I can never fully sympathize with you from my high position in the gender hierarchy. Too bad life is so crappy for you. It shouldn't be this way. I wish we could have gender equality but unfortunately we dont. Is there anything I can do to help you, because you seem to think you really need it? Tell me what it is and I would be happy to help less fortunate people like you in any small way I can.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorta one of those women who left women-in-minority-science early. I was an undergrad in computer science, was very good at it, got a good job in telecommunications, and left the whole field after four years. I did not feel comfortable in my ugrad CS department despite really liking the science and having encouraging (male) professors; it was my (male) peers and their culture that I felt excluded from. I watched one of the only other ugrad women (and the only really outgoing one) in the department get socially and emotionally torn apart by her male peers. (She's now a very successful PhD, I'm happy to say.) I avoided the brunt of the overly masculine culture mostly by avoiding it; I stayed away from the department buildings, I made friends in other departments, and only interacted with CS for classes. I started over and am now pursuing a PhD in the biological sciences, which someone else pointed out is close to 50-50 male-female and I love it. It makes a world of difference to have female role models, mentors, and colleagues. (For the record, I once took a women's study course as an ugrad and felt *more* uncomfortable being in a group of all women than I was being the only woman in a group of all men -- that's how used to it I was in CS.)

Anonymous said...

I think dinners and organizations formed by women/minorities to address discrimination issues and discuss opportunities should ALWAYS be open to EVERYONE. How are we all supposed to be heard if we don't reach out to the majority?

Although I am a female science grad student and am gradually sensing the discrimination among women in science, I still don't see the point in excluding any particular group even if they are the majority because then there is no way to chip at the ignorance.

If someone refuses to come because of some serious gender/racial bias, then obviously they are pretty hopeless but you can't say you didn't try.

Anonymous said...

As a student I organized several events for ethnic groups. We always had an open door policy. Our invitations called for "members of ethnic group as well as friends (from any origin)". We usually got a few non-ethnics who were interested in the culture or had recently visited ethnic-group-homeland.

The History Enthusiast said...

Ms. PhD's response is spot on. I am a frequent reader here (and clearly not a scientist), but within academic fields like history that are supposedly more welcoming toward women, female graduate students like myself encounter these same problems.

Last year I started a discussion group for women only to talk about women's issues in the department (both grad students and faculty were participating). On the first day when we were brainstorming about what kinds of topics we wanted to put on the agenda for the year, the vast majority of us agreed that we did not want to invite men because that would automatically stifle our ability to be honest. Those men may (or may not) have good intentions, but as anyone who is part of a minority group knows, even benign admissions in a so-called welcoming forum can come back to bite you later. So, a woman who admitted in the group that she often struggled to balance work and family could hypothetically--and without too much of a stretch--feel self conscious about saying that in a mixed crowd where men might consider her to be weak, or whatever. And before anyone says that not every man is that judgmental, well, I say "duh." Not every male academic is that way, but my time in grad school has shown me that these prejudiced attitudes toward women are pretty widespread.

Now, this discussion was not a bitch fest, and when issues did come up we did not name individual men who had done these (completely awful) sexist things. But, the fact that we all, overwhelmingly agreed that we did not want this to be co-ed says something serious about the way women are treated at my university.

Lastly, no one likes to be called out on their privilege. It isn't pleasant. But, to the men who don't get these "feminist" issues, stop talking and just listen. Listening (truly listening) is the appropriate response, not getting defensive.

BikeMonkey said...

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.

Hate to break the news but, yeah, pretty much the same phenotype. Plenty of whitefolk who are miffed that tanfolk have meetings and groups and whatnot that they are not really invited to attend.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion it is these discriminatory groups, scholarships or whatever they may be that build the animosity, if it is there, for women from men in the physical sciences. And yes they are discriminating. These examples given for discrimination against women in the comments that I have read are pitiful and just make me lean towards believing that it is all "whining by overly sensitive women who see everything through the lens of gender."

I consider a woman just as much of a threat to a position I am applying for as any man.

The History Enthusiast said...

Since so many commenters have accurately noted that this original email holds the signs of male privilege, I thought this article in Inside Higher Ed would be pertinent to the discussion:

Also, for those who aren't really sure what the term "privilege" means in this context, see Peggy McIntosh's article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack" found here:

Anonymous said...

I am male, but I also point out that I am here reading FSPs blog - and therefore am much more likely, statistically, to be sympathetic to gender issues. Generally, a male that is commenting HERE is probably more likely to want to discuss this issue seriously than other men. However, in reading through the comments, I noticed that several males have offered comments that seemed level headed and as if they simply wanted to have a serious discussion. Yet I also see many female respondents immediately dismissing what they say and making fun of their views of discrimination. Why?

Personally, I would have certainly not felt discriminated against if I were in the emailer's situation. I think that these women only groups are the right way to encourage and support females in academia - no males are hurt by this in any real way.

With that said, I am bothered by the large number of female only grant calls, especially for early career scientists. It seems to me that judging these things in any way other than merit alone will actually hurt women in the long run. This is because, in some cases, there is (mostly unspoken) bitterness among males about this issue. Also some very misguided men like to interpret the extra female only grant calls as (self-indulgent) confirmation that women need help to succeed. But then these stereotypes are exactly what causes the real discrimination in the first place.

Now I know that many women will read that last paragraph and (fairly) say "well those men just need to get over it and get a grip on reality." Fair enough, but that is not what is actually happening. In my opinion, the vehicles being used to help women in science could be serving to worsen the stupid stereotypes that cause the discrimination. At the very least, any quota-like system makes it very easy for men to maintain a sense of superiority because they think "well I'm better than the women, because I got here with no help." - And that attitude is exactly what we should be fighting.

Am I way off base?

Beth said...

Anonymous@ 1:04 am:

Unfortunately, you have wandered off the base a bit.

It seems to me that judging these things in any way other than merit alone will actually hurt women in the long run.

The problem here is that "real" grants aren't judged by merit alone either. At least one study has shown that if you put a male vs a female name on identical papers, the male gets rated higher than the female even though it's the exact same paper. Women have to have more conclusive proof of a hypothesis than men to be believed equally. So your premise is unfortunately flawed.

I can understand what you are saying about men feeling bitter, etc, but from where I see it there are basically two options:

1) Pretend that science is actually a meritocracy; more "fair", but the number of women/POC in STEM fields will stay flat or show only tiny increases*, which reinforces the stereotype that women/POC can't cut it.

2) Give women and other underrepresented groups some additional opportunities- in the short term perhaps less "fair" but actually allows more members of these groups into the system. In the short term the priveleged groups will probably be pissed/feel like the others "needed help", but hopefully having more female/POC colleagues shows them that those people are just as good when given a fair chance, eliminating the need for affirmative action in the long run.

Neither option is perfect, but I'll take #2 any day. There will always be bitter asshats who think that they are better than everyone else and who will feel superior either way. Accepting that fact, we need to do what we can to change the system so that it's actually fair for all involved, and that can only begin when everyone is at least somewhat represented.

*=This article by Nancy Hopkins at MIT has a great demonstration of this, give it a serious read

Anonymous said...

"However,here's what what frustrates almost every aspiring male academic I know:
It is at least 3x easier for a woman to find a faculty position in an engineering department (assuming same advisor, similar area, quality of work etc.)"

That's hardly surprising since the hypothetical woman had to be 3x as good to get the same position with the same advisor with a project equally high-profile.

EliRabett said...

It's not a matter of anything but good manners. You don't send an open invitation to an event to someone you tell not to come.

If it is a little more work, work harder.

Anonymous said...

VR: "It is at least 3x easier for a woman to find a faculty position in an engineering department (assuming same advisor, similar area, quality of work etc.)"

what? This is the first time I've ever heard that - do you have statistics to back this claim up? If what you say is true then why is the female:male ratio of faculty in most engineering disciplines still so low? (with the exception of chemical engineering or some bioengineering departments.) I'm a female postdoc in engineering (electrical) and by far it is very male dominated and old boys club-ish. When I've gone on job interviews and met with other faculty in the department, I've more than once experienced the situation where the male faculty don't want to address me directly.

Anonymous said...

"At the very least, any quota-like system makes it very easy for men to maintain a sense of superiority because they think "well I'm better than the women, because I got here with no help." - And that attitude is exactly what we should be fighting."

For men who would think this way, we need to somehow show them that their success wasn't in spite of a lack of "help" (help that is supposedly being given to women) and therefore indicative of superiority, but rather their success was due to a lack of obstacles.

Anonymous said...

newsweek had an article last year discussing how quickly people (UTexas A&M studied young children) identify "us" vs "them" and attribute negative attributes to those in the "them" category. The study identified participants by shirt color.

I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but in a competitive environment full of very bright motivated individuals, it seems being categorized as a "them" is a serious liability.

VR said...

Anon @11:49pm

what? This is the first time I've ever heard that - do you have statistics to back this claim up? If what you say is true then why is the female:male ratio of faculty in most engineering disciplines still so low?

I do agree the female:male faculty ratio is still low. This is probably due to a combination of many factors:

1. Strong preference for hiring women have come about only in the last decade or so.

2. The proportion of female Ph.D students in engineering is still low, but the proportion of them getting faculty positions (if they want it) is way higher than their male counterparts.

3) Finally, I have had my advisor openly tell me it is definitely harder for me as a male.

Looking at the top schools in my area most have hired at least one woman in the last few years.

This is the big elephant in the room (rather than women's-only events), so I think we should at least acknowledge it. I am not arguing whether it is fair or not.

Anonymous said...

VR, consider a few things:

1. A university may *say* they're motivated to hire women. I went on interviews where this was stated emphatically. The department still went on to hire the less qualified male candidate because he "fit in" better. (in other worsd, met more of the following than me: white, male, married, kids - almost all of the department fits all four; a couple only meet three; I meet one) I was "fortunate" enough to be offered a temporary position with lower pay - but I suppose that counts as "trying to hire women".

2. Stats, please? This seems like something you perceive rather than something which is actually true.

3. I bet your supervisor is male, and is perceiving a slight reduction in advantage to be the same as an actual disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

I've seen first hand professors ranking a better qualified female candidate below several male candidates. They didn't even do it consciously. For whatever reason they felt compelled to examine her CV with a fine tooth comb in a way not done with male candidates. They were a minority so in the end an offer was made to the female candidate. It was disturbing to see this subtle yet overt pattern of discrimination first hand.

Anonymous said...

white male students are minorities at many campuses, and in many disciplines. Would any of you be Ok with exclusive "white male only" meetings?

original emailer does have a valid point, the amount of backpedaling some people are doing to explain double-standard here speaks volumes.

Anonymous said...

To chime in again late in the game: the study has been done on women in mathematics (see the Notices of the American Mathematical Society) and despite my male grad school "friends" assuring me that my chances of getting a job are astronomically higher than theirs because I've got breasts, the data show that women are not offered jobs more than men.

Sorry, it's the data.

Cherish said...

VR: stats say you're wrong. Women are hired, in general, on an equitable level with me. Real stats are here:

ScienceMama said...

Basic biological constrains naturally create a temporal difference in measurable success metrics for women - i.e., published papers.

Child bearing years coincide with postdoc/young faculty. As scientists, we of all people know the infinite value of breast-feeding and maternal bonding on the infants neurocognitive development. These are, in my mind, aspects that are absolutely without substitute.

So I refuse to believe that onsite day care is a viable solution. I think academic science needs to recognize that the act of a female scientist, taking the time to fulfill important biological role (such as breast-feeding), is not only critical for that individual and her family, but is SUCH a key lost element of society.

I think current estimates predict that if all women breast-fed their infants, exclusively for 6 months and as supplement for 1-2 years, we would be saving billion(s) of dollars on childhood disease, cost of formula and the environmental cost of producing, discarding all the junk from the formula industry.

But no, we are given these 3-5 years to "prove" that we are talented and committed scientists and that science at all costs is the first and only priority.

Does anyone think these things contribute to the percent attrition from graduate PhD in science to tenured faculty?

Give us longer time, give us opportunity to work part-time - this is the only way we can stay in science to ramp up again once the progeny are in school!

Best to all!

Bagelsan said...

I think current estimates predict that if all women breast-fed their infants, exclusively for 6 months and as supplement for 1-2 years, we would be saving billion(s) of dollars

How 'bout you give me those billion dollars and I find a way for men to lactate? ;p Then all those would-be-good-dads-if-it-weren't-for-that-darn-biology!-guys could stay home with the baby while women get their careers going. Problem solved.

Curt F. said...

I am FSP's correspondent whose email she excerpted in this post. I hope it's not too late to say thank you to FSP and the many other thoughtful commenters in this thread. You've all given me a lot to think about over the past week or so.

First, I now realize that FSP was 100% right on one thing for sure: 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.

In my original emails, both to FSP and to the event organizer, I was focused on the second, email-focused issue. On reflection, though, I realize it was the first issue, the exclusion of men from the event, that had bothered me.

Probably just like many other readers here, I really appreciated all of the anecdotes in this thread -- from Ms.PhD's book club experience, to the mathematics department women-in-science talk where the discussion became dominated by men. I hadn't realized that the event organizers might have a well-developed rationale for excluding men.

I'm still not convinced, however, that gender-exclusive events, at least on public university campuses, are justified. As I said in my correspondence with the event organizer, I'm sure it was not her intention to alienate a member of her department with her email. But at least to me, holding department-supported gender-exclusive events do just that: alienate. I don't know why the event organizer decided not to include men. Even if the rationale was that men might dominate the discussion or that some men might bring in unwelcome views, I don't like being excluded simply because I share a trait -- having a Y chromosome -- with people who are rude or who hold views that I don't. Maybe the invitation could be extended to all those "interested in hearing women talk about women's careers in science," for example. That way Y chromosomes would still be welcome but it would be clear that certain viewpoints and behaviors would not be.

I'm going to send a link to this thread and to my comment to the event organizer. I hope she'll accept my apology for having mistakenly focused on the email, rather than the event she was organizing, as the source of my frustrations. I also hope she'll consider including men in the department to future events.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not convinced, however, that gender-exclusive events, at least on public university campuses, are justified.

This is certainly not an easy question. My own view though is that at bottom line, the benefit of having women-only events is higher than the negative impact on excluded parts of the demographic. Let's not go into why -- I think that has been covered amply already in earlier comments.

Instead, let me pose here a number of open questions on the subject, mainly addressed to Curt and those who like him feel excluded from women-only department-supported events. (Actually, it's probably
more of a barrage, but that's the way my mind works).

Please understand that I am not trying to make anyone
upset: I am truly interested in understanding the
rationale behind the other standpoint.

* Do you dislike that the event is
department-supported? [To me, that is a good thing.
It shows that there is support from "officialdom" on
the whole "let's discuss gender problems" thing.
Non-department-supported events (going guerilla) will
generally be regarded as less authoritative, making the
whole issue under discussion less important.]

* You dislike being excluded based on your Y
chromosome, and being lumped together with other Y:s,
who have views you do not agree with. [I can totally
understand that! Happens to me all the time: being told
what I am, how I should act, what I think, what I can
do and where I am invited based on my X.] Does this
"Y-ing" of you happen to you at other times at your
department or in other areas of life, or is it so
annoying just because you are not used to it happening
to you? Or because you think the academic environment
should be free of it?

* Or was the worst thing about being excluded that you
were really interested in the topic of the event?

* Why is not the well-developed rationale for excluding
men a good enough reason to actually exclude men?
(Apart from making you mad about being Y-ed, and/or
missing out on the interesting event?) Would it not be
easier to ensure that the event
turns out well without
the presence of Y:s which possibly will take over the
discussion or be clueless or belittling about
experiences described to them that most present X:s
share? Could you agree that the whole meeting
atmosphere might change if there were men present (no
matter how low-key they were)?

* Do you think that sending the invitation to "those
interested in hearing women talk about women's careers
in science" is making it clear that "certain viewpoints
and behaviors" would not be permitted? In what sense?
[To me, that implies that all the Y:s doing the things
like taking over the discussion are quite aware that
that is what they are doing. I don't believe that is
the case at all.]

* How would you make clear that "certain viewpoints and
behaviors" would not be permitted at the
non-gender-specific event without raising cries of
censorship (or accusations of feminazi-ness or PC:ing)?
Why should such behaviour then be permitted at other
non-gender-specific events?

* And which "certain viewpoints and behaviors" would
you target? How would you enforce your policy? To be
specific: how would you stop i.e. the men dominating
the mathematics debate? Would YOU stop them or wait for
an organizer to step in? How would you make sure that
you not out of thoughtlessness was one of those men

* A suggestion: why not organize your own event? Maybe
a men-only discussion group on why you felt so
excluded, going through the various anecdotes related
in the earlier posts, thinking about your behaviour at
non-gender-specific meetings... I'm NOT being ironic, I
really think that would be a great idea.

Anonymous said...

So if you got emailed about a men-only dinner that'd be fine? if nothing else, the email was spam.

Chanda @ Disordered Cosmos said...

There's an interesting discussion on this topic going on here:

And it includes a few more anecdotes.

Kali said...

Seems to me that addressing systemic inequities trumps individual feelings about being "left out." One of the right wings' successes in eroding the gains of both the women's and minority movements has been moving the discussion from the sociological realm into the personal, psychological realm. Only by ignoring the easily documented patterns of sexism and racism (in virtually every institution and at every level of society), can claims that males or nonwhites are "discriminated against" by exclusion be made credible. The right has been adamant in its commitment to erase the kind of statistics collection and, indeed whole fields of social sciences, in order to discredit or destroy this evidence, at the same time it's been atomizing social protest by reducing it to "victimhood" and by claiming that every individual case of exclusion takes place on a level playing field.

You can see this everywhere in right wing activism, from the Supreme Court to the "culture wars." This tactic allows, for example, individual white males to complain of being discriminated against, while still benefiting from the unearned privileges that a sexist society bestows on them.

We need to stop focusing energy on addressing the complaints of these individual men (who, if they were women, the right wing would call "whiners"), and put our energy into reclaiming the quantitative social science that allows us to prove that systemic discrimination against women and minorities is the real problem.

Anonymous said...

Listen, I understand it's a good cause to try and promote equality for women in science, but to try to create some special women's circle won't solve the problem. This isn't the same as native Americans having an exclusive event because WOMEN ARE NOT MINORITIES. Even if native Americans were to host an exclusive event it would be unequitable. What if this man actually believed in their cause and wanted to help them analyse the situation from a man's perspective. If this was me in that situation I would have considered attending because I understand that women are disadvantaged in science.

However, for women to alienate themselves from half of the population is unrealistic, unproductive and arrogant. If women want to segregate themselves from men, who are largely dominant in the science industry, then THEY WILL BE THE ONES LEFT BEHIND. The most successful women such as Ita Buttrose and Gail Kelly gained their power from working with men maturely, and not being intimidated by their "cookies." If you can name one person who has overcome discrimination through segregation, I will be very impressed.

Anonymous said...

Now you listen, Anon: WOMEN ARE MINORITIES IN THE PHYSICAL SCIENCES AND ENGINEERING. Also, women are not alienating themselves. They are isolated in part by their small numbers in these fields and (at times) in part by the behavior of the majority men. Having separate events can be very helpful for surviving an at-times hostile environment, therefore increasing the chances of women staying in these fields, and eventually reaching the goal of not needing such events. How is that arrogant?